Interview: Kristen Stewart opens up about ‘Spencer,’ honoring Diana, awards season (she loves it) and the impact of being an openly queer Oscar nominee in 2022
Kristen Stewart loves to talk.
No, really. I came prepared with three dozen questions and talking points but I probably got through a third of them because Stewart will take one question and break it into five; streaming off into related and seemingly unrelated tangents that always come back full circle. She’s fascinating to listen to. She has the energy of a kid, the wisdom of someone much older and the passion and love for her craft finds the perfect convergence of the two. She walked up to my table in jeans, a yellow crop top and a gorgeous gold brocade longcoat carrying a small class of Guinness in her hand. “I didn’t know it was going to be you!” she said, as she lunged in for an embrace. She’s loving this season, loving being able to talk about Spencer and her love for her director Pablo Larraín.
Stewart has been acting since before she was in double digits and practically grew up on film sets. Her parents are in the business (her father, John Stewart, is a stage manager for live events like Oscars and Golden Globe pre-shows; her mother Jules Stewart, is a script supervisor) but she scored her debut role in 2001’s The Safety of Objects after a talent scout discovered her. Quickly after that she landed the plum role of playing Jodie Foster’s daughter in 2002’s Panic Room. While she’s obviously most known for the Twilight Saga, which began in 2008, since then she’s ventured into more esoteric and complex roles like her César-winning The Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper (both from Olivier Assayas) and even back to blockbuster fun like Snow White and the Huntsman.
With Spencer, Stewart found not just a kinship with her director and subject but an opportunity to further expand her cinematic dialogue and, at age 31, earn her first Oscar nomination; something she truly didn’t expect for a film and a performance that is far outside the box of what the Academy traditionally goes for when it comes to biopics (which Spencer is definitively not).
In my time with her we talked about the joy of her nomination, preparing by watching Sally Field Oscar speeches (“That sounds very presumptuous and crazy and completely embarrassing”), how she and an Larraín made Diana their own but still gave her a truth the audience could understand and the impact of being an openly queer Oscar nominee in 2022.
Erik Anderson: First, obviously congratulations on the Oscar nomination, the HCA win…
Kristin Stewart: Thank you.
EA: …and the Dorian Awards win this morning from the LGBTQ entertainment critics.
KS: Oh, shit. I had no idea. Cool.
EA: Yeah, just this afternoon. I’m a member of that group and we do non-gender categories for the acting categories now for lead and for supporting and you won leading performance of the year.
KS: Wait, that’s amazing. I didn’t know. That’s amazing.
EA: Speaking of all this, how does this kind of acknowledgement feel at this point in your career?
KS: I was looking at acceptance speeches recently, because obviously it’s kind of on topic lately, not to say that I’m trying to figure out what to say. That sounds very presumptuous and crazy and completely embarrassing. It’s just really fun to dig through and watch people have their moment. And some people really dropped the ball. Some people are so moving.
I was watching the Sally Field one, and I think she was done dirty by some, I believe to be … And look, this isn’t all relevant to … I’m going somewhere with this. Her thing, where she’s like, I always thought that she was like, “You love me. You really love me.” She actually says, “You like me. You really like me.” And the whole sort of preamble is about her slightly unconventional path. And the fact that she hasn’t always felt like she’s landed necessarily in a way that’s digestible or … And I’m paraphrasing.
But like, she was like, “I’ve had a touch and go sort of fickle relationship with knowing whether or not I’m coming across or whether or not it’s being received.” And I think she had won before. And then she goes like, she’s like, “There’s no denying though right now, no matter how I’ve ever felt or however I’ve weighed perception in relation to how I feel my place in the world, my orientation reflects my own feelings.” And she was like, “You guys like me. I mean, like right now I can say, you do really like me.”
