Kristen Stewart has a come a long way since the “Twilight” franchise that launched her fame into the stratosphere. The hit series only wrapped two years ago, and already Stewart has distanced herself from the films that made her name by appearing in a number of smaller projects this year that prove her worth as an actress.
She kicked off 2014 by wowing in the Sundance Guantanamo Bay drama “Camp X-Ray,” soon followed by Cannes where she held her own opposite Juliette Binoche in Olivier Assayas’ latest “Clouds of Sils Maria.” That project drew career-best raves for Stewart, and the goodwill continued when her latest film, “Still Alice,” screened in Toronto where it was swiftly acquired by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution. In the devastating drama, Stewart plays Lydia, a struggling actress and daughter to a renowned linguistics professor (Julianne Moore) struggling with early onset Alzheimers. It’s Moore’s picture, but Stewart leaves a distinct mark as a young woman forced to cope with inevitable tragedy. The film was directed by partners Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. The former is living with ALS.
Indiewire spoke with the actress about her banner year.
Did “Still Alice” strike a chord for you personally? Is there anyone you know who suffered through something similar?
I very fortunately have never experienced that personally. I’ve never had a loved one who has had to traverse the very scary path that one must who is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I did have one very formative experience as a young kid with an older lady, a mother of a family friend, who was clearly in a severe state of dementia. In retrospect, I have no idea if it was Alzheimer’s or not, but she was clearly gone. She had clearly lost parts of herself, and what remained was very desperate to connect. I was 12 and I walked into this room and started hanging with this lady, and I soon came to realize there was this lapse, yet there was this really real, almost desperate awareness over the fact she was treasuring these moments because they were about to leave her. Then we had dinner, and everyone at the table ignored her and was treating her as if she didn’t exist, but I had just met her and I had seen her personality, her soul, her presence, her essence – it was all so clear to me. And it was all being taken for granted so much at this table. I remembered this for a long time. I told this story long before I read the script for “Still Alice.” I just couldn’t forget it.
When I read this script and met with the directors, I felt like I had to prove myself that I was worthy to play such a special person, because Lydia is endowed with something that not everyone is in that she can deal, she can focus on the positive and the light and not make things so black-and-white; she can take things for what they are and enjoy them and appreciate them without having to call them a name. She lives in the ambiguity and can appreciate it, and I feel very similar. And it was a perfectly clear test considering Wash and Rich are dealing with something entirely similar and just as grotesquely scary and devastating. With someone with ALS, they just get sort of brushed over and ignored all the time. It’s hard to acknowledge. It’s easier not too. And Rich is the smartest person in the room, so when I met with them and we found ourselves mutually wanting to work together, we knew we had to do it.
I also knew I could do it with Julie [Julianne] because I’ve known her for a couple years. I knew I could be her kid. I just knew that everything was going to be honest and right. We weren’t making anything up, so it would be heavy.
Everyone always asks, “How did this movie change you? What did it give you?” And it gives you in the most basic sense a fundamental perspective. You want to go home and call your mom, or you want to stop being so petty. It gives you this massive jug of perspective.
My biggest fear in life is death, and right up there is losing my memory. I know you don’t play Alice, but was the process of making this film extremely difficult? Or was it a pleasure to make given who you got to work with?
I have to say it was both. I was watching Julie work so hard. The only way someone could pull this off and not be associated with Alzheimer’s is due to them being a sheer genius and just being multi-faceted. You have to have such imagination and the wildest control over your body. One thing that made it easier, and really painful in the most correct way, was to see someone like Julie be so strong and so capable and so vital. The notion that they could ever lose that, because she was also playing someone who was just as impressive as a woman, it made it harder to see Julie go through that because she is what she is. The idea that that could happen to anyone – me, you, someone who you idolize, someone who is entirely in control all the time – it was not acting, it was so real. Anyone, even if you don’t have personal experience with the disease, you have a mom. I have a mom, so I know what that experience feels like. I understand what it would feel like to lose her.
I think also the most important part of the movie is understanding the disease. When you’re young, and this is just dumb but it’s also plain normal, you hear kids saying, “Old timer’s disease,” and it’s just simply not. It’s easer to cast aside and say they’re just old, but no, this is a really ravaging disease and it can happen to someone really young. I was unaware of that. People know about early onset Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t know how common it is. It’s absolutely rampant and easy to ignore, which is a terrible combination. I learned a lot. I’m glad to be a part of something that’s getting that out there.
