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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with actress Kristen Stewart who’s put the “Twilight Saga” in her rear view mirror for now at least. She’s currently getting critical acclaim and a little pushback for her new movie titled “Camp X-Ray” in which she plays a young inexperienced MP assigned to Gitmo whose interactions with a detainee prompts her to rethink her political views.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with Kristen Stewart coming up right now.
Tavis: Kristen Stewart’s been acting since she was nine. Her first major costarring role was opposite Jodie Foster in that film, “Panic Room,” which I loved. I just saw it the other night. Since then, she’s become a worldwide phenomenon for her role as Bella in the “Twilight Saga,” of course.
But she’s also used her fame to help get a series of interesting independent films off the ground, thankfully. She currently has three films that are getting acclaim on the festival circuit. Yes, I said three, including upcoming movies with Juliette Binoche and Julianne Moore.
But right now, she can be seen in a new release called “Camp X-Ray” in which she plays a young MP assigned to Gitmo who becomes emotionally involved with a detainee. We’ll start by taking a look at a scene from the movie which is also available now on VOD.
Tavis: All right. I’m going to start by going right inside your head. So the clip comes up. We both turn our head. I’m staring at it and you kind of looked away [laugh]. What were you seeing that you didn’t want to see?
Kristen Stewart: It’s difficult to take any scene out of context for me. Obviously, just looking at especially that moment when she’s so tongue-tied, you know, I feel for that moment. I remember it so clearly. The director told me to toss the lines and just try to maneuver this, you know, in the best way that I learned to address to an officer and just deal with the situation.
Yeah, a lot of times, standard operating procedure doesn’t always catch you. Sometimes it’s like but there are thoughts that I cannot communicate based on your standard way of communicating. Do you know what I mean?
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Stewart: It like I can’t talk soldier right now and that happens to people.
Tavis: That means you’re a great actress ’cause that was supposed to happen in that scene. I mean, she’s being put on the spot and she’s trying to figure out how to navigate her way through this situation and answer his question.
Stewart: Yes. Yes, she’s definitely fallen into something that is hard to categorize and, you know, was probably harboring some guilt. And she really, all beyond anything, wants to be a good soldier.
She doesn’t have clear answers for him yet, still feels like she’s doing her job to the best of her ability and sees sort of what she sees as injustices that she can’t communicate. It becomes like so much bigger than her. She’s a small-town girl that’s just not equipped at this point to be dealing with that kind of stuff.
Tavis: It occurs to me that we jumped so fast because of that clip that the people at home are like, okay, Tavis, back that thing up. Back it up and tell me what the film is about because we jumped so quick to your point about a scene out of context.
So why don’t you – without giving the storyline away, why don’t you tell us what the film is about and the character you play?
Stewart: Awesome. I play a girl named Amy Cole that joins the military wanting to do something greater than herself, and wants to be saved by something. She’s a bit lost. She doesn’t necessarily want to address some of the demons that she’s got and figures, by joining the army, it takes sort of the individual aspect out of her life.
She doesn’t have to consider herself as one person. She can be a part of a whole and do something good, essentially good. You know, she gets stationed in Guantanamo Bay. She finds that the job – basically just like straight to the point, she befriends a detainee.
So all of these sort of mantras that people say down there to keep themselves going, like “They did 9/11, they’re the bad guys, this is really the only way to deal with them and treat them and blah, blah, blah,” they start to not really feel so easy coming out of her mouth. You know, she just finds that getting to know this man and seeing that you can take two people that couldn’t be further apart in every sense of the word.
You know, it’s like their background is different, their political upbringing is entirely different, their religious upbringing and culturally just on completely different sides of the planet. Yet they find this through-line and they sort of see that this forced polarization that’s happening isn’t something that their hearts can actually really get behind.
So they start to feel like they’re both betraying their side in some way when really they’re kind of just opening their hearts to the nature of being human and the fact that things aren’t so clear sometimes.
Tavis: So I’m glad you said that because, to me, the film is – and I guess any good project ultimately gets to this point for those of us who are film buffs. But you got to get to the humanity of the character and this film, for me, if it’s about anything; it’s about respecting and maybe even reveling in the humanity of another person.
Tavis: What made this really fascinating for me is that you come to this point of respecting and reveling in each other’s humanity, but it starts with him doing something pretty funky to you, pretty foul, yeah.
Stewart: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: You got to get past that first.
Stewart: Absolutely. You know, he says it very clearly. We are at war. It’s not an easy friendship, which makes it so impactful in the end. You know, it’s her very desire to be able to view him as an animal because it would make her job so much easier.