And there’s a simplicity in just being like, okay, there’s a clarity to the communication that’s so satisfying. Because I’m so about things not always being articulated. I’m so about a movie, or a conversation, or a shadow left behind by art that is more about style and aesthetic and a feeling versus I know exactly what to call this thing, I know the slug line.
People like to know things. And some artists … And I am talking about my relationship the world and the feeling of being kind of very aware of you are in a certain place. And that is very different to my normal feeling in the world. And so, that is very novel and very weird and not, not beautiful. You know what I mean?
KS: Not, not magical.
KS: Right now, it’s like, you don’t need to love the dangling … You don’t know that you like carrots until they dangle them in front of you. And then you’re like, “I mean, I would like to eat a carrot.” And it’s been really fun.
I just spent so many years of my life being like, whatever, as long as I’m true to myself, it doesn’t matter if people understand. And I wish that, tone of voice doesn’t translate in the written word. I am making fun of myself. And so, yeah. It just feels really nice to be like, oh, I’m very happy and allowed to smile and just sort of allowed to be like …
I don’t know, it feels like a big metaphorical hug. And in relation to Diana, it just all makes so much sense because that is how she made me feel. And it just feels like this snowball effect of warm, fuzzy hugs, that I can’t fucking believe it. So yeah, that was a very long way of answering this, but I wanted to make sure that I really told a story.
EA: I liked the Sally Field thing because it felt like you were connecting with that mindset a little bit, with yourself.
KS: She was like, “I never asked for this.” And I was always so comfortable kind of just having my own exchange with the artists that I know and having the voices in the room be marginal and having the voices in the room be on my side, but ones that are expected to be on my side.
My people have always very much been my people. And so, this expansive thing is so wild. I’m like, wait, that never happens. You know what I mean?
KS: It just usually feels a little bit different. Basically, my parents, very, very early on, just did things, worked really hard for the things that I love about movies, not for the things other people think actors love about movies. And so, that now kind of being … I don’t want to use the word rewarded. That kind of being like celebrated or whatever, or just the feeling of being like, yeah man, we feel you. It’s literally just that I’m trying to find all these fancy ways of saying it for a lot of people to go, “Actually. Nah, we all fucking feel you.” It’s literally, it’s a great feeling. And when it doesn’t come, you’re like, “I don’t need it. I just have my tribe.” And you’re like, “No, no, no. It’s nice to have a big, huge conversation.”
EA: I think it almost feels like an air of camaraderie instead of isolation.
KS: Yes. And instead of sort of seeing your particular isolation and kind of glorifying it internally, because you have to love what you got. You know what I mean? It’s like, it’s nice to be like, okay, well, I also would like to do the other thing. You know what I mean? So yeah, it feels cool. Not to fixate on this thing. It’s kind of an ambiguous idea, but also people are like, “What? I don’t care. Tell me about Diana.”
EA: Before we get to that, you mentioned your parents. And I also was thinking about, Oscar related this year is that you, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee were all child actors who have transitioned into very successful adult careers. What or who do you attribute your ability to keep you in that space so that you could be?
KS: I mean, that’s kind of a chicken egg question because I do take a lot of credit for it.
EA: I’m glad you said that.
KS: Yeah, but I am my parents’ kid. You know what I mean? I still think though, If I can unabashedly pay myself one compliment, I will say I am not riddled with debilitating remnants of dysfunction based on being a child actor, which I understand can be really hard. People never stop looking at you. You are always put in a position where you’re either going to satisfy or dissatisfy.
I’ve always really done things for myself. I’m such a selfish, desire based artist. It’s all for me. It’s why I’ve not been entirely tactical in regards to choice. I want. There are things sometimes that I want out of a movie that don’t necessarily go along with like a list of things that are going to result in a good movie. Do you know what I mean?
KS: I am quite often like, “Who cares?” That’s one scene. I just like, or there’s one person that you just need to do that scene with or some director that you have to have a conversation with, even though they’re actually going to ruin this movie. Yeah. there’s really no person.
