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.”
“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.”
Question: Because you fiercely held onto this project, since before even Twilight, what is it that spoke to you about Marylou, that made you still want to be a part of this, after all this time?
KRISTEN STEWART: I really had to dig pretty deep to find it in me to actually play a person like this. It took a long time. Initially, I couldn’t say no. I would have done anything on the movie. I would have followed in a caravan, had I not gotten a job on it. But, I was 16 or 17 when I spoke to Walter [Salles], for the first time. I was 14 or 15 when I read the book, for the first time. It was easy to connect the dots, after having gotten to know the person behind the character, to see what I would need to pull off a lifestyle like that, but that didn’t happen until deep into the rehearsal process. At first, I was just attracted to the spirit of it. I’m the type of person that really needs to be pushed really hard to be able to really let it all hang, and I think Marylou is the type of person that you can’t help but be yourself around because she’s so unabashedly present, all the time, like this bottomless pit of really generous empathy. That’s a really rare quality to have. It makes you capable of living a really full, really rich life without it taking something from you. You couldn’t take from her. She was always getting something back. She was amazing.
GARRETT HEDLUND: Being in the presence of someone so non-judgmental, gives you the freedom to shed inhibitions and fears, and be more honest with yourself and with somebody that’s more like that than you’ve ever been.
As much as you wanted to do it, how hard was it for you guys to stay attached to this, as time went by? How did that life seasoning, during that time, help inform things for you?
HEDLUND: Well, it wasn’t hard to stay attached, at all. This was, for me, something that I so eagerly wanted to do. When Walter [Salles] cast me in this, I was so unbelievably proud to be a part it. I was such a fan of the book and, from eight years after reading the book to now, to be on set was insane. But, from the time I was cast, I had this faith that it would get made, and this fear that it would. Everybody grew a bit too old. That was one of my fears with it because, with this part of the book, Dean is 21 and Sal is 24. We started filming it when I was 25. I turned 26 on it. Now, I’m 28. When I first read with Walter on it, I was 22 years old. Now, looking back with four years in between, with that life experience and life seasoning, you gain much more knowledge and wisdom of the world, the ways things work, the people and how to get what you want, and to know America a little bit more. Obviously, doing drives across the country enhanced the wisdom behind the wheel, of all these remote locations, being broken down and not having a penny to your name. It helped me to be comfortable with those scenes.
Because getting comfortable with the intensity of some of the physical scenes between the two of you, just so that you could do those scenes yourself, were there teams of managers and agents debating whether you should do it or not?
HEDLUND: No. The torture for them wasn’t having to accept the fact that your ass would be out for anybody to see, but with the internet, it will never go away. But, it wasn’t really that. It was the fact that for two or three years, I was saying no to everything that came across the table, and they were just like, “All right, you go off and do that film. I hope Mr. Salles is happy. Where have you been for the last three fucking years?” That was the only thing. Agents and managers despise passion projects sometimes.
Did you talk to you parents about the nudity in this film, before they saw it?
HEDLUND: My mom and sister watched it next to me.
STEWART: Yeah, that was really an interesting experience.
HEDLUND: There were a lot of laughs. I don’t know if that was a good thing or a bad thing. I don’t know if the laughs were out of nervousness or because the actual text was really that humorous.
STEWART: For me, I think everyone was really happy that it took a few years for the movie to get made. My mom came to Cannes. She loved it. She was really proud. I haven’t talked to my dad about it yet, really. I think Welcome to the Rileys was probably more difficult for a parent to watch. I was so sensitive about everything, after that film. That character really found its way under my skin. I was so overly sensitive about not just anything overtly sexual, but anything about a young girl. It rocked me, and I think my parents could probably feel that, as well. It was not something that we talked about. It’s funny to talk about from an outsider’s prospective. It’s like, “It must be weird to sit down and watch your ass with your mom,” but it’s so weird, being on the inside of it. I don’t want to say that it’s like I’m watching another person because what I love about my job is that you can read stuff and find aspects of life that you relate to, that you didn’t quite know you had in you, and that can shock the shit out of you. The process of making a movie is finding out why you responded, in that way. I don’t feel like you’re ever playing a different person, but because it’s not your typical go-to, it’s more like you’re taking care of another person. You have such a responsibility to that person. It’s easy to be mature about it. It’s easy to place it in a context and feel protective of it.
HEDLUND: I think the only thing harder for a parent is having to sit down and watch you do a dying scene. I’ve died in three films, and my mom begs me, “Just tell me you don’t die at the end.” To get her to go watch I Am Sam, I told her it was a comedy. She came back with her best friend and pockets full of Kleenex and said, “You son of a bitch!”
