OF ALL THE ACTRESSES in Hollywood, Kristen Stewart is the most effortlessly cool. With her cropped hair and laid-back, tomboy style, she’s a striking androgynous beauty. She’s like that girl from school who you admired for her mystery and quiet confidence, and who you kind of hated for her ability to somehow make even sweatpants look stylish. Stewart is distinctly difference from a lot of actresses her age – there’s no pomp and circumstance, no presence on social media, no selfies, no paparazzi accidentally-on-purpose catching her falling out of a nightclub. She’s more understated than that, a quality that comes actress not only in her personality, but also in her acting. She’s subtle. She doesn’t overplay it. With Stewart, it’s often more about the internal monologue. It’s all in the eyes, those piercing green eyes that are at once gentle, wild and menacing.
Stewart was just 17 when she was cast as Bella Swan in Twilight, the vampire-romance saga that made her an international superstar, and proved she could anchor a multibillion-dollar movie franchise. But she is not one for the beaten path. In the two years post-Twilight, she’s stayed from Hollywood blockbusters, instead reinventing herself as a queen of indie film, with roles in the critically-acclaimed Camp X-Ray, Clouds of SilsMaria and the current Oscar nominee, Still Alice. And with an electic trio of new films to be released in 2015, there will be no stopping Stewart. She’s restless and unpredictable, like a good rebel should be.
We meet on a Monday afternoon at Cafe Figaro, a lunch spot in LA’s Los Feliz neighbourhood. She is casual in a cut-off T-shirt, loose-fitting slacks and yesterday’s makeup. She has a firm handshake. Stewart grew up in LA, the daughter of parents in the film industry. But it wasn’t the glamorous Hollywood childhood you might be imagining. Home was in the San Fernando Valley – know for its heat, porn studios and a certain type of young girl who spends a lot of time at the mall and speaks with vocal try. Her mother is a script supervisor and her father a stage manager, but Stewart is adaman they were never “stage parents”. “My parents were both fairly shocked at my interest in acting, because I wasn’t an actor-y type of kid,” she says. “They quickly made me very aware of the unlikelihood of becoming a successful actress.” She remembers her first year of auditions as being fruitless. “Everyone thought I looked like a boy,” she laughs. But her parents agreed to continue carting her around to auditions, primarily because of their daughter’s growing interest in the process of filmmaking. “I basically grew up on a movie set,” she says. “and I loved being in that environment.”
Stewart landed her film film role aged nine, playing a tomboy type in Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects. Her break came a couple of years later when, at 11, she was cast to star alongside Jodie Foster in David Fincher’s 2002 thriller, Panic Room – again, playing the role of the tomboy. It was a role true to her own life. As a young teen she was made fun of at school for wearing her brother’s clothes, not shaving her legs, and basically just refusing to be a typical Valley girl. At 14 she quit and opted for home schooling. “My childhood was very free-form,” she recalls. “I did well in school, but I never felt a specific pressure. I was always very much allowed to find my own interests and pursue them.”
That free-form nature has seemingly informed the way she chooses her film endeavours. She has said many times that her approach to choosing roles is intuitive, not pragmatic – that she “just needs to feel it, let the script strike me and destroy me.” Still just 24, her work is all over the map, proving both her range as an actress and her willingness to take risks. To name a few: there was the Sean Penn- directed Into the Wild; the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s hipster bible, On the Road; The Runaways, in which she portrayed Joan Jett; her role as Snow White in the Hollywood blockbuster Snow White and the Huntsman; and her performance, last year, as a soldier in Guantanamo Bay, in Petter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray. Stewart will be the first to tell you how “totally fucking lucky” she feels for the opportunity to have played such a wide variety of interesting and complex role, because she knows such roles are limited in the industry.
In recent years, the roles for women in Hollywood – more specifically, the lack thereof – have become a hot topic. It’s not secret that women are vastly underrepresented in film and TV, both on screen and behind the scenes. At the 2014 Academy Awards, Cate Blanchett used her Best Actress acceptance speech to call for more leading roles for women, criticizing those within the business who are “still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the center, are niche experiences”. On a more optimistic note Maggie Gyllenhaal, while accepting an award at the Golden Globes last month, commented on what she felt was an increasing wealth of interesting roles for female actors, which she deemed “revolutionary and evolutionary”. I wonder whether Stewart, having been in the business for 15 years, feels that Hollywood is beginning to atone for its historic dearth of complex female roles.
“It’s impossible to deny that the good projects for women stand out like flint rocks on dry, crusted earth,” says Stewart. “That’s true for women in my age group, which is why we’re all jumping so ravenously on those projects. I think women have always had to fight a little bit harder, and I don’t think that’s going to change instantly. But I think Maggie’s right, and that things are moving forward.” Despite the fact that more moviegoers are women, she notes, male leads dominate the screen, because that’s what studios and producers think is “safe”. This is an essentially archaic idea. “We sell our audiences short,” she continues. “Nowadays, movies are financed almost purely out of systematic fear, like, ‘OK, this project is going to assure me a paycheck,’ or ‘this movie is sure to get me my money back, based on an equation created by a research scientist.’ There’s no risk anymore. And it’s so cliché to say, but in order to do really great things, we need to take risks.”
