When Kristen Stewart was first approached to be in Olivier Assayas’ new film, “Clouds of Sils Maria,” she thought it was for the role of Jo-Anne Ellis, a Hollywood starlet known for her brushes with paparazzi.
“It was something that I knew so well, so I wasn’t as interested in living it [on screen],” said the “Twilight” star about the character, during a post-screening Q&A of the movie at the New York Film Festival.
Instead, Stewart got to play Val, the assistant to legendary actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche). The film’s primary focus is on their relationship as Enders contemplates taking on a role in a new production of “Maloja Snake,” the same play that made her famous two decades earlier. However, instead of portraying her original role, she’s been asked to play the one once held by her since-deceased mentor: an older businesswoman driven to suicide by a young female assistant. The thought of taking on the part terrifies Enders, so she looks to Val for guidance, friendship and perhaps something more.
“I had an idea of going into the feminine,” said Binoche, before approaching Assayas about working together again. The two previously collaborated on the 1985 erotic drama “Rendez-vous” and 2008’s “Summer Hours.” “I said ‘I have an idea about a character,’ and Olivier was very open to it. He said, ‘Give me two weeks and I will write something.’ And two weeks later he said, ‘Yeah I think I have something’… In the beginning I provoked him but at the end of the day I think he provoked me more than I did.”
Provocation is one of the many themes present in ‘Sils Maria.’ Both Enders and Val play off each other in a loving, playful, though often intense, relationship. As they rehearse dialogue from the play, the lines between fiction and their own reality become blurred. Val is Enders’ assistant and she’s also reading the lines of an assistant. Enders is an accomplished middle-aged woman, and she’s also reading the lines of an accomplished middle-aged woman. It’s this doubling of storylines that gives the film its intrigue.
“Instantly I thought of this play by [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder, ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant,’” said Assayas, when he first began writing the story. “My first approach was why not put bits and pieces of Fassbinder’s play into the film? Why not do my own condensed, simplified, brutalized version of ‘The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant’?”
The film ultimately broaches the difficulties that come with aging and desire, as well as the idea of celebrity. The latter category is explored through the two main characters and Chloe Grace Moretz’s Jo-Anne Ellis. Ellis, who ends up getting cast in the younger assistant role for the new “Majola Snake,” is a big star, known for her both work in a recent superhero movie her wild-child lifestyle off screen. One notable scene features Stewart’s Val showing Enders a “TMZ” clip of Ellis acting out. It’s an ironic moment for Stewart, who knows a thing or two about being chased by cameras.
“I had to rein in the grin on my face,” Stewart said about shooting that scene. “I had to make sure my cheeks weren’t turning red when I said some of the lines in the movie because my position and the way that I’m living gave it this irony. It made it a bit more relevant and interesting I think.”
Meta moments aside, the most important job for Stewart and Binoche was developing the rhythm between their characters. The two have an intense relationship, one bubbling with sexual energy that neither seems sure they want to act on. Both actresses initially went about accomplishing that relationship in different ways.
“In the beginning we started rehearsing together and we realized it was not helpful, because Kristen’s way of working is different than mine,” Binoche said. “Kristen takes the text in the morning, she reads it two times and she knows it. And I ask for a month in advance…Kristen is very quick, she has this kind of seeded genius.”
Binoche adds that the ability to feel through the scene together was ultimately freeing––not knowing how the other actress was going to react, being able to jump into the unknown and truly discover a scene and what their characters want to accomplish.
“She says that I read lines quickly, and that’s solely because I don’t want to know them, I want to reach for them,” Stewart added. “It was very revealing…I didn’t feel expectation, I didn’t feel pressure, I felt truly like we were these characters and I was interested in the script because I thought it was a unique relationship and a commentary on the world that I live in. It was really heady and thoughtful and intellectual.”
That, ultimately, was what Assayas was going for––the dynamic between Binoche, Stewart and Moretz, and how it represents a real-world energy you don’t often see on screen.
“I realized while we were making the film was how much [Kristen], Juliette, and Chloe, gave themselves in the film––not in a sense of your work, but of your own identity,” said the director. “It’s a movie where you ultimately never forget who you are watching those actresses.”
Here are a few more highlights from the NYFF press conference:
Olivier Assayas on the impetus of making the film:
“I started with the idea that I wanted to use Juliette in the film as Juliette. So what does Juliette do? She works. So one thing led to another, and that’s how the narrative took shape…It’s not that I like the idea of Juliette playing an actress. I realized when I was writing that the work of an actress is not so much about the superficiality or the technique of acting, it’s the part of absorbing humanity, it’s about understanding other people’s pain and trying to find within yourself those emotions that are universal emotions. This is not a comment on theater, it’s not a comment on art, and it’s just a way of showing how the day to day work of an actress is beautiful. In a sense that it’s really about understanding fellow humans.”
Juliette Binoche on the film’s challenges:
“For me it’s being present from the beginning to the end, because I didn’t have a day off. So how do I be present every day in different ways? Because really I had to play three characters in the movie. The actress in the beginning, then the working actor, then the one in the end with the character she’s playing. The challenge is somehow allowing yourself to be naked and also showing the difficulty when it comes to the abdication of yourself, and putting yourself into two layers of emotions that you don’t always want to go through because they’re tough on you. I Think the way of working with Kristen allows us to find light moments as well as deeper moments. It needed to be seamless, so we go from one world to the next one, so it just feeds itself naturally.
Kristen Stewart on working with Juliette Binoche:
“… When we started to traverse this journey, I was really surprised every day about… because the movie is about so many things. It’s two very contrasting perspectives and stages of life that come together and offer each other something, offer these eye opening cathartic experiences. It’s exciting and also extremely painful. I am happy being uncomfortable. I had so much fun. [Juliette] perplexes me in every way and gets me going. I never stop thinking around her. Everything you see in the movie was just happening. So it wasn’t hard.”
Watch the full Q&A below.