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Kristen Stewart Is Still Here

Almost 10 years after ‘Twilight,’ the famously awkward actress is experiencing a career renaissance. She might be the most fascinating movie star around.

(Brian Taylor Illustration)
(Brian Taylor Illustration)

Perhaps you remember a video that was making the rounds about eight years ago called “Kristen Stewart School of Acting.” Culled from her appearances in the first Twilight movie and the 2009 indie Adventureland, it is basically a montage of sighs, a collection of enough sharp exhales to fog up an entire hall of mirrors. The video’s description constitutes what is still the most prevalent stereotype about the actress who rose to semi-reluctant superstardom playing Bella Swan: “Kristen Stewart leads this master class on awkward breathing, eyelid fluttering, gasping, staring into the middle distance, and expert hair touching.”

Perhaps you’ve seen another video that’s been making the rounds: Stewart’s Saturday Night Live monologue, from her debut hosting gig back in February. “I’m here to promote my movie Twilight, which this week has been on iTunes for eight years,” she joked at the beginning, the unspoken punch line being how much but also how little has changed since then. On the one hand, she looked so much more sure of herself than that girl in the 2009 video did; she’s grown into that man-in-the-crescent-moon face and couture James Dean swagger. But at the same time, as confident as Stewart seemed, all of those once-parodied nervous tics were still present: the exhales, the anxious finger-wringing, the shoulders scrunched so far up toward her ears that you keep wanting a yoga instructor to come over and correct her posture. It’s an immensely humanizing fact: At the height of her powers, Kristen Stewart is still awkward — not in the practiced Taylor Swift way or the overblown Jennifer Lawrence way, but in the sense that you feel genuinely prickly and almost uncomfortably on edge while watching her. She gives off the antic, third-rail energy of someone who is constantly about to accidentally say “fuck” on live TV — a reputation she confirmed when, at the end of her SNL monologue, she accidentally said “fuck” on live TV.

Stewart was not there to promote Twilight; she was promoting Personal Shopper, the moody and lyrical ghost story that debuted last year at Cannes (to boos, and then to a persistent backlash to those boos) and marks her second collaboration with the prolific French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. The first movie she made with him was 2014’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria, which found Stewart not only holding her own beside the legendary Juliette Binoche but also — in a thrilling upset — becoming the first American actor to win a César award, the French equivalent of the Oscar. (True to form, she stumbled charmingly through her acceptance speech.) Eight years past the first Twilight, Stewart is at a frustrating yet exhilarating crossroads in her career: Hollywood hasn’t yet figured out what to do with K. Stew 2.0, and some of the more traditional movies (American Ultra, Cafe Society, Equals) she’s made recently have been lifeless bombs. But if you’ve known where to look, Stewart has simultaneously been going through a captivating renaissance in the more far-flung corners of the film world, doing career-best work with directors like Assayas and indie auteur Kelly Reichardt.

Which is to say that, against all odds and amid a constant chorus of jeers more personal and vicious than the ones at Cannes, Bella Swan has somehow huffed and puffed her way to becoming one of our most promising, confounding, and fascinatingly watchable movie stars.

In retrospect it feels like a passing of the torch: Kristen Stewart’s first major film role was playing Jodie Foster’s daughter. The L.A. native was just 11 years old, and the movie was David Fincher’s claustrophobic 2002 thriller, Panic Room. If Panic Room doesn’t quite hold up today that’s only because Stewart and Foster play the trapped mother-daughter duo with such calm cunning that it’s hard to believe they could possibly be outsmarted by Jared Leto playing a goon with *NSYNC cornrows. By the strength of their performances, Panic Room flips the script on the whole woman-as-trapped-victim trope; even in distress Foster and Stewart come off as capable, never stereotypically hysterical. “I know it sounds like I love myself so much,” Foster told Variety last year. “But she really reminded me of myself as a child. She had all the joy of being a kid, but it was really like being with an adult.” Panic Room was the first in a series of difficult and mature roles for the precocious Stewart: Over the next few years, she’d play a mute sexual assault victim in the indie drama Speak, a girl with a rare nervous system disease in Mary Stuart Masterson’s The Cake Eaters, and a troubled preteen in the thriller Cold Creek Manor. She is, without exception, the best and most interesting thing about all of these movies.

Let’s call it the Purgatory of the Franchise, the place in which Kristen Stewart was nearly stuck from 2008 to 2012. Like so many starring turns in YA juggernauts (Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen come to mind), the role of Bella Swan was a mixed blessing: It catapulted her out of the low-budget indie world and made her a household name, sure, but it also required her to make five Twilight movies in as many years and stick with the role until long after she’d outgrown it. In a 2016 Variety cover story, Stewart admitted that although she enjoyed making the first Twilight movie, the sequels “were trying to satisfy something that was less specific.” She went on, “There was a fear that drove why we were there. There wasn’t a cohesiveness. I think they ended up OK, because there was still individual passion. They are a little splattered against the wall — but they are trying.”

