Thursday, July 28, 2016
Kristen's interview w/ the Sydney Morning Herald + Olivier Assayas talks about her
In an age of celebrity narratives, the Kristen Stewart story has proved to be an enduring best-seller. Call up Kristen Stewart on Google right now and there is a string of little "news" items with pictures of her holding hands with women in public, with accompanying texts saying she just doesn't care any more, she's going to be just who she wants.
Clearly, that does not include being a person who can ever walk to the corner shop without being bothered. Woody Allen, who directed her in his new film Cafe Society, jokes in Cannes that he can't stand hearing actors "kvetching about privacy and paparazzi" because nobody should complain about being able to get a good table in a restaurant. Next day, Stewart snaps back.
"He's 80 years old. He was famous in a very different time," she says sharply. "We have entirely different answers to that question because we have had entirely different experiences with fame and the way we consume the reality show that is the entertainment industry. It's been turned into something that it never was and I've been cast as a character that is fully developed by everyone but me. And I have a part in that, for sure.
"People's impressions of me are not wrong; you can have a cumulative impression of me based on pictures or interviews or movies or whatever and that is not wrong. That is, you know, a genuine impression of me. But you cannot deny that the booming industry that motivates these stories is not about anything but money."
A moment's break, please, to consider Woody Allen's recent experience of notoriety: whatever he has or hasn't done, fame hasn't exactly been a picnic in the park for him, either. Stewart, however, shoots from the hip; actually, it's the way she talks about fame that marks her out as a new breed of celebrity, perhaps the only example of that breed, who is indeed who she wants to be and says what she wants to say. Even more remarkably, she has become that person while under the spotlight. There was nowhere else to do it; her Twilight years began almost a decade ago, but she is still only 26.
Not that her relationship with fame was ever comfortable. Stewart was not a confident teenager; she says now that she suffered from crippling anxiety. "I don't mean in relation to any pressures of my job. Just when you lay your head down at night on the pillow you are thinking, 'What's going to happen? Do I have any control over it?' And contending with having a physical self and not being able to get away from that, the relentlessness of having a mind as well, not having a break from that. It is really overwhelming."
Now that she says it, you remember how she used to look as if she was trying to escape from her own skin. There is a bit of footage somewhere on YouTube where she is on stage promoting The Runaways with her co-star Dakota Fanning; while Fanning is cool and almost uncannily poised, as if she had been born to stand on podiums, Stewart – who has been acting since she was nine years old, so actually was pretty much born to it – wriggles uncomfortably, as if she has crumbs under her clothes. She doesn't wriggle now.
And whereas she used to be hesitant and snippy in interviews, she no longer shares the common actors' view that doing publicity is the penalty you pay for creative rewards. "When you are staying true to yourself and true to your art there isn't a dark side, because there is not one question that can throw you if you are coming from a very honest place," she says. "I think what used to alienate me and make me feel put on the spot now, actually just alienates the person asking. Because we just don't share the same values so I don't care about that person. And so it doesn't affect me."
Her film choices since Twilight went dark show the same gritty determination to plough her own furrow. At the Cannes Film Festival, we meet to discuss her roles in Cafe Society and in Personal Shopper, a kind of cerebral ghost story by French director Olivier Assayas, who will go on to win the festival's prize as best director. Other recent films have included the misfiring thriller American Ultra and the much stranger, oddly intriguing Equals, where she played an apparatchik in a world where emotions are forbidden.
We have yet to see her in Certain Women, which along with Personal Shopper is showing in this year's Melbourne International Film Festival. It is directed by Meek's Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt and stars Stewart as a young lawyer in the Midwest who strikes up a relationship with a lonely woman ranch hand. In Ang Lee's forthcoming Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, she plays the wife of a damaged Iraq War veteran [this is an error, as we know she plays his sister]; next up, she is supposed to be making a film about the murderer Lizzie Borden. It's all interesting stuff, with none of it – with the possible exception of the Ang Lee – likely to set cash registers jangling. That isn't Stewart's concern.
Admittedly, Cafe Society is classic Allen: a romantic comedy set in Hollywood's heyday, where the art deco houses look like sets from The Gay Divorcee and glamorous people drink martinis until dawn. Stewart plays Vonnie, a sunnily free-spirited agent's assistant who befriends an awkward naif – the usual Allen alter-ego, played here by Jesse Eisenberg – who falls hopelessly in love with her.
"Vonnie's mannerisms and demeanour are pretty outside my immediate personality traits," says Stewart, "but I don't feel like I'm that far from the character … I think for a story that's told in the context of that era, it is really forward and really cool and really modern that she can really indulge in unconventional relationships and not feel bad about it. How do I relate to that? In so many ways, I think we can all relate to that."
That Stewart should leap at the opportunity to work with Allen and her old pal Eisenberg is not so surprising; what is more surprising is that she auditioned for the part, putting herself on tape and presenting for a full read.
"I really appreciate auditioning for something," she says. "It just sort of validates your place in film, rather than the obvious, 'OK, I can get your movie some money'. It's so hard to get a movie made; if filmmakers have to alter their choices in order to do that … well, it happens a lot. I don't want to be that altered choice."
Personal Shopper is the second film she has made with French director Olivier Assayas; she had already auditioned, in a sense, playing Juliette Binoche's personal assistant in Clouds of Sils Maria.
