Interview: Kristen Stewart on Channeling Princess Diana for Pablo Larraín’s Spencer

Kristen Stewart discusses Spencer’s depiction of Princess Diana, the idea of personal sacrifice for one’s country, and more.

Kristen Stewart wanted her character’s soul to reverberate across every frame of Spencer, Pablo Larraín’s “fable” about the Princess of Wales’s fraught headspace over the course of three days surrounding Christmas in 1991. Placing precedence on feeling over fact, emotion over logic, Stewart and Larraín sought to capture the essence of a woman who was trapped within the confines of royal family. This is the alchemy of the anti-biopic.

Spencer’s subjective artistry—from Jonny Greenwood’s unnerving score to Claire Mathon’s ever-roving camera—not only emphatically captures the stifling machinery of the monarchy, but also conveys Diana’s life as a hypnagogic hallucination. Where most on-screen depictions of Princess Diana see her above all as a symbol of compassion and kindness, Spencer fixates on her struggle to reclaim her autonomy. And Stewart brings a fierce conviction to her performance, not only disappearing into the role but also working in artful lockstep with the roaming camera that Larraín took into his hands almost as a gesture of communion.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with Stewart and discuss how she and Larraín approached Spencer’s depiction of Princess Diana, the intersection of identity, media, and celebrity obsession, the idea of personal sacrifice for one’s country, and more.

How did Pablo Larraín initially pitch this project to you?

I had a conversation with Pablo about a script that he was going to send me. There have been so many perspectives on Princess Diana, and I didn’t picture myself in [the middle of one]. It wasn’t an easy visualization. But I didn’t immediately go, “Yeah, that’s so right on. That’s perfect for me.” It was something that felt a little far away. I loved that it wasn’t going to be a regurgitation of all of the familiar details that we know [about her]—that it was going to touch a life and try and absorb an essence and let her soul reverberate, and not try and nail something so perfectly. It all sounded really cool, but I just couldn’t imagine it yet. I love Pablo’s work. He talks about movies in a way that feels otherworldly, and he really can get at something that’s unspeakable. And so I wanted to help him do that, but you don’t unpack that idea in a moment. I was like, “I need to really, obviously, think about this a lot.” I knew about the movie for a year and a half before we shot it, so it was a long learning process.

Pablo establishes from the get-go that this isn’t a biopic. It’s interesting how you’ve discussed not trying to get bogged down in perfection because you can sometimes pigeonhole a person’s essence when the story is framed as a biopic. Is that a difficult line to walk, or does it liberate you a bit more in terms of getting into the role?

Every time, if you’re doing something that has true ambition, and it’s hard, and it seems worthwhile, there’s always a chance that it could be really bad and embarrassing. And in this case, obviously, she’s so deeply and tenderly coveted and sainted. I knew that the only way that I could really do her justice is to be [true to] myself. Diana was so alive and she touched people in such a visceral way. You can’t do a perfect version of that. You have to [channel it]. You have to really shove your own heart into that. I could never know hers. And so I had to take the pressure off because I was just like, “I can only do my version of this.” I felt so willing to fail because I knew that some people might like it, some people might absolutely hate it, and a lot of people might think I got it wrong, but there’s no getting it right without doing it like that.

I just watched your conversation with Pablo and Natalie Portman for Neon.

Oh, dope!

Natalie called you a “dream to work with,” which is high praise.

It’s very embarrassing that you watched that whole thing, because I was just sitting there like this [makes star struck expression] the whole time.

I think you did a nice job of playing it cool.

Thank you.

Jackie and Spencer are both about prominent women in the public eye battling media in the age of celebrity obsession. Jackie approaches this more in a more grounded way in comparison to Spencer. Did Pablo reference Jackie during the making of this film?

I wish that I could’ve asked Natalie every question she asked me because I think we might have had different experiences with him. And I don’t really know in what ways, but I could just feel it in talking to them just now. There was such a composure to Jackie, even in the moments that felt so assaultingly real and visceral—ones that had this kinetic energy. The movies, even though they hold hands, and they’re part of something that he’s doing that’s very particular, which is going inside, really, and paying honor and credence to the feelings of women—I know that sounds trite now because we talk about it all the time, but it really is, like, he does it beautifully and with such clear perspective—but when we were making this one, I could not hide from this man. There was nothing that wasn’t being received and amplified by this contagious, beautiful energy that happens sometimes when you share a set with someone. But visually, and the way that he actually captured the images, was unlike anything I’ve ever done.

