I met Kristen Stewart somewhat unexpectedly. And I really liked her! I mean, she’s a cagey, cautious person; you can feel her sizing you up while she decides whether you’re an idiot or a nutjob and discerns how much she should stick to polite, neutral remarks. You might be like that, too, if you were 22 years old and the highest-paid actress in the history of Hollywood, and if you had seen an ordinary domestic spat with your boyfriend – the sort of thing a whole lot of 22-year-olds go through, if I remember correctly – become an international front-page tabloid story.
I did not ask her anything about Robert Pattinson or the current state of her love life. Because it’s not my business, and I really don’t care! So if that’s what you want to read, you might have to look elsewhere. But even in a brief and necessarily superficial conversation, I got a few flashes of real personality: Stewart is a young woman with a mischievous wit and a penchant for murmured, foul-mouthed asides who is enthusiastic about her work and also aware that her rocket-like ascension from the little-known indie ingénue of “Into the Wild” and “Adventureland” to a huge superstar has been an incredibly strange story.
Earlier this week, the virgin-turned-vampire of the just-concluded “Twilight” series was in New York for the premiere of a vastly different sort of film: the long-brewing adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” from Brazilian director Walter Salles (of “The Motorcycle Diaries”). A passion project that Salles has been working on for five years – and which he inherited from Francis Ford Coppola, who once hoped to make the film with Brad Pitt and Ethan Hawke in the starring roles – this “On the Road” is decidedly a mixed bag, visually lovely and packed full of music and atmosphere, but only sometimes capturing the syncopated, drug-fueled effervescence of Kerouac’s prose.
Stewart has been working hard to promote the film since its Cannes premiere in May, which is remarkable considering that she plays a supporting role and that it seems unlikely “On the Road” will attract much of a mainstream audience. (Her scenes were actually filmed more than two years ago, just before she shot the next-to-last “Twilight” film.) Her character, known as Marylou in the book and movie, is based on a real person named Luanne Henderson, who was the on-and-off partner of Kerouac’s charismatic, bisexual pal Neal Cassady, who became Dean Moriarty in “On the Road.” (Dean is played by Garrett Hedlund in this movie’s real star-making performance.)
One of the virtues of Stewart’s post-“Twilight” position, as she reflected in our conversation, is that she gets to do whatever she damn well pleases in a business and an era where most working actors have limited choices. She may or may not return to the role of Snow White in a sequel to the darkish fantasy “Snow White and the Huntsman,” and although she’s been cast opposite Ben Affleck in a screwball comedy for “Crazy, Stupid, Love” creators Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, that movie hasn’t begun production. In the meantime, her publicists suggested (with about 12 hours’ notice) that she might be willing to chat for a few minutes in her New York hotel before the “On the Road” premiere.
Although she was photographed later that night in a lacy, sheer and leggy designer dress and alarmingly high pumps, when I met Stewart she was dressed more anonymously, almost tomboyishly, in a pinstripe shirt, tan pullover and slim-fitting blue jeans.
You’ve been incredibly loyal to this film, even through a period when you’ve been getting tons of press for other stupid reasons.
It's hard because we’ve been working on this since we were in Cannes [in May]. When you're promoting something like this, that you believe in, you want to be honest and open and empathetic, but when you get asked the same question …
Like, 35 times.
Right, exactly. And you give the same answers, which doesn't mean that it's fake or rehearsed. It can be something that you've thought about and you, like, totally believe.
You know, I've encountered that, where I've interviewed someone and then I read some other interview with them in a different publication where they say exactly the same things, word for word. And yet I believed at the time that it was a totally sincere conversation. And maybe it was!
It probably was. I'm going to do the same thing right now! [Laughter.] And it's not on purpose. It's not like you sit and remember those things. If you ask someone the same question over and over, the answer's probably going to be similar.
Also, you're an actor. You can deliver something over and over again and believe it. That's one of your skills.
Yeah! Yeah, I guess that’s true.
You know, among some of my movie-watching friends, we've established a convention where we always refer to you as "the girl from 'Adventureland.'"
Aw! That's really funny. That's cool! I love that.
And, you know, it's not entirely a joke. Because I do know quite a few people who loved you in that movie and have very likely never seen those other somewhat more popular films that you did. [Laughter.]
Yeah, I get that.