"I think that, right now, Kristen is one of the most exciting actresses," says Assayas. "I'm not sure where her boundaries are. When I made Clouds of Sils Maria with her, that part was not written for her and it was kind of a one-dimensional character. I was kind of frustrated because I kept thinking, 'Oh my God, I can push her further and further – and one day I should try'. Personal Shopper is my shot at that. And I still don't see where she stops."
Assayas is well-known in France for making complex dramas in which personal stories and political contexts play against each other. In Personal Shopper, he uses the vocabulary of horror movies – ghosts, dark corridors, quivering music – to explore bereavement. Stewart's Maureen – whose job shopping for busy rich people gives the film its name – is grieving for her dead twin brother at a point where she believes she starts to see his ghost. Then she starts receiving texts, seemingly from the beyond.
For much of the film Stewart is alone on screen, waiting for signs and wrestling with her own hope, fear and lingering scepticism.
"What Kristen had to do was incredibly complex, because she had to invent her own pacing and her own dynamics and I can't really help her with that," says Assayas. "When it's a dialogue scene, I can cut. I can accelerate, I can extend, I can fix it. Here a lot of the scenes were totally dependent on her own defining of the truthfulness of every action."
Both these characters – all her characters – come from somewhere near Stewart's surface. "That's kind of the goal," she says. "I know a lot of actors like to hide behind characters so they can explore subjects more freely, but I feel the opposite of that. I feel as soon as I feel revealed and visible, that is when I am actually conveying something worthwhile. Vonnie was definitely in there somewhere: I wasn't faking it."
Maureen in Personal Shopper was closer to home; she recalled Stewart's own past anxieties.
"I play somebody who is flitting back and forth between being someone so stuck in her own head, so shut down, that she can't be remotely physical; she's so stifled and debilitated by those thoughts that her body literally atrophies. I know that feeling. And I know how to stop it from ruining your life. So when I looked at Maureen I really felt for her and I wanted to press fast forward, because I know that while it lasts longer for some people, it's kind of temporary. I think that there is a light at the end of the tunnel for her and at some point she is just going to say, 'God, I really fell into a hole there!'."
Maureen has another side, however, expressed in shopping. Assayas says he chose to make the character a shopper because he wanted to make a film about "a very modern character". Of course, as Stewart acknowledges, there is some fun to be had in casting her in these roles – as an actor's PA in Clouds of Sils Maria and a personal shopper here – where she can snap about "these cockroaches" of the press or agonise about finding her client the right shoes, "the more apparent superficialities of what I'm so entrenched in". It's ironic amusement. For Assayas, however, there is a larger point to be made.
"I wanted to make a movie about someone immersed in modern life," he says. "To me what defines modern life is the tension between the demented materialism of the modern world and the longings we can have for something more spiritual and abstract. And I think the fashion industry – and the kind of stupid jobs the fashion industry can generate like the personal shopper – are the epitome of materialism. This is the epitome of an alienated job in our modern society. Like all those jobs that have to do with media, it is not fulfilling. How could it be? It is always about frustration. Although, in a way, the person being shopped for is the more alienated of the two."
Stewart doesn't have a shopper, but she has worked for years with the same stylist. Unsurprisingly, she takes a more benign view of that side of her world than Assayas does; for her, it is at least potentially about beauty and sensuality.
"You know it's a whole job, it's like hair and make-up and clothes. I actually have a lot of fun with that. You can either hide behind stuff like that or you can actually let it highlight who you are. Some stylists want to reshape you, but when they are good at what they do, they really see you. And if you put on the right garment, it really helps you to stand proudly and you feel you have a context. It's like you're not lying."
It may well be Maureen's salvation that she is able to immerse herself, as Assayas has said, in the look of things, in the present moment, in things that aren't about too much thinking. "The base of it in Personal Shopper is that you have someone who is really attracted to beauty, but so self-hating that she feels guilty about it," says Stewart. "There is a really shameful quality to wanting to be pretty and liking pretty things. Because she doesn't really like herself, she finds it farcical. Fashion can be a really gorgeous art and there is nothing wrong with appreciating beauty; it is part of what makes us human, it is a version of spiritualism. But it is so f---ing obvious when people are doing it for different reasons and she is not sure where she lies with that."
Where does Kristen Stewart lie with that? All over the place, probably. We see her on the red carpet in Chanel, looking like a space-age Coppelia, her eyelids black as a panda's; next thing, we see her in pap shots with her girlfriend Alicia Cargile wearing a plain T-shirt and cut-offs, happy in her skin at last. There is a woman in her life; there have been men, notably her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson; she feels no need either to fudge the truth or define herself as one thing or another. As an actress, she is quoted as saying in today's celebrity news, she thrives on ambiguity.
It's a good line, pumping the story along for another day. At one time, the Kristen Stewart narrative seemed destined to culminate in a fairytale ending, rather after the style of the Twilight saga. Thanks to the strength of its lead character, it's now turned into an arthouse indie in which Stewart, however reluctantly, shares authorship.
"I think what defines Kristen is her sense of freedom," says Assayas. "She's a rebel. She's someone who doesn't want to be put in a box the way most Hollywood stars are put in boxes. She goes for her instincts and that is something very few American actors can do. No one else of her generation, I would say. She is unique."