The actor’s naturalistic style is captivating to some and inscrutable to others. As Princess Diana in “Spencer,” she takes on the biggest role of her career.
The airport in Telluride, Colorado, is small and private. The town’s film festival, held each year during the Labor Day weekend, has a reputation for intimacy—celebrities are not subjected to red carpets or corsetry, and the looming mountains have a way of making Hollywood seem garish and far away. This year, Kristen Stewart flew to Colorado from Venice, Italy, where “Spencer,” a new movie in which she plays Princess Diana, had just premièred. The first reviews of her performance (“ ‘Spencer’ Stuns Venice, Earning Standing Ovation and Oscar Buzz”—Variety) were published as she slept above the Atlantic. She stopped at a hotel to change and have her dyed blond hair styled in a messy updo, then went directly to the Werner Herzog Theatre, along with Pablo Larraín, the movie’s director, arriving only a few minutes behind schedule.
Her look was nineteen-fifties suburban dad: a black-and-white cabana shirt over a cropped white tank top, blue jeans, red suède creepers, white socks. Stewart, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, describes herself as California to the core—she has “L.A.” tattooed on a wrist—and few people since James Dean have looked better or more at ease in a T-shirt and jeans. She seems to channel a lineage of countercultural American femininity: rockabilly girls and punkettes, Beat poets and skaters, Jordan Baker rather than Daisy Buchanan. She was convincing as Joan Jett, in the 2010 bio-pic “The Runaways,” and as Marylou, the sixteen-year-old bride of Dean Moriarty, in the 2012 adaptation of “On the Road.” Now she was playing a different misfit, the twentieth century’s most famous princess. She told the audience that Telluride was the best festival, and that she’d never had more fun making a movie. Then everyone settled in to watch a film about confinement and despair set to a frequently menacing score of free jazz.
“Spencer” takes place during the Royal Family’s Christmas holidays at Sandringham House in 1991, at a breaking point in Diana’s marriage to the Prince of Wales. Surrounded by quivering Christmas jellies and glistening puddings, the Princess is cut off from the world and oppressed by royal traditions; eventually, she is haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn. The score, by Jonny Greenwood, raises the tension to nearly unbearable levels. Early in the movie, Diana sits at dinner in the throes of an anxiety attack, dressed in a green gown the same color as the soup in front of her, and crunches into a string of pearls. (The gems are a source of humiliation: Charles has bought the same present for his wife and for his mistress.) The necklace reappears later, fully intact, making it clear that Diana is mentally unravelling. “The piano wire snaps way quicker than I thought,” Stewart said, when I asked her about the scene. “Spencer” has less in common with “The Crown,” the Netflix series about the Royal Family, than it does with “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Gaslight,” films in which the mental breakdown of the female lead is the rational response to conspiracy, and madness looks something like resistance.
Thirteen years ago, at the age of eighteen, Stewart became internationally famous as the star of “Twilight,” the adaptation of a young-adult novel about vampires and werewolves in the Pacific Northwest. The film and its sequels gave Stewart a legion of fans but, in other quarters, fixed an impression of her as the oddly inexpressive star of mawkish teen movies. Online, a host of memes appeared featuring images of Stewart with captions such as “Five movies, one facial expression,” or “I don’t always smile, but when I do, I don’t.” The jokes captured something about Stewart’s naturalism and restraint, qualities of her acting that some find captivating and others inscrutable.
“There are certain actors and actresses that can become, in my eyes, transparent,” Pablo Larraín told me, sitting on a bench in a park in Telluride between screenings. He meant the adjective pejoratively. He went on, “You can see sometimes a movie that is too transparent, so I don’t understand what I’m doing as an audience,” because the filmmakers are “giving it to me completely digested.” Larraín, who grew up in Santiago, Chile, is thoughtful and bearded. He made his first English-language film, “Jackie”—as in Kennedy Onassis—in 2016. That same year, Stewart starred in “Personal Shopper,” an eerie art-house film about an American in Paris trying to connect with the spirit of her dead brother. In Stewart’s depiction of the isolation of grief, Larraín saw the qualities that he wanted in his Diana. Both of Larraín’s parents have served in the Chilean government; his mother, a descendant of one of the country’s wealthiest families, was always interested in Diana, he has said. “There’s something that needed to be magnetic and, at the same time, very mysterious,” he told me of the role as he envisioned it. The veteran British screenwriter Steven Knight wrote a script for him, and he sent it to Stewart. Then he called her up, and, “with her perfect American accent,” she said, “Dude, I’ll do it.”
