It’s hard to believe that Kristen Stewart turned 25 in April. With the “Twilight” franchise behind her, she has been enjoying the freedom to make her own choices without worrying about commercial considerations. She scored raves as Oscar-winner Julianne Moore’s daughter in “Still Alice,” and has lined up a healthy slate of movies, from Oscar-winners Woody Allen and Ang Lee to indies Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) and Drake Doremus (“Crazy Love”).
Truth is, Stewart has always made smart calls. Clearly, she is no longer chasing such studio efforts as “Snow White and the Huntsman,” a franchise she has left behind in more ways than one. And while some of her indie efforts (“On the Road,” “Yellow Handkerchief,” “Camp X-Ray”) proved to be box office disappointments, they were noble ones—and she learned from all of them.
Her latest film, well-reviewed Cannes competition entry “Clouds of Sils Maria”—for which Stewart won Best Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle—is an intimate English-language “All About Eve” variation set in Europe and directed by French auteur Olivier Assayas (“Summer Hours,” “Carlos”). She plays Valentine, the high-powered loyal assistant to aging film and theater actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) who is preparing to take on the older role in a revival of a stage two-hander in which she dazzled years ago as the manipulative younger assistant who seduces her boss. A rising young actress will play the part Maria originated (Stewart was up for the role more resembling her that is played by Chloe Grace Moretz). As the actress and assistant spend weeks isolated in a mountain aerie reading through the play, they each struggle with conflicting emotions.
While Binoche had challenged Assayas to write a film based on women, the director left the actresses to figure out their roles, and Oscar-winner Binoche (“The English Patient”) pushed Stewart to dig deep. Stewart also had a real tattoo etched into her forearm for the movie. “I think she has an amazing career in front of her,” Binoche told Indiewire, “and she’s gonna surprise us.” I agree. Stewart and I talked in the deserted courtyard of the Los Angeles County of Museum of Art during a screening of “Clouds of Sils Maria,” with her reps at one table nearby, her stilettos and smartphone on another. She admits that all actresses limit the amount of time they spend teetering on spike heels—she’s wearing flats.
Anne Thompson: You had gone to Cannes with both “On the Road” and “Clouds of Sils Maria.” For which you are the first American actress to win a César, for supporting actress. What was that like? Not something you were expecting?
Kristen Stewart: No. Those Frenchies [laughs] don’t like to pass accolades that are not their own. I was really shocked. Even Juliette was like, “Hey, it’s really cool that you got nominated. It’s insane that you got nominated, actually.” If you look at it, she looks more shocked. When they said my name, literally she screamed into my ear so loudly I had no idea what was going on. I didn’t even hear my name be called. I was like, “Wait, what?” She was like, “You won! You won!” She was so shocked, that that’s how I gauged my reaction. “Wow, this must be a really big deal, because Juliette cannot believe this.”
You deserved it. This is my kind of movie. But I respect your past choices too. There’s a modus operandi there — something you’re looking for — and it’s not comfort.
That’s always quite difficult to find. You could find a through line there… I’ve been lucky enough to play characters that really stick out as people that are telling unique stories. I read a lot. I get sent a lot of scripts that are very surface, things that we’ve seen before, and, recently, really incredibly talented people have called me to help them make their movies. But those things really do stick out, and I’ve been lucky enough to jump on them.
In other words, there’s an enormous pile. You’re wading through it, a lot of it’s dreck, and the ones you’ve done are the ones that have popped out at you as the smarter thing. What’s wrong with the stuff you’re getting sent, for the most part?
Probably just that they’re fairly archaic, boring, previously consumed ideas of what a woman can be in a mass-consumed story. I’ve done a lot of independent, smaller things recently that usually don’t lack interesting stories to tell about women.
You have lined up some impressive projects. I feel a maturity coming across now. I know you valued the “Twilight” franchise and the freedom it gave you — what they call “fuck-you money.” So you’re able to say, “I’ll do a Kelly Reichardt movie.” Can you give me a sense of what you’ve learned from these directors you’ve worked with in the last year?
I’ve been lucky enough, at a really young age, to work with people who affirm what I believe in, every catalyst that has existed for me. Everything that’s ever kicked me in the ass and gone, “That’s what you should be doing these movies for.” It’s always been a director; it’s always been somebody who’s telling a story who, subliminally, infuses a project with this honor that is just impossible to deny and disrespect. Therefore, you just give everything that you can to it.
