Interview: Kristen Stewart on being attracted to fear, protective of Jean Seberg and exploring her lighter side
Actress Kristen Stewart didn’t come out of nowhere when she rocketed to stardom as Bella in the massively successful Twilight film franchise, opposite Robert Pattinson. Stewart grew up in and around the movie industry and had her first film role at the age of 12 in Panic Room, playing opposite Jodie Foster. Between Panic Room and Twilight, which she did when she was 17, Stewart was just another child actor trying to find her way in Hollywood, but after Twilight hit, her life and career were never to be the same. Much like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio did after the massive, blinding popularity and success of Titanic, Stewart and Pattinson have leveraged their star statuses to make career choices not dictated by money, but by passion.
In her new film, Seberg, Stewart plays Jean Seberg, the famous, misunderstood and underappreciated American actress who was the icon of the French New Wave in the ‘60s, but whose career and life were cut short by an American government who resented her support of the Black Panther movement.
I talked to Stewart about what it was like to play Seberg, and if she noticed any parallels between their two lives. I also found out whether Stewart considers herself to be an activist and the new challenges she has coming up, including a film adaptation of the Lidia Yuknavitch 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water, which she will write and direct.
AW: I loved your performance in this film. You are continuing to showcase your range. With Charlie’s Angels earlier this year, which I really enjoyed by the way, and now Seberg, you keep finding new tools, new weapons in your arsenal. You also seem fearless. You said that when you were younger, you seemed like the last person who would become an actress, but now it seems nothing scares you. Does anything scare you, professionally, at this point?
KS: Yeah, absolutely. I always consider that, unless there is a distinct feeling that is terror-adjacent, there’s really no reason to move forward with a project. So, yeah. But, at the same time, I don’t function from a place where that fear limits me. It’s something that’s very attractive because it means newness and discovery. I guess the only thing that really was frightening, as a child, trying to interact with the public at large, was that [the fame] was just sort of confounding—the scope of that was just not something I could understand and as soon as I realized that you can just toss that out the window and talk to yourself a little bit while you are trying to promote a movie, and realize, too, that it really doesn’t fucking matter at all and what really matters is the work that you do, I was kind of able to almost look forward to falling on my face, because it’s more interesting than packaging and delivering some bullshit idea, you know what I mean? So I figured, at some point—this wasn’t something I was really aware of because it’s a strange thing to think about unless you are kind of outside of yourself—I just got much more comfortable. It’s literally just becoming an adult. So yes, I just feel a lot more comfortable with the fear, like completely.
AW: So are you looking for new ways to push that envelope for yourself? Like going into directing or writing or, you mentioned in your conversation with Shia, that you’ve never really done a film that required a whole bunch of prep. Is that something that you are really aching to do, that you want to dive into?
KS: You know, funny you mention it. There’s a movie that I can’t talk about yet that is exactly that. I believe I’m going to be shooting it next year, around December, so there will be some time to allow that to become a conversation. But yes, there is something that I am looking to do—I mean, I’m almost at the point of being able to talk about it, I just don’t want to make anyone angry at me. It is that, very much so. And then there is also The Chronology of Water, which is a tricky adaptation and it’s something that I really want correct, for what it is, and I really want to solidify that perspective, mine personally, of the book on paper and I want to find the right person [to star] and I don’t want to rush that process. I’m also doing this movie in January for a friend of mine. So that, The Chronology of Water and the project I can’t talk about yet—both are deeply unnerving, but I don’t want to do anything unless I feel that way, I just feel that there would be no reason. I want to look back on my life and imagine that all those moments were definitely used, at least with the intention of finding newness, some value in why it was scary.
AW: Getting to Seberg, you said you felt very protective of Jean, and that’s partly why you wanted to tell her story. What did you mean by that?
KS: Well, I had this general perspective of her that coincided with the broad perspective, which is “chick from Breathless in the ‘60s, became a little eccentric, moved to Paris and never wanted to move back, drank herself to oblivion and ended her life.” It’s just such an absurd plot line for what actually transpired in Jean’s life and I think that her story is quite urgent, considering this subjugation of the truth and this maddening relationship we have with the truth in media and the idea that a woman who had a perspective which felt threatening to the government at large. She was sort of exiled illegally, not for breaking the law, but just for having an opinion that didn’t coincide with theirs. So that in itself is terrifying, that we actually think, in a broad sense, that she was just this kooky actress who moved away and drank herself to shit. I mean, this woman really went through a lot and it was really violent, and I think that’s absolutely a story worth telling.
And also, I felt personally protective of her because she has this precious, tonal quality. As a performer, she’s completely instinctive and present and available and at the beginning had this buoyancy and this energy that felt undeniable and infectious. It felt naïve, but it felt very well intentioned and it felt honest. And then, as you watch her films progress, that light diminishes and now that I know more about the details of her actual life and what happened to her and her relationship with the FBI and the surveillance itself, it all makes sense. It wasn’t indicative of her weakness, it was more that it was something that happened TO her, a real offense to her. I felt really protective of who that person is.
AW: It’s really interesting that you say that because I was just about to ask you about the fact that the two of you have a parallel in another way. You both are young American actresses who won over the French, which is a very hard thing to do. I think the French get turned off by phoniness and they appreciate artists who are authentic. Do you think the fact that you have chosen to live a very authentic life helped you to channel Jean and to be more protective of that because you are able to live a certain way that she wasn’t able to. Or that you are taking ownership of that much more than she was able to?
