How Kristen Stewart Became Her Generation’s Most Interesting Movie Star

Stewart told me that she can now talk to a director for a few moments, even one whose films she admires, and know that it won’t work out. She looks for filmmakers with a sensibility that is “spiritual, unarticulated, emotional,” she said, adding, “There are certain directors that feel otherworldly to me.”Last year, the sixty-six-year-old…

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Stewart told me that she can now talk to a director for a few moments, even one whose films she admires, and know that it won’t work out. She looks for filmmakers with a sensibility that is “spiritual, unarticulated, emotional,” she said, adding, “There are certain directors that feel otherworldly to me.”

Last year, the sixty-six-year-old French director Olivier Assayas gave a speech called “Cinema in the Present Tense,” in which he addressed, among other things, the state of Hollywood. “I have practically nothing positive to say about it,” he declared, “except that this industry’s prosperity and new modalities do not delight me, they frighten or even repulse me.” Assayas lamented, in particular, “the confiscation of screens in the service of (mostly Disney-studio) franchises, whose hegemony now seems absolute.”

The quasi-feminism of a “Wonder Woman” or a “Black Widow” notwithstanding, the tentpole franchises of Hollywood have been especially dismal for female actors. While Stewart was finishing the “Twilight” series, the French actress Juliette Binoche told Assayas that she wanted to work with him. In response, he wrote “Clouds of Sils Maria,” an English-language film set in Switzerland that can be seen, in part, as a critique of the dominant machinery of contemporary movies, in which the greatest actors of our time are subjected to the indignities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and audiences watch minor variations on the same six or seven characters every three or four years until we die. Binoche plays a French film star, Maria, who has been cast in a play opposite a Hollywood ingénue named Jo-Ann, whose career (which includes a starring role in a Hollywood franchise) and brush with scandal (a fling while in a highly publicized relationship) bear a striking resemblance to those of Kristen Stewart.

“Hold on—Mommy’s just trying to finish reading the Internet.”
Cartoon by Teresa Wong

Assayas offered Stewart the role of Jo-Ann, but she told him that she would rather play Maria’s assistant, a young woman named Val, who talks Maria through her anxieties and, in one scene, defends the incorrigible Jo-Ann, who was ultimately played by Chloë Grace Moretz. “She’s not completely antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood,” Val says. “She’s brave enough to be herself. At her age, I think that’s pretty fucking cool.”

“I think Kristen had fun just toying with her own fame and her own relationship with that tabloid stuff,” Assayas told me, on a video call from a set in Paris, his hair rumpled by a pair of headphones. He was shooting a TV adaptation of his 1996 film “Irma Vep.” (Stewart has a small part in the series.) Playing Val, he said, gave Stewart “a chance to turn a new leaf and start from somewhere else. Somewhere else being herself.” Binoche told me that she was struck by Stewart’s openness, and also by “her capacity of learning lines in a minute.” She added, “As for me, it takes ages—it’s like I need to go over and over and over so it gets into my body. As for her, she just comes and she has it in her. Also, it was her language, so she felt comfortable changing it and making it hers, like a glove for her soul.”

For her performance, Stewart won a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar. (She is the only American woman to have done so.) The film was partly financed by Chanel, and its release roughly coincided with the beginning of Stewart’s own relationship with the fashion house, which has gone beyond the usual advertorial arrangements, at times resembling the partnership that Audrey Hepburn once had with Givenchy. (Karl Lagerfeld cast Stewart as an actress playing Coco Chanel in a short film he directed in 2015, and the brand also contributed costumes to “Spencer.”) “There’s an elevated ambition to wanting to work with them,” Stewart told me, speaking of Chanel. “You’re, like, ‘Oh, so that’s the best one? Cool, I guess I’ll do that.’ When I was younger, I just wanted to be a winner.”