Would David Fincher qualify with “Panic Room” ?
Absolutely. That was my second movie, and it starts there.
And Jon Favreau with “Zathura?” I discovered you in those two films.
Yeah. Those are two really great directors I worked with at a really young age. I’ve been shaped by every step that I’ve taken to the point that I’m in now. I mean, a whole lot of it has to do with luck, because I happen to have worked with these people who are incredibly influential, and in the right ways, but, at this point, I’ve carved out and identify very distinctly what I get out of what I do and why I do it, and it’s so easy to identify with or discard people who are with that or against it.
How about Olivier Assayas? What does he bring?
He was so hands-off, to be honest with you. It felt like the greatest steps that he took with us was the work he did with the script, and then just casting. Ultimately, he sort of let us live within that.
What was the day-to-day process like working it out with Juliette Binoche?
Any question that was very critical to us moving on — any question that was so completely necessary for us to ask that we did not get an answer to, that was frustrating — maybe there were days where I went home and went, “I have no idea. I’m not sure about that scene. I don’t know how I felt about it. I don’t know what it says.” I now look at it and go, “Oh, my God. You absolute, masterful, conniving, manipulative, knowing genius. How did you put us there?” At the time, I was questioning if he was even really aware of the complexities that he was writing, and now I see that he must have been. I’ve never even talked about what the movie’s “about” to him still, to this day.
Does he shoot with multiple cameras?
No, it’s two. Mainly it’s one-to-two cameras. And he shoots a lot. Very decisive. Really.
You’ve made a film with a French director, and it’s a very European movie. Does that appeal to you for the future?
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
So, Woody Allen: is that something you’d wanted to do for a long time? What character are you playing?
Yeah, why not? Actually, to be honest, I don’t know how much I’m allowed to talk about it. They sent me a script and had somebody sit outside my house. When I finished reading, I had to go back out and hand it to them. The scenes that I auditioned to get the part, I had no idea the context of them. I had one conversation with him.
He leaves you alone, too. Cate Blanchett was a tad freaked out on “Blue Jasmine.” But it worked out okay for her.
Apparently so. Very French of him. It did, yeah [laughs].
You wrapped Nima Nourizadeh’s “American Ultra” (Lionsgate) with your pal from “Adventureland,” Jesse Eisenberg? (That whole cast was amazing–Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig and Ryan Reynolds.)
It was awesome. It’s finished. It’s very commercial, actually, which is different for me lately. Very funny, which is also different for me lately. It’s an ultra-violent, really broadly comedic love story. Jesse’s the star of the movie, and he’s so incredible that there’s no way that movie isn’t fantastic.
Working with Kelly Reichardt: what was that like? She’s a smart lady.
Oh, man. She’s a genius! I wish I had more time with her.
She’ll have you studying the Structuralists. What part did you play for her?
Honestly. She is a very definitive filmmaker. Not a find-it director; she knows what she’s looking for, always. I played a part in a movie that is primarily about driven characters who think they know who they are and are very desirous of something that they can’t have.
That sounds like Kelly Reichardt.
Yeah, right? And I went into this little bar in Montana when we were shooting, and there were a bunch of townies in there playing pool while we were shooting. They were like, “What’s the movie about? What are you doing here? We know you’re here, so tell us what the movie’s about.” And I could not tell them in a sentence what this movie was about. And that’s what I love about the movie, is that I literally was, “Well…” and I said what I just said. That speaks volumes to the way that she makes movies.
And then there’s “Equals”?
Which I just saw, and it’s also quite good. Drake [Doremus]’s mentality is entirely European.
Well, he keeps the camera way back, right?
He’s long-lensing it. Even if its right in your face, the camera is in the back. Everything else is blurred, and all you zone in on is the face. What I look for in an American director is what is more standardized in Europe and France: people that unabashedly make things with full risk and religious faith for what they need to do, rather than what’s going to make them rich and famous. It’s just easier to find there, because it’s more typical. But, here, I am gravitating towards and find the same things in American directors. It’s just that it’s more rare.
Look, you have figured it out at a young age. It takes most people a while. Matthew McConaughey took a while to get to where you are. Although I think people in the industry are starting to figure out that the studio model is not where you want to go.
It’s just not interesting. It’s just safe. It’s just a sure-fire bet, and when is that exciting, if you know you’re going to win?
