A meeting with a Hollywood star usually involves a large suite in a five-star hotel, and levels of ceremony the Sun King would recognise. So what to make of Kristen Stewart who appears in a cosy little café in Los Feliz, a quiet district of Los Angeles, entirely alone; who stays talking to me for three hours; and, when we leave, tries to pick up the bill for my decaf and her almond-milk latte? And this from an actor with a reputation for being difficult and hostile in interviews.
Stewart earned that reputation when Twilight fever was at its height. She had been acting since she was nine, but nothing prepared her for the global hysteria that accompanied Bella Swan’s tortured relationship with an impossibly handsome vampire, Edward Cullen, played by her real-life boyfriend Robert Pattinson. Aged 18, Stewart was jostled and pursued, mobbed, stalked, her every comment and outfit subjected to harsh scrutiny on a whole internet’s-worth of websites. No wonder she seemed guarded during red-carpet appearances and at press conferences.
“Having that much human energy thrust at you and then being critically analysed is obviously disarming,” she says now, hunched over her coffee. “Control issues make me so nervous. It’s not knowing what’s going to happen. So what people were seeing was what happens when you are terrified. My palms sweat, my knees shake, I don’t think I can stand in my heels, I’m breathing heavily, I feel nauseous. I’ll be so nervous and then my body creates something to calm me down and I get so tired I’ll just…” and she slumps over the table.
Stewart clearly needed strength. Some of this came from within: “I’ve taken a step back and relinquished a bit of control. Now, I just breeze through, though there are some things I still get very nervous about. I’m still really personally invested. You could sit down with me in a five-minute interview on camera and really rough me up. It’s not hard to get me upset.” But she also learned to use fashion to her advantage. “I started out in situations that were quite foreign to me, photo shoots, famous photographers, having to deal with designers. I felt quite out of place and young. And I remember meeting some of the worst people you could possibly imagine. Just soul-sucking, cut-throat fashion people, the full-on Devil Wears Prada.
And then I also met some others who were so respectful and natural and creative and involving. Everyone I ever met from Chanel was wonderful, and working with them has been amazing.” So Chanel couture is her armour? “Definitely.” Karl Lagerfeld is, for her, “a well” of knowledge about everything. “As an outsider, I thought, “He’s probably insanely pretentious”; but he’s the opposite of what you’d assume. He’s funny and quick and can talk to you about anything, from film stock to Roman fountains, or completely nail a photographer or break down a situation quite candidly.”
Her relationship with the fashion house was deepened during the filming of Clouds of Sils Maria, a little gem of a movie, which was supported by Chanel and in which Stewart is Valentine, the enigmatic assistant to a famed European actress played by Juliette Binoche. Written and directed by Olivier Assayas, and shot mostly in Switzerland, it looks at fame, isolation, ageing and the complex flow of love between the women. “I was intimidated, in all honesty,” says Stewart of the experience. “I was not only out of my element culturally but working with one of the most renowned French actresses of all time. So it was a quick process of proving myself to her and to myself, too, I guess. Within the first meeting, you either share that spark or you don’t. And we loved each other.”
Valentine has to protect her boss, Maria Enders, from the paparazzi (Valentine refers to them as “cockroaches”, which is also Stewart’s own term for the gutter press), arrange the removal of the cellophane-wrapped baskets of flowers from Maria’s hotel room, read her lines with her, drive her drunk from casinos, and juggle phone calls from her ex-husband and his lawyer. The third character in the film is a rackety starlet, Jo-Ann Ellis, pursued by fans and photographers, whose life, in terms of scandal and press attention, mirrors that of Stewart herself. “I find it so funny that, purely by coincidence, I happen to add an irony to some of those lines,” says Stewart. She was originally supposed to play the role of Jo-Ann, taken by Chloë Grace Moretz, “but that was not for a second acceptable to me,” she says. “It’s a great part, but you would take the irony out of it. I’d be a playing a sensationalised version of myself to make a comment on how ridiculous it all is. But to play the more subdued, peripheral, observant role was very satisfying, obviously. I was loving the words so much that I was grinning inside.” The experience of being a celebrity – rootless and alienated, spoilt, spotlit and alone – is, she says “very accurate. Obviously I know that very well.”
Stewart won a César Award for the role, the first American actress ever to do so. “I think it created a little bit of awareness here,” she says. “Just before the Oscars, I saw it everywhere,” which may help the movie’s progress in the States. Her other recent film, Still Alice, was garlanded at the Academy Awards themselves when her screen mother, Julianne Moore, won the Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role for her portrayal of a linguistics professor beset by early-onset Alzheimer’s. I defy anyone to watch it without breaking down, and Stewart says: “You tell someone the synopsis of the story and everyone has their hand on their heart. It’s a devastating film.” Her character, Lydia, is Moore’s youngest child, an aspiring actress, and she shares some of the movie’s most moving scenes with her mother “Julie truly has genius. She understands filmmaking in a way I really respect. There was such kinship working with her. And we were such a good team. We never stopped talking.”
