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‘Kristen Stewart is perhaps the best film actress under 30.” I wrote that last year, after an interview with her Twilight co-star and former boyfriend, Robert Pattinson — and this year, I am totally convinced I am right. But it turns out the vampire saga’s fans remain faithful, and some devotees of Pattinson, after the couple’s split, aren’t exactly fond of his ex. My social-media mentions were full of fury for a month. “Because they disagreed with you?” Stewart laughs, when I tell her all this. “Because they were, like, ‘F*** her?’” Exactly.
If you have only seen the actress mope adolescently through the Twilight saga, you may think the above claim quite mad. Move on to her most recent work, though, and you will discover a 26-year-old who has evolved into a presence so self-assured, she is now an arthouse star, especially in Europe: the first American woman to have won a César, the French equivalent of the Oscars. Another preconception is that she is all surly hunch and millennial cynicism, hostile to press inquiries after they zeroed in on her relationship with a married director. Her image is kohl-eyed, cool, aloof, and it’s so entrenched that one review of her recent hosting of the satirical American television series Saturday Night Live called her “surprisingly charming”.
Does she understand why? “One hundred per cent.” (That’s a chatty affirmation she uses a lot.) In truth, though, Stewart is as engaging to talk to as Tom Hanks, the actor everyone says is the best to interview in the business. On her right arm is a tattoo of the light at the top of Picasso’s Guernica, inked on to remind her that we can overcome darkness if we flip the switch. She seems to be all glow herself these days, and it’s mostly thanks to her professional achievements.
“I feel so sturdy on my feet right now,” she says, at her usual fast clip, proud of a run of indie roles that has put her back where she began, and belongs.
First came 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Stewart more than held her own against the Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, in a more or less two-hander about a young woman’s challenging relationship with her older boss, a sensitive actress. That same year, with moody tenderness, she played Julianne Moore’s daughter in the Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice. Next, there was a small role as an ambitious young lawyer struggling towards greater things in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women (just released), one of those films that starts with sad sex and never cheers up.
Best of all is Personal Shopper, the second film she has made with the French director Olivier Assayas, after Clouds of Sils Maria, and her first lead in years. It is difficult to describe. At its most basic, Personal Shopper is a darkly lit adult ghost story about a woman who borrows a lot of high-end fashion for her celebrity boss — The Others meets The Devil Wears Prada. Stewart stands in a haunted house saying “Lewis” a lot. Lewis is her recently dead twin brother, and she is waiting for his spirit to manifest itself in Paris. Both are mediums. To cope with the tension of this binary life, Stewart’s improbably named Maureen smokes lots and rides around town on a moped, looking cool. She receives anonymous texts that say things like “I know you”, which is unsettling enough, especially when you’re looking for a dead sibling.
How, I ask, can the film be pitched in one-line Hollywood style? Stewart laughs and, totally believably, says she’s not one for brevity. She barely stops talking during the interview. “It’s about a girl who finds she is suddenly a foreigner, in every sense of the word, not just geographically, but in life. She’s gone through this traumatic event, and it starts an existential crisis, where she questions everything that’s real. She feels completely alone.”
Hold on. Is she still talking about Personal Shopper, or Twilight? Especially her personal experience of making that juggernaut, which brought in nearly $3.4bn at the box office worldwide and took over her life for five films. No, she says, she is not talking about the latter. “I really never felt bogged down by Twilight,” she starts and, rather than leave it at that, continues chewing it over, piling sentence upon sentence.
“Every step turns you into the person you are, and yeah, [Twilight] shaped me enormously. Not just those movies, but the subsequent effect. It made my involvement in Sils Maria more interesting, for sure — ironic and meta.” You mean the line when your character says, “It’s celebrity news. It’s fun”? Or when she mocks a blockbuster for having werewolves in it, as Twilight did? “One hundred per cent,” she replies. “Those lines in someone else’s mouth would have been interesting, but not, like, ‘Whoa. She really knows what she’s talking about!’”
Some of the film’s backers were surprised, Assayas says, when he first chose to work with this Californian tween idol. But he emphasises her courage, shooting in the Dolomites, where it is “not exciting after sunset”, far from home, surrounded by a foreign crew.
European arthouse could be seen as Stewart’s very own panic room, the title of the breakthrough film she made when she was 11, with Jodie Foster. It provides a refuge for her. Assayas agrees that she did seem relieved to be on a film like his; he then goes on to bracket her with the greats. “I’d compare Kristen to Harriet Andersson,” he says of one of Ingmar Bergman’s favourite (and coolest) leads. “There’s no greater compliment.”
