Excruciatingly aware of her fame, Stewart the Global Movie Star orders an almond milk latte at her favorite Echo Park café in a manner best described as awkward-charm offense. She chats with the barista about the café’s latest expansion, yadda yadda yadda, while nervously raking her hands through her choppy bob. Stewart’s chatter isn’t the most natural thing in the world, but its tacit message is clear: See, I’m a nice, regular person. Tell all your friends!
Walking through the outside patio is hardly better. Anyone who isn’t buried in her laptop recognizes That Girl From Twilight. A few whisper or drink her in greedily before looking away, but it hardly matters. The charge is in the air. Stewart’s body is tense, her eyes cast down until she flops into a seat in the most remote corner, an amused, near-exasperated expression on her face.
“I really wish I could not be fucking recognizable,” she says in a low voice. “It’s so annoying. I fucking hate people looking at me when all I want to do is look back at them.”
Stewart swears exuberantly and often, fueled by something closer to joy than aggression, in a way that acknowledges the fizzing Roman candle that is life. She’s also direct in what she says, sometimes blunt, but it never feels mean, even when she says, “That’s not something I would ever talk to the fucking public about—that’s crazy,” regarding whether she’s still in contact with her ex-boyfriend/Twilight franchise co-star Robert Pattinson. Instead, she comes across as honest—bridge-burningly, disarmingly honest—which is why her friends, fans, and the tabloids love her.
Her uncompromising sense of authenticity is also why Stewart is repeatedly cast in roles that require her to say what others can’t or won’t say (see: the sensitive daughter who won’t promise college to her dying mother in Still Alice, or the assistant who calls out the snobbery of her charge, Juliette Binoche’s grand dame of the theater, in Clouds of Sils Maria). She’ll occupy another such role in Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, out next year, as the titular character’s sister who opposes the Iraq War: “He comes back a changed person and she doesn’t recognize her brother. I’m the one thing trying to keep him home, the one clear perspective on the other side in the whole movie.”
In American Ultra, out now, her character is less contrarian, but just as emotionally explicit. “I’m always fucking terrified before every role,” she says. “Even if it’s fun and stupid or whatever. American Ultra is a stoner comedy, but it was physically strenuous, and to try and tell such an absurd story but keep it grounded so people will believe it is really hard.”
Riley Keough, who first met Stewart when they were in The Runaways together, breaks down Stewart’s fiery allure this way: “She just doesn’t give a fuck. She courageously exposes herself because she loves the art. And I think she understands what comes along with that. There’s not one part of that girl that’s caught up in Hollywood or cares about the opinions of others or whatever else, and I’ve probably met three people like that in my life.”
Stewart’s not about to let fame turn her into a weirdo who can’t connect anymore, who only speaks in PR-approved statements—especially when it comes to her sexuality and relationships. But what Stewart, now 25, will share and won’t share is a fascinating algorithm she’s honed over time. She refuses to offer up her life for tabloid sport, but she’s also not afraid to be raw and open.
Take the beginning of our day, for instance. For several hours, all I know is that Stewart is coming to pick me up at 2 p.m. We have no set plans because she rejected all previously offered suggestions: roller derby, guitar lessons, etc. Around 2:15, she calls from an unblocked number to say she’s outside. In today’s PR-choke-hold era, a star of Stewart’s wattage would usually be delivered to a neutral meeting place, no contact info exchanged, but aside from her longtime publicist setting the date and time, Stewart skipped those formalities.
Instead, she lets me crawl into her rough-and-tumble SUV, which is loaded up with trash bags filled with swag, earmarked for Goodwill.
“I get sent a lot of stuff,” says Stewart, alluding to the fact that she can boost a fashion career by wearing something once in front of the cameras. Peeking out of one bag is a pair of wedge sneakers with a graphic pattern that seems too, um, much for Stewart. Dressed in faded Levi’s, white Vans, and a vintage skateboarding T-shirt, her style is more skate-shop employee with a medical marijuana card. A chunky silver link chain with a miniature padlock adorns her neck. Flecks of navy eyeliner rim her hazel eyes, giving her a sexy slept-in look.
“I’m a skater,” says Stewart, citing her preferred mode of transport to school while growing up in the San Fernando Valley. “I’m not a hard-core skater chick—I can skate on the street, but I don’t like to trick shit out. Skating around downtown might be my happy place.”
But for our interview, she’s not up for what she teasingly calls “activities.” She wants to talk, so we set off for her favorite coffee shop, some 10 minutes away from her home east of Hollywood.
On her own time, Stewart’s got nothing against a lazy Sunday—as long as it has a touch of aggression. Growing up with three brothers gave her a fierce competitive edge. As the lone female, “I wasn’t treated better and I wasn’t treated worse,” she says. “I really was one of the boys. I think there’s an ambition that’s probably innately drilled into me.”
In short: “I like to win shit,” she says, flashing a rare full smile. “I love games of all kinds,” but billiards, Frisbee, and playing with her two dogs rank high.
Hunger Games star Josh Hutcherson, who acted with Stewart in Zathura when he was just 12 years old, says Stewart’s never lost her sense of fun: “She’s been faced with a lot of big things in her life, but she hasn’t changed. She’s still the same carefree, cool girl.”