“Spencer” makes use of Stewart’s mystery and magnetism but also pushes her into styles of performance that her previous roles have not. She does an accent, of course, and plausibly mimics Diana’s familiar mannerisms; she also imbues the character with a melodramatic hyperbole that takes her beyond historical depiction and, at times, into comedy. Her Diana tries to shape-shift her way out of powerlessness—eyes downcast and voice breathy in moments of pliancy, chin raised with imperiousness when breaking rules, her moods oscillating unpredictably as she strides through the castle halls at a rapid clip, like a woman pursued.
The day after the screening, Stewart went paragliding off a cliff, then attended a press reception for the film at an Italian restaurant on Telluride’s main drag. She was accompanied by a few friends and her fiancée, the screenwriter Dylan Meyer, whom she began dating in 2019, and who proposed to her this past summer. Stewart has publicly dated women for most of her adult life, shrugging off the heteronormativity of traditional Hollywood stardom with a nonchalance that seems partly temperamental and partly generational. She mostly shies away from social media, though she occasionally makes cameos on Meyer’s Instagram. Her friends, practiced in the art of standing on the sidelines, made their way to the bar as she shifted into professional mode, ready to be led around the room by a publicist.
I joined her, and watched as two ecstatic organizers of a film festival in Indianapolis volleyed effusive compliments her way. Stewart cracked jokes and stretched her quadriceps. Her California locution, full of f-bombs and “dudes,” seems to put people at ease. “I wish I was able to go to some of the more micro festivals,” she said, before adding, “Not that your festival is micro!” She grabbed her foot and mimed putting it into her mouth. They shooed her away, charmed. I stayed for another drink with one of the pair from Indiana, who confided to me over a Cosmo that, as much as he liked “Spencer,” he loved “Twilight.”
A few weeks later, I made plans to meet Stewart in Los Angeles. She wanted to golf. Her dad taught her how when she was a child, and she had recently resumed the habit. She suggested that we meet at a city course in Griffith Park. The dry September air hung hazy above brown hills, hummingbirds sipped at flowers, and elderly men shuffled around the green.
If you Google Stewart’s name on any given day, you are likely to find, on several Web sites, detailed descriptions of what she wore while getting an iced coffee or picking up groceries. She arrived at the course, without any apparent paparazzi in pursuit, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, pink-tinted sunglasses, and Adidas. “I haven’t really figured out my golf look,” she admitted. She walked behind the clubhouse to do reconnaissance. “I like to gopher it out first,” she said, squinting up at the driving range, where a crowd of mostly male golfers dressed in khaki pants practiced their drives. Someone was occupying her preferred spot, a shady corner on an upper level with a bench. “Maybe he’ll leave,” she said. We walked back to her black minivan—its name is Beth, she told me—and she retrieved her golf bag. After filling a basket with balls from a vending machine, she unpacked her gear and put on a white leather glove, keeping an eye on her spot. Then she turned to me. “So,” she said, “what do you want to talk about?”
Stewart grew up in Woodland Hills, a suburban L.A. neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley. Her dad was a stage manager, overseeing the rehearsals that precede a shoot, and her mother was a script supervisor, responsible for insuring that there was continuity between the scenes of a film. Both parents often came home late, with candy pilfered from craft services and stories about the long hours on location. Stewart thinks that it was her proximity to the energy of a movie set, with its punishing schedules and coördinated effort, that drew her to acting. She dates her career as a performer to the second grade, when, riddled with anxiety, she sang a dreidel song as part of a holiday pageant. Shortly afterward, a schoolmate’s parent advertised a workshop to teach children how to audition for TV and movies, and Stewart surprised her mother by asking to sign up.