After “Sils Maria,” Assayas wrote “Personal Shopper,” which centers on another assistant, Maureen, whose visits to the Chanel showroom, on behalf of the model who employs her, become an element of the plot. The movie is part ghost story and part murder mystery; the role of Maureen seems written for Stewart, though Assayas told me that, if he wrote it for her, he did so subconsciously. The exquisite dresses that Maureen tries on in the course of her job—her hair unkempt, her face without makeup—do nothing to hide the grief she holds in her body. Driving in Paris on a motor scooter, weaving through traffic, Maureen mumbles to herself, trapped in recursive thoughts about someone who is no longer there. Recalling an image of a bloodied corpse while on a video call with her boyfriend, she shudders and half rubs her eyes, as if she could physically shed the memory. Some actors, tasked with the portrayal of traumatic encounters amid personal loss, might tend toward sobbing or hyperventilation. Stewart shows a person whose mind is operating on multiple tracks; it’s a mesmerizing struggle, the visual rendering of a divided intelligence.

“I felt that I was directing the film from the outside and she was directing it from the inside,” Assayas told me. The movie is full of long takes in which Stewart dictates the pace of the action, he noted. “She appropriated the character,” he went on, “and put herself in a situation where the invisible, or the magic of cinema, or the world around her, becomes natural.”

When Stewart portrayed the actress Jean Seberg, in the 2019 bio-pic “Seberg,” she tried to get some of the puffiness that Seberg, a heavy drinker, had in her face. To get the young Joan Jett’s cadence, in “The Runaways,” she listened to letters on tape which Jett recorded when she was thirteen. Playing Diana, one of the most documented women of her era, required preparation on another level. Stewart worked with a dialect coach for four months. “It’s such an all-encompassing, physical, head-to-toe experience sounding like that,” she told me. “It changes what you look like completely.” She also studied endless photographs and videos of Diana. She recalled a particular video, of Diana on a boat, in which she turns and lights up at the sight of her children, and another in which she emits a strange and incongruous laugh. Stewart noticed how uncomfortable Diana could look when she was dressed up, “just jutting out in every way possible,” as Stewart put it, trapped in a tyranny of ridiculous hats. (Diana’s “human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture,” the novelist Hilary Mantel once wrote.)

Most of “Spencer” was shot in castles in Germany, in early 2021, during the bleak pandemic winter. Stewart was expecting a big crew and the elaborate staging of a historical drama, but she often worked in near-solitude, with Larraín and Claire Mathon, the cinematographer. Mathon shot on film, frequently in closeup, and, to Stewart, it felt as though the trio became a “three-headed animal,” whose movements were propelled by Larraín’s “fervent, insane, psychotic confidence.” Upon entering the set, Larraín would tell Stewart to “inhabit the space,” an old mantra from his days in the theatre. As he recalled, Stewart would reply, “What the fuck does that mean?” But she rarely needed him to articulate further, he said. Stewart, for her part, felt that Larraín had got inside Diana’s head. “There were times where he would repeat something, or say something that I was about to say, and he would channel Diana in a way that was just striking,” she told me. “There were days on the movie where I was, like, ‘Do you want to wear the dress? Because I’ll give it to you.’ He doesn’t look right for the part, but he could have played her.”

As a child, in the eighties, I had a set of Princess Diana paper dolls that came with a variety of accessories: wedding dress, suits, a riding outfit, babies. I thought of them while watching the unexpected climax of “Spencer”: a wordless and cathartic dance montage. Diana, caught between the end of her marriage and the life still to come, spins down castle halls and runs through gardens, pivoting and gliding to Greenwood’s surging score, wearing iconic outfits that represent various stages of her life. For this sequence, Stewart did not prepare at all. In pre-production, she said, she sometimes asked Larraín what she would be wearing in the scene, and whether there would be choreography. Every time, he would tell her, “Yeah . . . I don’t know.”

