Kristen Stewart has a reputation for being the coolest kid in Hollywood, but Oscar-buzz is abounding for her portrayal of Princess Diana in the unsettling biopic, Spencer.
“Have you ever seen Miss Congeniality?” asks Kristen Stewart.
She’s smiling a little, sitting cross-legged in a black sweater and jeans on the floor of her temporary apartment in Vancouver, where she is a week into filming her latest movie, a sexy, sci-fi, “revolutionary” project called Love Me in which “a satellite” and “a buoy”, played by herself and Steven Yeun, the man with all the cheekbones, fall in love.
Just one week ago, when Love Me was still a mirage somewhere on the horizon, she was in New York, where she was honoured at the Gotham Awards for her performance as Princess Diana in Spencer. Julianne Moore, Stewart’s mentor and co-star in Still Alice, delivered a heartfelt tribute praising her passion and authenticity, calling Stewart the “coolest human on the planet”. (“I sent her flowers the next day and the note was: ‘I’m pretty sure there’s one person cooler than me and we know who that person is,’” Stewart says with a laugh.)
Yes, Kristen Stewart, I have seen Miss Congeniality. Well, the 31-year-old says, watching Moore that night felt like watching Sandra Bullock on stage in Miss Congeniality, warning off pageant saboteurs. “[Bullock] suddenly goes: ‘If anyone tried to hurt one of my friends, I would hunt them down,’” Stewart paraphrases, tossing her head back in a perfect imitation of Bullock’s shiny, steely charisma.
“That’s what I felt like [Moore] was doing. Like, ‘If anyone thinks that she doesn’t care, let me correct you.’” Stewart was “so moved” by Moore’s speech, she admits.
“She’s my work mom. We really see each other. I feel like she was like, ‘For anyone who thinks she doesn’t care, you shut up!’ I was like, ‘Oh, my god, Mom. Stop.’” Stewart grins. “But also, thank you.”
Stewart knows that she has a reputation for being the coolest kid in school. It’s a label she wears lightly, like she wouldn’t be too concerned if it were to drop off her back entirely, which is of course a totally, deeply cool way to be. But it’s also not the complete picture, Stewart stresses, it misses out on how much she really cares about everything she does.
“I think cool does suggest a sort of, like, level of uninvolvement or something, but I’m so involved,” Stewart reflects. “I would do anything for this shit.”
Maybe, in the past, this is something that people have misunderstood about Stewart, who has now been famous for longer than she was ever not famous. She was born into a filmmaking family in April 1990, the daughter of a script supervisor – her mother, raised in Maroochydore, Queensland – and a stage-manager father.
Stewart’s first film was when she was just 10. By 17, she had been cast as Bella in the Twilight franchise, a role that would jettison her into the kind of global celebrity that comes with some cool stuff – being Hollywood’s highest-paid actress at the age of 22 – and some not so cool stuff.
The paparazzi hounded Stewart and her then-boyfriend Robert Pattinson for years. They still trail her, often when she is with her fiancée Dylan Meyer, a screenwriter Stewart has called a “total score”. The couple got engaged in 2021 and have sort-of-joking-but-not-really plans to be married by celebrity chef Guy Fieri. Stewart wants to wear a tuxedo T-shirt.
“I’m a freewheeling kind of a motherfucker,” Stewart jokes, when asked how she hopes people think of her. “I’m a nice guy, I want to make cool movies and I want everyone to have a good time – or have a bad time, and that’s okay. You know what I mean?”
This relaxed, easygoing Stewart has always been there, even if people couldn’t see it.
“I think that, maybe, as a younger person, that intense desire to want everyone to be good, and for me to be able to derive the most that I can out of a given experience was a little debilitating. Because I had a huge barometer for bullshit, and I was so unable to deal unless something was feeling true,” she carefully explains.
“And a lot of the worlds I was functioning in, they’re quite often very inauthentic, or planned or rehearsed or not very candid. It’s funny – the friction between my kind of energy and that, it seems like I’m the weird one.” She laughs ruefully. “I couldn’t navigate that for a long time. But now I feel like I’ve grown into a buoyancy, and a willingness to have no control over anything. I’m actually now able to reveal myself more truly. I feel like people are seeing me more clearly than they ever have, which is lovely. That’s really nice.”