What are you most fearful of?
I think we’re all pretty afraid of dying and the unknown. But I think the scariest thing about this disease and watching this movie is how alone you are before you die. You’ve lost your life before you’re dead. The idea that I might overlook something in my life and make someone feel that way scares me.
You’ve now worked with two of the best actresses in the business – Julianne Moore and Juliette Binoche (in “The Clouds of Sils Maria”). What did you pick up from working with both ladies?
To be in the presence of people like that who are so talented, even despite age, that’s absolutely going to shape you and motivate you. I loved working with Julie because I felt there was a serious commonality in terms of how we reach our goals in acting. Juliette, on the other hand, just floored me. She achieved this greatness by means that I don’t understand. I love her for that. She perplexes me and she keeps me going and keeps me asking questions. Juliette kind of drives me crazy, whereas Julie has such attention to detail. The way she manages losing herself and finding herself with such precision is like she is a soulful surgeon.
I’m so aware of the camera. I always want to collaborate with the director and the DP and all the other actors. I want to talk about everything too much. But in this case I actually felt affirmed, because we think the same and really approached it the same way. It made me feel so much better because I want to achieve what she achieved. I want to do things that feel undeniably real and un-ignorable. She’s done that because of who she is. I felt such a bond and a friendship there. It gave me confidence. I don’t need to immerse myself so greatly in something where I don’t know where I am. I want to know where I am. The reason she is better than most people is because she has the mind to manage all of it. I admire her for that.
It sounds like in many ways your working relationship with the actresses kind of mirrors the characters you play in both projects. In “Still Alice,” you play Julie’s daughter, so you’re obviously going to share similar same traits. With Juliette, you’re her employee and you look up to her as this mysterious figure of sorts.
Absolutely! It’s as if it was planned.
The character you play in “Still Alice” is an actress, meaning she shares a lot of the same ambitions that you do, and her personal sense of style — and please forgive me if I’m wrong — seems to mirror the one I’ve seen you adopting over these past couple of years. Would you say you share a lot in common with Lydia, more so than any other character you’ve played?
I’ve played a couple parts that have felt drastically different from myself, primarily the parts where I’ve had to play someone who has existed in reality, so people like Joan Jett [in “The Runaways”] and Luanne Henderson [in “On the Road”]. There were certainly elements of those people I could relate to, there were parts of myself that were similar and that I found because of them, but it wasn’t me. It was absolutely a departure for me.
I don’t think I can ever step outside myself fully. It’s not the type of acting I want to do. I’ve been lucky enough to be allowed to do this. Everyone can tell me that I run my hand through my hair too much, and that’s fine because I’m truly there and very present in these moments. With the roles I’ve been playing, especially recently in films like “Sils Maria” and “Still Alice,” the way to do those parts justice is to just really be them and to learn the things they’re learning. You got to walk in their shoes for real and experience what they experience. In that regard, I didn’t feel like I was playing characters. They were so there for me, I just wanted to live in them.
Kids nowadays, we all dress the same. If you’re trying to be an actor and you come to LA, you’re probably wearing skinny jeans and a t-shirt. So I didn’t want to riddle her with shit that was going to distract you from the honesty of the relationship. So it definitely resembles me because I didn’t try otherwise. There was no effort on my part to hide myself [in “Still Alice”]. All I tried to do with this part was to find myself and show myself. The best way to service this character was to be there honestly, so all affectations were meaningless. I could just have my own. It was selfishly a personal experience, but it had to be so that the viewer would feel it as well. I didn’t need to play a character who was outside myself.
The performances that hit most, even if they are craftily designed by someone and executed perfectly, it’s really the soul and honesty that gets across most. My purpose was to support and serve Julie, so I was really just me. I was playing her daughter for real.
Because of that very personal approach you take to the material, the people you play must be hard to let go of once shooting wraps.
Absolutely. Julie and I will now know each other in a way that we wouldn’t have had an opportunity to, and appreciate each other in a way we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to, and appreciate the subject matter in a way we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to. I said before that I didn’t have a personal experience with Alzheimer’s, but now I do. Not to generalize, but more so than most projects, something like this shapes you. I had the beautiful opportunity to stand up to something difficult and we all triumphed and did something positive out of something that is quite dark.