You’ve mentioned a “dance” that you and Pablo had in unison during production. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

There’s always a point in which you want to tell somebody that they might be missing something because they’re not standing on the inside of it. His commitment to the first-person perspective blew me away. It’s such a rich world, and it would be so easy to become distracted and, you know, “Look at that beautiful chair.” Or go off with another character for a moment. The whole time, he was like, “If we do that ever, for one second, we lose you, and it’ll ruin your performance.” You have to commit fully. It has to be—and this is a word we’ve used now too much—it actually has to be a full fever dream, or else it will be weird. And it is a weird movie, but whether you like it or hate it, it definitely knows who it is, and that is Pablo. Honestly, I can’t even describe how cool it is to work with him. It’s just bottomlessly inspiring.

And, to your point about Pablo’s commitment to the first-person perspective, the use of 16mm film really sells that perspective, because it’s a compact camera that can get up close and personal during the intimate moments.

I mean, so literally, a 16mm camera is something that you could pass back and forth like a football. And Pablo literally would take it off Claire [Mathon] all the time because he needed to just get closer. And there was a certain shot that he called the “key shot.” And it was however he decided to cover a scene, whether I was alone or with another actor, or moving through a large or small space, there was always one consistent shot. And he always would ask me, “Do you want to do it first, or do you want to do it last? Where do you want that one?” Because it’s the most important one, and it’s the one that never moves. I mean, it moves around me, but it’s always either on my shoulder or here [points to front of face] or moving. It’s like you get to be her, basically. And yet I’m also contained within that shot, and somehow, it’s the closest the camera has ever been to me in my life. Yeah, it was like full Being John Malkovich. It’s sort of the closest you can get to actually just looking through someone’s eyeballs.

And just speaking to him operating [the camera], there are a couple of shots in the movie where it becomes a little more drifty. It’s usually when two people are close. Like, if me and Sally [Hawkins] are talking, and the camera roves between us, that’s always Pablo shooting [the scene]. There were just certain times where he needed to breathe with me, and he needed to be the one holding the camera. The reason those cameras are so light? There’s very little film in them. So you have literally however many minutes—eight minutes tops. And so it feels like every second that’s ticking is so precious. He just knows how to create an environment that everyone is just standing on their tippy toes at ultimate attention.

The 16mm also really exposes Diana’s humanity. And that parallels the narrative of the media’s crusade to expose the personal lives of prominent figures like Diana. That aspect of her life causes so much anxiety, as we see in the film. As an actor, did you use any of your own experience with the media for that aspect of the character?

I know what it feels like to always assume, whether you’re right or wrong, that everyone’s looking at you. Your life becomes this weird show. And what you don’t want to happen is that your life becomes a performance because you’re so fixated on that. And she was never allowed to really figure out who she was. I mean, in the years that you’re finding your voice and figuring out your identity and what you want to call yourself, she wasn’t allowed to. She was muzzled. And she was asked consistently to perpetuate a lie that was destroying her.

I don’t know how you become a person like that. So I can only imagine because I’m allowed to say whatever I want. I’m so lucky. It’s annoying that people follow me around, but I definitely know not to turn my life into a performance, and know to relinquish the control completely and just make it a nuisance and not make it something that ever feels like it’s changing you. And also, this exchange that I get to have [with you], it’s a beautiful, open exchange that I get to have with the world. She didn’t have that. So I can imagine, because I have tasted elements of that life, but mine tastes really good, and it’s such a different meal.

Jacqueline Durran’s costume design is impeccable. Did you take any piece of clothing from the set?

Jacqueline gave me like all of the clothes. Is it Robert De Niro who keeps everything he’s ever touched in a movie or something like that? Or maybe it’s Jack Nicholson. One of the big shots always does that. I usually also don’t take stuff because you think you’re going to want it because you’re so attached to it then, but then you can’t just have this weird little treasure box of—I don’t know. I’ve usually been like, “I’m going to leave this here.” But I have almost every piece of wardrobe that I wore in the movie because she wanted to give it to me. She was like, “These belong to you. I don’t need them.” I was like, “That’s wild.” So I have all of my stuff.