There are actor who pretend never to read their own press. Stewart is not one of them. “I want to know what’s going on,” she says. “Absolutely. I am not the type of person who doesn’t read reviews. I read reviews. It finishes the process.” She also Googles herself, “If I’m nervous about a dress or something. I don’t want to go outside and not know what people are saying about me. When comments started to exist about me, that very off-putting, but that’s a distant, distant memory now. I don’t give a flying fuck what some kid in Montana is writing about me. But I do like to know generally what is being said, only because I very often have to interact with it, because of the questions I’m being asked.”
She does her due diligence – and some of it must be uncomfortable reading. Observers may be investing these images [paps pictures of Kristen & Alicia] with more signifiance because of a tendancy to blur Stewart’s on-screen roles with her private life. She has chosen, on occasion, to play sexually ambiguous characters. Her excellent portrayal of the rock star Joan Jett in The Runaways includes love scenes with Dakota Fanning, and in Clouds of Sils Maria, Valentine’s relationship with Maria, at the very least, contains a lot of unspoken yearning.
“I’m not looking to tease people,” says Stewart. “I do gravitate towards characters I don’t have to step too far out of myself to play. Naturally, I kind of do like to live in the grey area of life. I don’t find it logical to define things clearly – it doesn’t make sense to me. So there is an ambiguity that I was able to play very naturally in both of those movies.” I ask if she thinks sexyality is fluid, a range, a spectrum. “Absolutely. Yes. That’s something I abide by. Something I feel.”
That ambiguity is also something that plays out in her choice of clothes. “I need a black eyeliner, it would be weird to be without that. But I either like being really sexy or insanely androgynous,” she says. “I don’t like having nice hair, ever. There’s something about it that pushes me over into feeling I’m wearing a costume. So long as I can have my hair the way it normally is, then I can do everything else full on.” Today, she’s more on the androgynous end of the spectrum, in a striped short-sleeve shirt with a heavy silver chain round her slim neck. A new tattoo of a detail from Picasso’s Guernica adorns her right forearm as she leans forward, answering questions wittily, intelligently and with absolute honesty. And this is what is so surprising about her: she is totally unguarded. So much so that she can’t even tell a face-saving lie: “I would say that it’s so obvious when I’m lying that it’s not even lying.”
In interviews, she’ll always find something about a film she can praise, she says, so “I just have to get really good at focusing on whatever was OK. If I didn’t connect with the director, I’ll talk about the great relationship I had with the crew.” Or, as a last resort, “the catering was incredible, we were so well-fed on that movie.” Not that catering has to be particularly special for, although Stewart loves cooking, she can, she says, “eat terribly for long periods of time. I can have meals at gas stations.” I’m not aware of her weight fluctuating, but she says: “I’m a little bigger than sample size when I’m eating cheeseburgers and am happy and comfortable. If I’m stressed or working, the weight falls off. My weight and my sleep are tied to my nervous system. Sometimes I’ll sleep for 12 hours a night and sometimes sleep just doesn’t exist for me for a couple of months. I’m a small person, but if I’m wrecked I get too thin. But then if I’m really happy… I enjoy food immensely and I like a glass of red wine.”
To get into “phenomenal” shape, she needs a month and a personal trainer, but can be pretty fit in two weeks simply by doing press-ups. “If I’m not in good shape, I can do 10. If I’m trying to get fit, I’ll drop and do 20 every half hour throughout the day. I can do 250 push-ups in one day, which is pretty impressive. But I’m such a one-upper. I’m always the kid that’s arm-wrestling with her friends and trying to juggle four balls instead of three and saying, ‘Ooh, can you light this lighter with your pinkie? I can.'”
Her roles in Clouds of Sils Maria and Still Alice are both cerebral, quiet performances, but Stewart is an action heroine too. She remembers charging with 100 other riders down a beach in Wales during the filming of Snow White and the Huntsman: “Both my feet were out of the stirrups and my thumb was broken and I was white-knuckling it, and at the end, they said, ‘That was great! Can we go again?’ and I said, ‘Nope. I almost just died back there.'” As for how she broke her thumb? “Hitting a dwarf or something,” she deadpans.
Stewart has a taste for comedy: she almost admits that her role in Woody Allen’s next project, alongside Jess Eisenberg and Bruce Willis, is lighthearted, but says: “I only read the script once with someone sitting outside my house, waiting for me to give it back. So I imagine I am probably not allowed to tell you what it’s about. But I’m honoured to be working with him. I feel pretty lucky. Not everyone necessarily gets that chance.” She also has a small role in a new Ang Lee movie, and is clearly relaxed about whether or not she’s the lead in a film. “My only reservation about doing small parts,” she explains, “is if they try to put me as second billing or something and I’m in three scenes. It’s inappropriate and embarassing.” I comment that there can be a few actors who fight not to appear in a film’s trailer. “It’s a pretty peculiar situation I’m in,” she agrees. “I’m sure for Jennifer Lawrence, say, if she does a small part in a movie, or Emma Watson, it’s the same thing.”
