The 25-year-old, who became the first American actress ever to win a Cesar Award and won several critics groups’ awards for her portrayal of a movie star’s assistant, reflects on celeb obsession—on screen and off—and offers advice to Daisy Ridley.
“As somebody who’s dealt with the more absurd, really surreal, oftentimes insanely superficial, empty circus of what the media can be — and perception versus reality — I thought it was really funny and appropriate for me to play that part,” says the actress Kristen Stewart of the one for which she currently is receiving accolades left and right — Val, an assistant to a movie star in the celeb-obsessed world of Olivier Assayas’ dark comedy Clouds of Sils Maria — as we sit down to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “There was just nobody who could say those things with more knowing, and people know that,” she continues with a laugh. “I wanted those words in my mouth.”
For her performance in the French indie, Stewart became the first American actress ever to win a Cesar Award (France’s equivalent of the Oscar) and was subsequently chosen as the year’s best supporting actress by the New York Film Critics Circle and Boston Society of Film Critics (she finished second with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association) — acknowledgement she calls “so cool and unexpected,” particularly for a movie that came out way back in April. But it’s little wonder that the 25-year-old knocked the role out of the park — per her comments above, she’s spent years “preparing” for it.
Stewart began acting as a child and became the face of one of the biggest film franchises of all time at a time when her contemporaries were heading off to college, thrusting her into the center of a world not unlike the one sent up in Clouds. “I did Twilight when I was 17, it came out when I was 18 and my life was never even remotely the same,” she says. Her work was no longer the focus of most of the attention she received; instead, people — fans and haters alike — obsessed about her appearance, her relationships and her every move, “a huge lifestyle shift” which wasn’t easy to deal with. Even so, she says she doesn’t regret her decision to sign up for the series: “A whole lot of other baggage — really heavy and really cool baggage — came along with it.”
It’s fortunate that the madness around Stewart didn’t turn her away from her profession, because she eventually realized that it offered her an “epic opportunity to share things” of importance to her “with an epic amount of people” — particularly indie films of the sort she specialized in before Twilight, which she continued to make between its installments and has made almost exclusively since she wrapped work on the series. Clouds, a $6 million French project, was one such film. (It never found much of an audience amongst the general public, but was very warmly received by critics, landing an 89% favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com.)
Stewart, who became intrigued with filmmaking as a kid (her mother was a script supervisor) and asked to audition for kids roles (her parents initially resisted the idea), says she came — and comes — out of her shell of shyness when inhabiting the lives of others. Initially, the appeal of filmmaking was the exciting environment, but she says she realized that acting itself was her calling while making the indie Speak when she was just 13. “It moved me in a way that felt really beyond anything I knew it could be,” she says. That film premiered at Sundance, as did a host of others low-budget passion projects in which she later starred, including Adventureland, The Yellow Handkerchief, Welcome to the Rileys, The Runaways and Camp X-Ray.
But Stewart is quick to emphasize that she doesn’t judge a film by its size and that she loved the Twilight films and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), her other big-studio undertaking. “It was rare to see movies that I cared about at that scale,” she says, “and I really haven’t since, or else I would probably try and get that job.” She continues, “I’m genuinely just drawn to material that’s moving,” noting, “Recently I’ve been into slightly more diagonal sort of, a little less straight down the line, in terms of story, and those are always a little bit less commercial.”
Stewart, who describes her acting technique as impulse-driven, totally commits herself to all of her projects, body and soul. “When you feel like you’re gonna die is when you feel the most alive,” she asserts. “I feel as though I might actually spontaneously combust sometimes and just not be able to go on.” While that may sound unhealthy, she insists it’s exactly what she’s aiming for — and finding more often as she gets older. “I trust myself a little bit more. When I was a little bit younger, I used anxiety and nerves, which I still have a lot of. It’s just that I’m better at channeling them. I get better every time I do a job.” She adds, “It’s getting more fun.”
Stewart’s approach to work and life has impressed many of her more experienced costars — Panic Room’s Jodie Foster, Welcome to the Rileys’ Melissa Leo, Still Alice’s Julianne Moore and Clouds of Sils Maria’s Juliette Binoche all have become vocal champions. (“They’re all women that anyone, really, would be lucky to spend time around,” says Stewart.) Some of those women seem to want to protect her from the nonsense she has to face when she’s not at work, which has, at times, understandably, left her fragile. But, when Clouds was offered to her, Stewart — who was on an extended hiatus from acting at the time — embraced it as an opportunity to stand up for herself. “I’ve played a lot of characters that don’t speak a lot,” she says. “At that point I think I was ready to start talking.”
Stewart feels Clouds offers a “slow — I mean that with a good connotation — thoughtful, really beautiful meditation” on celebrity obsession, which is something she clearly feels merits greater thought. “It’s weird because it does shape the way I have to approach my everyday life,” she says. “I’ve never fed into it. I’ve never had a public Twitter, I’ve never had a public Facebook or things where people go on and look at your every move, like Instagram and stuff like that, because it’s just so empty and distracting.” She pauses and animatedly exclaims, “I don’t understand how so many people don’t view it as what it is, which is nothing at all. It’s just nothing, all of it — it doesn’t exist. And so yeah, it’s weird — but it makes sense.” Meaning? It supports a demand from a lot of bored people, she explains, and also produces “a lot of money, a lot of hits on websites.”
The film also explores a host of other interesting topics, such as growing older in show business, and it feels very European, in the best sense — it’s dialogue-driven, it revolves around female characters and it doesn’t pretend to have answers to all of the questions that it raises. “I like the unanswered questions at the end of it,” she says.
Stewart says she has no plans to stop acting anytime soon, despite the price that she has to pay to do it. (She just wrapped production on Woody Allen’s next movie, which pairs her for the third time with actor Jesse Eisenberg, and which she describes as “a trip,” suggesting that Allen, who she likens to a funny grandpa and called “Dude” on the set, is a great actor’s director because of the way he writes his characters.) “I feel really stimulated and challenged and not bored,” she says. “If that ran out, then I would stop acting.” She’s also interested in writing a screenplay, and has a “really, really, really strong desire to direct,” probably something “really free-form.” But, for now, she insists, “I’m madly in love with what I do.”
What advice does she have for the latest person thrown into the celebrity meat-grinder, Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ 23-year-old leading lady Daisy Ridley? “Focus on the fact that you’re stoked ’cause you’re doing the work that you want to do,” she offers. “It’s literally mainly just about focusing on what makes you happy. And if losing your anonymity or whatever doesn’t make you happy, then focus on something else.”
Clouds of Sils Maria was released by Sundance Selects on April 10. Awards voters are being asked to consider Stewart for best supporting actress.