•• LOS ANGELES, Jan 17 (Reuters) - Kristen Stewart strides into the room in a power pantsuit and high-heeled pumps.
Within minutes, the actress kicks off her heels and sits cross-legged on her chair, getting comfortable to talk about the good moment in her career, a very different time from her blockbuster "Twilight" years.
Stewart has earned acclaim for her supporting roles in two art-house films: as the daughter of a woman (Julianne Moore) suffering from early onset Alzheimer's in "Still Alice," opening in Los Angeles and New York this weekend; and the assistant to an aging movie star (Juliette Binoche) in "Clouds of Sils Maria," a Cannes Film Festival favorite out in U.S. theaters this spring.
"I am thrilled. I love movies. I don't have those nagging, regretful feelings about either of them," Stewart said.
"It is a miracle," she added. "Jesus, when the stars align and you are allowed to feel that way, it is why movies are made. It is why they affect people."
Critics have taken note of what the former child actress and teen phenomenon is showing the world at 24 years of age. Variety's Peter Debruge called her "the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation" and A.O. Scott at the New York Times said her more recent roles "should help re-establish her as an insightful and unpredictable talent."
Stewart has known Moore since she was 12 and took on "Still Alice" because she knew Moore would deliver on the difficult role. As it happens, Moore is now the overwhelming favorite to win the best actress Oscar this year for her role as Alice.
"Her capability is astounding and motivating as all hell," said Stewart. "I get on a set with her - and I have been acting since I was 9 - whoa, I am not there yet. I am striving; I am trying."
Stewart's Lydia is the untethered daughter who comes home to care for her mother, who rapidly loses her faculties at the age of 50.
"The movie is supposed to show how you deal with what you still have and you focus on what you retain rather than what you have lost," said Stewart.
Raised in Los Angeles by parents who work in film and television, Stewart "idolizes this industry" and would love to do big franchise movies again and even be a Marvel superhero.
Looking back at her years as Bella, the lovestruck teenager entangled in a forbidden romance with a vampire in the "Twilight" movies, Stewart is nostalgic.
"I felt into it. I loved it," she said, adding, "I got into that for absolutely the right reasons. There was never any regret."
People in the industry have pushed her to go find stories she wants to do and start a production company to have more power over her roles. But she's not ready for that yet.
"I like being hired," she said. "I like the feeling of having no control over something."
•• AM New York: Spend any time chatting with Kristen Stewart and you quickly realize that she's just not interested in any of the trappings of tabloid fame that have been placed upon her thanks to the "Twilight" series.
When it comes to her work, though, the 24-year-old actress has plenty to say.
"Picking and choosing the people that you know you'll do good work with," Stewart says of her criteria for signing onto a film. "And picking projects that you feel protective of. It's so weird. It's like these people become real to you. As soon as I look at a character and I go, 'If I don't protect this person you're going to die,' it's like, you're a psycho. You should probably do this movie."
On screen, Stewart has spent the last year enmeshed in challenging independent movies. First, there was "Camp X-Ray," in which she played a Guantánamo Bay guard who questions her purpose there.
Soon, she'll be seen opposite Juliette Binoche in "Clouds of Sils Maria," from acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas.
And beginning Friday, Stewart has some heartbreaking scenes opposite Golden Globe winner Julianne Moore in "Still Alice," playing the daughter of Moore's college professor stricken with early-onset Alzheimer's.
"Julianne is somewhat kindred," Stewart says of her co-star. "I'm so encouraged by the way that she works. I've worked with actresses that are fantastic and blow me away and confuse me and make me feel, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know if I can ever do that.' We happen to share the love of the process, in all the technical aspects of it and emotional. I've never seen anyone able to juggle the two so masterfully."
Stewart, considered by many critics to be one of the best actors of her generation, has worked with a lot of exceptional older colleagues, including Binoche, Jodie Foster and the late James Gandolfini.
She says she's learned something from all of them that she can apply to her work down the road, though it's sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly what that is.
Her experience opposite the "masterful" Moore seems to have especially resonated.