Rather than shoot the sequence all at once, they filmed a piece of it at the end of nearly every day. Stewart would put on a chiffon gown or a suit; Larraín would pick a hallway or a ballroom for her to move in, and play music through a large speaker: LCD Soundsystem, or Bach, or Sinéad O’Connor, or Lionel Richie (a favorite of Diana’s). “I don’t know how to move like Diana,” Stewart told me. “She was a dancer. I’m not a fucking dancer.” And so there was always an element of discovery. “It was so unbridling and so shocking at times, and so emotional,” Stewart said. “It’s like doing yoga and you suddenly stretch your hips in a certain way and start crying, and you’re, like, What is that?” What resulted is a scene that, for a few moments, gives you a glimpse of a person who was not allowed to exist.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves a portrayal of a historical figure. In the past decade, it has awarded Best Actress to Meryl Streep for playing Margaret Thatcher, to Olivia Colman for playing Queen Anne, and to Renée Zellweger for playing Judy Garland. “I’ve never been in the running, if you want to put it like that,” Stewart told me. For each golden statuette, there is a get-to-know-you campaign that, at times, has all the glamour of a race for state senate. “I do not want to seem like an ass, but it’s so embarrassing and so tiring,” she said. “It is highly political. You have to go talk to people. You feel like you’re a diplomat.”

So it was that, a few hours after golf, Stewart arrived for a post-screening Q. & A. with members of the Academy. She had been coiffed and styled in a blazer and heels. (Before reaching the stage, she replaced the heels with sneakers.) The screening was held at the headquarters of the Directors Guild of America, where the lobby is decorated with black-and-white photographs of famous directors on set. Afterward, in a wood-panelled reception room outfitted with gilt chairs and fairy lights, the audience gathered for a British-themed reception: cucumber sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips. The mood was that of a wedding at which distant relatives await their turn to congratulate the bride.

“On the plus side, you get to blame her for everything forever.”
Cartoon by Emily Flake

I was crunching through the confectionery pearls that decorated a frosted vanilla cupcake when a man with white hair struck up a conversation. His name was Andrzej Bartkowiak. (“You’ve seen my work,” Bartkowiak, a cinematographer, said. He was right.) Bartkowiak had a few minor issues with “Spencer,” he told me, but not with Stewart’s performance, which he described as “captivating” and “flawless.” This seemed like a good sign: despite the Academy’s efforts to diversify in recent years, men of Bartkowiak’s approximate generation and credentials remain an important demographic. Before leaving, he went over to share these thoughts in person, and I watched Stewart accept his congratulations.

Stewart has already filmed “Crimes of the Future,” with David Cronenberg, and she’s about to shoot “Love Me,” which will co-star Steven Yeun. She describes the latter as a love story between a satellite and a buoy; it has something to do with getting computers to love one another, she said, and the machines “sort of morphing in and out of every gender and race, and, like, there’s no orientation, there’s just humanity.” Stewart is also working on her début feature as a director, an adaptation of “The Chronology of Water,” a memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch.

The book came to Stewart as an algorithmically generated recommendation on her Amazon Kindle. In it, she saw something that she’d never seen onscreen. “It kind of celebrates a certain taboo,” she told me, “that shame finds itself sexually in women. The ways that she acknowledges being embarrassed, and self-hating, but that it also really turns her on, is one of the really difficult and complicated relationships we have with being women in this body in a fully patriarchal society.” The memoir follows Yuknavitch through a stillbirth, multiple husbands, and the pursuit of sexual experience with lovers male and female; it has cameos from literary mentors including Ken Kesey, Kathy Acker, and Lynne Tillman. The memoir was a word-of-mouth hit, and Yuknavitch told me that there were others who wanted the film rights. Stewart, she said, won her over with a long letter “written in the language of a visionary.” Yuknavitch shared with me a single, out-of-context line: “And to those who dwell similarly in this fuck me, fuck it realm of crippling self doubt and fortified albeit false EGO, be proud because today, ‘fuck it’ won.”

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