“I’ve never, ever been like, ‘One day, I’m gonna win an Oscar,’ ” Kristen Stewart told me on Friday when we met up on the campus of Santa Monica College. The 24-year-old, who has been acting since the age of nine, says her dreams have always centered on the work, not the reward. “Truly, my ‘one day’ was always, ‘I’m gonna be a director! One day, I’m gonna direct movies!'”
Most of the reason Stewart possesses this attitude is her understanding — gleaned from her 15 years of experience and from her parents, who are also employed in the industry — that the work is what matters, not the money, celebrity or accolades, all of which have fleeting value. But, she lets on, part of it is also a defense mechanism: “I’ve taken so much shit that I’m just like, ‘I’m not the winner!’ I’m not gonna be let down when I don’t get the pat on the back. I’m totally used to the kick in the ass.”
Therefore, Stewart was as surprised as anyone on Feb. 20 when, from her seat in Paris at the 40th César Awards — France’s Oscars — she heard her name called as the winner of the best supporting actress prize for her performance as a movie star’s assistant in Olivier Assayas‘ Clouds of Sils Maria, making her the first American actress ever to take home a César. (The film, which has brought Stewart some of the best reviews of her career, premiered at Cannes last May, went on to screen at the Toronto, New York and AFI film fests and will finally open stateside on April 10.)
“Oh, man, it blew my head off, to be honest,” Stewart says. “I couldn’t believe that I got nominated, and then obviously I really, really couldn’t believe that they gave it to me, because those people rigidly dole out praise, especially to Americans.” She adds, “It felt really good,” and then says in a fake snooty tone, “I would prefer a French Oscar [to an American Oscar]” before bursting into laughter.
It’s nice to see Stewart laughing. The first time I interviewed her, in Sept. 2012, she wasn’t in such a good place. In fact, she had just found herself at the center of a media frenzy. Weeks before, paparazzi photos had surfaced of her hooking up with her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders, which caused big problems for both of them. Sanders was married (he has since divorced); Stewart, meanwhile, was dating her Twilight costar Robert Pattinson, something that the intensely private actress had never confirmed until the Sanders incident prompted her to issue a public apology to Pattinson, whom she described as “the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most.”
A few weeks after that all happened and sparked breathless around-the-clock coverage in the tabloid media and bloviating on social networks, much of it ruthlessly critical of Stewart, I sat down for an extended interview with her and her On the Road costar Garrett Hedlund in Toronto. It was her first time meeting with press since the brouhaha, and she could have pulled out of it, but she felt it was her duty to support the indie in spite of her pain and the risk of being asked uncomfortable questions. As we spoke, it was obvious that her time in the pressure cooker had gotten to her. She was very anxious and very fragile. She fidgeted constantly, choked up at one point and whacked herself at another. To be honest, I was concerned about her.
I’ve spoken with Stewart on a number of occasions over the years since then, and I’m pleased to report, each time she seemed markedly more at peace with herself and her position in the public eye. The last time we spoke before Friday was in November at AFI Fest, where, on a panel that I moderated, she more than held her own alongside the likes of Marion Cotillard, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Hader, Michelle Monaghan and Tilda Swinton, waxing eloquently about the film industry and a year in which she gave strong performances in no fewer than three films: Still Alice, Camp X-Ray and Clouds.
When we spoke on Friday and focused specifically on Clouds, she was more together and impressive than ever, in no small part, I’m sure, because we were talking about a movie that had allowed her to reflect on and ridicule the absurdity of her experience as a famous celebrity. (Note: According to Daniel Boorstin, the late Librarian of Congress, the definition of “fame” is being well known for one’s accomplishments, while the definition of “celebrity” is being well known for being well known; these two things are not mutually-exclusive and Stewart seems to fit both sides of the bill.)
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Clouds focuses on the relationship between a middle-aged movie star (Oscar winner Juliette Binoche) and her assistant (Stewart) around the time when the star — a true actress — agrees to participate in a theatrical revival of the play-turned-film that made her famous decades earlier. This time, though, she will play the older woman in it, while, in order to get the production off the ground, the role of the younger woman she’d played before will be assumed by a scandal-plagued, seemingly vapid celebrity (Chloe Grace Moretz).
In Stewart’s view, the film does the service of showing moviegoers how, in real life, actresses like the Binoche character (“who are interesting and good and strive to do cool stuff and do stuff that makes people think”) — the sort she clearly sees herself as — must coexist now, more than ever, alongside people like the Moretz character (“surface BS, put-together commercial/commodity-type actresses”). Moreover, it makes the point that the former sort are increasingly valued by our society less than the latter, while being subjected more to the sort of invasive media coverage invited by the others, which blurs the line between the two in the eyes of many and makes it harder for true artists to practice their craft. “That’s what I like about the movie,” Stewart says. “Why aren’t we [as a society] mentioning the fact that it’s so crazy that there are so many people that are so full of it? Any why are we consuming them en masse?”
Interestingly, the project almost slipped away from her. She was sent the script a few years ago by Assayas’ regular producer Charles Gillibert, who also produced On the Road andwho Stewart counts as “one of my dearest friends and my favorite producer in the world.” She immediately responded to the material, which includes derisive tongue-in-cheek references — allegedly written before Stewart was even considered for the project — to franchise films, generally, and werewolf films, specifically, among other things. “Oh, my God,” she exclaims, “It became something much more complex as we went on, but initially I was like, ‘Wow, this is hilarious! This is so true! This is so perfect and spot-on and I would love to say those words!”