The Stewarts were a crew-oriented family, she told me, and playing stage mom on someone else’s set came with some embarrassment for her mother. “I think when I presented her with this she was, like, ‘Shit, I’ve told her she can do anything she wants, now I have to drive her to these fucking auditions.’ ” Stewart tried out for a number of commercials, but the artifice of advertising didn’t come naturally to her. “I was so bad at auditioning for commercials—like ‘Try the soda pop,’ or whatever,” she told me. But, when she was about ten, she got the part of Patricia Clarkson’s tomboy daughter in the indie drama “The Safety of Objects.” A year later, David Fincher cast her as Jodie Foster’s tomboy daughter in his thriller “Panic Room.”
The movie took several months to shoot, much of which Foster and Stewart spent in a small room together. Foster, who began acting as a toddler and was famous by the time she was fourteen, told me, of her co-star, “I can’t say she’s my doppelgänger, but I do feel like, when she was little, I felt everything that she was feeling, and processed things the same way.” In Fincher’s film, Foster plays a recently divorced mom re-starting her life in an Upper West Side town house that is soon invaded by a dopey rich kid and his partners, who are trying to find a hidden stash of money. Stewart, zooming down hallways on a scooter, wearing a Sid Vicious T-shirt and a thumb ring, is a figure of loyalty in a feminized opposition. Even then, Foster told me, Stewart was an unusual performer: “She shows onscreen how she struggles with demonstrating emotion.”
“He’s made a move,” Stewart said, referring to the golfer in her spot. We walked to the shady corner, which was littered with cigarette butts despite the flammability of drought-stricken Los Angeles. Stewart set down the basket of balls and selected a club. She hadn’t thought about “Panic Room” in a while, she said, teeing up for a drive. What she remembers from her early years of acting is a fear of letting people down, which was often so intense that she came to the set feeling nauseated, with sweaty palms. She also remembers the satisfaction of pleasing grownups. “I hope this doesn’t sound totally arrogant, but adults in the room were moved,” she said. “Compared to what was going on in the third grade, it seemed really cool.”
Apart from the elementary-school audition class, Stewart never studied acting. For a long time, she rarely rehearsed, or even practiced her parts in front of a mirror. She preferred to learn her lines on set, right before filming, so that it would seem, on camera, as if they had just occurred to her. The Method, an approach to acting in which one draws on personal memory, struck her as an alienating prospect. But her focus on real feeling, rather than the outward expression of it, does have some kinship with that technique. “Maybe I’m extremely Method,” she acknowledged, “because it is me, and there’s no separation, and I believe it so fully when it’s good.”
“She has an unrealistically high bar for her own authenticity,” Jesse Eisenberg told me. Eisenberg co-starred with Stewart in “Adventureland,” when she was seventeen and he was twenty-four. Later, they appeared together in the action comedy “American Ultra” and the Woody Allen film “Café Society”; for a moment, they seemed like the millennial answer to Tracy and Hepburn. “She once called ‘Cut’ in the middle of a take and said, ‘I’m sorry, I was lying to you,’ ” Eisenberg recalled. When they filmed “Adventureland,” a dramedy about college kids working at an amusement park during summer vacation, Stewart had not yet been cast in “Twilight,” but Eisenberg felt distinctly that he was working with a movie star. “I don’t understand how to articulate that,” he said. “Which is why we have the words ‘movie star.’ But: an enigmatic quality, mixed with a naturalism, mixed with an emotional depth.”
While they were filming, in Pittsburgh, Catherine Hardwicke, the director who had been hired to adapt “Twilight,” flew there to audition Stewart for the role of Bella Swan, the girl who falls in love with a tortured vampire named Edward Cullen. Hardwicke had seen Stewart in an early cut of “Into the Wild,” about a young man who leaves society behind and ends up dying in the Alaskan wilderness. Stewart plays a girl who falls for him along the way; in one scene, he does sit-ups, oblivious, as she gazes at him with exasperation and desire. Hardwicke saw in her the kind of longing she needed for Bella. She brought a young actor, Jackson Rathbone, with her to Pittsburgh, and had him and Stewart rehearse scenes in a hotel room and improvise in a park. “At the end of it, I was just convinced,” Hardwicke said. “She’s Bella. She’s got to be Bella, because she keeps it so grounded and so real.” She added, “I built the whole film around her.”
Of acting, Stewart said, “It is me, and there’s no separation, and I believe it so fully when it’s good.”