Stewart pauses, her face tenses up a bit, and she organizes her thoughts carefully, no doubt aware of how easily her words could be taken out of context, and made to sound ungrateful. “It’s silly to play the devil’s advocate when having a conversation about female roles in Hollywood, because then you’re going the ‘reverse feminism’ thing that has become weirdly trendy recently. I feel like some girls around my age are less inclined to say, ‘Of course I’m a feminist, and of course I believe in equal rights for men and women’, because there are implications that go along with the word feminist that they feel are too in-your-face or aggressive. A lot of girls nowadays are like, ‘Eww, I’m not like that.’ They don’t get that there’s no one particular way you have to be in order to stand for all the things feminism stands for.” She credits the feminist kickback to what is ultimately a lack of knowledge about the subject – an issue that was also addressed by Emma Watson in her recent UN speech about gender equality and feminism. “It was really cool that she did that,” Stewart says enthusiastically of Watson. “That was badass.”
Stewart lived her life under a microscope. While that’s true for many famous people, it’s intensified when you’re the lead in a major franchise, and one of the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Lately, there have been speculations about her sexuality, which appear to be based solely on her preference for sneakers ans jeans over skin-tight micro-dresses, and the fact that she is occasionally seen standing next t her female friends – how very scandalous.
“Your life becomes this stage-show broadcast for public consumption,” she says. “Life, I was probably followed here, and they’re going to photograph every expression I make, and wonder what it means, and then that’s the show that’s going to be running tonight. And sometimes they catch something true, but often it’s rooted in pure falseness.” Her rebellious attitude, and diversion from the Hollywood norm has only fuelled media intrigue into her private life, which had continually been probed and dissected since she was 17. The microscope of fame leaved little room for the normal trials and tribulations of self-discovery, free of scrutiny – be it professionally, personally, sexually or aesthetically. Those who became famous during adolescence know that better than anyone.
It’s been said many times over that Stewart feels uncomfortable in the spotlight, that she’s awkward or visibly shaky during interviews, that she scowls down the red carpet. But when making that observation, one has to consider that, today, the world’s standard for being ‘comfortable in the spotlight’ is Kim Kardashian. Surely most performers would seem a little shaky in comparison. To me, Stewart seems perfectly happy and capable in her role as an actress and Hollywood star. But there’s a difference between being happy and capable, and being a fame whore, and today we’re less perplexed by the latter. “People have a hard time accepting when someone displays even the slightest amount of discomfort in the spotlight,” she says. “You’re supposed to soak up every bit of fame like it’s sunshine. But I think it’s genuinely scary that fame is valued so highly, even above happiness. I love making movies, but I don’t do my job to be a famous person.”
Despite the falseness of the rumor mill, Stewart has continued to be aggressively and unapologetically herself – something her fans and colleagues consistently praise her for.
This is evident in her nonchalant style and sex appeal, which had led to her being the face of a Balenciaga fragrance and Chanel’s 2014 ad campaign. “Through my by-default association with fashion, I’ve spent time in that wold with some of the worst people I’ve ever met, as well as some of the most interesting and kind,” she laughs. “In fashion, the good ones are stick out. Chanel have been very conscious of working with people who interest them, they’re very family-oriented. When I was younger, that made me feel comfortable in a world that was otherwise so uncomfortable for me.”
This year will see Stewart in three new films, including Equals, a futuristic love story, with Nicholas Hoult, and the comedy American Ultra, a sleeper-cell stoner movie, in which she stars alongside Jesse Eisenberg (who was also her co-star in 2009’s Adventureland). “It’s like The Bourne Identity for anyone who liked Adventureland,” she says of American Ultra. For such a diverse filmography, this is her first truly comedic role, and you can tell she’s nervous about it. “I hope that I’m funny in it,” she says with endearing candor. “I hope I complement Jesse, because he’s hysterical. But I take everything so seriously!” she laughs. “I don’t know.. my friends think I’m funny, but like, if Emma Stone played the part, she’d be fucking hilarious.” It’s not often that you encounter a Hollywood actress so humble as to compliment a peer’s talents above her own. But this is common of Stewart. She openly talks about her flaws and fears, specifically when it comes to the butterflies she’s feeling about her next pursuit: directing.
Stewart knows that her fame as an actress will be both a blessing and a curse when she steps behind the camera – with an audience comes expectation. But for now, she’s written a lot, and planning. “I wrote a sick short film that I’m really proud of. It’s more abstract rather than super narrative. It’s like a poem; it’s about water. People ask, ‘Why not just direct a feature?’ But I want to play around first. I want to have experience.” She’s a big fan of John Cassavetes, who was a pioneer of improvisational filmmaking and cinéma vérité. Stewart talks about his filmmaking style as an influence. “I think the first thing I’m going to make will live in the in-between moments.”
When asked about actors she looks up to, she immediately cites Gena Rowlands, Cassavetes’s wife and long-time collaborator. “Gena Rowlands is the shirt,” she says, “but, you know, that’s the obvious answer.” Other influences include Catherine Keener, and Julianne Moore, who plays Stewart’s mother in Still Alice, which is out in spring.
“She’s so cool, she just floats,” Stewart says of Moore. “Working with Julianne made me feel better about the way I approach acting, which can be quite technical. I’m just so interested in the process of making movies that I can’t be one of those method actors who totally ‘lose it’ and don’t know where the camera is. I always know that fucking thing is. I’m the most annoying actor, always going like, ‘You know, you really should pull back for a two-shot.’ Julianne is undeniably talented, but she’s still a bit of surgeon. So she made me feel like, yeah, maybe I don’t ‘lose it’ as much as other actors do, but maybe that’s OK.”
That technical and visual mind will no doubt help her when she steps behind the camera. But despite being controlled, Stewart refused to be tied down. “The best film experiences I’ve had have been the ones where we’re all trying to figure something out, but we’re not quite sure what that is. You give yourself time to meditate, and by the end you realize why everyone came together. I don’t want to know exactly where I’m going, I want to find it.”