Kristen Stewart settles into a chair and trains her piercing, kohl-rimmed eyes on you. “The best actress of her generation” — as Olivier Assayas declared after directing her to a Cesar Award for their film Clouds of Sils Maria — was until a few minutes ago pantless but now wears slim jeans and a white T-shirt. A delicate padlock on a gold chain from a just-concluded photo shoot still dangles around her neck.
“She’s the loneliest person I’ve ever played,” Stewart says, diving into conversation about her new film, Personal Shopper, and her character, Maureen, a haunted stylist to the stars who spends her days motoring from one Paris couture house to the next for her famous client while mourning the loss of her twin brother.
Kristen Stewart, right, and writer-director Olivier Assayas pose for a portrait to promote their film ‘Personal Shopper.’
It’s her second film with French auteur Assayas and a mesmeric showcase for the Twilight star turned art house darling to whom stratospheric fame has lent an air of mystique, at once open and eternally unknowable.
Caught between two worlds, Stewart’s character in the stylish, psychological thriller is a high-fashion buyer who spends her free time chasing her brother’s ghost around Paris, desperate to know if there’s more beyond.
“There is this default reality that we all agree to live in with each other; she is not in it at all,” Stewart says, brimming with overcaffeinated energy. “And trust me, she would love to wake up in the morning and get coffee and be normal. She just has this preoccupation with these larger questions that don’t have answers, and it trips her out to a point where she can’t function.”
A few years ago, Stewart admits, those kinds of paralyzing existential conundrums used to keep her up at night.
“I’ve had tastes of that kind of debilitating question spiral where you go, ‘I can’t know for certain whether or not we’re alone. I can’t know what’s going to happen to me when I die. I can’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,’” she says. “But you never, ever will. I’ve had bouts of anxiety where I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, how can we not know this and still carry on?’”
At 26, Stewart lives in a strange, rarefied reality. She’s starred in more than 35 films, headlined the $3.3 billion grossing Twilight franchise, topped Forbes’ list of Hollywood’s highest-earning actresses and found herself in the paparazzi sights of more than her share of fame-fueled controversies by early adulthood.
If anyone has earned the right to protect themselves from eyes that would pry into her private life, and perhaps even her soul, it’s Stewart.
“I’m constantly skirting people,” she says, mimicking the head down, eyes averted posture she learned to adopt years ago, when fame showed up on her doorstep overnight. “I’m really good at avoiding people’s gaze, walking through any public space. I can literally sense when there’s an energy to be avoided.”
Still, even in Los Angeles she’ll occasionally find a new spot where no one cares that she’s, well, Kristen Stewart.
“You walk into a place and go, ‘Wow, this is nice, no one’s going to … with me here — maybe I’ll even talk to somebody I don’t know!’” she says, laughing. “You feel it immediately. People don’t suck everywhere.”
On-screen and off Stewart has cultivated a defiantly iconoclastic confidence, as if released from the self-imposed anxiety of having to constantly protect herself. In interviews, that translates into the sense that she’s always somehow speaking her unfiltered mind. In movies, it imparts the feeling that every performance is a window into the persona of Kristen Stewart.
“Rather than trying to show someone something, accidentally revealing something is so much more interesting,” she explains. “I always want to set myself up, to put myself within parameters so I can just completely lose it, so it’s always me. I can’t bring anything other than myself.”
Assayas, who debuted both of his films with Stewart in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, found her to be a fascinating presence ever since her Twilight days.
He was inspired to write the character of Maureen, the emotionally isolated heroine of Personal Shopper, specifically for Stewart after watching her lose herself during the filming of Clouds of Sils Maria, in which she plays the assistant to Juliette Binoche’s mercurial actress character.
“She is unique!” Assayas raves in French-accented English, calling from his home in Paris a few days before the Los Angeles premiere of Personal Shopper — where Stewart made headlines simply by debuting a newly shorn, platinum blond shaved head.
“I’d seen her in many films, but I always had the instinct that she could go much further,” he adds. “I tried to give her the message that it was OK to run, to be herself, to follow her instincts. She has this extraordinary combination of incredible control and simultaneous freedom. I have a hard time thinking of another actress who has a similar combination and who knows that well how to use it.”
Assayas even extols Stewart’s thumb acting in one particularly tense Personal Shopper sequence in which Maureen receives a mysterious text message and is lured into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with its unknown sender.
“Even the stuff that she does when she’s typing — she’s acting,” says Assayas, who filmed Stewart’s texting replies in close-up, a tete-a-tete with a ghost in the machine.
Stewart, he says, “is creating the film with me. She’s inventing the mood of the film, she’s inventing the pace of the film — I’m helping her fine-tune it, but she follows me, and I follow her.”
It’s no coincidence that as Stewart has come into her power as a critically acclaimed indie star, she’s also turned to directing, reaching inward for artistic inspiration.
Her first short film, a 17-minute meditation on love and loneliness called Come Swim, was inspired by the poetry she’d been writing for years, processing experiences and lost loves.
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