The jury has been out on Kristen Stewart for a long time: Since the “Twilight” franchise, some viewers have picked up on a decidedly cool vibe lurking beneath the slicker aspects of the material. But for others, the verdict is plain and simple — they casually despise her. The complaints are uniform: she has no acting range and only one facial expression; she’s awkward and sullen; she chooses bad roles. But these conclusions are largely reached on the basis of the “Twilight” movies alone, which barely scratch the surface of Stewart’s career to date. It’s time to set the record straight, because this promising actress deserves another shot.
There are many young, talented actors worthy of attention at any given moment. So why does one of the most famous ones need to be defended? Let us count the ways.
1. She’s great in “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
Olivier Assayas’ spectacular drama, which opens in limited release this Friday, shows Stewart at her best: As the supportive assistant to a neurotic celebrity, she spars and commiserates with Juliette Binoche as though holding her own opposite a legendary actress of French cinema were second nature. Their chemistry is electric, particularly in the later stages of the movie, when Stewart’s character rebels against Binoche’s insecurities. But this particular achievement didn’t come out of nowhere — Stewart was also praised for recent roles in “Still Alice” and “Camp X-Ray,” and has performed well in lesser movies like “On the Road” and “The Runaways” (she studied Joan Jett religiously to prep for the latter role, and masterfully imitated Jett’s distinctive swagger). Now auteurs are starting to take notice—she’ll be working with Woody Allen and Kelly Reichardt next.
2. She’s been working her way through the system.
Stewart starred in smaller pictures before gaining recognition for “Twilight.” At age 10, she played Jodie Foster’s daughter in “Panic Room,” and Foster called her “fearless” and “talented.” The two remain good friends. Stewart was later cast as an idle teen in Greg Mottola’s charming and underrated “Adventureland.” The air of negativity pervading her career began after that, when she appeared in “Twilight.” With its shallow narrative, wooden dialogue, and stunted characters, the frequently-mocked vampire franchise was below Stewart’s abilities. Needless to say, she couldn’t have anticipated that it would come to define her talent for many years to come. But Stewart may be smart enough to realize the shortcomings of the “Twilight” movies while capitalizing on the resources they provided for her, considering the kind of projects she’s tackling now.
3. She’s not your typical Hollywood starlet.
Aloof and socially uncomfortable, Stewart projects a tough, almost androgynous persona. She lacks that sunny disposition that typifies clichés of American celebritydom; instead of delivering delightful soliloquies on Letterman like Jennifer Lawrence or Emma Stone, she’s reserved and insightful when discussing her roles. There’s a reason she has never hosted “Saturday Night Live” – or, for that matter, taken on any comedic roles.
And what’s so bad about being serious, anyway? Stewart was raised in L.A. and comes from a show business family, like so many success stories in the entertainment industry before her. But not only is she solemn—she’s sincere about it. When caught cheating on “Twilight” co-star Robert Pattinson with married “Snow White and the Huntsman” director Rupert Sanders, she released a prostrating statement of regret: “I’m deeply sorry for the hurt and embarrassment I’ve caused to those close to me,” she said. Though the tabloids mocked her conundrum, the sheer candor of this revelation went beyond the standard constructed image associated with so many boldface names. Stewart shrinks from the limelight, and despises it, even infamously comparing a paparazzi’s violation of her privacy to rape. Media scrutiny grates hard on actors—make one mistake and you’re crucified. The paradox of Kristen Stewart is that she also really loves the art of performance –but only with the roles that suit her.
4. She wants to make art films.
In February, Stewart became the first American actress to win a César in France’s most prominent film awards show, for her co-starring role in “Sils Maria.” Backstage, she admitted, “the reasons why people make films here in France are very different from the reasons why people make movies in Hollywood, and I prefer it here a little bit.” The French have been more open to embracing Stewart. At the risk of simplifying their tastes, it’s safe to say that French audiences are more accustomed to intense, moody actresses, and less married to golden girl Hollywood types. Anna Karina, Jean-Luc Godard most famous muse, had a dark and sulky energy. Decades later, Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux of “Blue is the Warmest Color” were similarly reserved and pensive in press interviews, unafraid to criticize their director and discuss the more scandalous aspects of their movie in sharp detail. In another life, Stewart might have been one of them.
5. She makes you pay attention.
Stewart is deliciously enigmatic in “Clouds of Sils Maria” as “Val,” loyal assistant to aging actress Maria Enders (Binoche). Val is perpetually perched in doorways, texting furiously on her phone, booking Maria’s appointments. She dresses just as Stewart does in real life; no dresses, converse, print tees. Val pays more attention to Maria’s needs than to her own, so it’s hard to know what the character is feeling at any given moment. Conflict arises when the two have differing opinions on the play Maria plans to do next. Val additionally feels sympathy for Jo-Ann (Chloe Moretz), a young actress and Maria’s co-star whom Maria disdains. In one key scene, Val defends Jo-Ann’s vulnerable performance in a stupid sci-fi blockbuster. Stewart’s role operates on several levels: Its implications simultaneously defend the “Twilight” franchise from snobbish dismissal and examine the desire to break free of its boundaries.
“Sils Maria” is the closest Stewart has come to shedding her outer layer—in the film, her underlying emotional connection with Binoche speaks to the movie’s themes of performance anxiety. The actress is wise in choosing projects where she can observe experts like Binoche and Julianne Moore (“Still Alice”). She doesn’t attempt to outshine her co-stars, and that withholding, cautious nature makes her an ideal scene-partner. In the case of “Sils Maria,” though Mia Wasikowska was originally cast to play Valentine, it’s hard to imagine such sizzling, sensual undertones between Binoche and anyone but Stewart. She sells us on the role in her every scene.
Still, Stewart’s range is limited. So far, she has successfully portrayed characters that suggest certain direct connections with her off-screen life. But it’s unreasonable to hold any actors accountable for their types. Stewart challenges herself while sticking to her strengths. She exposes herself in small but essential increments. By picking roles that hit so close to home, she projects an image that’s both honest and incredibly brave.