One day, Hardwicke said, Stewart “just kind of mentioned that she was raised with wolves, real wolves—that the family took care of wolves.” (They were actually wolf hybrids, as Stewart’s mom, Jules, told Us Weekly in 2013, after a neighbor accused her of harboring wolves on her property.) Of the director, Stewart said, “I just thought she was—she felt crazy.” Stewart had seen Hardwicke’s teen drama “Thirteen,” which cleared her bar for authenticity. “She was kind of the perfect person to do a young-adult novel that had these dark romantic elements. She had this childlike openness and teen-age triggers, and her whole sensibility was that the movie was going to feel horny and overconfident.”
To cast Edward, Hardwicke had actors come to her house in Los Angeles to read with Stewart and make out. “It was so clear who worked,” Stewart said, grinning. “I was literally just, like . . .” She mimicked a swoon, dropping her golf club at the memory of Robert Pattinson, the British actor who became her co-star and, for several years, her boyfriend. Pattinson, she said, had an “intellectual approach that was combined with ‘I don’t give a fuck about this, but I’m going to make this sing.’ And I was, like, ‘Ugh, same.’ ” She picked up her club and smiled. “And, whatever, we were young and stupid and, not to say that we made it so much better, but that’s what it needed, and that’s what anybody playing those parts needed to feel.”
According to Hardwicke, Summit Entertainment, the studio that produced “Twilight,” thought that the movie was comparable in scale to “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” a 2005 teen movie that made about forty million dollars at the box office. “Twilight” made nearly that much on its first day, and the franchise went on to earn more than three billion dollars worldwide. Although the books are ostensibly pro-abstinence—their author, Stephenie Meyer, is a devout Mormon—Stewart approached the film’s make-out scenes as though she were the one going in for the kill. Bella drives an old pickup truck and wears leggings to the prom. Edward, who reads minds, cannot penetrate hers. “She confounds us all!” another vampire exclaims.
Stewart had to recite such lines as “There was a part of him, and I didn’t know how dominant that part might be, that thirsted for my blood,” and “Hello, biceps!” She and her castmates had to answer an endless barrage of questions from reporters and Comic-Con attendees about what it was like to kiss one another or to act out some of the franchise’s weirder plot twists, such as when Bella gives birth to a half-human, half-vampire who bonds with Jacob, the blue-collar werewolf played by Taylor Lautner.
“It was very naïve, in the best way,” Stewart told me. She had spent her adolescence being tutored during film shoots; “Twilight” was college for her. It also gave her a public scrim that she found useful. “Like, how fun for people to think they know you,” she said, smiling slyly. “Did you think I was going to do ‘Twilight’ forever? Is that how you saw me? If that’s how you saw me, then you really set me up for success, because I can do way more than that.”
Stewart shot a handful of smaller films between “Twilight” installments. Then, around the time that filming wrapped on the fifth and final part, she was cast as the lead in “Snow White and the Huntsman,” which execs envisioned as the start of a major franchise. A few weeks after its release, Us Weekly published photographs of Stewart making out with the movie’s married, forty-one-year-old director, Rupert Sanders. Although the film made about four hundred million dollars, a planned sequel was reworked as a spinoff, with different actresses. “The work, to me, genuinely was ignored in a really sort of frivolous, silly, petty way for a group of adult people who were supposed to be running studios and making films,” Stewart said later.
For the next several years, Stewart made mainly independent movies—three or four of them nearly every year. She was “pridefully reckless” in choosing roles, she told me. “If there was one scene in a script that I really wanted to do, and I hated the rest of it, I would still do it,” she said. She would think that the movie might not turn out so bad; she would often be wrong. She recently told an interviewer that she had “probably made five really good films” in a career of about fifty so far. “There are movies that I look at, in retrospect, and I think, Valiant effort, sure, but we jumped the gun,” she told me. When a production did not meet her expectations, she would occasionally vent to her makeup artist, whom she has worked with since her teens. “There are times,” Stewart said, “when I will literally go over to her and be, like, ‘What the fuck are we doing with our lives? We need to get out of here. I’m going to call in a bomb threat.’ ” She added, “It really sucks to be on a movie set that’s clearly not nailing it, but I’m really used to it. You get better at crossword puzzles.”
