After making waves in Defendor and Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist, Kat Dennings takes out citizenship in Daydream Nation, showing why she’s one of the big screen’s most fascinating rising stars
CF D: Mike Goldbach w/ Kat Dennings, Josh Lucas. Canada. 96 min. Sep 10, 6 pm Ryerson; Sep 11, noon AMC 3 Rating: NNNNN
Look at Kat Dennings’s brief career and you have to think that the entertainment gods have been smiling down at her from the start. I mean, check out her co-stars – Robert Downey Jr. in Charlie Bartlett, Woody Harrelson in Defendor, Michael Cera in Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist. She’s just wrapped up the shoot for Thor, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Not the typical resumé of a 24-year-old with no training.
But Dennings is not a typical young actor. Even when she plays a high school student, like the love interest in Charlie Bartlett or Nora in Nick And Nora, she imbues her female characters with a ferocious intelligence.
The Philly-born, L.A.-based performer always seems to be the smartest kid in the story – but never in that teacher’s pet kind of way. She looks out from the screen and right through you. And she always has an edge.
All those qualities drive her performance in Daydream Nation, the debut feature from Michael Goldbach that’s kicking off the Canada First slate at TIFF.
Dennings plays Caroline, who’s moved to a small town with her dad just after her mother’s death. She definitely doesn’t belong among the stoners or the do-gooders, and she can’t find anyone to relate to – except her history teacher.
What’s ironic about her super-hip image onscreen – pop-culture savvy, totally contemporary – is that she’s not exactly of this world. Charlie Bartlett’s about a high schooler who sells pharmaceuticals to kids in his school, and in Daydream Nation, her character sleeps with her teacher.
When I mention to her that high school just ain’t what it used to be, she quickly sets me straight.
“I wouldn’t know,” she laughs in that signature scratchy voice, on the phone from L.A. “I was home-schooled. My parents were disen- chanted with the school system, and I became a freak actor. I was a sweet, funny little kid who lived completely in my imagination and wasn’t really interested in school. I wanted to be at home playing.”
When she got her first big break at 14, as a bratty bat mitzvah girl in an episode of Sex And The City, she didn’t even know anything about the TV touchstone.
“We didn’t have TV,” she allows. “I mean, we had a TV, but it only played films, and I didn’t know what Sex And The City was.
“On set, it was like being in a bizarro world. It was all glamour and beautiful women and big actresses and lots of clothes. I’d never even had my hair straightened before, and that was such a big deal. Sarah Jessica Parker was in Hocus Pocus, my favourite movie ever, so I was overwhelmed. She’s so sweet, teeny-weeny, itsybitsy, like a beautiful little fairy.”
After a few more television appearances, Dennings started to get roles in movies that made her a rising star. From the moment she hit the big screen, it was obvious that this wasn’t just another pretty face. She’s definitely got staying power.
“When she was cast, I had a victory party,” says writer/director Michael Goldbach. “I listened to so many actresses audition and I didn’t buy it. But with Kat, it doesn’t feel like empty cleverness. She’s just an old soul.
“You never know what you’re going to get from her. She’s incredibly fearless, and she had to dare to be unlikeable.”
Just check out Woody Harrelson’s hooker girlfriend, also called Kat, in Defendor. Dennings gives her an uncommon ferocity and a complexity that’s unusual for an untrained actor.
“If I’m a decent actor, it’s because I take advantage of the people I’m working with,” she says. “I don’t let a moment go by without observing their process or what they’re doing or asking them questions or just listening. Listening is the key. I just watch and ask questions, and you can’t help but learn from that.”
That’s why, whenever she’s on set, she keeps asking all her colleagues – Branagh, Downey, Harrelson, with whom she’s maintained a friendship – to tell her stories, anything that she can feed off for a role.
She also does her homework. Since she had no experience with crack, doesn’t do any drugs – “I’m comically straitlaced,” she says – and has no experience selling sex, Defendor director Peter Stebbings made sure she connected with sex workers so she could bring her character to life.
“You go into something like this with one thought. You think prostitutes are one thing, that they’re looking for a way out, they’re pitying themselves. And they’re not. They’re strongwilled people with limited options. They specifically said to me, ‘Don’t make Kat pity herself.’ They’re very proud.”
Dennings claims she also has little in common with Daydream Nation’s Caroline, but she says she’s always felt outside her own generation and never thought of herself as fitting into the teen thing. Which makes her perfect for the role of someone who has the nerve to seduce her teacher.
She knows some viewers will have a problem with that particular theme.
“People will be divided, for obvious reasons,” she admits. “But it’s handled in a way that Caroline is the captain of the ship. She is very calculating in the things she’s doing. She’s thinking everything through almost too much – and not enough. She’s experimenting in order to snap herself into feeling things. It’s less about him being her teacher than about him being right in front of her and interesting.”
She doesn’t like to think of Daydream Nation as a teen movie.
“This film doesn’t pander. It’s an adult film, actually. Caroline’s an adult girl and young girl at the same time. She just happens to be a high school student. She’s an interesting egg. She’s like an alien. She’s been plopped in this town, into this environment, and she completely doesn’t belong there.”
Dennings has become something of an indie darling, but she’s ready to do an action pic (she doesn’t get to do the blow-up stuff in Thor) or maybe even a period piece, something that I suggest would be a challenge for an actor with her kind of ultra-contemporary vibe.
“Yeah, I’m a modern lady, but I still want to be laced in a corset and pass out when I sneeze. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Given her career trajectory, chances are she’ll get just about anything she wants, sooner rather than later. That should cause the acting teacher who told her she didn’t have a chance to think again before he discourages another aspiring actor.
“I’ll never forget it,” she says, almost shouting. “I signed with a manager when I was 10, and part of the sign-up process was to go to her husband’s acting class. By the second session, he told me I’d never be an actor and to stop immediately – I was terrible.”
Not that his comment made a damn bit of difference to the young girl who always felt that acting was her calling.
“Instead of running out and crying, I said, ‘Fuck it, this is ridiculous. How could you tell me that?’
“And so here we are.”
“If I’m a decent actor, it’s because I take advantage of the people I’m working with. Listening is
Reece Thompson tries to get Kat Dennings’s attention in Daydream Nation.