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Jean Seberg is forever engraved in cinematic history as the darling of the French New Wave. The American star captured audience and critics’ hearts playing the role of Patricia opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless.
But Benedict Andrews’ new film Seberg explores the complicated life behind the screen siren, detailing how the FBI destroyed her life and career after she became a main target of the COINTELPRO projects meant to disrupt and discredit political activists.
Kristen Stewart plays Seberg as the young leading lady who yearns for meatier onscreen roles and desires to make a difference in her work.
After learning of her involvement with civil rights activist Hakim Jamal and later donations to the Black Panther Party, FBI agents, played by Jack O’Connell and Vince Vaughn, lead illegal wire taps and harassment campaigns to bring her down.
Margaret Qualley plays O’Connell’s bright wife who challenges her husband’s work. And Zazie Beetz plays Hakim’s activist wife Dorothy, whose life and family is also destroyed by the FBI’s illegal campaigns.
For Andrews, it was important to make a film that showed how the FBI created a false narrative to bring her down. “They made what we now call fake news,” said Andrews, “how lies are used as weapons in what Jamal’s character calls the ‘war against black people in America.’”
Stewart said that her admiration for the actress grew deeper after playing her onscreen. “There’s this game you have to play in order to keep your platform. And she did it fervently,” said Stewart. “I didn’t realize that all this hunger behind her eyes and just this excited, exuberant need to connect with other people is what made her jump off the screen.”
“She was a really compassionate humanitarian in a time when people didn’t want to stomach that,” she said. “The platform turned against her.”
“To sacrifice something you love for other people is really admirable and a courageous thing to see,” she continued. “We should definitely know her for more than the short haircut.”
For Beetz, the key to telling the story was in how it affected all players involved.
“I think what the film also talks about essentially is there is a joint experience of wanting to do [good], but it’s also still very separate,” she said. “Jean is still a white woman during this time who can physically go to Paris at the end and be removed from the American media.”
“My character and Anthony Mackie’s character are still stuck in our existence in the U.S. and can’t escape,” said Beetz. “Of course you want to do everything you can do, but psychologically Jean never escapes the punishment of what the government did to her. It’s such a tragic ending, but it’s tragic for [our characters] too.”
Stewart said that as an actress she’s embracing her place in the spotlight more. “I’m ready for all of it! Yeah,” she joked, pumping her fist in the air. “I’m so proud of the people that I’ve worked with recently, and I really want other people to see that in an expansive sense. I’m not intimidated by it at all.”
“I don’t have social media, but there is an interaction that I acknowledge and at times I covet. There’s this polarized climate we’re living in, and it’s not hard for me to show my politics. It comes up in my work and my day–to-day conversations. I like that interaction, and I’m so lucky to have it,” said Stewart.
“It kind of toyed with me when I was younger and a little more insecure. Now it’s great that I have this position where I can feel really open about communicating with as many people as I possibly can,” she continued. “I’m not totally engaged socially, but I feel like I’m not hiding.”
Stewart said that when she started as a young actress, the onslaught of attention often put her in a hole. “For a minute a few years ago I felt like I had to protect myself so much. And now I’m totally unguarded, and it’s a beautiful feeling.”
But don’t expect her to go on social media anytime soon. “It doesn’t mean I’m going to start a public Instagram and start yelling at people,” she said.
Seberg premieres Friday in Venice before playing at the Toronto Film Festival. It will be released in the U.S. by Amazon Studios.
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