The best movies mostly told stories of ordinary lives. In “Still Alice,” Stewart plays the daughter of a professor with Alzheimer’s (Julianne Moore, who won an Oscar for her performance). Stewart gives the character an unflinching steadiness, refusing to turn away in embarrassment or change her tone of voice as her mother’s cognition declines. In Kelly Reichardt’s anthology film “Certain Women,” Stewart is a mousy Montana lawyer who deflects an unwanted friendship without words. In sweet but slowly devastating two-handed scenes, she wears the kind but frozen expression of someone who doesn’t want to acknowledge another person’s vulnerability. Reichardt was struck by the fact that Stewart wanted to come to Montana to play a supporting role in her quiet ensemble movie. “My take was she was out looking for experiences,” she said. “Maybe once you’ve done your early stuff and you’ve hit it already, you’re kind of free, and you do what you want.”
Stewart told me that she can now talk to a director for a few moments, even one whose films she admires, and know that it won’t work out. She looks for filmmakers with a sensibility that is “spiritual, unarticulated, emotional,” she said, adding, “There are certain directors that feel otherworldly to me.”
Last year, the sixty-six-year-old French director Olivier Assayas gave a speech called “Cinema in the Present Tense,” in which he addressed, among other things, the state of Hollywood. “I have practically nothing positive to say about it,” he declared, “except that this industry’s prosperity and new modalities do not delight me, they frighten or even repulse me.” Assayas lamented, in particular, “the confiscation of screens in the service of (mostly Disney-studio) franchises, whose hegemony now seems absolute.”
The quasi-feminism of a “Wonder Woman” or a “Black Widow” notwithstanding, the tentpole franchises of Hollywood have been especially dismal for female actors. While Stewart was finishing the “Twilight” series, the French actress Juliette Binoche told Assayas that she wanted to work with him. In response, he wrote “Clouds of Sils Maria,” an English-language film set in Switzerland that can be seen, in part, as a critique of the dominant machinery of contemporary movies, in which the greatest actors of our time are subjected to the indignities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and audiences watch minor variations on the same six or seven characters every three or four years until we die. Binoche plays a French film star, Maria, who has been cast in a play opposite a Hollywood ingénue named Jo-Ann, whose career (which includes a starring role in a Hollywood franchise) and brush with scandal (a fling while in a highly publicized relationship) bear a striking resemblance to those of Kristen Stewart.
Assayas offered Stewart the role of Jo-Ann, but she told him that she would rather play Maria’s assistant, a young woman named Val, who talks Maria through her anxieties and, in one scene, defends the incorrigible Jo-Ann, who was ultimately played by Chloë Grace Moretz. “She’s not completely antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood,” Val says. “She’s brave enough to be herself. At her age, I think that’s pretty fucking cool.”
“I think Kristen had fun just toying with her own fame and her own relationship with that tabloid stuff,” Assayas told me, on a video call from a set in Paris, his hair rumpled by a pair of headphones. He was shooting a TV adaptation of his 1996 film “Irma Vep.” (Stewart has a small part in the series.) Playing Val, he said, gave Stewart “a chance to turn a new leaf and start from somewhere else. Somewhere else being herself.” Binoche told me that she was struck by Stewart’s openness, and also by “her capacity of learning lines in a minute.” She added, “As for me, it takes ages—it’s like I need to go over and over and over so it gets into my body. As for her, she just comes and she has it in her. Also, it was her language, so she felt comfortable changing it and making it hers, like a glove for her soul.”
For her performance, Stewart won a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar. (She is the only American woman to have done so.) The film was partly financed by Chanel, and its release roughly coincided with the beginning of Stewart’s own relationship with the fashion house, which has gone beyond the usual advertorial arrangements, at times resembling the partnership that Audrey Hepburn once had with Givenchy. (Karl Lagerfeld cast Stewart as an actress playing Coco Chanel in a short film he directed in 2015, and the brand also contributed costumes to “Spencer.”) “There’s an elevated ambition to wanting to work with them,” Stewart told me, speaking of Chanel. “You’re, like, ‘Oh, so that’s the best one? Cool, I guess I’ll do that.’ When I was younger, I just wanted to be a winner.”