I think of your career as something out of quantum physics, where you can't predict a precise trajectory for a particle, only probability. There was a probable trajectory for you that’s way more plausible than what actually happened. It definitely leads from "Adventureland" to "On the Road," and in between it includes "Welcome to the Rileys" and "The Runaways" and some other hip little indie films that never actually happened. It does not include the wildly unlikely thing that happened where you made a strange little vampire film for teenage girls and became the biggest movie star in the universe. Do you ever think about that?
Yes. It's funny. I guess the time I think about that is when I'm asked if I'm pissed about being typecast, if I feel like people hold me to one idea. I would definitely have a huge problem with what happened if it kept me from doing what I'm doing — things that have really challenged me. Which includes "Twilight," by the way.
I've never really been able to project myself into — see, when people ask me, "Where do you see yourself? What type of actor do you want to be? What type of movies do you want to do?" I can't answer those questions. I have not been able to step outside and think about what I want it to look like. You get the right feeling, and you just sort of trudge forward.
Part of the "Twilight" legend is that when you and Rob and the other actors who signed on were cast in the first film, Catherine Hardwicke was directing, and you had no idea what you were getting into and how big it would be. Is that accurate?
Oh, yeah. Even within it, while it was happening — to expect something like that to sustain would have been crazy. We had no idea. As far as we knew, it was a one-off. Catherine Hardwicke did smaller movies. We had no idea going into it that we would even have a sequel.
Before I let go of "Adventureland" -- and I would happily spend our 15 minutes just talking about that -- I want to mention that even though it wasn't a hit and was maybe poorly marketed, I think [writer and director] Greg Mottola should get credit as a talent spotter. You're in that film, Jesse Eisenberg is in that film and Ryan Reynolds is in that film, and none of you was all that well known at the time.
That's true. And look at "Superbad"! That had Michael Cera, sort of for the first time. I know he did "Arrested Development" and stuff. But in film, it was the first time anyone was like, "Oh, there you go! There's that dude!" It had Jonah Hill, Emma Stone. It's crazy, you're totally right.
I was startled to realize, looking it up, that "Adventureland" came out less than four years ago. But a lot of stuff has happened for you since then! Does it seem like a really long time ago?
Actually, it does. I did that right before "Twilight," so I was 17. It was right around the same time I met Walter Salles, who was already trying to make this film ["On the Road"].
Knowing what you know now about what would happen after you took that role with Catherine Hardwicke ...
I mean, seriously, I can't imagine what it must be like to be 22 years old and to pretty much have lost the degree of privacy and anonymity that 99.9 percent of us take for granted.
Oh, man – like, severely!
So would you do it over again if you could?
Yeah. Definitely. I mean, on a number of levels. I wouldn't exchange the process of making the movies. Usually I've got five weeks, or five months tops, to go crazy and obsess about a character. If you had described the weight of it to me initially, I would have doubted being able to sustain the type of energy that it takes to make a movie. By the end of a movie, a lot of actors will go home and get sick; there's a huge recovery period. It's like, you expend all your energy. To find a project that allowed me to have that same feeling for five years -- I would never, I can't trade that. It's mine! Obviously your experiences make you who you are, and that is such a huge part of me. I can't imagine not having it.
And at the same time, I love movies, and I love having a strong foothold in this business. I definitely don't deny the freedom that it's given me, as an actor, to do whatever I want. To choose things that are really weird or things that are really cool and commercial. You know what I mean? Actors normally do what they can, and it's great to not have to.
Do you hold out hope, now that the "Twilight" series is over, that the amount of ludicrous media attention that you've gotten at times will normalize?
Yeah. And, I mean, even in the most ludicrous times, I feel very normal. It's hard to say in black-and-white terms, but on some level I suppose I have a unique perspective. I look through a really strange lens at the world because of all this. But it's no less interesting. I'm not deprived of any bit of life, you know? It would be really stupid to deny how interesting it is to look at the world in this way.
Are you keeping notes? Are you going to write a book or something? I don't know if that's your instrument.
Yeah, I don't know. I do love to write, but I don't know if I'm the best storyteller. [Very low voice.] Basically, people are crazy.
I remember seeing you a couple of times, like across the room, at parties at Sundance when you were there with "The Runaways," and it did seem like you were doing a pretty good job of having a normal experience -- despite the fact that there were 80 photographers standing outside waiting for you to leave.
Yes. And at Sundance it's really disconcerting. It's like, "Come on! Let me have this!" That actually does bug me -- situations like that, where it's inappropriate. That's what really pisses me off.
