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From Barden Bellas to 'Belleville': Anna Camp on playing more than the mean girl

From Barden Bellas to 'Belleville': Anna Camp on playing more than the mean girl
Actress Anna Camp, photographed in Los Feliz, is starring in "Belleville," the psychological drama onstage at the Pasadena Playhouse. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Actress Anna Camp has occasionally had to reassure little girls she meets that she's not a scary person. They mistake her for Aubrey, the character she plays in the "Pitch Perfect" film franchise, the tightly wound leader of the a-cappella singing group the Barden Bellas, who has an unfortunate habit of stress-vomiting onstage.

"'Don't worry, I'm not that mean, really, and I'm not going to puke on you!'" Camp tells children. She shakes her head with a smile. "Why am I always puking, by the way? It's weird."

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Abby, the newlywed whom Camp plays in Amy Herzog's twisty psychological thriller "Belleville," at the Pasadena Playhouse through May 13, also vomits during a very bad date night with her husband. For someone who never set out to specialize in performance-vomiting, Camp has had a lot of practice.

"I actually puked in one of the first pilots I shot," she recalls. "This Jhoni Marchinko pilot called 'I Hate That I Love You' that never made it to air. That was the first time I had to. Why do people ...? Do they think that I can just do it? Or they want to see me do it? I don't know. The trick is to do it and not to think about it, because something real might happen, and you don't want that. You just want to keep it really fake."

“Nobody ever wants you to do a play in the middle of pilot season, but I don’t care. This is actress bait," says Anna Camp, onstage now in "Belleville" at Pasadena Playhouse.
“Nobody ever wants you to do a play in the middle of pilot season, but I don’t care. This is actress bait," says Anna Camp, onstage now in "Belleville" at Pasadena Playhouse. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Camp has settled into a booth in a French restaurant in the Los Feliz neighborhood of L.A., where she lives, to talk about "Belleville." Just as impeccably pretty in person as on screen, she comes across as warm and easygoing, with a quick, playful sense of humor.

"What a beast of a play," she says admiringly. "The first time I read it, I was like, 'I have to do this. I don't know how I'm going to do this, but maybe with the right director, and the right cast …"

The timing — right in the middle of pilot season — didn't thrill her agents.

"Nobody ever wants you to do a play in the middle of pilot season," Camp says, "but I don't care. This is actress bait. I knew that if I didn't take it, some other actress would, and I was going to be seething with jealousy that I didn't get to do it."

Fans who know Camp from "Pitch Perfect" and many TV shows ("True Blood," "The Mindy Project," "Good Girls Revolt," "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" and "Mad Men," among others) might assume that the theater is a departure for her. In fact, she began as a stage actress, working as a child in community theater in South Carolina then attending the University of North Carolina School of the Arts' conservatory college for classical training.

"I never saw myself in L.A.," she says. "I never saw myself doing movies, I never saw myself doing TV. I thought New York was where I was going to end up, and just theater."

Camp's first professional job, in "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Dallas Theater Center, earned her an Equity card and led to a part in a quirky off-Broadway musical, "God Hates the Irish," seen by two influential people: Theresa Rebeck, author of "The Scene," in which Camp would go on to star; and Mike Nichols, who directed her Broadway debut in "The Country Girl."

Anna Camp opposite Tony Shalhoub in Theresa Rebeck's "The Scene'' in 2006.
Anna Camp opposite Tony Shalhoub in Theresa Rebeck's "The Scene'' in 2006. (Joan Marcus / Richard Kornberg and Associates / Associated Press)

But when a gig brought Camp out to L.A., she fell in love with it — especially because she was able to get a dog, a puggle named Rocky.

"He looks into my soul," she says. Also, he can fetch toys by name and watches Gary Sinise with a lovestruck intensity whenever "Forrest Gump" is on TV.

Camp was surprised when she started booking film and TV roles — and not displeased, as she had a mortgage and bills. But she came to feel constrained by roles she was offered in the wake of her breakout performance as Aubrey.

"An uptight, blond, bitchy character," she sums it up. "Which is still fun to play. I've never been afraid to play someone unlikable. They're usually pretty complex. I always say I'd rather be polarizing than palatable. But there's a lot more to me."

Although people often assume she has been typecast, Camp stresses she is acting in these roles.

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"I always play these popular girls who seem like they don't have that much to complain or worry about, but I grew up incredibly shy," she says. "I was never popular. I had one friend. I still have the same friend! I never spoke a word. I was super bullied. Not my favorite time, middle school and high school. I was a complete theater nerd."

She's still looking for a TV or film role that will really challenge her. She mentions Naomi Watts as a career role model: "She looks a certain way, and she has a certain presence, but she chooses roles that really push her to find that darkness and that raw, gritty quality, and I want that. I want people to be surprised and go, 'Oh, I didn't know that that was in Anna Camp.'"

In the meantime, she returns to the theater whenever she can, she says, to feed her soul and to check in on how she's growing as an actor.

"You can get too relaxed in TV," she says. "A lot of it can be taken care of in editing. Theater will push you to your limits as an artist. The adrenaline rush that an actor gets before and while being onstage is very similar to that of a person who gets into a car accident. They have tested this. The rush is so powerful that when you come down — I am physically wiped. But then I want to get up and do it again."

In "Belleville," Anna Camp and Thomas Sadoski play a husband and wife who perhaps are not as close as they seem.
In "Belleville," Anna Camp and Thomas Sadoski play a husband and wife who perhaps are not as close as they seem. (Philicia Endelman)

"Belleville" is hard to summarize without spoiling the ride. Camp's character, Abby, and her husband Zach (Thomas Sadoski), are Americans living in Paris. Zach works with Doctors Without Borders, specializing in pediatric AIDS; Abby, a would-be actress, teaches yoga and struggles with culture shock. Married for just one year, Zach and Abby are totally enmeshed with each other — but there's a lot they don't discuss.

"The places that we have to go together are incredibly dark and terrifying," Camp says of working with theater veteran Sadoski. "And the physicality that we have together — if it were with an actor I didn't trust, it would be an entirely different experience. Tommy's such a collaborator. He's always checking in, like, 'How does that feel for you?'"

Although she and Sadoski had seen each other perform over the years, they met for the first time at the "Belleville" photo shoot.

"I was like, 'I hope he's going to be nice,'" Camp recalls. "'He's going be sucking on my toe at some point in the future. We've just met, and my toes are going to be in his mouth. That's so weird.'"

With director Jenna Worsham, they worked on filling in the back story of the couple's marriage, improvising their first meeting and other moments that have led them to the disconcerting journey "Belleville" depicts.

In real life, Camp is a newlywed herself, having married her "Pitch Perfect" costar Skylar Astin not quite two years ago. Their relationship is not as Hitchcockian as Abby and Zach's — but with competing shooting schedules they do have to work hard to see each other. Astin recently visited Camp in South Africa; she visited him in Bulgaria.

Before Camp leaves the interview, one delicate matter still needs to be addressed. In "Pitch Perfect," Astin plays Jesse, the leader of the Bellas' rival singing group, the Treblemakers. He's also the love interest of Anna Kendrick's character, Beca. Wasn't it kind of mean-girlish of Camp to steal Beca's man?

Camp laughs. "I guess it could be seen that way. Also I totally went and rebelled against Aubrey's rule — no dating Treblemakers or your vocal cords will get ripped out by wolves," she says. "The fans tweet that stuff to me all the time. They're like, 'You shouldn't be dating a Treblemaker. Just kidding, we love you guys!' It's really cute."

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Belleville’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends May 13

Tickets: Start at $25

Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.

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