KRISTEN STEWART: COMING ON STRONG
by Eve MacSweeney | photographed by Mario Testino.
Kristen Stewart’s body can tell a million stories. Kinetic, she jiggles, feints, and darts as she talks, hanging back, looking off to the side, signaling resistance, a combative intelligence. “The word I always use for her is vulpine,” says Jake Scott, who recently directed her in Welcome to the Rileys, in which she plays a teenage runaway and lap dancer. “Foxlike. She’s got that way of moving and being that you often find in her performances, a sort of wiliness.”
In other words, Stewart projects the kind of wary, rebellious edge that is so much more typical of her age group—she is 20—than gleeful high spirits, which is probably one reason she is head and shoulders above her peers in Hollywood’s power pyramid, and a director’s darling. Scott heard about her from his friend Sean Penn after Penn cast her as the unmoored daughter of hippie parents in the memorable Into the Wild. “Sean said, ‘You’ve gotta see this kid,’ ” Scott recalls. “ ‘She’s just so alive!’ ” For Bill Condon, currently ensconced in a year’s worth of filming forBreaking Dawn, the two-part finale of the mighty Twilight Saga, “Kristen was at the top of my list of reasons to do this movie.”
On a fall weekend in a quiet, suburban part of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the town where the Breaking Dawn set is located (under much secrecy and heavy confidentiality agreements), Stewart, a sylph in tomboyish jeans and a lumberjack shirt, is moving around the kitchen of a friend’s house, cracking her knuckles as she talks. She gets nervous dealing with the media—TV interviews in particular, she says, make her squirm—and she is sometimes accused of being downbeat and defensive in her public appearances, not least because she rarely smiles. She nurses some bad-girl tics, smoking and littering her conversation with expletives, and maintains an insouciance in the face of her big career. “I choose things that are so overly ambitious, and if I can’t do stuff like that, I don’t want to be doing this,” she says. Scratch the surface, however, and the attitude seems more about the passion and perfectionism she feels about her work than the opposite. “A compulsion absolutely fills you,” she says of finding a good part, and admits that she sometimes has difficulty letting go.
Today she is stoked from having just returned from shooting On the Road with Walter Salles, the masterly Brazilian director of The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station. She plays a character based on Neal Cassady’s first wife, LuAnne Henderson, opposite Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley. It was an intense improvisatory experience that left her “crying my head off,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave.” Installing herself in Baton Rouge for the foreseeable future was “like going back to school. . . . Twilight is a different beast.” A massive production planned to the millisecond and freighted with dollar signs waiting to happen, Breaking Dawn brings several years of Stewart’s life to a climax. She feels the weight of portraying Bella Swan, “a character who is embedded in so many people’s psyches at this point. It’s starting to enter my head a lot more than it used to because it’s at the end and it’s come such a long way. I just want the fans of the book to be happy.” She laughs. “I don’t necessarily care about anyone else.”