"Just because you're technically aware [on set], doesn't mean you're faking it," Stewart says. "I knew that, I felt that and I've always been confident about how I do things and why I do things but it felt so good to see that in another person."
•• Vancouver Sun: Kristen Stewart didn't need to stretch herself into actorly knots to feel a familial bond with Julianne Moore in "Still Alice."
She had known Moore, who became a five-time Oscar nominee with her recent nod for "Alice," since her first starring role in 2004's "Catch That Kid," which was directed by Moore's husband Bart Freundlich.
That shoot was "very much a family affair," Stewart says, and she grew close enough to Moore that acting as her daughter in "Still Alice" felt almost too easy.
"It's hard to take credit for anything ... because I like her, and because we get along and we understand each other — and that was captured," Stewart
"As an actor ... you can't work with everyone, to be honest with you. The reason things affect an audience ... is because an emotion and energy like that is contagious, so if you're faking it, people know it."
"For a project that's so ambitious and so intimidating," she added, "I needed to know I would help and support her rather than take away from what she's doing."
In the disquieting drama, Moore portrays a renowned linguistics professor whose charmed life is brought to abrupt ruin with the diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. Rapidly, the astute academic begins vanishing into the mysterious condition while her husband (Alec Baldwin) and three grown children stand by in helpless terror.
As aspiring actress Lydia, the 24-year-old Stewart portrays a character who is both at odds with her mother (over the daughter's refusal to go to college) and yet her closest confidante. She's the only family member brave enough to face her mother's deteriorating state head-on.
Stewart, so closely associated with the blockbuster "Twilight" film franchise, has won critical regard for her "Still Alice" performance.
The New York Times praised her "excellent work" in the film, the L.A. Times concluded that the film "wouldn't be nearly as emotionally effective as it is" without Stewart's presence, and Grantland heralded her "thrillingly natural" performance as one of the 12 most under-appreciated of the past year.
Sitting in the audience for the film, however, Stewart was mesmerized only by her co-star.
"I was present for a lot of her performance, but I somehow watched the movie and I got my head blown off," Stewart said.
"I knew she was going to accomplish something great ... that changed the face of the disease and revealed the fate of its people, but she let you into something that you normally wouldn't witness unless you had to personally experience it."
"Without the pain that goes along with knowing someone who has Alzheimer's ... it's like I've gotten a taste of what that's like."
"It's because of her. She's so ... smart," Stewart added, peppering in the F-word for emphasis. "She's such a genius."
Stewart identifies intensely with her character, "considering she's an actress, she's creative, she likes that grey area — she likes living in that ambiguity."
And yet, Lydia struggles against tepid parental support and an indifferent industry, whereas Stewart's parents drove her to auditions and her career ignited nearly instantly. (She made her screen debut at age 9, starred for David Fincher in "Panic Room" at 11, and landed the lead in "Twilight" at 17.)
Even if the details differ, Stewart — a frequent target of the unforgiving tabloids — explained that she understands an actress struggling with self-belief.
"I don't want to say it's been hard, but... it's not like I've just had 'yes, yes, yes, yes' presented to me. In fact, it's quite the opposite," she said.
"It's weird because I love what I do and I'm, you know, insanely successful at it — but I started acting when I was eight, and there was a year of really botched and failed auditions. And then less literally, I know what it feels like to have people say no to you."
"I know what it feels like to sort of have to fight for what you want, and sort of revel in the isolation that it can bring and revel just as much in the closeness it can bring to others," she added. "I do know that feeling."
Moore claimed the film's sole Oscar nomination, for best actress, and she's picked by many pundits as the category's front-runner.
She recently won the best actress Golden Globe and in her acceptance speech said the filmmakers behind "Still Alice" had initially been told that "no one wanted to see a movie about a middle-aged woman."
Stewart wasn't there but of course paid attention to Moore's speech.
"I genuinely believe that if you reorient an audience's mind, they want the material," Stewart said of a gender tilt in film.
"I'm not crippled by that and I'm not scared of it. Women have always had to fight a little bit harder. It's how the world works."