This is the kind of lengthy and considered reflection that Stewart can just neatly toss off in conversation; she’s a fascinating combination of self-deprecating and serious, a straight talker who is open and unselfconscious, as far as interview subjects go.
She talks a mile a minute but then takes big pauses to gather her thoughts, of which she has many. Take this observation about Love Me’s Yeun, which is as revealing of herself as it is of him: “He’s such a curious and overanalytical freak, just like me … All we do is tailspin into conversational oblivion.” Seven days into Love Me and things are, Stewart admits, “full on”.
“It’s the most existential thing I’ve ever done,” she says. It sounds wild. “It’s so weird,” Stewart affirms.
But weird is good, where Stewart is concerned. Weird is her trade. She’s been doing weird better than any other actor for the bulk of her more than 50-film career: nervy in Twilight, haunted in Personal Shopper and now as Princess Diana in Spencer, a film that is both an unsettling gothic horror and a biopic with all the trimmings of mannerisms, accent and wig. A movie in which Stewart appears to walk taller in Diana’s shoes, stretching up and out so that when she stalks down the empty corridors of Sandringham at a royal family Christmas from hell, she looks like a fairytale princess possessed.
In some ways, the news that director Pablo Larraín had cast Stewart in Spencer felt like a stroke of genius. “I knew from the beginning that I wanted Kristen for this film,” he shares.
Larraín is best known for Jackie, in which Natalie Portman played the First Lady in the frantic aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Spencer has a similar, off-kilter tone; set over three woozy days, the film follows a paranoid Diana, overwhelmed by media scrutiny, as she unpicks the seams of her marriage. Who would know better how to play a woman buckling under the strain of a decade of uber-celebrity than Stewart? Still, she felt the pressure.
“Right before we started shooting, I was debilitatingly nervous,” she admits.
So she buried herself in research. Stewart consumed biographies, television appearances, photographs. She practised Diana’s accent for four months with dialect coach William Connacher – who worked with both Emma Corrin and Elizabeth Debicki on their Diana voice in The Crown – at one point so doggedly that she gave herself lockjaw.
She fell asleep listening to recordings of Diana’s lilting speech. But the real challenge wasn’t the accent. That was purely technical; just practice, really, and Stewart loves to work hard. The true hurdle was channelling the dazzling spirit of a person so universally adored. How do you embody that kind of love? You lean in.
“The way that I could protect her, and do the truest version of our art about her, was to just sort of love her,” Stewart muses. Costume designer Jacqueline Durran worked with Chanel, for whom Stewart has served as an ambassador for almost a decade, on Spencer’s wardrobe.
“The fact that Diana had a relationship with that house, too, was such a cool congruency,” says Stewart.
Some looks, including a red tweed coat from 1988, were lifted from the brand’s archives.
“Red is her colour,” Stewart reflects. “There’s something about blood there, something about rawness and heat, and a little volatility that just feels so right for her. Her heart is just always on her sleeve.”
The ivory tulle gown, also from 1988, that appears on the film’s poster was painstakingly recreated by Chanel because the original was too delicate to be worn, a process that took some 1,034 hours – 700 on the burnished beading alone. This level of artistry scaffolded Stewart’s performance.
“They weren’t costumes. They were not wardrobe. They were my clothes,” she sums up. “And that in itself is scary because when you start a project, all these elements are incredible. And the only last thing is me,” she says with a laugh.
“It bolsters you, but it also is like, ‘Oh man! Don’t drop these balls that people have chucked into the air, because they’re fucking incredible.’”
Stewart’s performance is revelatory, a career-best that is rightly receiving serious Oscar buzz because it goes far beyond impersonation.
“It was a miracle to watch Kristen fuse such complexity and humanity into the character … to show us all what she was feeling and experiencing,” sums up Larraín.