It would be so much easier to look at the bars that separate them and see them as definite, you know, differences. Yet those don’t always pull through for her. So I just thought that that little disintegration of somebody who wanted a clear answer that found something more complex and then couldn’t stomach it was just cool.
Tavis: So at this point in your career, is that what’s exciting you and turning you on with regard to the roles that you choose? Complexity of character? I mean, I suspect every actor wants something that is complex, but this character is complex.
Stewart: Yeah, she’s different. I really appreciated the fact that, you know, I’ve said this before, but just that you can see girls like that walking around. You know, I grew up with girls that sort of have this like little chip on their shoulder because of who knows what happened in their upbringing. Like there’s something inside them that they can’t really acknowledge.
So I just wanted to play somebody who could have gone to high school with any one of us. It’s such an essentially American story like, you know, just a girl that aspires to think a little bit deeper and the challenges that come along with that basically. I thought it was sort of perfectly timed and a personal story.
Tavis: You say perfectly timed. What do you mean by that?
Stewart: Just like in this – you know, it’s difficult for our generation to sort of own any – we don’t challenge a whole lot. We don’t think – not to make, you know, incredibly vast generalizations, but we’re not the ones standing up and protesting. You know, we’re not the ones that are the most outspoken.
So I thought it was cool to find someone so voiceless and somebody who really did shy away from thinking big picture, sort of have it shoved in her face and undeniably kind of stood up to her own feelings and thoughts, especially in such a heightened environment and situation.
Tavis: How does one go about – how did you go about researching? How do you prepare to play a role like this beyond knowing some people who were something like the character?
Stewart: Right. Well, what I meant by that, she just felt familiar to me in this way that I could identify a few people and sort of just draw from knowing them. But Pete Sattler, who wrote the script, and I worked in a very – we had a bit of time before we actually started rehearsing with Peyman Moaddi, who plays the detainee, to think about her foundation and what led her to this place.
We had some – it’s weird to talk about because it’s very personal. You assign these backstories to these people and then it’s sort of like, well, how much do I say about her? You know, we exchanged a ton of reference material. Obviously, there’s a lot of information about just the technical aspects of being a soldier and being at Gitmo.
And then also just emotionally like exchange – he calls them word clouds because I think he’s trying to make me feel better about owning my poetry. But we would just like write things and muse on, you know, what was it like for her in high school, like what was that first dance like, what was that first kiss like, what’s her relationship with her father, what is she running from, what is she trying to find?
Like where is her ambition and why is she struggling with it so much? You know, what is her self-worth and why is she trying to erase herself? Why is she trying to put on a uniform so she can forget that she’s actually a person? All of that.
Tavis: When you decided to work with – you mentioned Pete Sattler, the director of the film, who has done, obviously, other stuff before. But this is like a major sort of breakout, as I see his work at least, sort of a major breakout piece for him.
Tavis: I’m glad you agree. I was about to say I hope she agrees with me [laugh].
Stewart: Oh, he is definitely – he jumped in with serious creds.
Tavis: I’m glad you acknowledged that because I was thinking to ask, and so I will, when you have – even though you’re young, obviously, you’ve established yourself as an actress in this town who can open a film and make money and all that good stuff.
How do you go about making a decision to put your life – and that’s an overstatement, but you get my point – put your life, put your career, in the hands of a first-time novice really, with all due respect to Mr. Sattler?
Stewart: I think I’m a feeler.
Tavis: I like that. I’m a feeler.
Stewart: I’m a feeler, yeah.
Tavis: That’s like a t-shirt. I’m a feeler [laugh].
Stewart: Sounds like little antennae.
Tavis: I like that, yeah. I’m a feeler. Okay.
Stewart: So I’m really not restricted by being too pragmatic. You know, I don’t need – a lot of actors definitely, especially ones in sort of supreme positions to make choices, as I am lucky enough to do, are really concerned about every element being spot-on perfect, you know, to fit into an equation for success.
And it’s also just about the experience. It takes a lot. You know, it may sound silly, but you do have to give sort of so much of yourself and it is taxing to tell a story that is, you know, important to you.
So when you don’t come out of the other side feeling like taken care of and like there was an honor to it, like we were supporting characters in a story that were so much greater than us, it feels awful. It’s a horrible experience and then usually you don’t wind up with a very good film either. But as an actor, for me, it’s also very much about risk and being able to jump into something with a faith. I don’t know.
You know, Pete was not a sure shot, but he did such a good job and I had such a beautiful experience with him that, even if he didn’t do a good job in the movie, who knows how the movie really is? It’s so subjective anyway. But like if it turned out absolute just bosh [laugh], I still would have had a great time with him. I still would have learned. You know what I mean?
