“Not only is she really beautiful, but she’s so vulnerable,” says filmmaker Drake Doremus. “You just love watching her. There is a lot going on under the surface.”
The director is gushing over the myriad talents of his star, Kristen Stewart, who not only holds a close-up better than just about any other actress, but, due to the aforementioned emotional reservoir, possesses the uncanny ability to convey more with a nod or shrug than most can with a 5-page monologue. And take it from Doremus—the man knows a thing or two about talented actresses, having presided over a couple of then up-and-coming gals by the names of Felicity Jones and Jennifer Lawrence in his sophomore feature Like Crazy.
Doremus’s latest is Equals, which made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. In it, Stewart plays Nia, a young woman in a harmonious future society dubbed “The Collective” where everyone stalks about in white Nehru suits, and emotions have been all but eradicated. Those who show emotions are dubbed “Defects,” and sent to the infirmary to be killed. When her coworker Silas (Nicholas Hoult) falls in love with Nia, the two are forced to go on the run or face termination.
It’s a film that explores first love, and couldn’t have come at a better time for Stewart and Hoult. Filming began in August 2014, and the pair of young stars had just come off a couple of very high-profile break-ups (Robert Pattinson and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively).
“It was incredibly painful,” says Stewart, seated across from me at an empty nightclub in Downtown Toronto. “Ugh, fucking kill me. It was a really good time for both of us to make this movie. Not all of my friends have been through what I’ve been through, or what some people have tasted at a relatively-speaking young age, and we were not expected to do anything. Everything that we did was explorative, and a meditation on what we already knew.”
“We all felt akin by how much we’ve been through, and to utilize that is so scary,” she continued. “And to acknowledge it, reassess, and jump back into it? Usually you want to move on. But at least we could use some of that for some good. This movie was a meditation on firsts, and a meditation on maintaining, and a meditation on the ebbs and flows of what it’s like to love someone—your feelings versus your ideals, the bursting of bubbles, the shattering of dreams you thought were possible, and what you have to contend with as things get more realistic.”
“Relationships,” she adds, “you just never fucking know.”
The Daily Beast spoke to Stewart, whose recent relationship has garnered plenty of ink, about the many messages of Equals, and much more.
Dystopian films typically serve as interesting allegories. For Equals, I saw it as a critique of Generation Rx, and how, especially in America, teens are overprescribed and overmedicated. It seems, in many cases, like a lazy catchall solution to dealing with young people’s inherent emotional volatility.
“Oh, do you feel something? We can help you with that.” Self-exploration goes out the door with medication. You go, “Oh god, I have a little stomachache,” and they say, “Here, we can help you with that.” Well, why do you have that stomachache? Maybe it’s because your head’s in your stomach, so maybe there’s something you’re ignoring that you can work out. No, I completely agree.
The film also struck me as being about the denial of love. This is an issue that’s come to the fore in America in a big way when you look at the gay rights movement, where, despite the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, a large segment of the population—Republicans, primarily—still believe that the LGBT community should be denied the right to love. And denying anyone that basic human right can drive people crazy.
Abso-fucking-lutely. It is crazy. It’s weird because if you’re overtly emotional about anything, people discredit what thought you might be contributing, because anything overtly emotional can be viewed as a weakness. It’s interesting what you’re saying about how now we’re trying to suppress emotions or irregularities with drugs and deem people controllable my meds, because I think we’re more in tune and more honest with our emotions now than we have ever been. You think about your grandparents or their grandparents, and you think about the patriarch of the family never showing emotion—with women, too. As we’ve gotten past that, the meds have upped. It’s bizarre. The two things don’t really go together.
I wanted to go back to the issue of the denial of love. Have you been following the news of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who denied a same-sex couple their marriage license, was sent to jail, and has subsequently been martyred by many on the right-wing?
Yeah. Oh my god. Did you see her come out of jail? Honestly, it makes me so deeply uncomfortable. I feel really bad for her. Anyone who’s so closed off to things that are so apparent? Imagine what else she’s missing out on in life. I’m not making any grand statements about her personally, but if something so glaringly obvious, such as this subject…
…to have that much hate in your heart must be awful.
That’s why I feel bad for her. It’s like, “Oh, buddy, that must suck.” That fear of the unknown cripples people, breeds hate, and it’s just very sad.