Obviously, my family’s in the business. They love movies. It’s a really thankless job unless you love it. And I know that sounds obvious, but it’s not. Because everyone thinks they want to be in the biz, and everyone thinks they want to be famous until they are. And unless you’re a film nerd, it will eat you the fuck alive. And that’s the reason. I think reason I’m okay is because I actually love movies and that’s what I’m focusing on. And all the other stuff does feel like noise.
EA: That’s perfect. When Pablo Larraín came to you with Spencer, what was your first thought about it?
KS: I was really excited that someone wanted to make a work of art about the most famous woman of our century and not prescribe her story in terms we already had.
But I didn’t know anything about her. So, the first thought was just, “What is this guy looking for?” He’s obviously on a rampage. The drive that he had on the phone was palpable and the compassion was too. And it just made me so curious because I was seven when she passed away.
I feel the communal loss. And I remember that day when I was seven, I remember the image. I have an image-based memory of flowers in front of Buckingham Palace. And so, I was like, “This is something that is too hot to touch.” That was what I thought. I was like, “Whoa.” I felt like you passed me a meteor. I was like, “Wait, we can’t hot potato with a meteor, man. Where is it going to burn us alive?” And so, I thought, “Wow, he must.” And because I love his work and I trusted the tone of his voice, I was like, I couldn’t wait to unpack why he was sounding so certain.
EA: What about the style and the tone made you say yes? Because it’s not really like a lot of things that you’ve done as an actor. But then I re-watched your short film Come Swim. And I was like, “Wait a minute, I’m getting some precursor elements that make perfect sense.” There are pieces of like Spencer in there just in tone in visuals.
KS: It’s so fucking rad that you say that, because I would never … I’m not being falsely modest or self-facing. It would be so embarrassing to bring up my little baby movie to be like, “I also once tried to externalize an inner feeling and visualize it really sort of in a grandiose way.”
If we never jumped inside of her brain and really, inside of her body, that movie could have looked like … It might have entailed basically this. She got to the house, she changed, she went to the bathroom for too long. She went to dinner; she went back to her room. She went to sleep, she got up the next day, and she left with the boys. Because that actually is probably what happened.
But internally the combustion … It’s like paying that type of credence and honoring female feeling in that way, aggrandizing it, really saying, making large, making a huge, dreamy meal out of something that feels very enormous to one person, but on the outside is diminished by the rest. It’s a really nice thing to do. It’s a really beautiful thing for him to wonder what she was actually feeling like on the inside and realize it in visual terms and have the vocabulary be so extreme.
It’s just saying, you know what? We honor you. Those feelings, they matter. Your truth, your inner truth, that you’re so stifled and never allowed to come out or be expressed by you when you wanted to do it, you can feel that in her before she ultimately found her own pathway to expression. You can feel it just exploding under the earth. I mean it is ground shaking.
And so, I think that when he looks at pictures of her, there is a style that is … It’s more than aesthetic. It’s pregnant. It is exploding. It feels like the friction … There’s a mystery to the friction that has to mean more. And obviously, she got there. We got to the point where we were allowed to hear her be herself and find words for her experience. But I just think it’s very, especially as a man from Chile, movies fucking really let you see your similarities.
And in a time where everyone is … in an accelerated period of time, where it’s very cool that people are allowed to tell their own stories and that people really come for not having a true or knowing perspective from the inside, sometimes the best stories … It takes a foreigner to look at it and go, “I see my myself in you. And what can I do to help you find voice?”
That is an act of kindness. That is what art gives us. That’s what movies do for us. When he said, “Hello, Kristen. I would like to make a movie about Diana Spencer.” I was like, “What the fuck? That is crazy.” I just thought, “Wow, there must be something there.”
So yeah, I think about the Come Swim thing, I will never make movies that are going to be very plot driven. I want to make movies about feelings. I want to make movies about untouchable spaces within your body that can really only be realized visually and the sound. I want to be able to externalize internal feelings. And I couldn’t even write an essay like that. I would need to make a movie. It’s my only way towards touching that.