Stewart: So like, for me, I’m not so precious about like the mark I’m going to leave on my industry. If I make a few bad movies, it’s worth sifting through the work and drawing from that experience that attracted you to it in the first place.
Tavis: So I can see and hear in that response a certain sort of freedom and liberation that many actors don’t have because, to your point, everything is – they try to calculate everything.
Stewart: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: But the flip side of that argument, though, Kristen, is that you talk about taking risks and I love people who are willing to take risks. But even risk, particularly at your level in this industry, I think have to be calculated risks. So, obviously, you must have calculated that you thought you could pull this off.
Stewart: Oh, yeah. Oh, there’s always something. I never go into something thinking – I’m always thinking that we’re going to make the most brilliant movie that’s ever been made.
Stewart: And if you don’t have that feeling going into it, then I just can’t relate to that. You know, it’s silly, but you have to feel like – especially considering we’re talking about making movies. You know, taken out of context, it can sound very ridiculous to someone who’s not involved in it.
But, yeah, if you’re not thinking that you’re doing just the most important thing, then it just feels like you’re making products to sell and you’re not doing it for the right reasons, you know.
Tavis: When you do a film that is set in Gitmo in 2014 in this country, it raises all sorts of… [laugh]. I love the chuckle. It raises all sorts of very serious questions that people might have about the film. It opens up conversation that people might have about the issue of humanity and how we treat people at Gitmo, etc., etc. You prepared for all that? That conversation that may come as a result of the film?
Stewart: Yeah, absolutely.
Tavis: You welcome that?
Stewart: Yeah, of course. I think, you know, it’s very coincidentally timed. We’re lucky that it’s like, you know, coming out in the time that it is, that it was able to find its legs, that it was even allowed to be. You know, thanks for mentioning that it is like a very – it’s strange because it is a political subject that is so human.
It’s so revolving around like the fact that there are people involved that are so far away that it’s easy to forget that there are people walking that line right now. That walk is being walked and there are people in those cells.
You know, it’s cool that it’s being brought back up again. This was a bit of a – not to, you know, sound so self-important, but this movie was an exciting prospect because it was a bit of a reminder and it was an opportunity to explore characters in this interesting place.
So, yeah, I mean, like we’ve all said, it’s tricky to release a Gitmo movie at a time like this, but we’re not claiming to have any of the answers. My God, if we did, I would like be on the phone right now being, “I’ve got the solution!”
Tavis: You’d call Obama and tell him, huh?
Stewart: Yeah, exactly. Dude, I’ve got it! Buddy, I’ve figured it out [laugh].
Tavis: I only raise that, Kristen, because when I saw it, I immediately thought about that. I said I wonder – you know, I’ve never known you to an overtly political person. You may be and I just don’t know that.
But I’m thinking this is an interesting choice for her because there will be, again, conversation and questions, which I think is a good thing, given my own political point of view on this. I think it’s a good thing for this country to have a conversation about whether we’re going to be who we say we are in the world. That’s my own assessment. I’m not trying to pull you into that.
But the point is, when you look at a film like this, one thinks – and certainly I thought looking at it – I’m thinking I wonder how – and you made this point a moment ago – how many people, how many military personnel are in situations like this every day where they literally – this is a film. This is entertainment. I love it – but people who literally have to make choices every day about how they’re going to engage, how they’re going to relate, how they’re going to respect and not contest the humanity of people behind bars and not see themselves as better than?
And that’s a Gitmo question, but it’s a question writ large. It’s a question about our entire prison industrial complex and how those who are in authority relate to and treat or decide to maltreat persons behind bars. It’s a big question.
Stewart: It is. Well asked [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah. Anyway, moving on. So I asked earlier how you’re making choices about the kind of roles you want to play. How are you making choices about the kind of projects you want to put your name on and your company stamp on?
Because it’s my assessment and I’m no critic, but it’s just my assessment as a Kristen Stewart fan, that you’re doing, I think, a pretty good job of balancing out the blockbuster, big budget stuff with the indie stuff. How are you making that work?
Stewart: Again, I’m really sort of just sliding through and…
Tavis: Now you’re doing more than sliding through. Come on, you’re being modest. You ain’t sliding through. You’re making deliberate choices. This stuff isn’t just happening. You’re making smart choices. You’re not just sliding through.
Stewart: Yeah, no. But I’m very instinctual and I haven’t done an overtly commercial movie in a while. I haven’t done a big movie in a while. I made like seven movies in the last two years that are all, you know, fairly small, a few of which can be considered commercial. A few of them, I think, have a chance to be, you know, something bigger.
