“It’s not a terrible thing if you’re either loved or hated,” says Kristen Stewart, seated in a cozy little bistro on the outskirts of the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz, far removed from even the most penetrating telephoto lenses. “But honestly,” she continues, “I don’t care ’cause it doesn’t keep me from doing my shit. And I apologize to everyone for making them so angry. It was not my intention.”
So says the most vilified—and highest-paid—actress in all the land. Her role earlier this year as a sword-wielding firebrand in Snow White and the Huntsman, a sinister reimagining of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, was quite apropos, given that the 22-year-old starlet is, in many ways, the tabloid media’s Joan of Arc. Her refusal to kowtow to the celebrity-industrial complex, whether through her steely-eyed gaze on the red carpet or nervous fidgeting during televised interviews, is seen by many as an entitled A-lister putting on airs.
But in person, Stewart comes off like most 20-somethings might—a compelling mélange of pensiveness interrupted by sudden pangs of excitement. Clad in jeans, sneakers, and a loose-fitting sky-blue shirt, she fiddles with her greasy reddish-brown hair—the color’s a byproduct, she says, of not filming a movie for a year.
She has, however, kept busy making the grueling publicity rounds—health-permitting. “Last night I was sick with the flu and couldn’t go to this On the Road screening,” she says, sounding contrite. “Normally, I wouldn’t feel too terrible about missing a press event, but I felt awful because I’d do anything for this film. It holds a special place for me.”
Developing a cherished novel into a film is always a tricky endeavor, but Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a beatnik-era classic about a group of youths in the ’40s and ’50s, provides an even greater challenge than most. Based on the author’s real-life pals, including Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, the road-trip saga was hell-bent on upending conformity as it attempted to capture the spirit, not just the events, of the time.
Stewart committed to the film at 17, even before shooting on the first Twilight movie began. It was Sean Penn, Stewart’s director for Into the Wild, who recommended her to Twilight filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke for the role of Bella Swan, a chaste teen desperately in love with a vampire. And it was Penn’s 21 Grams director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, who suggested to director Walter Salles that he cast Stewart in On the Road.
She discovered the novel during her freshman year of high school and says it “changed her life.” To prepare for the role of capricious nymphet Marylou, Stewart spoke with the daughter of LuAnne Henderson, the woman on whom the character is based, and went on a road trip from Los Angeles to Ohio with two of her friends just prior to shooting in the summer of 2010.
“There was a lot of skirting of little girls at rest stops. Like a volleyball team would pull up and I’d dive behind a bush,” she says with a laugh. “But we stopped at a Hooters in Amarillo, Texas, because there was this huge horse statue in front of it. We bought a lot of beef jerky. And seeing the landscapes fade from orange to green is the coolest thing.”
Cross-country trip aside, the role required Stewart to plumb more emotional depths than some of her previous films. The result is one of her most uninhibited performances yet. In On the Road, which is in theaters Dec. 21, she engages in an orgiastic dance-off and plenty of onscreen sex with the gang of young vagabonds, led by charismatic womanizer Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his introspective writer-pal, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley).
Stewart is no stranger to Hollywood. Her mother, Jules Mann-Stewart, is a respected script supervisor and her father is a stage manager, so she grew up on movie sets. “I remember being on the set of Little Giants when I was a kid and thinking it was the coolest thing ever,” she says. “I totally had a crush on Devon Sawa.”
Although she never possessed the desire to perform, Stewart was discovered when she was 8 years old during a “Dreidel” song in a school play. An agent in the audience approached her after the show and asked if she wanted to act. She said yes. After one year of auditions, however, the only thing the fledgling actress had booked was a Porsche commercial.
“I decided a year after not getting any commercials, ‘F–k it. I won’t make my mom drive around Los Angeles anymore,’ ” says Stewart. “I also got so nervous for every single audition. I was just dying. I had one appointment left and my mom said, ‘Have a little integrity and go to your last one.’ And it was The Safety of Objects. If I hadn’t gotten that, I would have been done.”
The next year, she received a crash course in acting, starring as Jodie Foster’s epileptic daughter in David Fincher’s noir-thriller, Panic Room. The filming lasted eight months and the director made a young Stewart shoot a pivotal seizure sequence so many times that she burst several blood vessels in her eyes. A few indie films followed, and, in between shoots, the actress earned her high-school degree. Then Twilight was unleashed in 2008—and everything changed. The vampire film franchise, which has spanned five films and earned more than $3.2 billion worldwide, transformed Stewart into a global superstar.
But with great fame comes great scrutiny.
The media’s intense scrutiny of the actress has practically driven her into hiding. “It’s a little annoying having to be so compartmentalized,” she says. “I go from box to box to box. Like right now, this is so crazy ’cause we’re out at a restaurant.” She pauses. “But I’m going out a lot more now. I was starting to get closed off and self-conscious, and I’m trudging forth into the world more often.”
Now that The Twilight Saga has come to a close, Stewart is keen to direct her attention to future projects, including a movie she’s shooting in April called Focus. Directed by the team behind Crazy, Stupid, Love, the comedy stars her and Ben Affleck as a pair of con artists who, she says, continually screw each other over—in love and in work. When asked if she feels pigeonholed as an actress by the role of Bella, she takes a long pause.
“The only relief when it comes to Twilight is that the story is done,” she says matter-of-factly. “I start every project to finish the motherf–ker, and to extend that [mentality] over a five-year period adapting all of these treasured moments over four books, it was constantly worrying.” She pauses. “But as long as people’s perspective of me doesn’t keep me from doing what I want to do, it doesn’t matter.”
This sounds very Kerouacian of her. After all, it was the author who wrote, “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.”