There are times when you have conversations with people and you go, “I think we might actually be having the same conversation,” but it is so rare. It’s so hard to know that you’re actually communicating and that it’s landing. But when you make a movie, I feel like it just permeates, it’s undeniable. He did that. I tried to do that with Come Swim. It’s just like going, something looks like this on the outside, and this is what it looks like on the inside. Triptychs are such a great … or diptychs. Mine was two, but I love … I just love seeing one thing and then going, but actually it looks like this at the same time. Anyway. I know we don’t have that much time. I’m just like talking for fucking ever.
EA: It’s fucking awesome. No, this is great. I’d love to know more about your collaboration with Pablo and unexpected things that he did that got the Diana that he wanted and the Diana that you wanted to portray and where those met.
KS: Yeah. He was really scared that I was going to consume too much material and become overwhelmed.
EA: And turn it into a biopic.
KS: Yeah. I think he was afraid that I was going to start picking it apart. And because actors are obsessed with authenticity, and also, there’s a fearfulness when you play such an iconic figure for people, they’re going to come for you. You know what I mean? And I think he knew that this was …
You’re naturally signing up to be fodder. And I was fine with that. And I don’t think he believed me. I think I was like, “Dude, I’m okay with not everyone swinging with this.” Do you know what I mean? I can take it. And I just had so much respect.
I have already said it, but I have so much respect for his care for her. And so, I knew that it was going to be okay.
Also, once I rifled through all of the research, the script has so much integrity. It’s so well researched. There’s nothing in it that is wrong. It’s a meditation. There are traces of facts throughout the whole thing, that if you actually are close to the story, it’s titillating. Anyone would be hard pressed to find something that was like …
I think that there are … Not to fixate on people’s problems with it, but I know you asked me about Pablo, but it’s like, she was very vocal about her eating disorder. He was like [doing a Pablo Larraín voice], “We need to go into the toilet with you.”
She wanted to de-stigmatize and she really wanted to help people understand that coping mechanism is not crazy, but that there are others. You know what I mean?
And then when we were wondering like, “Okay, well, when we get into the shower, do we go into the shower?” And he was like, “No, she is a princess.” And I was like, “Okay.” I totally feel that. Because at first, I was like, “I don’t know, what are we going to … Let’s disrobe the princess.” And he was like, “No.” And I was like, “Actually, I fully understand.” That’s not our job. She decided to speak about her bulimia. So, it’s like she invited us into that part. But there are other things where you just …
There are things that felt untouchable in a sort of spiritual way and things that also felt like we could really unpack. The way that me and Pablo came together and found our concentric circles was definitely through the script, not through rehearsal. It was about talking about what every scene was supposed to do and where it was supposed to land, and then him giving me the absolute freedom to find my own path to that end point.
And it was sort of his ability to be an empath and take the journey with me that allowed him to capture it. Because if he just had to take my own path, he would never be in a position to film it, he would never understand how to look at it. But because he took every step with me, he like, this sounds very histrionic, but cried every tear. I never had a feeling or an emotion and didn’t look over and see him sharing it with me. So, we never really talked about how to do it. We just talked about what he wanted it to end up being, like where we needed to get her. And then he was just like, “Inhabit the space. I’m going to follow you around.” And I was like, “That is not enough.” But then it ended up being exactly enough. We didn’t talk a whole lot making the movie. We just looked at each other a lot.
EA: That’s an incredible form of communication though, and one of absolute trust.
KS: Especially when your director is in a mask and all you can see are his little Chilean beady eyes. But I knew. I could feel him on a dime.
EA: I definitely want to congratulate you on your engagement [to her girlfriend, screenwriter Dylan Meyer]. That sort of brings us to a bit of Oscar element and that is that you and Ariana DeBose [supporting actress nominee for West Side Story] are openly queer women. It’s something that seems very revolutionary, even though it shouldn’t be. How do you feel about that? What do you think it means and what does it mean to you?