Tavis: But why that choice over the last few years?
Stewart: It was literally it’s project by project. If something along the lines of “Twilight” or “Snow White,” which are the two sort of big movies that I have done, came up that I felt the same way about, that would be what I was doing.
Yeah, it’s funny. I hate harping on this. It’s not my favorite question is like, you know, the roles for women compared to men in the industry is just like less interesting and full and rounded. But the good roles stick out just so jarringly that it’s never hard for me to make a decision.
I’m always so clear – the movie that I should be doing is always so clear to me that, yeah, I’ve recently worked with really great people. Lucky. The ones that are not categorically like what you see constantly stick out so clearly that that’s what I do or try to do.
Tavis: If you were to put a percentage on the stuff that comes across your desk that is the same old, same old versus the stuff that you just pointed out that stands out, how would you handicap that for me? What percentage?
Stewart: I would love to know – I would ask my agent the same question because I read less of the stuff that’s so obviously not, you know, good material [laugh].
Tavis: That was charitable, yeah, yeah.
Stewart: Yeah, exactly. No, but I think – God, it’s different for every person as well. There are times where I’ll read scripts that are fantastic, but it’s not in me at that time. I’m not the type of – you know, some actors really revel in the fact that they hide behind – you know, that they can really transform themselves and step outside of themselves.
I always feel very much like my job does the opposite, like it puts me somewhere where I can reveal myself. So when a character introduces me to an aspect of myself that I was sort of like less aware of, it’s always so sort of – it affects me so greatly that it’s like, oh, wow, that is it. I’m always trying to, you know, just trying to find the truth of it all, you know [laugh].
Tavis: I’m sitting here almost transfixed because I never thought about it in the way you just flipped it. But as I think about the way you’ve just described it, there’s a certain – again, my word here.
There’s a certain courage in being willing to be that transparent, which is my way of saying that, if you’re going to do what you just said which is to take on characters that allow you to expose and reveal a part of yourself, that means over time we’re going to see more and more and more of you come through the characters you play and, one day, we’re going to see all of you.
You’re going to be completely transparent, which may be why people want to find roles that allow them to step outside of themselves because they have the right to self-determination. They just don’t want to be exposed in that way. But I guess you’re comfortable with that, though, or getting comfortable with it, being more transparent, that is.
Stewart: I’ve always been very comfortable with it in my work and I’ve always been able to own the fact that what’s out there is – you know, I’m not denying the fact that we play characters and that I can put myself in an entirely different situation and sort of be someone else. I love exploring things that are outside of my immediate realm.
But at the same time, I think it’s a little psychotic to claim that you can be something other than who you are based on every experience that’s led you to this point now that you’re at.
Tavis: I take that.
Stewart: So, yeah. The most transformative and profound work that I’ve done, not the result, but just for the experience doing that work, has always been the stuff that feels scary because it feels real and it feels like I’ve put my finger on something that I can then communicate to people and go, gosh, have you guys ever done this? You know, this is really real for me and I think that’s the kind of work that I get off on most.
But who knows? I love being an actor and I love film in general. Like there could be the one day I’ll play, you know, like I don’t know, like a penguin or something and just really wow everyone and step outside myself [laugh].
Tavis: I’m sure if you played a penguin, you would wow all of us. I got 30 seconds to go. Speaking of stuff that we haven’t seen that’s coming out, we got “Camp X-Ray” which we’re talking about now.
By the way, I love that title. When you see the film, I’m curious as to what you’re going to take “Camp X-Ray” to mean. It has so many multiple meanings for me on a film like this, but that’s another conversation for another time.
Stewart: It’s very meta.
Tavis: It is, very meta. I love the title. So tell me the other stuff that you have working on. I mentioned like the Juliette Binoche project, Julianne Moore?
Stewart: Yeah. That’s “Clouds of Sils Maria,” that’s “Still Alice.” Did a movie called “Equals” recently with Drake Doremus, this amazing, really young, great director, and a movie with Jesse Eisenberg called “American Ultra” that was fun. That was fun [laugh]. That was actually funny. It’s like a sort of ultra-violent comedy, broad comedy that he’s amazing in.
Tavis: Sounds fun.
Stewart: Yeah, it’s fun [laugh].
Tavis: An ultra-violent comedy. That sounds fun. Anyway, I think the point is that you’re going to be seeing a whole lot of Miss Stewart in the coming months and years. And that’s a good thing ’cause I love seeing you up on the screen. The new one is called “Camp X-Ray.” Kristen, always happy to have you on this program. Thanks for coming back to see us.
Stewart: No, man. Thanks for having me.
Tavis: Good to see you. That’s our show tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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