It’s easy for audiences to forget that if you take away “Twilight,” Kristen Stewart has done mostly indie-minded acting work. Other studio films do pepper her resume — “Jumper,” “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “Panic Room,” “Zathura” — but at a mere 22-years-old, Stewart has an independent streak at least as deep as that of well-respected indie darlings such as Michelle Williams and Catherine Keener. It’s just that much of Stewart’s public approbation has come from the Teen Choice/MTV Movie Award constituencies.
That may change this year.
Stewart’s openly sexual, free-spirited performance as Marylou in the Walter Salles-Jose Rivera adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat bible “On The Road” may be secondary to the central relationship of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, but it’s caused a lot of fevered muttering about Stewart suddenly “growing up” or “taking more risks” as an actor. Many observers have pointed to the “shock” of her willingness to appear naked on screen as evidence to support this.
But that’s more a reflection of how much the virginal Bella Swan role from the five “Twilight” movies has bulldozed the popular consciousness over the last four years. That’s not Stewart’s fault. Really, she was half-dressed or openly libidinous in “Into the Wild,” “The Runaways” and “Welcome to the Rileys,” too, and it’s as if that work has been erased from her history.
Still, there is truth to the sense that Stewart did drop even more defenses in “On the Road,” and it couldn’t be any clearer than in the transporting dancing scene near the end of Salles’ film (more on that from Kristen below). With IFC Films putting mad faith in the movie, which opens Friday, Dec. 21, Stewart shared some insights with Indiewire about how first reading “On the Road” sparked her search for the adventure in people, her ambivalent reaction to having sex scenes cut from the film and what playing Marylou taught her about how “to be completely motivated by the fears in life rather than crippled by them.”
What changed between the Cannes version of the film and the one that showed at Toronto, especially as it pertains to your character?
It’s slightly longer, but that’s not the only difference. There are so many different avenues you can go down with this story. You read the book and you choose what ride you want to take. You can have a different experience every time you read it. I think that Walter wanted to funnel most of the energy — even though you could probably still have multiple experiences watching the movie — he wanted to really focus on the brotherhood, really focus on Dean and Sal. The first one’s just a little more languid. I don’t want to say it was more free-form…
It’s still pretty free-form. It’s meant to be jazzy.
That’s what I mean. It was just maybe a little bit more. But now, he definitely leads you to a place where at the end, the two of them, you’re just so completely invested in them. Not that you weren’t before, it was just a little bit easier to take different rides. But that was perfect for the Cannes audience.
In terms of your character, how did your perspective change from the script to the first version to the second version?
On a surface level, the first one was much racier. You do those scenes, especially, and you look back and go, What the fuck did we do that for? [laughs] Walter, what the fuck? No, I’m kidding.
There’s still a good amount of sex in the new version.
Yeah, there is, definitely.
So you weren’t missing that in the second version?
I don’t know. The last thing I want is for that to be what people focus on, so I’m actually glad, because there’s enough. But at the same time, it’s what it is. There were definitely moments that would have been good, but whatever. If I start at the very beginning, I read the book when I was a freshman.
In high school? That’s pretty early.
I grew up in L.A. I was 13 or 14. It is totally young. On one level it opened a lot of doors for me. I suddenly got incredibly into reading. It really did kickstart that. It was the first one. I didn’t think for one second that I was the type of person that could play Marylou. Ever. Not for one second. I would have done anything on the movie, so I took the part when I was 17 not having — which is a very irresponsible thing to do as an actor, you cannot take a part unless you think you can do it — but I was like, I can’t say no to “On the Road,” I have to try. Probably because those are the type of people I want to meet. I want to find those people and run after them.
“The mad ones.”
Yeah. I think that 14 is how old I was when I looked up and realized that you get to choose those people rather than just getting comfortable with the people that are circumstantially around you. Like, go out and find the ones that fucking pull it out of you! Because [Marylou’s] not in the forefront of the story, she is on the outskirts, you didn’t really know what is in her head and in her heart when the whole story is being told in the novel. I think getting to know the woman behind the character, to be able to connect the dots — because I am a sensitive, contemporary normal girl who definitely was leagues behind her in terms of being comfortable with herself and life — she had that and she was so young. That’s not a teenaged thing, to be completely motivated by the fears in life rather than crippled by them. So that’s why it’s really a very good thing that I grew up a couple of years — I was 20 by the time the movie was made. Even though she was 16 when the story starts, I was a younger 16, I just didn’t have it yet.
That’s a very key thing in terms of taking a role like this. I saw “Welcome to the Rileys,” too. And obviously, the character you play in that requires a lot of open sexuality.
But she’s so much more closed off. The amount of walls that that girl has up was so… This was much more difficult, personally, just because I’m… not that way. But “Welcome to the Rileys” was difficult because it was fucking awful subject matter, it was pretty morbid. This was definitely more fun.
When you’re thinking about choosing roles, and you know that you’re going to be doing things like that and bringing out that part of yourself — especially if it’s not particularly natural to you — where do you bring that from?
Actors that say that they want to really step outside of themselves and play characters that are very unlike them…
Like villains. You’ll hear someone say, “I can get all my rage out…”
See, that’s the thing. They have the rage, though. Do you know what I mean? You can’t not have it. Even if it’s buried really deep. That’s sort of what happens when you read a script and it provokes you on some level that surprises you. You go, “What the fuck was that? I need to find out why that moved me because that’s not who I am.” Usually, those aren’t the aspects of yourself that are clear to you, but they’re still there. So making a movie, it’s always about finding out why reading it was such an experience.