KS: Being somebody who … I think I would’ve uncovered my queerness so much earlier, had it been pervasive in our culture in a way that was cool.
I always sort of talk about how lucky I feel to not have struggles, but also, I feel a little gypped. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, I think I was trying too hard to do the box-checking thing. Having said that, I’m totally bisexual.
I wasn’t in the wrong place. I never did anything that felt untrue to me. But I also am kind of pissed that I wasn’t encouraged to like girls in high school. Who knows who I would’ve gravitated? Do you know what I mean?
EA: For sure.
KS: I’m like, “What?” Or just leaving it neutral and leaving it up to me. You know what I mean?
KS: Also, when we were doing Happiest Season, I had several people be like, “Why are you guys making a movie about coming out? It’s so irrelevant. I mean, at this point it’s so easy. It’s kind of just getting to a point where it’s like, shouldn’t you make something a little more nuanced, like something a little bit more modern and of our time?” And I was like, “Are you out of your fucking mind? Have you ever left West Hollywood? Have you ever left Brooklyn? What are you talking about?”
I would love to be told, I would love some weird statistic god, to be able to come through, sit here with us right now and be like, “Okay, let’s go through it. From all the Oscar winners and nominees from day one, here’s all the gays.” And we would be throwing down card, after card, after card, after card. Not just the actors, every nominee. Who do you think makes movies? Who do you think fucking does all this shit?
It is crazy that I am. I can’t believe that we’re among the first actually openly gay actors to be nominated. Is that true?
EA: Yeah. Lady Gaga. Angelina Jolie. And that’s about it for women in lead.
KS: That’s fucking crazy.
EA: Yeah, it is. And yet you still outnumber the men, so-
KS: Right. Yeah. Right.
KS: Of course. Yeah, I know. I hope … And this is not in regard to hoping for wins or anything like that, but what a cool opportunity to speak on it. I hope if she [DeBose] wins she goes up says something, I will bawl.
EA: Everybody will. Every kid that watches the Oscars, that little queer kid, they’re going to see that and…
KS: I literally just kind of chills from fucking head to toe.
EA: It will make such a huge difference to them.
KS: I know. And also, I will say to anyone who like … just to anyone who hasn’t come out or had an opportunity and just didn’t come from the generation that we came from, like the one that I’m reaping the benefits of all the work that was put in, like we still feel all of that. It’s still very obvious. It’s just really nice to put a word on it. It is really nice to just … and actually ties in the beginning of the conversation because it’s like, we don’t need that. We are fine, but how nice to be a part of something that’s clear. How nice to be a part of something that actually has a digestible word or sentence that we can ascribe and understand because we’re human and we like to understand shit. It does feel amazing. Yeah.
EA: That’s actually a perfect place to end.
KS: We bookended it!
EA: You brought that around full circle in such a perfect way. I love it. Obviously, I’m wishing you the very best for that night.
KS: Thank you.
EA: But bottom line, have fun.
KS: I will. No, literally regardless.
EA: I know you’re a film nerd, so you can just nerd out with everybody there.
KS: I’m literally, I’m like, wait till … There must be one or two cutaways that you may see if you watch the show of me. Literally me and Dylan and Pablo are going to be like this. [Stewart brings her hands to her face, mouth agape]
EA: Oh, yeah. I can’t wait.
KS: I still cannot believe it. Yeah.
EA: And I can’t wait to see what you’re wearing.
KS: Me too. I have no idea.
EA: You don’t know yet?
KS: No. I’m kind of working on it.
EA: Okay. Then it’ll be a surprise for all of us.
EA: Love it.
Kristen Stewart is nominated for Actress in a Leading Role for Spencer, which is currently able to screen on the Academy Portal and also streaming on Hulu.
This interview has been edited for clarity.