After “Sils Maria,” Assayas wrote “Personal Shopper,” which centers on another assistant, Maureen, whose visits to the Chanel showroom, on behalf of the model who employs her, become an element of the plot. The movie is part ghost story and part murder mystery; the role of Maureen seems written for Stewart, though Assayas told me that, if he wrote it for her, he did so subconsciously. The exquisite dresses that Maureen tries on in the course of her job—her hair unkempt, her face without makeup—do nothing to hide the grief she holds in her body. Driving in Paris on a motor scooter, weaving through traffic, Maureen mumbles to herself, trapped in recursive thoughts about someone who is no longer there. Recalling an image of a bloodied corpse while on a video call with her boyfriend, she shudders and half rubs her eyes, as if she could physically shed the memory. Some actors, tasked with the portrayal of traumatic encounters amid personal loss, might tend toward sobbing or hyperventilation. Stewart shows a person whose mind is operating on multiple tracks; it’s a mesmerizing struggle, the visual rendering of a divided intelligence.
“I felt that I was directing the film from the outside and she was directing it from the inside,” Assayas told me. The movie is full of long takes in which Stewart dictates the pace of the action, he noted. “She appropriated the character,” he went on, “and put herself in a situation where the invisible, or the magic of cinema, or the world around her, becomes natural.”
When Stewart portrayed the actress Jean Seberg, in the 2019 bio-pic “Seberg,” she tried to get some of the puffiness that Seberg, a heavy drinker, had in her face. To get the young Joan Jett’s cadence, in “The Runaways,” she listened to letters on tape which Jett recorded when she was thirteen. Playing Diana, one of the most documented women of her era, required preparation on another level. Stewart worked with a dialect coach for four months. “It’s such an all-encompassing, physical, head-to-toe experience sounding like that,” she told me. “It changes what you look like completely.” She also studied endless photographs and videos of Diana. She recalled a particular video, of Diana on a boat, in which she turns and lights up at the sight of her children, and another in which she emits a strange and incongruous laugh. Stewart noticed how uncomfortable Diana could look when she was dressed up, “just jutting out in every way possible,” as Stewart put it, trapped in a tyranny of ridiculous hats. (Diana’s “human awkwardness and emotional incontinence showed in her every gesture,” the novelist Hilary Mantel once wrote.)
Most of “Spencer” was shot in castles in Germany, in early 2021, during the bleak pandemic winter. Stewart was expecting a big crew and the elaborate staging of a historical drama, but she often worked in near-solitude, with Larraín and Claire Mathon, the cinematographer. Mathon shot on film, frequently in closeup, and, to Stewart, it felt as though the trio became a “three-headed animal,” whose movements were propelled by Larraín’s “fervent, insane, psychotic confidence.” Upon entering the set, Larraín would tell Stewart to “inhabit the space,” an old mantra from his days in the theatre. As he recalled, Stewart would reply, “What the fuck does that mean?” But she rarely needed him to articulate further, he said. Stewart, for her part, felt that Larraín had got inside Diana’s head. “There were times where he would repeat something, or say something that I was about to say, and he would channel Diana in a way that was just striking,” she told me. “There were days on the movie where I was, like, ‘Do you want to wear the dress? Because I’ll give it to you.’ He doesn’t look right for the part, but he could have played her.”
As a child, in the eighties, I had a set of Princess Diana paper dolls that came with a variety of accessories: wedding dress, suits, a riding outfit, babies. I thought of them while watching the unexpected climax of “Spencer”: a wordless and cathartic dance montage. Diana, caught between the end of her marriage and the life still to come, spins down castle halls and runs through gardens, pivoting and gliding to Greenwood’s surging score, wearing iconic outfits that represent various stages of her life. For this sequence, Stewart did not prepare at all. In pre-production, she said, she sometimes asked Larraín what she would be wearing in the scene, and whether there would be choreography. Every time, he would tell her, “Yeah . . . I don’t know.”