Her tomboy spirit is why she clicks with like-minded musicians such as Patti Smith, who once came up to Stewart at an On the Road party to offer support with the words, “Your people are here for you,” and Joan Jett, whom Stewart portrayed in The Runaways. Stewart still laughs thinking of Jett’s primal guitar lessons: “If I wasn’t fully feeling it, she’d walk to the end of whatever set or stage I was on and be like, ‘Kristen, pussy to the wood!’”
Stewart also cleans up nicely, which is how she came to be Chanel’s unlikely muse. “I really like tapping into unexplored aspects of myself; obviously, that’s what I do,” she says. “Clothes can seriously do that, but you don’t want your clothes to wear you. So often I’m like, ‘Oh man, that is going to own my ass.’” Luckily, Karl Lagerfeld gives his muse full license to play: “He lets me chop dresses, he lets me steal a belt from that dress and wrap it around another…. I’m really into the performance aspect of it, but I still have to make it my own. I don’t want to feel like I’m wearing a costume.”
At the café, once the patrons have forgotten Stewart’s here, talk inevitably turns to the latest tabloid storm brewing in the star’s life. A few days ago, Kristen’s mother, Jules Stewart, confirmed to the Sunday Mirror that her daughter is in a relationship with Alicia Cargile, a visual effects producer. In the interview, ostensibly about Jules’s charity work with wolves, she said: “I’ve met Kristen’s new girlfriend, I like her,” and “I feel like people need to be free to love whoever they want. I accept my daughter loves women and men.”
Enter a parade of think pieces, photo galleries parsing Stewart’s androgynous wardrobe, and the re-emergence of the unfortunate portmanteau “Krisbian,” designated for fans who’d “go lesbian” just for their beloved.
Perhaps more than any other star of her generation, Stewart’s relationship to the gossip machine is tempestuous, to put it lightly, and it underscores the monstrosity of the 24-hour news cycle. “It’s funny when older actors are like, ‘Just give them a smile.’ I’m like, ‘You have no idea what you’re talking about, but thanks!’ It must’ve been awesome without the Internet.”
She’s fully aware that every twist in her love life is feverishly documented whether she cooperates or not: “It’s like I’m involved in a weekly comic book. I have this assigned personality…which I helped create, I suppose. People stand to make a lot of money on people like me—it’s this booming industry, so why would you go and change the character that people are paying for?”
But her character is changing, because, after all, she’s 25. Is she ready right now to make any big pronouncements about her sexuality?
“Google me, I’m not hiding.”
…And no: “If you feel like you really want to define yourself, and you have the ability to articulate those parameters and that in itself defines you, then do it. But I am an actress, man. I live in the fucking ambiguity of this life and I love it. I don’t feel like it would be true for me to be like, ‘I’m coming out!’ No, I do a job. Until I decide that I’m starting a foundation or that I have some perspective or opinion that other people should be receiving… I don’t. I’m just a kid making movies.”
That’s not all there is, though, to Stewart’s reluctance to categorize her sexuality. She also believes in fluidity, the kind that prompted Miley Cyrus to say to Paper magazine recently that she’s “literally open to every single thing that is consenting.”
Stewart adds, “I think in three or four years, there are going to be a whole lot more people who don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re gay or straight. It’s like, just do your thing.”
She’s the first to admit that during her early Twilight years, she didn’t have her boundaries figured out—not sexually, but with the press. “There must’ve been so many reporters who would sit in front of me and think, ‘This kid is going to break down.’ I’m sure that I’ve made people so uncomfortable.” Back then, when faced with a tough question, Stewart would “either get pissed off or all of a sudden be thrown.”
Now she’s found her own way of responding fully but enigmatically: “I’ve worked really hard at feeling free and open while not selling it, or helping someone else sell it.”
Above all the chatter and feedback, Stewart focuses on her work. That’s what sustains her, and she’s planted her roots deep in the industry. “I’m sure that I can keep working,” she says. “Positive. There’s really not a whole lot that I could do right now to fuck it up for myself.”
Her American Ultra co-star and good friend Jesse Eisenberg backs up her confidence: “She’s one of the actors consistently working who you know will make things good. Out of all of the attributes that she has—her sense of humor, her willingness to embrace the tone of the project—there’s also this healthy form of self-awareness, to understand what the story needs, what the big picture is, and the value of your place in it. It’s rare for someone as well known as her to be so humble. She’s not overshadowing the story; she’d prefer to hide in the role than show off.”
For any doubters who remain, Stewart’s full slate of coming attractions should prove her range. She can’t say much about her role in a new Woody Allen project, also with Eisenberg, but she promises that “it’s a stretch, to say the least.”
As an actress, she gets to indulge her curiosity—unlike at the café, where she stays hidden until we leave, not daring to lock eyes with anyone. Afterwards, we walk to an artsy curio shop and boutique grocery store, where once again she keeps her head down and chats self-consciously with the cashier while buying some ghee. Trailed by whispers everywhere we go, Stewart transforms into a protective animal, subtly checking her territory for interlopers until we’re safely ensconced in her car again. “This is why I barely ever go shopping,” she says with a sigh as she starts the engine.
On screen, there is an escape: She gets to stare at and into whatever person she chooses. “In order for me to feel compelled to step off the ledge into a role, it needs to feel like it predates me…. I have to be like, ‘If I don’t do this right, I could potentially eliminate it from existing, and I’d be doing it a disservice.’”
That said, she’s not scared to fuck up. “Mistakes are cool, even if they’re hard,” she says. “I’m down to make myself uncomfortable. I’m OK with that.”