Well, you were the person that year who was bringing the star power. Because at Sundance, you can just run into people on the street at random. I once walked right into David Bowie, and no one was even paying attention to him.
Right, it's true. And the problem at Sundance for me, at that point, was that you would show up at a place and people would go [exasperated sigh], "Oh, God. Great!" There's all these people and it's crazy. You're like this cloud -- you're at Sundance and you smell. You're not indie anymore, you know? You're bringing the paparazzi. I'm like, "I fucking grew up here! What the hell!" [Laughter.]
Maybe this is an odd thing to say given how much money and how much adulation you've gotten out of the "Twilight" series, but I wonder if you feel like the difficulty of the acting challenge has gone underappreciated by critics and non-fans. I mean, they're not my favorite movies or anything, but they're a lot better than the books! The cast in general does good work, and your character feels very well thought-out and precisely crafted. Do you feel like people don't notice that?
I don't know. I feel like people think that's me! [Laughter.] It is pretty funny. I say this all the time, and I don’t want to contradict myself: I feel really close to all the characters I play. I'm not the type of person who hides behind a role. I'm not a character actor. The reason I'm ever able to do the job is, like, you read a bit of material that reveals yourself. It can be shocking and surprising, and there are aspects that are a little bit more buried than what seems to be apparent. But at the same time, it is crazy for people to think that I was vicariously having this experience, just dipping along through "Twilight"-land.
But then, a lot of your fans think that, too, am I right?
Oh, for sure! People think that that's me, that that's who I am, that I am Bella. It is crazy. Because I am — quite different, in so many ways. Just the other day, somebody asked me in an interview, "So, does it bother you that you're definitely no critics' favorite or whatever? Don't you feel like you want some validation or recognition, a pat on the back?" And, I mean, oh my God. It is so not the issue. It's kind of the same answer that I had about being typecast. If I suddenly started hitting walls, if I felt like I wasn't being challenged anymore, if I felt stagnant, that would be one thing.
But I feel like I've been so lucky to keep moving. As soon as you start doing things for that reason, it's so crazy. Plus, then you talk to people who really want to talk about your movies and are really into it. So, it just doesn't feel like his general perception, which was pretty much that I'm the "Twilight" girl that everyone shits on.
Had you read Kerouac's "On the Road" before taking this role? [She nods yes.] Because it is so much a boy’s story.
It's a boy book.
I mean, the girls are there for sex, for sure. [Laughter.] But he's not overly concerned with their individuality, their inward thoughts, their personal journeys. And somehow, you found a real person there, a very physical person, but a person who seems alive and present and at least somewhat in charge of her life.
It's not their story, and I was definitely scared about playing a caricature, somebody who was just serving as ambience, setting the tone for the wild and crazy party scenes. Reading the book, there are all these little details that make Marylou seem just a little curious. You wonder about her for sure, but you do not know where she is emotionally or personally at all. To play the part, it put it on a completely different plane as soon as we got to know the people that these characters were based on.
In your case, you're talking about Luanne Henderson, who became Marylou in the book.
Yeah. The reality of the situation is definitely not on the screen, but I think it's felt, and more so than in the book. I don't know -- for anyone who might read the book and think that the women are used up, that they're used and abused and taken from in a way that leaves them empty -- you couldn't do that to this girl. Like, it was impossible. She was the most formidable partner for him; it was such a push-and-pull. They knew each other until the end of his life, and he couldn't stop going back to her.
Knowing some of those things and hearing the way she recalled her life -- it was so personal to her, and she was so unaware of the movement she was part of. It was really rare to find a character who was that young, and a girl of that time -- not to sound super-obvious about it -- who was so proactively living her life as her own. She wasn't crippled by the fear that comes with being a teenager and not knowing where you're going and not really knowing yourself yet. She had this trust in herself and was so self-aware and so unself-concious. She lacked any bit of vanity, which was, especially for a pretty girl -- she had no idea. She was literally the most empathetic, generous, awesome person.
You know, when you read the book you can get the feeling he got around these people. How much he loved them and how remarkable they were. It's great. But when we listened to these tapes, it was just so uncanny. We're five minutes into listening to this woman speak, and we were laughing; we were giddy about it. She's amazing! We were in love with her instantly, and she hadn't said more than a few sentences. That's what Kerouac was talking about; he was not fucking around. He was right! That was what made it so much fun.
“On the Road” opens Dec. 21 in New York and Los Angeles, with national release to follow in January.