Rather than shoot the sequence all at once, they filmed a piece of it at the end of nearly every day. Stewart would put on a chiffon gown or a suit; Larraín would pick a hallway or a ballroom for her to move in, and play music through a large speaker: LCD Soundsystem, or Bach, or Sinéad O’Connor, or Lionel Richie (a favorite of Diana’s). “I don’t know how to move like Diana,” Stewart told me. “She was a dancer. I’m not a fucking dancer.” And so there was always an element of discovery. “It was so unbridling and so shocking at times, and so emotional,” Stewart said. “It’s like doing yoga and you suddenly stretch your hips in a certain way and start crying, and you’re, like, What is that?” What resulted is a scene that, for a few moments, gives you a glimpse of a person who was not allowed to exist.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves a portrayal of a historical figure. In the past decade, it has awarded Best Actress to Meryl Streep for playing Margaret Thatcher, to Olivia Colman for playing Queen Anne, and to Renée Zellweger for playing Judy Garland. “I’ve never been in the running, if you want to put it like that,” Stewart told me. For each golden statuette, there is a get-to-know-you campaign that, at times, has all the glamour of a race for state senate. “I do not want to seem like an ass, but it’s so embarrassing and so tiring,” she said. “It is highly political. You have to go talk to people. You feel like you’re a diplomat.”
So it was that, a few hours after golf, Stewart arrived for a post-screening Q. & A. with members of the Academy. She had been coiffed and styled in a blazer and heels. (Before reaching the stage, she replaced the heels with sneakers.) The screening was held at the headquarters of the Directors Guild of America, where the lobby is decorated with black-and-white photographs of famous directors on set. Afterward, in a wood-panelled reception room outfitted with gilt chairs and fairy lights, the audience gathered for a British-themed reception: cucumber sandwiches, shepherd’s pie, fish and chips. The mood was that of a wedding at which distant relatives await their turn to congratulate the bride.
I was crunching through the confectionery pearls that decorated a frosted vanilla cupcake when a man with white hair struck up a conversation. His name was Andrzej Bartkowiak. (“You’ve seen my work,” Bartkowiak, a cinematographer, said. He was right.) Bartkowiak had a few minor issues with “Spencer,” he told me, but not with Stewart’s performance, which he described as “captivating” and “flawless.” This seemed like a good sign: despite the Academy’s efforts to diversify in recent years, men of Bartkowiak’s approximate generation and credentials remain an important demographic. Before leaving, he went over to share these thoughts in person, and I watched Stewart accept his congratulations.
Stewart has already filmed “Crimes of the Future,” with David Cronenberg, and she’s about to shoot “Love Me,” which will co-star Steven Yeun. She describes the latter as a love story between a satellite and a buoy; it has something to do with getting computers to love one another, she said, and the machines “sort of morphing in and out of every gender and race, and, like, there’s no orientation, there’s just humanity.” Stewart is also working on her début feature as a director, an adaptation of “The Chronology of Water,” a memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch.
The book came to Stewart as an algorithmically generated recommendation on her Amazon Kindle. In it, she saw something that she’d never seen onscreen. “It kind of celebrates a certain taboo,” she told me, “that shame finds itself sexually in women. The ways that she acknowledges being embarrassed, and self-hating, but that it also really turns her on, is one of the really difficult and complicated relationships we have with being women in this body in a fully patriarchal society.” The memoir follows Yuknavitch through a stillbirth, multiple husbands, and the pursuit of sexual experience with lovers male and female; it has cameos from literary mentors including Ken Kesey, Kathy Acker, and Lynne Tillman. The memoir was a word-of-mouth hit, and Yuknavitch told me that there were others who wanted the film rights. Stewart, she said, won her over with a long letter “written in the language of a visionary.” Yuknavitch shared with me a single, out-of-context line: “And to those who dwell similarly in this fuck me, fuck it realm of crippling self doubt and fortified albeit false EGO, be proud because today, ‘fuck it’ won.”
The memoir’s prose is visceral, and its structure is decidedly unchronological; it does not seem, at first glance, easily adaptable, and Stewart has been toiling at the script for years. At one point, she spent three weeks living in a van outside Yuknavitch’s house, in Oregon. Stewart’s fiancée, Meyer, whose screenwriting credits include an adaptation of the young-adult novel “Moxie,” which came out on Netflix earlier this year, has read drafts. “I’ve been with people where work isn’t at the forefront of the thing and therefore you don’t do it as much,” Stewart, who seems to work constantly, told me. “That’s not good for me. I don’t like that. When you find somebody that, every aspect of your life—well, I guess I don’t have many aspects. I want to make movies. That’s primarily what I want to work on, and we share that, luckily.”