Stewart taps into Diana’s core allure, but she doesn’t disappear into the princess, no matter how well she tilts her head or sets her jaw. Stewart is always there just under the surface, a mirror for both of these phenomenally famous women to reflect back upon each other everything we thought we knew about them.
“I’m the same age as she was at the time when this all kind of shifted,” Stewart reflects. “And I’m so impressed with her, because I have lived a life that was really allowed to be open, and she was so stunted. But still, kind of at the same time, [she was] like: ‘Okay, my life is undeniable,’ and she kind of broke through. She just represents freedom and liberation to me, even in the moments when she’s locked inside of herself and inside of this institution.”
Despite spending so long in Diana’s shoes, Stewart isn’t sure how she feels about the monarchy.
“I still cannot completely come for the entire idea,” she admits. “It’s a complicated issue.”
One that is, for her, embodied in Diana’s two sons. “Diana’s legacy is walking and talking,” she muses. “They’re both very clearly examples of two sides. And I don’t think either is right or wrong … I think that both of those boys function so positively in the world. I see her in them and – it’s funny, it’s a weird word to use – as a fan, as somebody who’s really been obsessively watching [Diana], it’s really nice to see.”
Still, Spencer is pretty dark. It unflinchingly depicts Diana’s isolation; in one scene, courtiers sew her curtains shut. Sandringham is steeped in mist, freezing cold and quite literally haunted by ghosts. There is a gruesomeness to Spencer that makes you wonder why anyone would want to be a princess.
“It was a hard job, but it was so much fun; she’s such a beautiful person to think about,” Stewart shares.
“It felt very, very, very good to be her. This imagined skin was something that made me feel amazing. And that was kind of a surprise because her life was, in a nutshell, quite sad, but the joy in the centre of it is why it’s so sad. She had something to fight for that is so spectacular.”
So much so, that “by the time we got to the end, I just felt like I was at the top of the tippy-top, tallest staircase I had ever climbed up”.
Is that the best she’s ever felt, finishing a movie? “I’ve always felt that, that’s always what keeps you going,” she responds. “But I can only live right now and I will say, I felt higher than I remember.”
Spencer premiered at the Venice Film Festival to rapturous reviews for Stewart, and ever since then she has been on a promotional treadmill. But she is enjoying it, this chance to ditch her usual approach to fashion – “As long as my jeans fit me well, I’m happy,” – and collaborate on what she calls “carpet looks, or whatever” with her stylist, Petra Flannery, and Chanel.
“Considering I have to dress up a lot, I’m so glad it can be as creative and cool and self-revealing as it is with [Chanel],” she says. Her approach to events, as it appears to be for everything in her life, is mood-based. “How am I going to feel that day?” she muses.
“We have to bring everything! My poor stylist is just lugging shit all over the world.”
And also, all these ‘carpet looks’ and all this talking about Spencer serves a very important purpose.
“I want everyone to see it,” she declares, candid and all in.
Then it’s on to the next one. Along with Love Me, she will star in the thriller Crimes of the Future and in her Personal Shopper director Olivier Assayas’s television series Irma Vep, with Alicia Vikander.
Then she wants to direct her first film, a long-gestating adaptation of a sensual, guts-bared memoir by Lidia Yuknavitch called The Chronology of Water.
A few things have to happen before she can do that, including casting her star and getting someone to “pay for it”. But Stewart likes this anticipatory period before the cameras start rolling, a thrill not unlike being at the top of a roller-coaster.
“That’s what I am addicted to, is that feeling,” she sums up.
Anything can happen, and it’s going to happen very soon. “I have so much shit going on and I feel so activated,” Stewart says, her voice passionate and animated.
“I have four or five projects that I want to do in the next three years, and I don’t know what order they’re going to happen in, but they’re all going to happen and I will shove them all through, I know it,” she stresses.
“It’s all up in the air, which is fun … Because at some point, one of the balls is going to land in my hand.”
Stewart stretches out her palm. “Okay, it’s this one.” She mimes thumping her hand down. A slam dunk.
“Bam! You know what I mean?”
This article appears in the February issue of Vogue Australia, on sale February 7.