[laughs without answering]
Without putting too fine a point on it, what did you find out?
That I can let my face hang out. It’s definitely not my go-to deck of cards but… you deprive yourself of life as soon as you start putting those walls up. I’ve never met another character/person in my life that squeezed every last drip out of it like she did. Not to say that I’m just like Marylou now. It’s not like, ‘Ooh, I can now finally be free…’ I don’t know. I definitely tasted it, so I know I have it in me. D’you know what I mean?
It would be easy to focus on the sexual aspect of it, but it sounds like you’re taking it in a broader sense.
Yeah, doing that, though? Honestly? The dancing scene was so much more terrifying than any of the sex scenes were for me. I was so scared of it.
It’s hard to dance in front of your friends. How do you do a dance from another time in a giant movie?
We crammed, I think, 60 extras into a tiny little room. Literally, I could feel the floor vibrating. It was so fucking cool. But I was terrified.
So that was actually more impactful or intense than any of the sex scenes?
100 times. 100 times, yeah.
Jodie Foster always said that about “The Accused.” That the rape scenes were difficult, yes, but the hardest thing was the dance before it, when she had to dance all sexy.
Oh. Totally, of course. That would be so much more difficult. That is really interesting. It makes total sense to me.
Has your approach to why you would take a role in an independent film changed in the last few years?
It’s a very particular thing, it’s a very strange job to do. You’re pretending to be another person and you’re letting a bunch of people watch you do that. A lot of people that are attracted to the job can sort of step outside of it and view their career as a whole and kind of shape it, and go, “I want to end up here…” I have absolutely no clue what I want to do until it’s right in front of me. So I’ve just been really lucky, everything’s been quite varied.
Right. But presumably, at any one time, there’s not just one thing that you’re responding to, so you still have to choose. You also have agents and managers who weigh in for their own reasons and agendas.
That’s true. I think if they’re weighing in, then they’re geniuses — and I don’t think this is happening — in terms of funneling things unbeknownst to me.
Convincing you it was your idea…
Or maybe just not showing me everything, showing me only things they want me to do. That actually sometimes does freak me out. But to be truly honest with you, I can’t do things like that. Sometimes movies start out as ideas. Especially big studio movies. There’s a concept before there’s a character, and they’re completely empty.
OK, but to play devil’s advocate: where are you going to go with your character in a “Snow White” sequel?
Oh, it’s gonna be fuckin’ amazing. No, I’m so excited about it, it’s crazy.
Can you give me a hint of where it goes?
I’m not allowed. The other day I said that there was a strong possibility that we’re going to make a sequel, and that’s very true, but everyone was like, “Whoa, stop talking about it.” So no, I’m totally not allowed to talk about it.
But it’s fair to say that there are ideas that have been discussed that totally justify it for you.
Oh my God. Fuck, yeah. Absolutely. And we’ve got a really amazing… [smiles] So, yeah. It’s all good. [laughs]
What’s it like watching yourself have sex? Putting aside the possibility that you have home recordings or anything?
Right. [laughs] Well, I wasn’t really having sex. To be honest, I think if you were to isolate the scenes, it’s fairly ridiculous watching yourself fake have sex. But within the movie, watching the movie, I do get so caught up in this one. I’ve seen it three times, and that’s not typical for me. I have to complete the process, I need to watch the movie at the end of it. But three times?
Why this one then?
I don’t know. Walter could have cut together a 24-hour movie. I watched the movie, and it’s funny, I remember those moments like they’re parts of my life. And that typically happens when you watch a movie, but this one’s strange just because I can’t identify any scene. There are parts, moments, where I don’t feel like I’m watching a movie, I feel like I’m watching a home video. And I know that sounds like crazy talk.
That’s also the way he shot it. It’s meant to be lived in.
100%. So it doesn’t feel that weird to me. I felt like watching “Welcome to the Rileys” was more weird. But that was the point — it was to be a little bit like, you didn’t really want to watch that.
Because in this one, Marylou’s enjoying it.
It’s fucking fun! Exactly. It’s definitely full of love, this one.
What’s your sense of awards campaigning? It must be a weird thing for someone in your position where there are companies trying to make money, and there’s a certain business aspect to this time of year and a movie like this. It’s probably the most important film IFC Films has ever released. That means for someone like you, you’re put out there to kind of peddle it. What’s your sense of your role in that piece of the process?
I would follow Walter anywhere. I’m so proud of him. I would peddle his stuff to anyone in the world. I feel like it makes total sense — standing next to Garrett and Walter and Sam and Tom and everything, like when we were at Cannes, that makes so much sense to me. I’ve never felt stronger. I really like talking about the movie, so doing press for it is actually kind of fun — I’m not bullshitting.
It doesn’t feel like a different kind of press than something like “Twilight?”
It does, it’s just a little less monotonous because people actually want to have conversations about it.
Rather than, “Oh, my God, you’re Bella… I can’t breathe.”
[laughs] Yeah, exactly. Or like, “How is it to be a vampire?”
How many times would you say you’ve heard that one?
Honestly? Hundreds. I’m not kidding.