On a sunny afternoon in October, I went to see Stewart at an Italian restaurant in Los Feliz. In the weeks since I’d last seen her, she’d travelled to Paris, for Fashion Week, and to London, for the British première of “Spencer.” She was starting to get a little tired of talking about the movie, she confessed. She sounded happy to be back in L.A.
I found her sitting in the corner of a pandemic-era outdoor seating area, where plywood walls shielded her from the street. She had a MacBook open and was chatting with a close friend, who briskly excused himself even as I apologized for being early. Stewart quickly scanned her surroundings—a large man coming rapidly down the sidewalk momentarily startled her—before settling in to talk. Not until we’d left did she mention that a photographer had been lurking nearby the whole time. (The Daily Mail, a few hours later: “Kristen Stewart nails an effortlessly cool look in jeans while carrying a backpack over her shoulder as she leaves lunch in Los Angeles.”)
In addition to “The Chronology of Water,” Stewart is writing a TV series with Meyer and developing a gay ghost-hunting reality show with a friend, which she has described to me as “a paranormal romp in a queer space,” with elevated aesthetics. “Gay people love pretty things,” she added. “So we are aiming for a richness.” She showed me a couple of pitch decks on her laptop. In 2017, Stewart directed a short film, called “Come Swim,” which has the moody atmospherics of a music video: rain on windowpanes, saturated color correction, anxious smoking. The look book for “The Chronology of Water” had images of blood, swimming pools, grim nineteen-seventies living rooms, the grassy bed of the Ichetucknee River, in Florida, a childhood photograph of Yuknavitch and her sister. “I want to fuck with a split screen,” Stewart said, studying my reaction as I scrolled through the images. “Like, genuinely shredded memories. I want seasons. I want the movie to have scope.”
Stewart will pitch the movie to studios with the lead role already cast. She had been watching dozens of audition videos for weeks, and had narrowed her choices down to four women. In the coming days, she would workshop the role with them, as Hardwicke had done with her for “Twilight.” She needed someone with stamina, she said, because the movie would be shot in the course of several months. She hoped to find someone familiar with the writers who appear in the book—an actress in her early thirties, preferably, who doesn’t look too old for the scenes when the character is in her twenties or too young for those set in her forties. Someone who is not yet wildly famous.
“I see this as being one of the greatest roles for a woman,” Stewart said. “Like, someone could be so good at it, you know?” Whenever she talked about directing, something in her manner changed—a hungrier self emerged, a side of her enlivened by the prospect of being undefined, and concerned with making the right impression. She had sent the script to previous collaborators whom she admired, including Julianne Moore. “I want to make something that’s gonna, like, stink and be horribly embarrassing but also make you fucking wet, and just be really honest,” she said. “Do you know what I mean? I want to do a coming-of-age movie that actually considers young women. They’ve never fucking done it.”
The scene that the actresses read for their auditions was a conversation with Ken Kesey, who offers the lead character some of the first encouragement she receives as a writer. Stewart watched intently, her mind not yet made up. “She would be such a fucking friend in this—like, I can trust her,” she said, of one actress. Of another: “She feels it—it’s real for her.” Still, she was waiting for a definitive sign. “Someone is going to do the right thing and is going to get the part in the moment that they get it,” she said. “I’m gonna be, like, ‘And there the fuck you are! O.K., great. Let’s go.’ But somebody needs to take it.”
I asked Stewart if she was looking forward to being in charge, but she said that, for her, directing would be a kind of letting go. “I cannot wait to share the weight of this,” she told me. Usually, she sees it as her responsibility to take on all the feeling of a movie and project it into the world. “I’ll be fully feeling all these things with the person, but I have to give it to someone, and I’ve never done that,” she said. “I’ve always been, like, ‘I got it, I got it, I got it, I can do this.’ It’s going to be interesting to let someone else have their own experience with it, and fall more in love with that than what I could have ever dreamed of.”