On screen, she has perfected a bold yet vulnerable style, all tilted head and low-key murmuring. In Personal Shopper, it is employed to such a captivating extent that, when she says the mad line “She vomited this ectoplasm”, you nod along, rather than cackle. She is, simply, not a showy actress. Foster nailed it when she said: “Kristen isn’t interested in blurting her emotions in front of her.” So this career renaissance in the subtler territory of European art cinema makes total sense.
“I’m used to people getting awards for extreme performances,” she says of her surprise César win for Sils Maria. “In the States, it’s rare for people to get critical attention for things that are so quiet. Sometimes, you don’t show how you’re feeling, and that actually speaks louder than shoving it down someone’s throat.”
Her next project, though, is not obviously arthouse: Underwater, a film talked up as an oceanic take on Michael Bay’s Armageddon. It’s an odd fit for her, perhaps, but she compares the depth of the story to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and insists it won’t be a blockbuster that “stops with the concept, so you think, ‘Cool, that was a great concept’”. Maybe something of this scale is the only logical next step for her. This is an actress, after all, who went to the middle of nowhere up a mountain with a pack of foreigners, straight from being mollycoddled in one of the biggest franchises of all time. She wants to surprise.
“I want to push myself,” she says. “In my life, when I’m emotional about something, I’m an extreme person. Subtlety is not my go-to. I just don’t want to fake anything, but the best opportunities for me are whenever I feel a little bit scared.”
Her recent SNL performance featured one sketch, inspired by the sapphic French film Blue Is the Warmest Colour, in which she romped in a kitchen with another woman. Earlier in the show, she had beamed as she told the watching millions that she was “so gay”. She came out in public last summer, and the young star who quivered through half a decade of the Twilight vampire saga, increasingly withdrawn, seemed a completely new woman — a finished painting instead of a work-in-progress.
“I wasn’t hiding anything,” she says, when asked why she is now open about her love life whereas before, dating Pattinson, she stayed silent. “I didn’t talk about my first relationships that went public because I wanted things that are mine to be mine. I hated it that details of my life were being turned into a commodity and peddled around the world. But considering I had so many eyes on me, I suddenly realised [my private life] affects a greater number of people than just me. It was an opportunity to surrender a bit of what was mine, to make even one other person feel good about themselves.
“If it didn’t seem like a relevant topic,” she continues, her tone both poised and passionate, keeping up a melodic flow, “like something that needed help, I would have kept my life private for ever. But then I can’t walk outside holding somebody’s hand, as I’m followed everywhere. When I was dating Rob, the public were the enemy — and that is no way to live. It wasn’t this grand statement, ‘I was so confused! Now I’ve realised who I am!’ I have not been struggling.”
She laughs. “It just seemed important, and topical.” I would be hard pushed to name a more confident interviewee.
In January, she screened her directorial debut, Come Swim, a 17-minute oddity that arrived with a research paper entitled Bringing Impressionism to Life with Neural Style Transfer. You just didn’t get that with Twilight. While her future will be on both sides of the camera, she also wants to go on stage one day.
It was the “human energy” from the Saturday Night Live crowd that persuaded her she may be cut out for live performance. Another appeal is that theatre is the ultimate challenge for a Los Angeles native born to entertainment-industry parents and raised on that city’s business: the next big test. She has been reading Sam Shepard and loves the way that setting can be implied in his work, rather than having to be there for everyone to see. Which, in fact, rather neatly describes her acting. Imagine her in a Pinter play.
She is nothing like I expected, which was that there would be periods of silence and questions unanswered. She is friends with Patti Smith and has been called the female James Dean by the actress/rocker Juliette Lewis. That sort of support and acquaintance is intimidating. Yet she is friendly, honest, humble and, perhaps most impressive, unflappably polite, especially about Twilight, despite the continued bile spat at her by fans who think, in various ways, she has wronged them.
“I don’t view the whole Twilight blow-up as being generally traumatic,” she says, delicately. “It would take someone with a really unhealthy amount of ego to be upset that everyone doesn’t love them. It would be silly to say I don’t care what people think of my work and who I am, but stuff is polarising, period.”
Back to that line about her being “surprisingly charming”. Does she know why people thought she was distant? “I’d definitely lost my nerve,” she replies. “I used to try too hard, because I was nervous. I felt so uncomfortable addressing the public. I’ve just grown out of it.”