The film companies clearly use these tactics to make more money, and with good reason. In 2012, Stewart was such a bankabe star that for every 1 dollars spent on a film she was in, she delivered 40 dollars in revenue. “That’s just Twilight,” she says with a shrug. “It’s the only movie I’ve ever done that made any money. I mean, a couple of others have been all right, but that’s the one. Now I’m on the list and now I can green-light projects.” As for what she wants to make next: “I like big American movies a lot when they’re good.” The Hollywood machine can, she says, “be fruitful, but it’s a risky gamble every time, and it takes so much of your time and energy, and it could leave you with nothing.” Indie film-making, though “is the same all over the world. Everyone’s doing it for no reason other than the impulse and the compulsion to create, and that is awesome and I love it. It’s pure. It’s not to get famous or rich. Fame is the worst thing in the world. Especially if it’s pointless. When people say, ‘I want to be famous’ – why? You don’t do anything?”
Whether she’s painting large abstracts with acrylics and blown-up photographs in her garage, or writing free-form poetry, tinkering with a script or preparing to direct her first short film, Stewart is a creator. And what she loves most on a film is being part of a team. The only times she’s temperamental onset are, she says, “not without reason. If someone’s not treating other people well, I’ve felt sort of righteously in a position to tell them. I’ve worked with some men – directors and directors of photography – who just get ridiculous, and it’s all about ego.” Her first exemple of how a woman should be onset was Jodie Foster, when they made Panic Room together when Stewart was nine and, “what was important for her was whether people were being treated well. She was such a grounded matriarch and she took care of everyone.”
Working with strong women is a huge draw for Stewart. “I work better with women,” she says. “I have learned immense ammounts from men and been just as inspired by men, but I think that women inevitably have to work a little bit harder to be heard. And there are certain ways that women accomplish being heard that are unique to them.”
Stewart liked to think of herself as maternal too, a den mother: “Yes, I’m already like that with my little group of friends. I hope so. I love to cook, I love my dogs, I like being home. I’ve grown out of being an isolated person, but the nature of being super-recognisable means it’s easier to enjoy life at home.”
I ask if she thinks Hollywood is sexist and she almost shouts into my dictaphone: “Oh my God, disgustingly! Disgustingly. It’s crazy. It’s so offensive, it’s crazy.” She is proud of Patricia Arquette’s equal-pay speech at the Oscars and says: “Recently, I just got a couple of offers that are laughable. ‘I’m going to make this movie? I am going to sell this movie? And I’m not going to get paid, but you are? What the fuck?’ The Oscars is a platform, a soap box. When I saw Patricia, it was like, ‘Yeah! Maybe I’ll stand up for myself a little more.’ Because at a certain point you’re like, ‘for a girl, this is really good.’ And that is no longer enough.” I ask whether the young male actors she works with feel it for her. “Oh no, they’re very like, ‘Woo hoo!’ about getting more money for the same work.”
As for more degrading sexism, Stewart says she hasn’t felt it: I’ve been really lucky. I’ve never felt used by a director or exploited.” This is perhaps partly because her whole family is steeped in film. She was born in LA, her mother is a script supervisor and director, her father a TV producer, and film sets are where she feels at home. It could also be because Stewart’s attitude to filming sex scenes is refreshingly relaxed. “I don’t mind them,” she shrugs. “I only hate them when they’re contrived. That’s when it’s grotesquely uncomfortable. On Twilight, we had to the most epic sex scene of all time [when Bella Swan finally weds her handsome vamping]. It had to be transcendent and otherworldly, inhuman, better sex than you can possibly ever imagine, and we were like, ‘Fuck. How do we live up to that?’ We were so self-consciously aware of that, me and Rob [Pattinson] and the producers. It was agony. Which sucks, because I wanted it to be so good. Other than that, sex scenes are the same as any other normal scenes.” When I question whether it can really make no difference if you’re topless and lying underneath someone, she protests: “No, honestly. I think we’re really crazy self-shaming weirdos about sex. I just even question when a fairly established actress finally does a scene on a movie when she shows her boobs and she hasn’t done it up until this moment, and maybe she only did it for the prestigious part and it’s ok for this time because it’s classy, and I’m like, ‘Oh God, thank you for revealing to the world your treasure.’ I say, ‘let them in.’ My whole thing is how to close the distance between you and an audience, and you and a character. I just think people are a little uptight and weird about that.”
And so, one of the least uptight and weird people in Hollywood gets up and quietly leaves the café, totally unremarked by anyone. Which is, when you come to think about it, one of the most remarkable acts of all…
‘Clouds of Sils Maria’ is released nationwide on 15 May.’ (UK release)