How old do you think a younger Twilight fan should be, before they see On the Road?
HEDLUND: I think the rating limits that a little bit.
STEWART: I think the actual law is that, if you are with a parent, you can go and see an R-rated movie, if you’re over the age of 13. I guess it depends on who your parents are and who you are. I read On the Road when I was 14, so I don’t know. My parents never wanted to shelter me from the world that we live in, so I’m probably not the right person to ask. I think, if you have a desire to see it and your parents don’t want you to see it, then take that bull by the horns.
Are conversations with people who are passionate fans of this book radically different from the passionate fans of the Twilight franchise?
STEWART: I don’t get to have very many involved conversations with Twilight fans. It’s really rare. Sometimes the girls that run the fan sites will come in and do an interview, and I absolutely love doing that. But, I find that a lot of people I talk to, and most journalists that I sit down with, are huge On the Road fans. I feel that they’re even assigned to those stories because they have an interest in it. I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of passionate On the Road fans. The difference is that there’s a lot to feel in Twilight, and that’s usually my experience, having individual exchanges with those fans. You just feel it. But with On the Road, there’s a lot to talk about.
Which beatnik ideals could you personally relate to?
HEDLUND: Within that time, there was such a sense and yearning for freedom. These guys were trying to explore all aspects in life, when few others were. So many had these concrete boundaries set up, and they had this yearning for adventure. Especially for me, growing up in such a small town in the middle of nowhere, the desire to be away was incredible. I wanted to see new lands, meet new people from the city, and meet people that were in much less fortunate situations than I was, so that I could be more appreciative of my present. At least I had food on the table. It was just the yearning to live and be on your own, and to journey and get away. These guys were able to do that by the expansion of free love and drugs. They expanded not only psychologically and spiritually, but also geographically.
Jack Kerouac’s text is a love letter to Dean Moriarty. Was that what you got when you read the book, for the first time?
HEDLUND: Well, this book is very similar to a lot of the letters that they exchanged with each other, from Neal [Cassady] to Jack [Kerouac], and from Neal [Cassady] to [Allen] Ginsberg. The brotherly love was there. The love between Ginsberg and Neal was there. There was honesty through expression of absolutely everything that was going on around them, mentally and physically, from where they were coming from to where they were going. They had such an eagerness to express everything, from the deepest parts of their souls, to each other. That’s what I think everybody was attracted to. It was a feeling of being more honest than you’ve ever been and more free. You have to shed inhibitions and fears, to approach life that way. That’s what I was really attracted to within this. Dealing with such a wonderful era – the late ‘40s and ‘50s – was something I romanticized the most. Peter O’Toole said once that his idea of heaven was walking from one smoke-filled room to another, and that’s what this time period always seemed like. There are all these black and white photos of people sweating their asses off, in these incredible outfits. All the men wore suits and hats, and all the women wore these fantastic dresses, and they were dancing without a care in the world, or so it seemed. We think that, if we see a photo in black and white, it can’t possibly exist today because everything os in color, but did they see it that way?
STEWART: When you can literally Google anything, you don’t feel like you have to go see it in person. You can do a lot of traveling in your bedroom, but you’re not touching anything and you’re not feeling it.
You guys had the opportunity to travel to a lot of remote and interesting areas for this film. Which location was your favorite?
HEDLUND: I don’t know. They were all kind of unique. Mexico was amazing. Because we were on such a move, right off the bat, in late summer and fall, Montreal was really beautiful with all of the cobblestones and everything. And then, we got to catch the snow, in the winter of Chile, and then book it down to Argentina and head over to Patagonia and up into No Man’s Land. We got to drive the Hudson through blizzards, in the mountains of Chile, for just three days while we were staying at this bed and breakfast on a lake that always had fog over it.
STEWART: It’s crazy to hear that it was just two or three days because, in my head, it was a huge chunk of time.
HEDLUND: And then, New Orleans was incredible, as well. We went out to the Bayou, and that was special.
STEWART: Just being in the city there was amazing.
HEDLUND: And the deserts of Arizona and Mexico were all so great. Those scenes led to even more excitement. Some of the deserted landscapes that Sam and I got to experience in Mexico were just so unique. Just to be in the deserted streets of Tehuacán, Mexico, where all the buildings were made of clay and straw, it was beautiful to see those parts of the world.
Kristen, how did you find a way to relate to Marylou and her lifestyle, at that time?