Back to the Rx. Like you said, people may be in tune with their emotions, but perhaps they’re not being explored. This isn’t a new argument, but there seems to be a lack of intimacy these days. We’re “connected” by technology, but our actual human-to-human interaction has decreased dramatically. We’re not asking people for directions, we’re looking them up on our phone. And fucking selfie sticks! God forbid you stop and ask someone to take your photograph.
We’re getting to this neutralized, disconnected world.
And it’s fitting that you shot this film in Japan, because they’re not even having sex anymore over there. Nearly fifty percent of Japanese adults are not having sex, and they’re saying that if these trends continue, the population could be halved by 2100.
They’re not fucking. That’s crazy. You can assess a culture to a degree by the way they receive movies and how they receive a given celebrity—like me and Nick being that, I guess. So in Japan I can walk around the streets with no problem whatsoever because nobody will come up to me, versus Italy where I cannot even take a step because everybody is trying to literally hug and kiss and drag me down physically.
I’ve spent some time in Italy with a girlfriend. They can be grabby over there.
Oh, they’re grabby. They are really grabby. Yeah, it’s weird. It’s a good time to tell this story, I suppose, but I still think that this fear of being subject to one’s emotions has existed forever. But the medication aspect I find most interesting. I know a lot of people on meds who don’t have mental health issues. Not all emotional issues are “mental health issues.” They do not all hold hands.
I’m not saying this applies to everyone of course, but the friends I have who’ve gone off their meds for things like depression and anxiety seem so much better. They’re rawer emotionally, but more real.
Yeah. As far as we know, you have one shot at this and it can be so fucking beautiful, so why lessen the feeling of anything? Why numb yourself? I’m not on antidepressants. I think it’s bizarre.
There is the big first kiss scene in Equals, where you and Nick are in this blue-tinted bathroom stall and you touch—and then kiss—for the first time to a swelling score. Since it’s a first kiss, was that hard to calibrate? You can’t make it seem expert, but you don’t want to make it be like that Dumb & Dumber dream sequence, either.
We had never done it! Our idea was that they had learned how conception happened in our history, but it’s a completely unrelatable concept now, so kissing wasn’t even in the textbook. It’s tantamount to what you learn in middle school now about how you conceive children. We wanted to make it look foreign, and found, and completely natural—but new. Every single really emotionally pivotal part of the movie Drake had infused with a certain bit of music that luckily we got into the movie. Most actors use songs to make themselves cry.
Actually, I don’t. If I’m really, really screwed and I need it, I do.
What music would you listen to in a situation like that to summon the tears?
Right now… Have you seen Love & Mercy yet?
I loved it.
I fucking love that song [“Love and Mercy”]. I could think about it and start being emotional. It absolutely fucking annihilates me. It’s so simple, but considering what Brian Wilson had been through at that time, and for him to still be able to write that song at that time given his environment and the people surrounding him was so full of hope.
Do you remember your first kiss?
Yes, absolutely! It was horrible! It was so bad. It was fucking repulsive. I was 14 and it was gross. It was not good. [Laughs] But the first time something in you opens up and affects your entire body and has this control over you, it’s scary because there’s this chemical that’s released that you become addicted to. It literally feels like you don’t have free will anymore. I know that fucking feeling. When I read the script, I was so intimidated by it because there are several awakenings that you go through as a young person—and I’m sure there will be more as I get older—but I’ve had several eye-opening, come-to-Jesus moments. And I don’t think that everyone is necessarily affected by or appreciates physical beauty, and I think we have been desensitized to physical beauty because of the movies that we watch, and all the images that are thrust in our faces all the time. We don’t really appreciate the body, nature, a fucking sunrise.
You just easily close yourself off to certain things because you want to seem like you know it all, or you’re not weak—emotion is often confused as weakness—so when emotions are undeniably physically affecting you, I think it’s a gift. People are so good at turning that off, that we wanted to exemplify that in the most severe and basic sense—and it was really scary.
You and Nick were both mining the emotions of first love by filming those sequences. Which, like you said, is scary. But was it ultimately cathartic?
Yeah. It just could have been the cheesiest, most trite concept, but the whole attempt was to make that fresh again. If you’ve been hurt—you know when you’ve broken up with someone and you look at someone walking down the street holding hands and think, “Ugh, give it a fuckin’ year. Let me know how you feel in a year, ugh, I don’t’ believe in that,” well if we did our jobs right, then it would be to remind you that you can definitely get back to that, and how hard, amazing, and life-fulfilling those feelings were in the very beginning.