How did the collaboration with Jacqueline and Chanel help inform your character?

She creates clothes that aren’t costumes, even though they tell their own story. They have such unbelievable integrity. Everything’s real. Every pocket’s real. The way she tells her story with the clothing as well isn’t something she ever articulates. I’ve done an interview with her recently. I moderated a Q&A with her. She really wants other people to have the experience and not articulate exactly all of her intention. But that intention is so precise, and it’s always there. Every color choice, every moment. Even though it’s like she’s so able to pivot, in the moment, and the movie comes together day by day, and it’s not always by perfect design, but her instincts are that of a true artist. She loves what she does, and she absolutely is a virtuoso fucking costume designer. One of the best I’ve ever worked with my whole life.

The conversations with Jack Farthing’s Charles and Timothy Spall’s Alistair stuck with me, particularly the part in which they emphasized the obligation to do things you hate for your country. Do you think that notion has grown archaic in 2022?

It’s interesting because we all have to make sacrifices for things that we love. She definitely wanted to raise the future king of England. It’s interesting because there’s such a duality there, because there are certain notions or ideals that are beautiful, that could be aspiring. “Help keep the country together.” But, yeah, the idea that you could ever be two people is so ridiculous. And it’s just a thing to say. Even take it out of the context of this royal monarchy.

When I was younger and I wasn’t great at interviews, because they made me nervous and I couldn’t find my words, people would say, “Just go be someone else.” I was like, “Who? What are you talking about?” It just doesn’t work—to do things you hate, to be someone you’re not. You want to put out into the world what you want to get back. Diana was awesome. She was one of the coolest, nicest people. To make her do stuff she hates? That’s archaic and wrong.

Speaking to your actual question, absolutely. We’re all treating ourselves better nowadays, and each other. And it’s not perfect. And women definitely have been used as a sort of blunt instrument to make change and more nuanced conversations are going to be really fun. In the future, women are going to make movies that are weird, and flawed, and we don’t always have to be nice to each other, whatever. But yeah, basically we shouldn’t do stuff we hate. Fuck. Yes.

You mentioned that you would be interested in playing a villain in a sequel to The Batman. Have you put any further thought into who you might want to play?

So here’s the deal. When people ask you questions like that, you go, “Yeah, sure.” And I hope that whoever wants to write an article about how I answer this right now will have fun writing that article, but I don’t really have an answer for that.

That’s a great point. I could suggest characters, but it really would just create false speculation like you’re saying.

You’re like, “No, but I really want you to.”

But you’d be perfect for the role of…no. You’re right. It’s pointless because then the endless fancasting campaigns begin. Your agent sees them online and goes, “Did you make a casting decision without me?”

Do you know what I mean? Not to be fully transparent, but yeah.

Fully transparent Kristen is the best. So they’re already making Scream 6. Who did they contact you about playing in the last sequel?

So it’s the Drew [Barrymore] character that gets killed in the beginning. And they created a whole sequence where a lot of people got killed to emulate the Drew thing. But it was just going to be one person, and I was like, “I can’t do a Drew. I can’t touch that.” Do you know what I mean? But, yeah, so then they ended up doing, if I’m remembering correctly, a larger sequence and not just one victim.

So you kicked it with Neve Campbell recently. The Scream franchise is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. If you were given a second chance at moving to Woodsboro, would you take it?

Maybe. I would read the script. I love Neve Campbell so much. She was very nice to me, and it was very satisfying that she’s a very nice person. I love that movie. I’ve watched it recently, as an adult though. It’s so gnarly. I love the movie because it loves movies. The coolest part of Scream is what it says about film. It’s so self-aware. It folds in on itself like six times. I love how much [Wes Craven] loves movies and how embedded that is. It’s a total film nerd type of movie. It’s not just a slasher flick. It’s a beautiful movie. It’s so hard to watch. I’m like, “I don’t have the stomach for that shit anymore.” I was like, “Oh, man, this is very, very, very intense.”

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