STEWART: I think Luanne [Henderson] was ahead of her time. Generally, peoples’ expectations for their lives, in a personal way, are not a whole lot different. It’s a really fundamental thing to want to be a part of a group. We are pack animals. In a way, she had very conventional ideals, as well. She had this capacity to live many lives, that didn’t necessarily mess with the other. She was not above emotion. She was above jealousy, but not above feeling hurt. Maybe if this movie was made back in the day, as opposed to now, people would be so shocked and awed by the sex and the drugs that they would actually miss what the movie’s about. Now, we’ve just seen a little bit more of it, so it’s not so shocking to stomach. It’s easier to take. Sure, times have changed, but people don’t change. That’s why the book has never been irrelevant. There will always be people that want to push a little bit harder, and there are repercussions. It’s evident in the story, as well. Even in that little glimpse, at that moment in time, knowing what happens to all the characters afterwards is interesting. She knew Neal to the end of his life, and they always shared what they had. It never left their hearts, even though their lives changed, monumentally.
What do you love about a good road trip, and what can potentially derail a road trip?
HEDLUND: Well, what I love about them is that, if you don’t have a time frame or a destination, what could derail it is a passenger that does. For this film, Walter [Salles] and I got to take the 49 Hudson from New York all the way to Los Angeles. The greatest thing about that was that we didn’t have a time when we had to get home. We knew that any footage we got out of the wonderful landscapes of all of America were only going to help us with the film or help us as people, to find strength within ourselves to experience this and to be on this journey. We broke down over nine times across the country, in different locations, and met some of the most wonderful mechanics across the States. It was one of the greatest adventures because none of us cared when we got home, and that’s really so rare to find, even when we broke down in the middle of nowhere New Mexico, on a blacktop divide in a hay field in a cow pasture. It took a mechanic two hours to get to us, and he had to close down his shop, so we just sat on the highway and pulled out our sandwiches and turned the music up.
Now that the Twilight franchise has ended, what advice would you give to other young actors who might be starting a major movie franchise?
STEWART: You better love it, or don’t do it. To be on one project for five years, I had the exact same feeling at the end that I had when I first started the project. The only difference is that now, at this point, I have that weight lifted and I want it back. I don’t have to worry about Bella anymore, which is so weird. She’s not like tapping me on the shoulder anymore.
It would be hard to end 2012 without a few final reflections from this year’s most talked about young actor, Kristen Stewart. Luckily we caught up with her at the IFC Films/Sundance Selects premiere (presented by Grey Goose Vodka) of On the Road, the film adaptation of the beloved Jack Kerouac novel. Though our primary intention may or may not have been to see that dress up close, we chatted up the starlet, discussing her favorite On the Road scenes, the joy of showering, and more. We walked away thinking that, after a year of very public ups and downs, starring in this art-house adaptation might just provide her with a perfect capper to 2012 and a pleasant segue into a more stable 2013.
Was On the Road influential for you as an adolescent?
“I read it for school. I’d always really done well in school and enjoyed it, but I was never floored by it, in that way. Up until that point, I did it because I wanted to be a good kid, and then it sort of kickstarted something in me. It probably coincided with the age that I was — it’s a moment when you look up and actually choose your surroundings, you actually choose the people that you’re going to call your friends. At that time, I thought, ‘I need to find people that are going to really push me.'”
How did you get the get the rough look of your character, Marylou?
“She was just really simple. One really remarkable thing about her is she’s so completely un-self-conscious. Vanity was the last thing on her mind. She was a beautiful girl, and everyone who talked about her said that. She was infectious and disarmingly present. I wasn’t going for rough. I was going for real.”
Do you have any favorite looks that you’ve gotten to wear this year?
“I liked everything I wore this year…I think. I don’t want to offend any of the dresses.”
What aspects of the film did you relate to?
“I think I always really identified with Sal Paradise [played by Sam Riley]. As much as Marylou offers so much of the vitality, so much of what you are hungry for during the read, I didn’t really identify with her initially. It took a lot to pull it out.”
What was your favorite on-set moment with your co-stars Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley?
“I think probably at the end of the shoot. It’s funny, one of my favorite moments is Garrett not being there. He had to go do something and I had finished doing a scene that his character was not present for, and it was just kind of perfect. His absence was very poignant. The fact that it was my last scene in the entire the movie, saying goodbye to Walter [Salles, director] and taking a picture in the middle of a completely empty road in the desert. It was excruciating, but at the same time, kind of what I instantly think about.”
Everybody on the set was smoking and drinking, did you look forward to showering at the end of every shoot?
“I did enjoy showering at the end of the day. If we were actually taking that trip, it would be the grimiest. I used to think about that all the time. So, I was glad to not go there.”