“Equals” was shot in Singapore. Why that location? It takes place in a sort of alternate world. It’s not necessarily set in the future, but it is very surrealistic and sci-fi, and the world is very otherworldly, so it’s good to shoot there. You’ve been exposed to a number of exotic places. When you’re on assignment, do you actually get a chance to go out and see the world?
Yeah. [Laughs] You might not think so, but especially when we shoot in places. When there’s publicity, all I see are hotel-room walls. But shooting in a place really allows you to emerge yourself in a culture. That’s one way I’m so lucky. From a young age, I’ve been able to live in Portland and New York and the middle of the country, in the middle of nowhere, Columbus, Ohio for a while. It shapes you. And what would be the most exotic place that had the most impact on you?
[Laughs] I love working in New Orleans. We did “American Ultra” and “On the Road” and a movie called “Yellow Handkerchief.”
Sony’s Ang Lee movie “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is about Bravo squad members who come home as Victory Tour heroes after an embedded Fox News crew videos their firefight against Iraqi insurgents. It’s adapted by “Slumdog Millionaire” Oscar-winner Simon Beaufoy from Ben Fountain’s novel and stars Garrett Hedlund and Steve Martin. What part do you play? It shoots later this summer in Texas?
Yeah, and it takes place in Texas. I play Billy Lynn’s [Joe Alwyn] sister, I act as a mouthpiece for anyone who might disagree with why the war is being fought, and also for anyone who might be closely related to someone who’s fought for something they don’t stand behind. I’m the one person in the whole movie that asks the obvious question.
And meeting Ang Lee must have been great. I’ve interviewed him many times, and he’s a very smart, special man. You don’t just go from one genre to the other without a certain finesse.
I’ve only talked to him once on the phone. He was really, really nice. I know! It’s insane.
In “Sils Maria” you are playing a character, the assistant to a star— the opposite of who you are, in a way. You know her well, because women like this are in your life. That must have given you a little degree of comfort. At the same time, you’re digging into a very intimate, very precise kind of duet with this superb actress. It must have been challenging.
The easy part for me, personally, was being someone who could take care of a woman in her position. I would be the best that you could hire as an actress! Personally, I have that experience, and I have that innate, protective nature, because I know what it is to be in that position. That was fun for me, because it was fun to use this mouthpiece as… it’s not like a grand statement. It’s a pretty obvious statement in the movie that we’re making about the surface nature of the business, but the initial attraction was to be able to service somebody in a more similar position to what I am in, and also speak to this aspect of the business that I know so much about in a very candid way.
It rang true to me.
Good. And, subsequently, looking back at the movie — I saw it at Cannes for the second time — just talking about it with journalists and Olivier after the fact, it really did develop into something that was quite heavy. At first I thought it was funny — it was a personal glimpse into something that was esoteric and interesting, because not too many people do what they do. But, at the same time, getting some distance, I look at it and go, “Wow. That’s quite a lofty burden to bear.” And it really does speak to how we consume other artistic individuals, and it really does speak to how we idolize and discard things.
I found that very moving, but I identified with the Binoche character. I don’t think your character is superficial. I see her as devious and manipulative and easily identified with the character she’s reading when they run the lines. That was disturbing for her, so you’re doing two things at once. And there was an erotic charge between the characters.
Yes. They both manipulate each other sort of subconsciously throughout the entire movie.
SPOILERS BELOW But Valentine loves Maria right? She digs it when Maria does well. She’s proud of her.
Absolutely. They both love each other so much. One important thing for me was to make Valentine somebody that was not someone typical. Not someone who you would expect to service another, but somebody that you were curious about — somebody that you go, “Okay, so what has put you in this position? You wouldn’t typically follow suit with somebody you adhere to.” It’s clearly somebody who stands up for what she thinks and what she believes in, yet she’s taking this role as an assistant, and therefore should be voiceless.
Somehow she’s living through the other woman, but then, in this forced, intimate situation, her own needs come to the surface. She needs respect.
Absolutely. I think the only reason she’s there is because, if that respect is not mutually required, then she should be elsewhere.
She bails, and I love the way Assayas leaves it. It seems mysterious, but she quit!
She quit. For me, the entire movie she was trying to make points to her, to get across to her, verbally, and Maria might consider her opinions and thoughts for a moment, and in the next moment they are gone. All that she’s left with are her really personal and narrowly seen thoughts. By the end, Valentine’s like, “I’ve been screaming at you for an entire movie. Now I’m going to show you what I mean and I’m going to leave. So that is what I mean.”