She told her team how she felt and assumed that they would formally confirm her participation in the project. “I figured that other people would be taking care of things like that,” she chuckles. That didn’t happen, though, and Gillibert “didn’t want to push for an answer.” Assuming she wasn’t interested, he eventually offered the part to another actress (Mia Wasikowska).
When Stewart learned about this, she was devastated and reached out to Gillibert to try to rectify the situation. Gillibert and Assayas suggested that she take on the role of the young movie star, but Stewart expressed reservations. “I just couldn’t really wrap my head around it. It’s a good part, but if I played an actress involved in this scandal, in the extreme way that it’s presented in the film, it would have been satirical for me and just not as interesting,” she offers. “So I fought for it [the part of the assistant],” she says, “and then the stars shifted in some way and it all worked out.” (Wasikowska dropped out of the project and wound up playing the assistant to another fictional movie star at the center of another biting satire, David Cronenberg‘s Maps to the Stars, which happened to costar Pattinson and premiere at Cannes alongside Clouds.)
Looking back on the making of Clouds, Stewart says she liked playing an assistant, as it offered her a different perspective on a dynamic with which she is keenly familiar. Assistants are a major presence in the life of most movie stars — including her own at various times, although not at the moment — and yet they are people “that we don’t get a glimpse at [in movies], typically,” she points out. Perhaps that’s because their role in the life of a star depends not only on the star but on the moment — they can alternately function as secretaries, gophers, therapists and “paid friends,” who are expected to always stay close to the star, but just outside of the spotlight. “I’ve seen so many of those scenes play out in real life,” says Stewart. “You know, weird stuff goes on behind closed doors, and we [Clouds‘ makers] sort of open them up and go, ‘This is what might be going on in this woman’s life.’ “
The actress also felt grateful to be part of a different kind of movie than she’s accustomed to: a French, dialogue-driven film anchored exclusively by women. “It’s two women sitting in a room basically talking about being women and movies and their lives and their perspectives,” she says, “and it never really cuts away from that. That would never be greenlit in this country, especially at the level that it was [$6.6 million]. Maybe you could do that movie for, like, a million dollars [in the U.S.], but not with the honor that they [the French] give to the stories that they tell, and how indulgent but completely unfrivolous they are, and how willing they are to take risks. They make movies because they have a compulsion to tell certain stories, they don’t make movies to become rich and famous, and that is a huge, massive divide between European and American cinema. The people who I’d like to work with in the States share that — but you have to find them.”
She also loved working with Binoche, a skilled and no-nonsense actress who was once the “It” girl, too; Assayas co-wrote her 1985 breakthrough film Rendez-vous, which made her an international star. But Binoche has managed to power through the BS and has gone on to a remarkable and enduring career. Stewart has had similar role models — and champions — in several other costars, Panic Room‘s Jodie Foster, Welcome to the Rileys‘ Melissa Leo and Still Alice‘s Julianne Moore among them. The reason is clear: If you look at her work outside of the Twilight franchise — before, after and even in-between those five films — there is no question that she has some of the best chops of her generation.
The problem for Stewart long has been that vastly more people saw her in the Twilight films and the accompanying coverage than in anything else she’s done — perhaps everything else she’s done put together — which is why many still regard her as a celebrity trying to pass herself off as an actress. Some of those people, particularly the tabloid journalists who hound her and the faceless multitudes who spend inordinate amounts of time dissecting her life on social media, have the capacity to be very cruel to the people they follow. Joshing references to her habits of biting her lip or running her fingers through her hair have sometimes devolved into truly bottom-feeding stuff. “I’m fully and 100% subject to that,” she says, adding that she hasn’t always found it easy to shake it off: “It has taken serious adjustment time.” But, she says she eventually realized, “There’s just nothing that I can really do about that.”
“If you think about the source of it all,” says Stewart (who clearly has), “which is really the big, big, big green monster of cash, there’s just no way that that’s stopping. It’s a new industry — celebrity news is a whole new form of entertainment — and it’s a huge, booming, f—ing money-making industry, so why would it stop?” Is it all enough to give her second thoughts about continuing in a profession that puts her in that line of fire? Her answer is a defiant no. “I love what I do and so it’s worth protecting,” she says, adding, “Hopefully, one day people’s priorities will shift a little bit.” After a pause, she adds, “Unfortunately, onto somebody else.”
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Perhaps Stewart, like Jerry Lewis, is destined to remain more appreciated in France than in America. Or perhaps, as Twilight and her various tabloid appearances fade further into the past, and as people discover her many other strong performances (Adventureland is a personal favorite) and as she continues to do good work (she’s slated to be in a Drake Doremus movie this year and a Woody Allen movie next year), more Americans will eventually come around to seeing her as an exceptional talent — and more haters and paparazzi will get off her back.
Either way, she’s planning to keep plugging along — and, unlike many actresses, she’s actually looking forward to getting older. “Actresses go crazy when they feel like they want to hold on to what used to be, or whatever,” she says. “I’m so satisfied and happy and absolutely looking forward to what’s to come.” She waits a beat and then adds, “Talk to me when I’m 30, and then I’ll be like, ‘Ahhhhh!'” Turning serious again, she says, “As time goes on, who knows what my ambitions and objectives will be? Who knows how I’m gonna feel about what I do and what that’s gonna turn into? I have a feeling that I’m gonna do this for a while — at least, being involved in this industry.”
“It’s so nice out,” Stewart remarks as we wrap up, and with that, she tucks into her ski cap, puts on her shades and heads off across the busy campus, unrecognized by the many passing students. Were she not accompanied by a big bodyguard, she might have blended in, even to me, as one of them.