There’s just so much content on television these days. And most actors see that as a very good thing — but occasionally some, like Kristen Stewart, offer a dissenting opinion.
Take her new film, “Equals,” for example. Directed by rising auteur Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”) from his own original story, it’s the kind of measured, insightful, quirky film the major studios aren’t taking many chances on these days: a thought-provoking science-fiction film that relies on a different style of effects rather than eye-popping, digitally-created spectacle. Human emotion is the star, as delivered by Stewart and her co-star Nicholas Hoult, who, coincidentally, both have experience with blockbuster fare like the “Twilight” and “X-Men” films.
“Equals” debuts in theaters in limited release on July 15th, but it’s been available to view on home screens via DirecTV Cinema since May 26th. And, as Hoult points out, any chance to tell a slightly different story in a slightly narrowed scale to an audience of any size, via subscription services or otherwise, is a bonus. “With everyone kind of wanting to get so much content, it’s exciting, because there’s a lot more out there, and a lot more opportunities to tell the smaller stories. But there’s also a flood of stuff.”
But Stewart, who says she’s still surprised at how rapidly the movie market has and continues to shift, admits that the content flood Hoult references concerns her, especially when she’s working on a film with the kind of quality she feels “Equals” — the story of a futuristic, post-catastrophic society essentially purged of emotion — delivers.
“You get inundated with material — it’s just sort of like, over-stimulus doesn’t equal valuable material,” she says of the significantly deep libraries of content now available at all times. “I’m actually torn on that, because I’m very old school, and selfish: ideally this movie should be seen in a theater. I hate that people have seen this f*cking movie on DirecTV before, do you know what I mean?”
“If you cared enough — because there are fanbases for movies, for certain people, for filmmakers, for genres — anyone who is into Drake or Nick or me or this genre probably watched this movie on DirecTV when it came out,” she says. “But those people would have gone to buy a ticket in a theater — f*ck the payback. I’m truly not even talking about that. But just those guys who actually care, they saw it on DirecTV, they probably won’t make it to the theater. To me, that’s a little sad because the work, the f*cking photography, is so beautiful. It should be looked at! It pisses me off.”
And, in fact, along with being a poignant and emotionally moving sci-fi film, with a romantically spun “Twilight Zone” kind of feel, “Equals” is a thing of beauty to look at, delivering a convincing and fully realized environment without requiring legions of digital artists at ILM or Weta. And because they do indeed want the film to find an audience, whatever screen it plays on, Stewart and Hoult sat down with Moviefone to reflect on their experience making the movie.
Moviefone: We’ve got a great science fiction story, yet the special effects are your emotions. What did it mean to you to be able to tell a story in this kind of context, but not be relying on visual effects — just telling it through yourselves?
Kristen Stewart: I think, with any good science fiction movie, all of the elements of fantasy function as relevant metaphor. They all are there to service what it feels like in the center of it. So it never feels like you’re doing something not real, even though it’s not the world we’re used to. It’s still a world that’s whole enough to get used to. Drake’s really good at that. He creates an environment that’s so whole.
Movies that allow emotion to highlight CGI, they just fall flat and look fake and are blockbusters that don’t interest me. But the ones that balance that right; I love big, sort of epic, suspended-reality movies.
Nicholas Hoult: The nice thing about this is everything you were interacting with was actually there in the room. It’s more about the emotion with the people as opposed to a lot of time doing those types of films, when you end up looking at tennis balls around the studio and someone on a microphone telling you when to look and what’s happening. Then you have no idea. You have a concept of it, and an imagination running wild with it, but also until you see the film, oh, that’s what was going to be there.
That could be, at times, a little bit frustrating because there’s nothing physical there that you can feel. You’re not receiving anything back. A big part of this is not actually about what you were doing or thinking about what you were acting, it was about observing another person and picking up on what they were doing and then reading them, which is kind of the most important thing because that’s what you’re doing when you’re living.
I was reading about the very focused-on-each-other acting exercises that you did to prepare for this, which were sort of unconventional but ultimately really effective in connecting the two of you. What was that like, to get that sort of emotional honesty with each other in preparation for playing roles in a world where they essentially are each other’s only connection?
Stewart: If you imagine the time that Nia and Silas spend around each other without knowing anything about each other, the groundwork before they’ve even asked their first question is a spiritual thing. They have said “hello” to each other 365 times, but they haven’t delved any deeper. Yet, there’s a commonality. You can see into someone if they let you in, and that doesn’t mean that you need to know anything about them.
So, in sitting in front of each other — and just for an hour just staring and looking — and then trying to transmit something and trying to receive it, and then projecting and wondering what this little flick of an eye meant. By the end of that hour, you kind of know the person. So he was just trying to emulate what Nia and Silas start out with when they actually begin interacting with each other.
Did that make it almost, in a weird way, harder to play those emotionally stunted scenes by being so close? Or did it inform that in a way?