It’s a common problem for talented young actors in an industry obsessed with tentpoles: They sign on to star in a YA franchise to boost their profile but age out of the demographic by the time the last few films are released — especially given this ridiculous, profit-driven tendency to split the final books in these series into two movies. (The Superhero Problem is a related phenomenon, in which franchises swallow up promising young actors before they’ve fully created any kind of star persona.)

But perhaps the saving grace in Stewart’s career was how willing she was to work in the months between Twilight movies, even if that meant taking on supporting roles in smaller indie movies. In her time spent outside of Forks, Washington, she kept busy with films like Adventureland (she’s much better in it than that 2009 video gives her credit for), Welcome to the Rileys, and On the Road. The most formative of these roles, though, was her turn as Joan Jett in the rock biopic The Runaways. There was a bit of the requisite, rockist “Oh no, the girl from that teen movie is playing Joan Jett” backlash at the beginning, but in retrospect, she got a certain swagger from the role that she never really got rid of; it’s like she went Method into Joan Jett and never quite went back. It didn’t hurt that she had Jett herself coaching her on how to own the stage. “If I wasn’t fully feeling it,” Stewart recalled several years later, in the first interview where she spoke openly about her sexuality, “she’d walk to the end of whatever set or stage I was on and be like, ‘Kristen, pussy to the wood!’”

“Four years ago I was dating this guy named Rob … um, Robert,” Stewart said during her SNL monologue. “And we broke up and got back together, and for some reason it made Donald Trump go insane.” She then proceeded to read several of the 11 (eleven!) tweets the current president of the United States wrote about her in 2012, including one that went, “Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog & will do it again — just watch. He can do much better!”

Trump was not the only person unleashing ire toward Stewart in 2012: Swarms of angry Twilight fans orchestrated a backlash against her when she was caught cheating on Pattinson with a married filmmaker, Rupert Sanders — who, in a dark twist of irony, was directing her as the pure and virginal Snow White. Her bad reputation was set in cement; less than a year later, she came in second place in Star magazine’s 2013 “Most Hated Celebrities Poll,” finishing behind Gwyneth Paltrow but 18 spots ahead of Chris Brown.

Years later, the dust has more or less settled: Pattinson is contently in a new weirdo-power-couple with FKA twigs (a union that proved that at least some of his die-hard fans who trolled Stewart are also racist); Stewart is mostly dating women and has garnered the jealousy of two entirely different crush demographics by being linked to both St. Vincent and a Victoria’s Secret model. (“I don’t view the whole Twilight blow-up as being generally traumatic,” she said recently, with an admirably level head. “It would take someone with a really unhealthy amount of ego to be upset that everyone doesn’t love them.”) In retrospect it’s easy to understand the Twihards’ hate: Stewart was the girl who’d not only snagged their fantasy heartthrob but thrown him away in grand, public fashion — or, viewed another way, the queer girl who got the hetero fairy tale and rejected it when she found it wasn’t for her. Trump’s hate is understandable, too: Of course a man who clings so desperately to traditional ideas about gender roles would feel threatened by a confidently androgynous actress who not only possesses but flaunts an outside-the-box take on femininity. As she said, triumphantly, at the end of her monologue, “Donald, if you didn’t like me then, you’re really probably not going to like me now, because I’m hosting SNL and I’m like, so gay, dude.”

Calling herself “gay” in the monologue was something new; she’d previously balked at any kind of label on her sexual orientation. “Google me, I’m not hiding,” she said in a 2015 interview, adding, “I think in three or four years, there are going to be a whole lot more people who don’t think it’s necessary to figure out if you’re gay or straight. It’s like, just do your thing.” Hollywood, too, still has a pretty rigid concept of gender and sexuality, and the more unapologetically androgynous and sexually fluid Stewart professes herself to be, the less the studios seems to know what to do with her. In recent films when a director has tried to stick her in a traditionally feminine role like the sidekick hetero-girlfriend or the blithe ingenue, her limbs have stuck out of the box at odd angles. Consider American Ultra, her 2015 stoner-action farce, which was one of the most confusingly advertised Hollywood movies in recent memory — an ultraviolent but surprisingly sweet love story that looked, misleadingly, like it was trying to be Pineapple Express 2. Even less successful was another role alongside Jesse Eisenberg the next year in Woody Allen’s fizzy but trite Cafe Society. Allen’s casting of her as the coquettish 1930s secretary Vonnie revealed how little he understood Stewart’s screen persona. “I have a sort of heavy energy,” she reflected in an interview promoting the movie, “and [Vonnie is] truly the opposite of that.”

