Before They Were Famous: Farmiga and Kendrick

"Up in the Air" co-stars both had early stage exposure, now competing for Oscar.

ByChristina Wang and David Perozzi
February 26, 2010, 1:21 PM

March 2, 2010— -- In the airport-and-hotel drama "Up in the Air," characters played by Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick teach a frequent flier (George Clooney) very different lessons about life transitions, values and what to carry in a backpack. With the movie's fantastic success at the box office and multiple Oscar nominations, both actresses seem positioned for long and illustrious film careers.

Watch "Before They Were Famous" on a special edition of "20/20" tonight at 10 p.m. ET

But a bright future isn't all Farmiga and Kendrick have in common. Both come from modest beginnings.Both began their careers in New York theater. And both have been nominated for Academy Awards for best supporting actress for their work in "Up in the Air."

Vera Farmiga

Farmiga, 36, was born in Passaic County, N.J., to Ukrainian parents. She didn't speak English until she was 6 years old. She toured with a Ukrainian dance troupe called Syzokryli for 10 years.

In 1996, Farmiga made her Broadway debut as an understudy in the play "Taking Sides." The same year, she played Miranda in a production of "The Tempest" at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

Farmiga's long road to fame included a 1997 Fox TV series called "Roar" in which she acted alongside a then-unknown Australian, Heath Ledger. In 2001, she landed a role opposite Robert De Niro in the film "15 Minutes." Then, her turn as an uber-gritty drug addict in the indie flick "Down to the Bone" left audiences and critics at Sundance asking, "Who is that girl?"

In 2006, Martin Scorsese tapped Farmiga for "The Departed."

And now, there's "Up in the Air."

"Vera Farmiga pulls off the impossible in 'Up in the Air,'" Gold Derby columnist Tom O'Neil said. "She is not only George Clooney's lover but his equal. She has this commanding presence on the screen that is so formidable she can go shoulder to shoulder with George Clooney in a love relationship and business relationship throughout the movie and make it work. That's pretty tough."

Anna Kendrick

Farmiga's other co-star in "Up in the Air," Anna Kendrick, is also a contender for the best supporting actress Oscar this year.

Kendrick, 24, caught the acting bug at age 5, when she played an orphan in a community production of "Annie" in her hometown of Portland, Maine.

Kendrick and her brother, Michael Cooke Kendrick, would travel six hours by bus to New York City for casting calls. They weathered a lot of rejection. "There are Pop Tart commercials and kid hair product commercials [that I didn't get]," Kendrick told ABC News' Nick Watt. "My hair was just so frizzy and all. ... I looked like Shirley Temple. So I feel like I had no business auditioning for kids' hair products."

At 12, Kendrick landed the role of Dinah in "High Society" on Broadway. Filmmaker Todd Graff, who would go on to write and direct Kendrick's first film, "Camp," recalled the first time he met her.

"My cousin Randy Graff happened to be one of the stars of ["High Society"]," Graff said. "And I remember Randy saying, 'There is a kid named Anna Kendrick, who is in the show, who we all have to watch out for. And she was joking, like, 'I better watch my back. This little girl's going to be after my job at some point in the future.'"

Kendrick's performance was so impressive that she earned her first Tony nomination at the age of 12. At the time, she was the third-youngest person ever to be nominated for a Tony.

When she returned to Portland at the age of 13, her reception at school was less than friendly.

"A couple of people, like, shouted at me in the hallway," Kendrick said. "They would shout 'Broadway' and I thought they were making fun of me, and I thought it was just the most humiliating thing. And I just kind of didn't want to talk about it and didn't want to draw any kind of attention to myself."

Still, Kendrick persisted in her acting career. Four years later, Graff gave Kendrick her first movie role in the musical comedy "Camp." She channeled the spirit of a 50-year-old martini-soaked lush, but she was still a high school kid in Maine.

"Anna is a very old soul," Graff said. "She always was extraordinarily mature, even as a kid. She was the one who always knew how to be in the moment, but also hit her mark, but also knew when she needed another take, because there was something that she wanted to get across, that she wasn't quite able to get across in that take. We called her Meryl," as in Streep

Kendrick graduated from Deering High School and moved to New York City when she was 17 to perform in "A Little Night Music" at New York City Opera. In 2007, she landed a role in the film "Rocket Science" as a fast-talking high school debater. Kendrick said it was during this time that she realized she was in love with acting.

"It was a moment on 'Rocket Science' where I realized, 'I am so in love with doing this; I am so in love with making movies and being on film sets.'" Kendrick said. "It was my birthday. And I worked 12 hours, and there was a cake at lunch, and it was one of the best days of my life, and it just makes me want to try to be on film sets as much as I can."

Kendrick's performance in "Rocket Science" ultimately caught the eye of "Up in the Air" director Jason Reitman, who wrote the Oscar-worthy role for her.

Despite her Oscar nomination, Kendrick's Broadway friends will always remember her as an ambitious and hard-working little girl. "If you meet somebody when they're 12, in some way they're always 12 to you," Graff said. "And she's always going to be our 12-year-old Anna Banana."

Watch "Before They Were Famous" on a special edition of "20/20" tonight at 10 p.m. ET

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