Hoult: We were lucky where we kind of, as much as possible, shot it in sequence. So the first time when you see us in the bathroom untouched for the first time, that was in order. Up to that point, we hadn’t done anything previous to that in the story. So those sorts of things, that really helped when you’re making anything, as much as you can do that, because then everything you’ve done so far informs that.
Stewart: Because you don’t have to play any guessing game. “That is what it is, I did that, then I did this, then I did this…” You don’t have to wonder what it’s going to be like in order to play something after it.
Hoult: Yeah, and there’s a build to that moment as well. So then there’s a release and it all kind of feels more natural as opposed to trying to imagine what’s happened up until that point, and then pretend what would be happening.
Like all great science fiction, there’s tremendous allegory in the story. What resonated for you guys?
Hoult: It’s always that question, for me: the feelings of whether you want to feel everything, the bad and the good, and what that means. Also, whether if you take away the bad, if that destroys the good as well, and you can’t then feel those things.
Stewart: I love the idea that you have a group of people that are seemingly obsessed with taking care of one another, but if they don’t have emotions to feel for one another, why would they care? It’s just a generalized desire to progress a society, like some egotistical, narcissistic sort of continuation of our race. I don’t think that that’s what drives people to do anything.
This hypothetical is suspended in a bullsh*t reality, and I think that what the movie says is that, the only reason we do good or bad is for each other. We’re connected. There’s no reason to do anything if we’re completely alone. There are tests. You isolate animals, they just stop living. This is true. So I think the first few awakenings that you have in life, and then those first few falls hit me so hard. You think that they’re not going to keep doing that, but they do.
So I think this is examining the ebb and flow of feeling for someone, and sustaining that and the rewards you get from that, and whether or not it’s worth it. Should we just isolate ourselves and not try? Or should we have faith that a feeling that once affected us so positively that doesn’t anymore might come back? Everything that goes into why we want to try for each other, to put ourselves out or be uncomfortable or be scared. It’s all for each other. It’s not totally selfish.
As actors, do you feel uniquely attuned to your emotions, in contrast to people going about their everyday lives? Do you feel like you put more thought and exercise more control over it? Or do you feel that the emotions run even stronger over you?
Stewart: Not because we’re actors, but I think some people do feel more than others.
Hoult: Yeah, and there’s occasionally a time when, sometimes, hopefully, it makes you more observant to other people’s emotions or reactions and things, where you watch something and you go, that’s interesting, and try and figure that out. And then, sometimes, if you’re in a really weird mood, then you can turn that upon yourself, but that then becomes very strange, because then you’re feeling it but then trying to analyze it…
Stewart: And then trying to analyze it!
Hoult: … and think about it, and then you sit there and you think about it, and then you’re like, “Oh boy …”
Stewart: “Oh, I’m such a freak. Why am I thinking about this? I’m trying to just be a real human being.”
Hoult: [Shouts] “I’ve got to be free! I’ve got to be me!” [Laughs]
Stewart: There are times when I’m freaking out about something! Like, so emotional! And then I’m like, “Wow. If I were playing this, I would never play this this hard.” You know what I mean? I’m always like, “No. It would be smaller. That couldn’t possibly be real. Then I have moments in life where I’m doing something so much. And I’m like, “No, see, you actually do do this.” Life is not so subtle all the time. Subtlety rings true in film, but subtlety is not how life like actually is.
Did you have a certain kind of separation anxiety once the movie was over because you had gotten so directly connected?
Hoult: I have separation anxiety at the end of every job. More so on this for sure. Yeah, it’s always a thing at the end where you kind of, for months you’ve had every moment of your day planned out. What you’re going to eat, when you’re going to eat, and what you’re going to wear.
Stewart: It’s so regimented.
Hoult: Like, your whole life…
Stewart: And you’re just, like, dropped.
Hoult: And then suddenly you come out the other end of a job and they’re like, “Okay, see you later.” And you sit at home and you’re like…
Stewart: “I can just do whatever I want now?”
Hoult: And I spend, like, two days all by myself sitting on the sofa. Then you slowly get a routine and habits back and all that sort of stuff. But first it’s the strangest thing. I remember being very sad.
Stewart: It’s almost like going through a breakup.
Hoult: Like, at the Singapore airport on my way back from this, I remember sitting there and everyone had left and I was leaving, and I was sitting there and I was like, “Wow. This is horrible.”
Stewart: Empty. Yeah.
Hoult: It’s weird. Lots of people have it in their jobs, in terms of, like, military people or whoever it might be, and they come out the other end of it and they’ve experienced such highs, or adrenaline rushes and everything. Then you’re kind of left with this empty feeling and being like, “Wow.” But then you get a nice reunion on the press tour.
Stewart: You have to reacquaint yourself with actual life, because our lives and our work, they meld so much, yet at the same time, once a movie’s over, it’s over. So it’s affected you and you can take some of that and bring it into your life, and you can take your life and bring it into your work. But once the job’s over, you’re like, “Oh God. I have to contend with my current reality.”