Of all the actresses in Hollywood, Kristen Stewart is the most effortlessly cool. With her cropped hair and laid-back, tomboy style, she’s a striking androgynous beauty. She’s like that girl from school who you admired for her mystery and quiet confidence, and who you kind of hated for her ability to somehow make even sweatpants look stylish. Stewart is distinctly different from a lot of actresses her age – there’s no pomp and circumstance, no presence on social media, no selfies, no paparazzi accidentally-on-purpose catching her in a skimpy bikini on Malibu Beach. She’s more understated than that, a quality that comes across not only in her personality, but also in her acting. She’s subtle. She doesn’t overplay it. With Stewart, it’s often more about the internal monologue. It’s all in the eyes, those piercing green eyes that are at once gentle, wild and menacing.
Stewart was just 17 when she was cast as Bella Swan in Twilight, the vampire-romance saga that made her an international superstar, and proved she could anchor a multibillion-dollar movie franchise. But she is not one for the beaten path. In the two years post-Twilight, she’s strayed from Hollywood blockbusters, instead reinventing herself as a queen of indie film, with roles in the critically-acclaimed Camp X-Ray, Clouds of Sils Maria and the current Oscar nominee, Still Alice. And with an eclectic trio of new films to be released in 2015, there will be no stopping Stewart. She’s restless and unpredictable, like a good rebel should be.
We meet on a Monday afternoon at Cafe Figaro, a lunch spot in LA’s Los Feliz neighbourhood. She is casual in a cut-off t-shirt, loose-fitting slacks and yesterday’s make-up. She has a firm handshake. Stewart grew up in LA, the daughter of parents in the film industry. But it wasn’t the glamorous Hollywood childhood you might be imagining. Home was in the San Fernando Valley – known for its heat, porn studios and obscure smoothies. Her mother is a script supervisor and her father a stage manager, but Stewart is adamant they were never “stage parents”. “My parents were both fairly shocked at my interest in acting, because I wasn’t an actor-y type of kid,” she says. “They quickly made me very aware of the unlikelihood of becoming a successful actress.”She remembers her first year of auditions as being fruitless. “Everyone thought I looked like a boy,” she laughs. But her parents agreed to continue carting her around to auditions, primarily because of their daughter’s growing interest in the process of filmmaking. “I basically grew up on a movie set,” she says, “and I loved being in that environment.”
Stewart landed her first film role aged nine, playing a tomboy type in Rose Troche’s The Safety of Objects. Her break came a couple of years later when, at 11, she was cast to star alongside Jodie Foster in David Fincher’s 2002 thriller, Panic Room – again, playing the role of the tomboy. It was a role true to her own life. As a young teen she was made fun of at school for wearing her brother’s clothes, not shaving her legs, and basically just refusing to be a typical Valley girl. At 14 she quit and opted for home schooling. “My childhood was very free-form,” she recalls. “I did well in school, but I never felt a specific pressure. I was always very much allowed to find my own interests and pursue them.”
That free-form nature has seemingly informed the way she chooses her film endeavours. She has said many times that her approach to choosing roles is intuitive, not pragmatic – that she “just needs to feel it, let the script strike me and destroy me”. Still just 24, her work is all over the map, proving both her range as an actress and her willingness to take risks. To name a few: there was the Sean Penn-directed Into The Wild; the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s hipster bible, On the Road; The Runaways, in which she portrayed Joan Jett; her role as Snow White in the Hollywood blockbuster Snow White and the Huntsman; and her performance, last year, as a soldier in Guantanamo Bay, in Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray. Stewart will be the first to tell you how “totally fucking lucky” she feels for the opportunity to have played such a wide variety of interesting and complex roles, because she knows such roles are limited in the industry.
In recent years, the roles for women in Hollywood – more specifically, the lack thereof – have become a hot topic. It’s no secret that women are vastly underrepresented in film and TV, both on screen and behind the scenes. At the 2014 Academy Awards, Cate Blanchett used her Best Actress acceptance speech to call for more leading roles for women, criticising those within the business who are “still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the centre, are niche experiences”. On a more optimistic note Maggie Gyllenhaal, while accepting an award at the Golden Globes last month, commented on what she felt was an increasing wealth of interesting roles for female actors, which she deemed “revolutionary and evolutionary”. I wonder whether Stewart, having been in the business for 15 years, feels that Hollywood is beginning to atone for its historic dearth of complex female roles.
“It’s impossible to deny that the good projects for women stand out like flint rocks on dry, crusted earth,” says Stewart. “That’s true for women in my age group, which is why we’re all jumping so ravenously on those projects. I think women have always had to fight a little bit harder, and I don’t think that’s going to change instantly. But I think Maggie’s right, and that things are moving forward.” Despite the fact that more moviegoers are women, she notes, male leads dominate the screen, because that’s what studios and producers think is “safe”. This is an essentially archaic idea. “We sell our audiences short,” she continues. “Nowadays, movies are financed almost purely out of systematic fear, like, ‘OK, this project is going to assure me a paycheck,’ or ‘this movie is sure to get me my money back, based on an equation created by a research scientist.’ There’s no risk anymore. And it’s so cliché to say, but in order to do really great things, we need to take risks.”
Stewart pauses, her face tenses up a bit, and she organises her thoughts carefully, no doubt aware of how easily her words could be taken out of context, and made to sound ungrateful. “It’s silly to play the devil’s advocate when having a conversation about female roles in Hollywood, because then you’re doing this ‘reverse feminism’ thing that has become weirdly trendy recently. I feel like some girls around my age are less inclined to say, ‘Of course I’m a feminist, and of course I believe in equal rights for men and women,’ because there are implications that go along with the word feminist that they feel are too in-your-face or aggressive. A lot of girls nowadays are like, ‘Eww, I’m not like that.’ They don’t get that there’s no one particular way you have to be in order to stand for all of the things feminism stands for.” She credits the feminist kickback to what is ultimately a lack of knowledge about the subject – an issue that was also addressed by Emma Watson in her recent UN speech about gender equality and feminism. “It was really cool that she did that,” Stewart says enthusiastically of Watson. “That was badass.”