JUST DON’T SAY anything bad about Kristen Stewart. Seriously. The first time I met Ms Stewart she was 17 years old. She had just finished shooting Twilight and was intimidated, even before the film’s release, by the burgeoning popularity of Stephenie Meyer’s vampire saga.
“I’m, like, Little Miss Indie film,” she told me. “I really wanted to work with Catherine Hardwicke, the director. And I presumed Twilight was just another off-centre, cool little film for a very devoted, quite exclusive fan base.”
The Twi-hard fanbase soon set her straight, but she was taking it well: “Girls, especially at a certain age, can be bullies. But I understand why. I understand their covetousness. Edward is such an icon. All I can say is ‘sorry’ to anyone who thinks I’m not Bella Swan. Really. I’m sorry for stealing Edward. I completely relate to that. But I love the book just as much as they do and share their protective urges toward it.”
Back then, she was not yet a star, but she was already an accomplished actor. She had impressed critics with what ought to have been a mere wisp of a part in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and had stolen scenes from right under Jodie Foster’s nose in David Fincher’s The Panic Room.
Wearing jeans and a hoodie, she curled up into a little ball beside me, tucking her Converse sneakers under herself. She was whip smart, singular and terrifically, endearingly awkward. I developed a weird maternal, or possibly materteral instinct for the teenager right then and there.
It is a relief to sit down with her in London all these years later and to discover that she hasn’t changed a bit. She retains all the wobbliness of a newborn foal. She trips over her own shoes and words.
“Um, um . . . blah. Okay. Let’s just start again,” she stammers, mid-introductory handshake. “Cheers. Hello. All that.”
It’s a vindication of sorts: for the longest time I’ve enjoyed physically poking people who talk trash about the 22-year-old and her Twilight franchise, especially when these same arbiters go on to praise the far more conservative Harry Potter sequence.
“Oh wait . . .” She panics momentarily. “I mean, I don’t mean wait, I mean sorry. I don’t want to stop talking but you know there’s no film in that camera over there?”
That’s okay: this isn’t for TV.
“Oh. Okay. Cool. I just thought I had wasted your time. Okay. We can talk now. Sorry.”
You’d think K-Stew would be a little bit grander at this point in her career. You’d think she’d be accustomed to the glare of the spotlight. As one half of bicephalic celebrity juggernaut “Robsten”, she and her romantic partner, Robert Pattinson, are among the most photographed and stalked entities on earth. Instead she sits, feet all fidgety, with her shoulders rigid against her ears. It’s only when we start talking in wolf-dog noises – she lives with two of the beasts; I have one – that she loses her angular shape and nervous twitches.
Do hers try to talk too, I wonder. Like they’re trying to make human sounds?
“Yes. Oh yes. All the time!” she cries, over random, unco-ordinated hand gestures. “They definitely talk. ‘Arr Arr Arr!’ They think they can imitate me perfectly.”
An assistant briefly puts her head around the door as Kristen makes like a lupine. She doesn’t look remotely surprised.
“I have no tact,” laughs Stewart. “That’s the thing. None.”
She really isn’t terribly Hollywood. You can see why she loved shooting in Montreal recently, a place where nobody cared if she talked in wolf-dog and nobody cared what was in her bins.
“I’m usually pretty self-conscious about running around town with my face hanging out,” she says. “I got to live more in four weeks up there than I would in a lifetime worth of my normal life.”
It’s a big year for Kristen Stewart in her “normal life”. Walter Salles’s adaptation of On The Road sees Hollywood’s shyest starlet cavorting in a three-way on-screen relationship with Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund. In November, the Twilight franchise takes a final bow with Breaking Dawn Part II.
This week, Snow White and the Huntsman will put Stewart’s box-office clout to the test. It’s an epic fantasy film that sees Kristen’s Snow White face down Charlize Theron’s wicked stepmother on the battlefield. Even she’s a little surprised to find herself in a second big-budget fantasy franchise.
“I know what people must be thinking,” she says, breaking into So-Cal business speak: “‘Ooh. Is she trying to prove herself outside the Twilight franchise? Can she hold up another one?’ That’s so not why I did this. That’s so not why I choose things.”
So why did Little Miss Indie plump for this year’s Narnia Chronicles? A rollicking reimagining of the Grimm Brothers’ classic that falls somewhere between Lord of the Rings and Princess Mononoke, Rupert Sanders’s impressive debut feature sees Stewart channelling the qualities of a feral child and never, ever whistling while she works.
“It felt like new material to me,” she tells me. “I had definitely seen the Disney cartoon. But even that’s a tenuous connection. I think I watched it once or twice. It wasn’t one of my favourites. So this wasn’t about rediscovering something I connected with before or as a little girl. It moved me right now. It was completely novel. She’s the most frazzled, raw character I’ve ever played. Her nerves are so very close to the surface of her skin.”
A natural actor in the way that certain footballers are natural strikers, Stewart offers a kitchen-sink-friendly nous that is nicely complemented by Sanders’s very tactile, very maggoty universe. That, she says, was ultimately why she was happy to sign up for a fairytale.
“I mean, it’s a princess story,” she laughs. “It’s supposed to be la-la-la. But none of us ever felt silly. We never had to fake a thing. We were consistently challenged by our environment. Rupert threw very dangerous elements at us all the time. It was muddy. It was cold. It was England. You can read through something. You can get into character. But if you want to get that little bit deeper nothing hurts like actual pain. I love that. I love watching people in discomfort on-screen. And you can always tell.”
Stewart never varies her methodology, whether she’s playing Bella in Twilight or Marylou in On the Road. She says the Kerouac book changed her life as a younger teen. But that doesn’t mean she regarded the Salles adaptation as being any weightier than her other roles.
“I don’t like it when people dismiss Twilight as puppy love or Snow White as a fairytale,” she says. “Why should something be a less valuable depiction of the human condition because it’s about a 17-year-old girl? Why should something be less credible as a story because it’s about a princess? I don’t think of those parts as lesser parts.”
It’s hard to know what Stewart’s Twi-hard fanbase will make of On the Road. Walter Salles’s film, though far from being an unqualified success, pokes away at the misogyny of the original Kerouac text. The book’s Beat heroes, in particular Dean Moriarty (a thinly fictionalised Neal Cassidy) are exposed (and almost denounced) as lousy boyfriends, husbands and fathers.
Consequently, at last week’s Cannes premiere, audiences were taken aback to realise that Stewart – playing Dean’s passed-around, 16-year-old bride – is naked and cavorting for a good deal of the 137-minute run-time.
“I never thought of it that way,” she says. “I felt safe with Walter. I felt safe with the guys. It wasn’t about me being naked. I loved the challenge of it. I look at it now and it’s insane. But I don’t feel connected to what’s on the screen. I mean, I do but . . . it’s me, but it’s not. And I love Marylou. She jumps right off the page and smashes you in the face. With her tongue. She never sold herself. That was the one thing about her that made her different from everyone else in that movement. She wasn’t rebelling against anything. She was just being.”
Two weeks after I meet Kristen Stewart in London she walks past the press room in Cannes. Her On the Road co-star, Kirsten Dunst, steps in to help when Kristen, in heels she just can’t manage, almost trips over her own feet.
It really is a relief to discover that she hasn’t changed a bit.