To a large segment of the population, Stewart may have sprung fully formed onto the screen as an incarnation of their favorite heroine. (At last count, Stephenie Meyer’s books have sold some 100 million copies worldwide.) But, despite her youth, Stewart has made more than 20 films, many of them independent and nearly all of them stellar, and pulled off such pitfall-ridden roles as a teenage rape victim and a girl disabled by neurological illness. She grew up in the Valley, the daughter in a family on the more nuts-and-bolts side of the industry—her mother is a script supervisor, her father a TV producer; her brother is a grip. After being spotted as a child at a school performance, Stewart walked straight onto the A-list, taking her first proper role in 2001’s The Safety of Objects, an adaptation of an A. M. Homes story collection, alongside Glenn Close and Patricia Clarkson, and her second in Panic Room, a virtual two-hander with Jodie Foster. “At that time I just thought it was fun,” she says, grateful that she began her career before adolescent insecurities set in. “I don’t think I would ever have been able to be an actress had I not started at nine years old. I would have been the last person to stand up and say, ‘I’d like to star in the play.’ ”
Some facts about Stewart: Currently on her nightstand are Dave Cullen’s Columbine; Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, a study of radical Mormonism; and Anna Karenina. On her playlist, the Shins, Broken Bells, and Jenny Lewis, the L.A. musician who puts Stewart in the unusual position of being starstruck herself: “She’s the only person I’ve ever met that I can’t function around.” (Stewart also plays guitar and was thrilled to portray Joan Jett, whom she got to know, in The Runaways.) Her favorite movies are John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, starring Gena Rowlands, and La Vie en Rose, with Marion Cotillard. She loves Jane Fonda inKlute. Her new hobby is cooking, no doubt encouraged by the fact that she lives in a somewhat isolated way: “You build a perimeter of people that are really important to you.” Friends tease her for watching the Food Network with a stern frown of concentration on her face. “I’m such a dork.” (The frown pays off. For lunch, she prepares an elaborate, and delicious, Mexican tortilla soup with numerous condiments, along with pulled-pork sandwiches.) She also likes golf, a sport that has the advantage of involving private membership and small numbers of people over large areas. So far, a regular if interesting young woman. In other ways, not regular at all. If she sees a teenage girl, Stewart will literally duck and cover. “There’s no way to eloquently put this,” she says. “I just can’t go to the mall. It bothers me that I can’t be outside very often. And also to not ever be just ‘some girl’ again. Just being some chick at some place, that’s gone.”
She can pinpoint the week she stopped being “some girl” and entered the land of 24-hour security, lockdowns, and endless speculation about her relationship with her costar-boyfriend Robert Pattinson, which she refuses to discuss. (“It’s not my job.”) She had completed the first Twilight movie, which had not yet been released, and just filmedWelcome to the Rileys in New Orleans, where, she says, “I feel so good walking down the street by myself,” before correcting herself: “At least I used to.” She went back for an extra week of work during editing, and suddenly she couldn’t walk down the street anymore. “It really erupted,” she says. “It was a weird thing to watch.”
Stewart, who is careful never to complain about the mixed blessing of the Twilight phenomenon, is smart enough to understand the nature of her particular celebrity. “Masses of girls identified with Bella in a really profound way, for want of a better word,” she says. “The connection that I’ve seen people have . . . I’ve seen it physically. It’s the characters they’re flipping for.” She also feels the power for good that comes with her influence. “It’s funny when you are endowed not only with public recognition on a fucking seriously vast level, but also money,” she says with endearing earnestness. “Like, funds.” (She was reportedly paid $25 million for the two films of Breaking Dawn, plus a percentage of the gross.) “Anytime I hear that somebody’s really rich, the first question is ‘Do you do anything with it? Or do you, like, chill? You just sit on it?’” She is thinking carefully, strategically, about how best to put her own contribution to use, and has a plan—inspired by her researches for the role of a runaway in the sex trade—to set up a network of halfway houses to help those who want to recover and get back on their feet. “That would be amazing,” she says. “Right now it’s the thing I feel most connected to.”
Stewart carries a lot on her slender shoulders for a young woman barely out of her teens. But her transition to adulthood will be a boon to moviegoers. She herself may doubt that she will eventually be able to move past theTwilight juggernaut—“At this point it seems like ‘We’ll see what the Twilight girl did. Let’s see how she’s trying to be different’ ”—but others disagree, and a generation for whom the tattle about KStew and RPattz is not so compelling and the Twilight movies perhaps a guilty pleasure rather than a fervent passion can look forward to seeing her flex her muscles in adult roles. Her nerviness and cool on-screen are interesting to watch, qualities grown women would like to see their reflection in. “She’s one of the smartest actresses I’ve ever worked with,” says Condon. “Not only does she have astonishing technical ability, she has an incredibly incisive and serious approach to character. She has just unlimited potential.”
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