Kristen Stewart swears a lot. It’s great; it instantly makes her a human being rather than the tabloid icon she’s unwillingly become at age 22.
Stewart’s come to TIFF to launch On The Road, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel in which she plays Marylou, the sexually adventurous child bride of the charismatic Dean Moriarty. (Yes, there are nude scenes. No, they aren’t explicit.) On the press day, Stewart is paired with Garrett Hedlund, who plays Moriarty. And the two of them were their most animated when they were discussing the freewheeling, improvisational style director Walter Salles encouraged on the shoot.
“There are probably, like, 600 movies within the film that we shot,” Stewart says. “I think the only way to have done this, and be really true to how the book feels, is to not be so connected to [memorizing] lines. I mean, certain things just find their way into your heart, and you’re like, ‘I need to say that. I love that fucking line.’ And that’s fine, as long as you’ve opened yourself up to letting it fall out, rather than trying to do something a certain way.”
The challenge for the actors was keeping themselves in that headspace, which Stewart says she had trouble with.
“I tortured myself in the most amazing, wonderful way for four weeks,” she says, “and then as soon as the four weeks were done it was like, ‘You need to stop thinking, because if you don’t, you’re gonna regret this entire experience. You’re gonna look back and say: I fucked up. I thought too much.’”
Hedlund credits the resources that were made available to the actors over what turned out to be a very long pre-production period. Both he and Stewart signed onto On The Road in 2007, but it took four years to get to the first day of principal photography. Fortunately, that just let everyone soak up more material.
“We’d gotten so many wonderful stories,” Hedlund says. “From real-life characters like Al Hinkle, who was in the book as Ed Dunkel. Neal [Cassaday]’s son told me a lot of wonderful stories, we’d read plenty of stories from Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road, wonderful stories from LuAnne Henderson’s audiotapes. We always had stories to go for if there was space for improvisational infusion.”
Stewart says the fact that she was playing a real person – the aforementioned Henderson, who was the basis for Kerouac’s fictional Marylou – made her a little more careful about her own improvisations.
“It’s always fun to have freedom and have, like, happy accidents where you go, ‘Wow, that’s cool, I didn’t expect that,’” Stewart says. “But when you’re playing somebody who’s [actually] existed, you know …” And she stops herself, rethinking her position on the fly.
“I don’t want to discredit what it feels like to play a character who’s been written by somebody,” she continues. “You feel just as responsible to the writer and the character to everyone who’s been affected by that person.”
There is no doubt in my mind that she’s referring to Bella Swan. And I have to respect her instincts; given how many millions of people worship the Twilight movies – and how worried everyone is that those Twi-hards will boycott Breaking Dawn Part Two because of Stewart and Pattinson’s recent breakup – it’s the savvy thing to do. But it’s also crap, and she knows it, because as soon as she’s finished that statement, Stewart returns to her real point and her energy shoots right back up.
“I’ve played Joan Jett,” she says, “and because she was on set every day, I couldn’t improv. I couldn’t. Everything I said, I spoke to her about it. You know – you can’t put words in their mouths unless you know. Unless you really feel it, and it’s coming from the right place.”
“Unless you felt trust,” Hedlund says.
“Precisely,” Stewart says, nodding emphatically. “Because of the time that we put in initially [with the material] and because of the heart that Walter, like, shoved down all of our throats, into our chests, it had to show up. It was impossible for it not to. “
Hedlund picks it up. “And once you know what your character’s instincts are, what their wants and needs are, it can free you up – there can be carelessness, recklessness. There can be emotion.”
“Yes,” Stewart agrees. “Then you can forget everything, and just do it.”