At 26, Kristen Stewart is already a veteran of the industry. She’s been acting since the tender age of eight, spotted by an agent while performing in her elementary school’s holiday play, and since then has juggled massive franchises and prestige work alike. After all that, she still resists talking about her performances in the bland industry lingo that so many performers adopt with their rising profiles.
For example, don’t ask her what it’s like to play her roles. Or, rather, don’t use the word “play.”
“‘Play’ sounds like ‘lie’ to me, and I’m just trying to do the opposite,” Stewart recently told IndieWire. She’d already slipped up once during the conversation, when referring to her Cesar Award-winning role in Olivier Assayas’ “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
So what do you call whatever it is the ubiquitous star does whenever she surfaces in another movie? She has no clear answer. “When you ‘play’ something, it’s like you’re constructing something and you’re trying to manipulate other people into feeling a certain way,” she said. “I never want to feel like I’m forcing something, because that means I’m kind of failing.”
To hear Stewart tell it, that perspective often places her at odds with her peers on a set. “Most people are concentrating on their role and trying to immerse themselves and whatever,” she said. “I don’t want to lose myself, I don’t want to fall, I don’t want to hide. I want to be seen. “
In other words, if Stewart’s name immediately calls to mind a certain physicality or emotional presence irrespective of the project she’s in, that’s by design. Detractors may claim that she always plays the same part. But that’s the point. The part is her.
“I don’t feel like I can be anything other than who I am,” she said. “A lot of actors are like, ‘Oh, that’s not me, I would never, that’s not me, that’s a character,’ but that’s your interpretation of that environment and that circumstance, so who the hell else is it but you?”
“A Certain Emptiness”
Stewart’s latest role continues her recent pattern of working with heralded directors who seem eager to embrace her attitude and process. In Woody Allen’s “Café Society,” which opened Cannes earlier this year and is now hitting theaters before making its online debut on Amazon, Stewart plays been-there-done-that secretary Vonnie.
Set during the golden age of ’30s era Hollywood, Vonnie stands out to Jesse Eisenberg’s wide-eyed LA transplant Bobby Dorfman because she refuses to fall under Tinseltown’s spell (or does she?). For Stewart, the character’s disposition mirrored her own feelings about the entertainment industry. “She has this weird thing that she’s aware of a certain emptiness, but still attracted to what’s on top,” Stewart said.
Although Vonnie initially shuns the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, she does eventually give into it. Stewart gets that, too. “It’s not the most integrity-filled business, but it draws really interesting people and you have fun,” Stewart said. “Those are not bad things. There’s a duality to her that’s reassuring. You don’t have to feel one way about something.”
Working With Woody
For many actors, landing a leading role in a Woody Allen picture is a big, career-changing break. But Stewart made some rather heady claims that she was able to work around the potentially daunting assignment by distancing herself from its potential ramifications. Although Stewart is an admirer of Allen’s work, she said she was never interested in imagining herself in any of his films, past or present.
“I never inserted myself into the idea of his work, as a fan of it,” she said. “It’s not something I was saying before I worked with him — ‘I’m just dying to work with Woody Allen someday.’ It wasn’t like this huge, epic realization of that.” But the more she talks, the echoes of some lingering anxiety bubble to the surface. “I’m still surprised that it worked out so well,” she said.
Another surprise? Allen made her audition for the role, something the in-demand performer hasn’t done very often.
Stewart said that the process was one she took pleasure in, an actorly exercise for an actress who clearly eschews other similarly traditional pursuits.
“People view not having to audition as a huge accomplishment – and it is, obviously it is – but there’s worth in it,” Stewart said. “There’s something intrinsic, there’s something if it’s the right fit for someone. You feel drawn to a person or drawn to a material, and there’s a reason for that.”
Taking the Prestige Route
If there’s been one guiding force throughout Stewart’s varied career, it’s that need to be drawn to projects and people. Since her big screen breakthrough at age ten in David Fincher’s “Panic Room,” Stewart has navigated a wide variety of projects, from the star-making power of “The Twilight Saga” to festival offerings like “Camp X-Ray” and “Welcome to the Rileys,” all the way up to awards players like “Still Alice” and critical darlings like “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
The trajectory suggests the markings of a clear-cut career strategy: Popular young actress escapes the shadow of a YA blockbuster by tackling more serious roles. But she claims it wasn’t a premeditated shift.
“I know if I step outside of it and look, I can go, ‘Oh, it really seems like I did that on purpose,'” she said. “Of course I want to make good movies and I want to work with good people. I totally recognize that it seems like I tried to sort of prestige-up my career. I take that as a compliment. But I didn’t do it on purpose.”
It’s hard to discern the full truth of that statement — or to separate it from the broader agendas of agents, studios, publicists and the rest of the Hollywood machine whose jobs rely on their ability to steer and manage careers — but Stewart radiates such a zen vibe when discussing her work that one can easily get swept up in her laidback perspective on it.
“When I feel really good about it, I open my eyes and the scene is done and I’m just like, ‘Cool. Well, I don’t know what the fuck just happened, but I don’t take any credit for it,'” she said. “It just happened.”
“Cafe Society” opens in limited theaters on Friday, July 15.