KS: Honestly, I think that one of the most frustrating stories that we all have to live with in many different capacities is one of gaslighting. When you know something is true, yet something, standing next to it, that is strikingly inauthentic, is the one that is somehow convincing people of the truth—whatever that may be, whatever that means to you, it’s not a black and white thing. But that story is so frustrating and obviously super urgent. In a way that is superficial and personal, I have tasted that relationship with the public or the media, having things be sort of out of your control or being twisted or whatever. It all doesn’t matter, it’s like being cast in a comic book that’s fairly inconsequential, but for her, it was all wrapped up in her political views and how really truly devastating and impactful those views were and done through the air of truth and maddening for anyone who has an addiction to authenticity and an aversion to things that seem phony. So of course nobody believed her, because she was so real and that was threatening to them. That definitely struck a really immense chord with me.
AW: Do you consider yourself an activist?
KS: No, I mean I stand very strongly for the things that I do, but I have not done any overt work in any of those directions. In the stories that I choose to tell and the people that I align with and the way that I vote, I’m very distinctly on a particular side, but I wouldn’t call myself “activist” per say. Not yet. But in maybe some of the stories that I choose to tell, sure maybe they are a little subversive, in terms of the status quo.
AW: And the life you lead. Speaking as a gay woman, I just have to say that just standing up and being who you are, being the level of celebrity that you are, that in itself is something. Tying it back to Jean, it was kind of referenced in the movie that, oh, she just wants attention, and that’s what was always misunderstood, right?
KS: That idea was used as a weapon to devalue her and defame her, which is just a manipulation, and it’s ridiculous. And it’s so common! That’s what everyone says about women who feel threatening. I mean, that’s a narrative our history is steeped in completely: she asked for it, or she just wants attention. No, she’s just saying things you don’t want to hear, and it’s so obvious.
AW: I know you are a collaborative person, you love that and feed off it. Tell me a little about the collaborative process on this movie.
KS: Well, the script was really well formed. When I first got to it, it really did feel like it was something that I needed to rise to rather than develop with the director. Benedict had already done a lot of work on the script with the original writers. I kind of came in relatively late, so I consumed the reference material that was available, with the director, and watched a bunch of her movies. There really are only a couple of interviews, to be honest, only one of which that’s on camera. I didn’t want to do a spot-on impression because it was kind of hard to do because she was never really the same. The way she did interviews was a different way and the way she presented herself in films with her different characters, and then who knows what she was like behind closed doors, we’ll never know, even though the FBI though that they did, which is really weird, which is kind of what the movie is about. But I wanted to show, in the beginning—and this is something Benedict and I collaborated on massively—was sort of measuring the diminishing light. Even though the story is only concerned with three years of her life, which is really layered and interesting, I wanted to show that, in the beginning of her life and her career, and in her youth, there was this present and available and infectious buoyant energy that busted into every room she walked into and took ahold of it. Whereas I feel like I inhabit space in a very different way and one thing Benedict really wanted to measure and take into precious consideration was that we were telling only three years of her life, but this was an opportunity to tell her life story, not bio-pic style, but her life story in essence. So, at the beginning of the movie, I wanted to make sure I had that buoyancy, that I had that undeniable energy that protruded out really far. Then, by the end, you felt that receding and she was losing herself and you missed her. By the end, you were like, “where’s that girl we started out with?” Even though it would take a different movie to tell that story completely, I still wanted to taste that. And so that was one thing that was more evident in the script, but Benedict and I really wanted to lean more into.
AW: Toward the end, as she’s going down, losing her sanity, you have to play her so close to the edge. How do you play that and how do you stay in control of that?
KS: I was lucky to be working with incredible people, I mean, [cinematographer] Rachel Morrison, who shot the film, she sees everything. She’s somebody who I know for a fact that even if I have something really close to the chest, something that is barely there, I know that I don’t need to worry that somebody is capturing that, that I don’t need to broadcast it or tell someone to make sure they get this shot where I do that one thing. I was always allowed to lose control in the environment that was set up by Benedict. He hired really incredible people, one of them being Rachel. I feel me, Rachel and Benedict had this really nice alchemy. Benedict was always making sure I was not forgetting things, that I was where I was supposed to be at any given time and that I had everything that I needed to do the best I could do, and Rachel had this really watchful eye, so I was allowed really to unravel in a realistic way.
AW: I know you’re from L.A. and both your parents were in the business. Did you have a mentor when you were young and starting out yourself?
KS: My whole family are really blue-collar film people. I grew up being so unbelievably enamored with the process of making movies. Not the business of it and not the Hollywood aspect of it, but truly the process. And how hard it is and how weird it is and how close you get to your friends and how consuming it is for me. Unless you really love it, it’s a really thankless job. And then it actually is a job, whereas I feel it’s kind of just what my family does. So the biggest influence I had was a couple of actors that I felt coincided with that and reinforced that truth and kind of, you know, lived it and gave me an example that it was actually possible and these instincts about what I want have somewhere to go. But I think it definitely started with my family.
AW: With your stints on Saturday Night Live and in Charlie’s Angels, we are seeing more of your comic ability that is kind of new to us. Are you going to explore that a little more?
KS: Yeah, I would love to! As somebody who’s getting older every day, everybody can relate to how the ease that age gives you. It’s this wonderful silver lining. If we have to get old, at least it gets easier and more comfortable to be alive. I’m about to do this movie called The Happiest Season, which is pretty much the first commercial studio-backed gay rom-com about Christmas. So I’m going to do a gay Christmas movie, I don’t know how much more fun that could be. Or how lighter that could be, so I’m definitely down to start exploring that aspect of being alive, laughing instead of being so intense all the time!
Seberg world premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival and will be in select theaters from Amazon Studios on December 13.