“If this was 1944 or 1935,” Allen told Variety with his signature, weary nostalgia, “she would have been one of those drop-dead-beautiful movie stars. … She would have been in the pantheon of classic actresses like Rita Hayworth or Elizabeth Taylor.” But it’s not 1944 or 1935 — thank God — and Stewart is living in a time when her eccentricities can combine to form their own kind of off-kilter glamour. She is thoroughly modern in that way. She was born right on time.

One of my favorite things to happen in a movie last year was when Kristen Stewart wiped her mouth with a napkin in Certain Women. It’s one of those tiny, spot-on gestures that brings a screen performance to life. Stewart is playing Beth Travis, a law associate in rural Montana who is for some reason teaching a boring night class on school law in a town four hours away from where she lives. After the class one night, in the company of a mysterious student, she is scarfing down a cheeseburger at a local diner before she has to hit the road once again. As if unconsciously, she picks up a bundle of utensils wrapped in a napkin and wipes her mouth — this is a woman who has to drive halfway across Montana tonight and thus has no time to unwrap these utensils. It was a perfect little detail. Both times I saw the movie in theaters, this gesture has made people laugh. Not because it’s a joke but because it’s just the right amount of odd.

Certain Women was directed by Kelly Reichardt (the elegantly understated auteur behind movies like Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy) and based on three barely connected short stories by the writer Maile Meloy. Stewart’s segment is by far the best, and I think it’s my favorite role she’s ever played. Reichardt made one crucial change to the material in casting Stewart: In the original short story, the school law teacher is a man. The scenes she plays in that diner with the actress Lily Gladstone are so poignant because, like Gladstone’s character, we’re never sure if Beth is romantically interested in her, or if she’s in such a harried rush that she doesn’t realize the awkwardly charming mixed signals she’s giving off. It’s a perfect Kristen Stewart role because it requires her to be both a little androgynous and also a little itchy in her skin — barely there in the present because her mind is already on the long drive home.

There are, too, quite a few weird but pitch-perfect details in Personal Shopper: the twitchy way that Stewart sends a text message, and particularly the space she leaves between a word and a question mark. (Someone I know who interviewed Assayas said this was “all her — though apparently that’s a common practice in France.”) This might sound incidental but in Personal Shopper it is not — the centerpiece of the movie is a wordless, bizarrely brilliant sequence in which Kristen Stewart engages in a text message conversation with someone who may or may not be a ghost. (This is when I remind you that Personal Shopper was widely considered “the most divisive movie at Cannes.”) It’s an imperfect movie — a sometimes self-serious meditation on the supernatural and the nature of belief — but Stewart absolutely carries it and is fascinating to watch in every frame.

And like Clouds of Sils Maria, in which she played the unknown to Binoche’s fictitious famous actress, it’s playfully meta about Stewart’s history of tabloid superstardom. Personal Shopper is the second in what I hope will be a trilogy of Olivier Assayas Films That Feature Kristen Stewart Playing Famous People’s Assistants. Stewart plays Maureen, an American in Paris who takes on the titular job for a hyperfamous French model named Kyra. Stewart plays Maureen (who is also an amateur medium, trying to get in touch with the spirit of her dead twin brother) in a compelling trance; she’s drawn to illicitly try on her boss’s designer garments not so much because she dreams of being rich and famous but because they seem to exude some kind of occult pull on her. As she did in Clouds in Sils Maria, Stewart makes her connection to her famous boss seem like something deeper than a simple commentary on fame, but a meditation on the boundaries of identity itself.

There’s a gorgeous and hypnotic sequence in the movie in which Maureen — emboldened by a couple of solo swigs of vodka — tries on one of Kyra’s outfits while she’s out of town. It’s an incredible garment: an intricate, barely there black harness covered by a sheer black gown. It’s one of those outfits that almost no one but Kristen Stewart could pull off. As she casts off her frumpy-chic sweater and steps into it, it’s like Maureen is stepping into Stewart’s famous skin before our eyes. A caterpillar becoming a badass, leather butterfly.

It was striking how much the outfit she wore in her SNL monologue looked like the dress she tries on in the movie — only this time, it was hers. Maybe, at this moment in her career, that’s the most fascinating and oddly inspiring thing about her: the way she’s grown into her awkwardness rather than out of it, and come to wear her anxieties like couture.