Back then, when she was known as the star of the “Twilight” films, the idea of living in a world without emotion might have perhaps appealed to her. That’s the premise of her new film, “Equals,” which is about a futuristic society where humans have been stripped of feelings because they cause too much physical and mental anguish.
But now, at 26, Stewart is repelled by the idea of withholding emotion. In fact, it’s something she’s often not even capable of.
She’d just thrown down her backpack and slid into a booth next to Nicholas Hoult, her co-star in “Equals,” which opened nationwide on Friday. Drake Doremus, their director, sat across from them.
Stewart removed her ball cap and ruffled her hair, which was platinum blond with purposefully dark, exposed roots. Her outfit was a mix of grungy hi-and-low: mesh socks with sneakers, a Chanel watch, tons of smudged black eyeliner. Hoult, meanwhile, had flown in the night before from England and looked sleepy, like he’d thrown on whatever happened to be packed at the top of his suitcase.
In “Equals,” the two play lovers. Though their characters are supposed to be unfeeling, each is afflicted with S.O.S. — Switched-On Syndrome — which means they’re fully emotional beings often crippled by sexual desire, fear and sadness. When they start to fall for each other, they must keep their relationship a secret or risk being treated for S.O.S. and being stripped of emotions again.
The movie is something of a departure for Doremus, an indie naturalist who tends toward messy relationship dramas. Though “Equals” again finds him working with two young actors — his most successful film, 2011’s “Like Crazy,” provided a launching pad for Felicity Jones and the late Anton Yelchin — it also marks the first time he’s explored the world of science fiction. The film was shot in Japan and Singapore and has a colorless, sterile aesthetic. And Doremus stuck loosely to a screenplay (written by Nathan Parker), even though in the past he’s typically used only a scrappy outline.
Despite the changes, Doremus retained his familiar rehearsal process, asking Hoult and Stewart to spend a week doing exercises together before filming began. Some of the drills were trippy: In one, the actors had to stare at one another for an hour, saying nothing but “hello” back-and-forth. The goal, the filmmaker said, was to get the actors to think about what it would be like to be blank slates.
“It was all about stripping things down, which is sort of the opposite of how you normally approach movies — trying to add layers and complexity,” said Doremus. “There’s no backstory here, so essentially, we just had to rebirth and start over.”
“This was the first time a director has turned around and been like, ‘Do nothing. Do less,’ ” said Hoult, who starred in “About a Boy” when he was 12 and has since appeared in the “X-Men” films and “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
“The hard part was finding how base of a place we were supposed to be starting from,” Stewart chimed in. “I was so close to that, especially then, that I was like, ‘It’s just going to hurt so badly to do this movie if we do it right.’ I was terrified. How could we possibly look at things with baby eyes?”
It was a hypothetical the trio explored at length during the rehearsal period in Japan. The premise led to discussions about online dating (is it causing us to separate from one another?) and the over-prescription of drugs (are we all too numb?).
“I was on Ritalin and Dexedrine as a kid, and I’m still mad at my mom about it,” recalled Doremus.
“Have you taken Adderall as an adult?” Stewart asked. Doremus shook his head no.
“I’m sorry,” Stewart continued, “but I took an Adderall once and I was like, ‘Children take this?’ It’s speedy, to be honest with you. I was on a road trip and I was just lockjawed.”
Hoult, seemingly surprised by her admission, mimicked picking up the tape recorder on the table and tossing it across the room.
“No, that’s OK,” Stewart said. “People can know that. I’ve done — well, never mind.”
Hoult, who is also 26, is far quieter and more careful with his words than Stewart. The two have both been in high-profile relationships — Hoult with Jennifer Lawrence, Stewart with Robert Pattinson — but the actor is more guarded about his off-screen life.
“I feel protective of anything personal,” he said.
“I wouldn’t talk about who I [have sex with] and how I [have sex with them] unless I was friends with you. That’s weird,” agreed Stewart, who also stars in Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” this summer. “But then, at the same time, I’ve discovered a way to live my life and not feel like I’m hiding at all. And I think that’s pretty apparent for anyone who cares — not that everyone does. But I think that if you had been tracking it in any way, it’s more apparent that I’m more relaxed than I used to be.”
She seemed to be referring to paparazzi photos of her holding hands and kissing women like French musician Soko over the last year. For someone who used to guard her private life so fiercely, it’s been a marked shift in attitude.
“Somehow, as I got older, I reoriented my mind,” Stewart said, “I’ve gotten better at assessing people’s motivations. It’s not something I have to overtly think about — what I share and what I don’t share. It’s a natural thing. Whereas, when I was younger, I was like, ‘You’re gonna screw me over.’ Now I’m like, ‘Whatever. You can’t.’ ”
Though Hoult may not be as willing to share his feelings with the public, he does enjoy having a rich emotional life. Like Stewart, he said he finds the idea of living in an “Equals”-esque society terrifying.
“I quite like feeling [crappy] sometimes and then putting on a record and wallowing in self-pity for the day,” he said. “Because you’ve got to have the lows to have the highs, haven’t you really?”
“Did you just say ‘Haven’t you really’?” Stewart asked. “You just sounded really English. Have you been home for a while?”
“Yeah,” he replied with a laugh.
“I agree with Nick, though,” she said, finishing the thought. “I can’t lie and say that in darker moments I haven’t been like, ‘No! I don’t want to feel this!’ But I know that’s not really true. I feel really blessed to put a lot of stock in what I feel, and it’s led me to really good places. Like he said, you can’t have the highs without the lows.”