Kristen Stewart swears a lot. This instantly makes her a human being rather than the tabloid icon she’s unwillingly become at age 22 thanks to the Twilight saga and its constant media presence.
Stewart’s at the Toronto Film Festival with On The Road, an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic beat novel in which she plays Marylou, the sexually adventurous child bride of the charismatic Dean Moriarty. (Yes, there are nude scenes. No, they aren’t explicit.) She’s been paired with Garrett Hedlund, who plays Moriarty, and the two of them are at their most animated when discussing the freewheeling, improvisational style director Walter Salles encouraged during the rehearsal process.
“I tortured myself in the most amazing, wonderful way for four weeks,” she says, “and then as soon as the four weeks were done it was like, ‘You need to stop thinking, because if you don’t you’re gonna regret this entire experience. You’re gonna look back and say: I fucked up. I thought too much.’”
Stewart says the fact that she was playing a real person – the aforementioned Henderson, who was the basis for Kerouac’s fictional Marylou – made her a little more careful about her own improvisations.
“It’s always fun to have freedom and have, like, happy accidents where you go, ‘Wow, that’s cool, I didn’t expect that,’” she says. “But when you’re playing somebody who’s [actually] existed, you know.…” And she stops herself, rethinking her position on the fly.
“I don’t want to discredit what it feels like to play a character who’s been written by somebody,” she continues.“You feel just as responsible to the writer and to everyone who’s been affected by that character.”
There is no doubt in my mind that she’s referring to Bella Swan. And I have to respect her instincts; given how many millions of people worship the Twilight movies and could turn on her in a second for a valid observation taken out of context, it’s the savvy thing to do. But it’s also crap, and she knows it, because as soon as she’s finished that statement, Stewart returns to her real point and her energy shoots right back up.
“I’ve played Joan Jett,” she says, “and because she was on set every day I couldn’t improv. I couldn’t. Everything I said, I spoke to her about it. You know – you can’t put words in their mouths unless you know. Unless you really feel it, and it’s coming from the right place.”
Luckily for Salles, he was able to hang onto key components of his cast, including the skyrocketing Stewart.
“I think she brought an immense passion but also an intelligence to her role,” Salles said. “She knew it really well before we even met, just after I saw Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. This was before the Twilight Saga had started.”
“I said, ‘I really liked Penn’s film and you were wonderful in it. I’m considering the possibility of doing On the Road.’ And she said, ‘It’s one of the books I prefer; it’s on my bedside table. I would love to play Marylou one day.’ I said, ‘This is exactly what I’m talking about.’”
Stewart reveals a more carefree side of herself in the film, even appearing topless as she plunges into a racy sex scene with playful abandon. It was all par for the course, according to Salles.
“There was not a day where she didn’t ask me to try something different and go beyond the page. It was a great experience. And the fact that we were shooting Montreal helped a lot. We were not invaded by paparazzi or other things that are now very present in Kristen’s life.”
Q: You and Kristen had great chemistry, so how did you guys develop that?
GH: I think it was from being around each other for the four weeks before we began filming. We were all in the same room all day, everyday. We went over material, and were reading a lot of the writings. That was a time for us to share with each other, like anything one had encountered.
Also, Walter shared with us what he discovered on his research. All day, everyday, it was Sam, Kristen and I in this apartment with Walter, listening to jazz, reading. It was one big study hall, so that’s where it came from.
Also, she’s not a hard one to get along with. She’s really great, and really dedicated to this. Everyone who was in this was great, and accepted everyone else as a family.
Q: In the movie, you have some racy scenes with Kristen Stewart. What was it like to film those scenes?
SR: It’s a strange thing. I never had to do that much of that sort of thing before, and they’re not the sort of scenes that I relish. There’s not a lot you can do or play, necessarily. It’s like a fight-you hit, you duck. It’s all quite orchestrated.
I was pretty uncomfortable. She was 19, and I was nearly 30 and married. (laughs) We’re mates, but it was weird. You do it as quickly as possible, unlike in real life. You want to try to get it right the first or second time, so you don’t have to do it a lot of times.
My grandparents went to go watch it, and my grandfather’s 90. I said, what do you think of it, and he said, you were very good, but it was a bit racy in some points. He said, it’s not really my generation, and I said, it is your generation, you were there.
Q: Did you know Kristen before you worked together on this film?
SR: No, I don’t come into much contact with stars in my daily life. I’m married to a German one (actress Alexandra Maria Lara).
I knew the Jodie Foster move she was in (‘Panic Room’), but I didn’t realize it was her. I had seen ‘Into the Wild,’ and my younger sister loves the ‘Twilight’ movies. Kristen tried to explain to me the plot for the one that just came out (‘The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn-Part 2′), and it sounded bonkers. (laughs) It’s like, he’s a vampire, and he’s a werewolf. I get pregnant by the vampire, and the child grows at an enormous rate, and comes out almost at toddler age. I thought, this is very unusual for children’s’ entertainment. (laughs) But I didn’t know anyone before starting.
Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund are in the middle of a game of Q&A chicken. They’re sitting in a courtyard at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons on a hot November morning, staring at each other over a small table, waiting for the other one to crack first and answer my question. The only movement comes from the smoke wafting off his cigarette and the slowly forming half-smile on each of their faces.
All I’ve done to provoke this battle of wills is to ask, “Which of you is most like your character in On the Road?” In the new film adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac–penned road trip novel (which opens today in limited release), Hedlund plays the charismatic bohemian Dean Moriarty, and Stewart is cast as Dean’s carnal free spirit of a girlfriend, Marylou. Neither actor wants to brag that he or she closely resembles an iconic literary character, so it becomes obvious to both that a round of mutual compliments is the only way out of this question. But who will be brave enough to suck it up and go first?
“He’s got a lot of Dean in him,” Stewart finally says.
“He’s got a lot of teeth in him?” Hedlund replies, in mock-confusion.
“Dean!” she insists, as they both start laughing. It isn’t hard to coax a smile from Stewart and Hedlund, even if their screen personas would suggest otherwise. Both are best known for their straightforward, sullen work in big-bucks franchise roles — she in Twilight, he in Tron Legacy — and you can see what drew them to On the Road, a film populated not by computer programs but flesh-and-blood people, where the characters aren’t undead but instead, really living.
In truth, Hedlund and Stewart are both closer to their roles than they’d readily admit. Like Neal Cassady, the Beat figure whom Dean is based on, Hedlund grew up in the heartland, spending his childhood on a farm so remote that you have to fly into Fargo and drive three hours away to find it. To win the part in On the Road, Hedlund channeled the vibe of the novel and wrote several soul-baring pages about his own life, offering them to director Walter Salles after his first audition by asking, sincerely, “Can I read you something I wrote?” It worked.
As for Stewart, “You wouldn’t be attracted to a project if you had to fake it,” she says. Though Marylou is more impetuous and sexually assertive than the other roles she’s played, Stewart claims, “I don’t feel like I’m stepping outside of myself when I’m playing parts. Even if it’s really different from the apparent version of who I am, I’m always somewhere deep in there.”
It isn’t jarring to go from green-screen blockbuster work like Snow White and the Huntsman to something this intimate and sweaty? Again, Stewart half-smiles; she’s spent most of her career alternating juggernaut Twilight films with barely budgeted indies like The Runaways and Welcome to the Rileys. “I don’t mind making big movies, ‘cause you get to sort of bitch and complain with the other actors about what’s keeping you from being able to really feel it,” she says with a self-deprecating chuckle. “But then at the end of the day, you could be in a white room; the whole thing about being an actor is you have to have an imagination.”
A lack of inhibition helps, too. In On the Road, Hedlund plays a cool character full of Beat bravado, but he’s still asked to do things that might make other young actors flinch, like shedding his clothes, dancing with wild abandon in long unbroken takes, or simulating rough sex with Steve Buscemi. Ask him about finding the freedom to go to those places, and Hedlund surprises by daring to quote not a venerated literary icon like Kerouac but Ethan Hawke, whose book Ash Wednesday, he says, made a big impression on him as a teenager.
“‘The only thing in life worth learning is humility,’” quotes Hedlund, who vaguely resembles Hawke with his brown goatee and earnest literary bent. “‘Shatter the ego, then dance through the perfect contradiction of life and death.’” His explanation: “It encourages you not to walk with your head down and your hands in your pockets and be closed off to life, but to be open and nonjudgmental and accessible to experience a lot of wonderful journeys within this short life of ours.”
Do those inhibitions come down permanently after simulating the envelope-pushing sex scenes of On the Road? Stewart says yes and acknowledges that in general, she’s perceived to be a closed-off person, but that she’s working on it. “It’s funny: By putting up walls, you think you’re protecting yourself, but you get to live less,” says Stewart. “If you’re hiding behind a wall, then you can’t see over it. You’re depriving yourself of so much if you’re trying to be too aware of what you’re putting out there, you know?”
She adds, “If you feel someone breaking those walls down, let them. Those are the people that you need to find in life, rather than people that you’re just comfortable with.”
With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Hedlund and Stewart want to end our conversation by discussing Just Kids, Patti Smith’s book about her artistically enriching and culture-defining friendship with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. “It had a very similar effect on me as reading On the Road did when I was 15,” says Stewart, who’s currently reading the novel for a second time. “I had a serious urge to create shit after I read it, to go out and find people, and travel.”
When I bring up the recent report that Smith is a fan of Stewart’s — suggesting that maybe one day, she could find herself starring in another adaptation of a bohemian coming-of-age book — Stewart demurs and meets eyes with Hedlund again. “I will never be the type of person like Patti Smith who has that compulsion to be constantly creating,” she laughs, confessing, “You feel diminished somehow [after reading it]! You’re like, ‘God! I gotta build myself back up again! I need to actually use every second! Why am I sitting around, ever?’”