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The People’s Actress

Kristen Stewart has gone from ‘Twilight’ to ‘Spencer’ in just over a decade, but this isn’t just a Razzies-to-Oscars journey

Neon/Ringer illustration

When California gal Kristen Stewart received a phone call from Chilean director Pablo Larraín last year about collaborating on a film about the late Diana, Princess of Wales, the very concept carried so much baggage that it felt more like freight. Which, looking back, was kind of part of the appeal. A tour de force requires both mass and acceleration, after all, and Larrain’s proposed project—which would become Spencer, the feature film that hit theaters last weekend and has already earned awards season chatter, especially for Stewart—possessed both variables from the start.

“I could tell that this person was on a runaway train,” recalls Stewart during a recent Zoom conversation, sitting next to and nodding toward Larrain. “And I wanted to jump on.”

In Spencer, viewers are invited along for a warped-speed holiday jaunt through the misty 1990s British countryside and are given a vantage into the House of Windsor that is at once immersive and passing, eye-opening and out of focus, there and gone. Set over a three-day Christmas itinerary at the royal family’s Sandringham vacation estate, Spencer indulges in all the hallmarks of the monarchical experience, the same ones familiar to anyone who has watched The Crown, or The Queen, or all the other various volumes and miniseries trying to plumb the weird depths of a privileged few over the years. We see the queen’s squadron of corgis, the hunting of pheasants, the gossipy house staff, and the exquisite dresses worn by the miserable, doomed princess at the center of it all.

And yet the movie is not a traditional biopic, as it makes clear right from the beginning. Instead, according to the opening screen, it is “a fable based on a tragedy.” It is an essence, not an ode; a definite take that doesn’t pretend to be a definitive one. Above all, it has an element none of the other projects do. “It’s hard to explain,” says Larrain, “but there’s this, like, very magnetic sort of feeling of mystery when you see her on screen.”

Larrain could be describing the real Diana: a woman forever perceived but scarcely known; married and pregnant by age 20 and dead by 36; the iconic, cipheric inspiration for the surreal and spooky Spencer. But the director is actually talking about the woman who plays her, his film’s star, the 31-year-old Stewart—and the ineffable way she caught his eye with her every scoff and stare in films like 2016’s Personal Shopper. Like millions of people before him, Larrain found himself eager to join the Kristen Stewart conversation, and unlike millions of people before him, he had ways of getting in touch. “So,” he says, “I called on her on the phone.” And with that, he began working with American royalty.

Spencer is a visceral film, scored with hectic grace by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and bursting with the sights and sounds of Diana’s descent into, and escape from, a cosseted, haunted madness. Played by Stewart with breathy, skittish resolve, Diana is the heart of the movie, and also the spine, and the upset stomach, and the teeth. She bites into pearls and barfs up nettle soup and squelch-stomps in high heels through muddy fields (the latter stubborn image being one that’s also found in Larrain’s previous work, Jackie, about the newly widowed former first lady). She seethes and she sees things; she teeters on the precipice of a steep, rotting staircase and wonders: what if I just … She is repulsed by her philandering husband and his smug ma; she is desperately loved by and in love with her wide-eyed kids.

She is radiant and ragged, a woman at home wearing a barn jacket over a ball gown. It is both an ugly portrait and a reverent one. Stewart’s performance works because she gets that, and Spencer works because of her performance.

“To allow people to bring their own memories and projections to her,” Stewart says, “but then exist in this abstract space, was—I dunno, I thought it was an opportunity to be truthful about something that’s impossible to know.”

Stewart knows it’s impossible because she’s tried herself, watching and listening to every snippet of the real Princess Di that she could get her hands on, trying to mentally climb into every frame. “One of the first images that I really fell in love with,” Stewart says, “Pablo sent to me very early on.” She starts to describe it: In the picture, Diana sits in a comically large red chair at a royal gallery opening, “and she’s asleep, in this cupcake dress,” Stewart says. “This enormous, beautiful gown—”

“She’s so skiiiiinnny,” murmurs Larrain, remembering.

“Tiny,” Stewart agrees. “Just diminished to nothing.”

The photo they’re talking about was taken in 1981, a decade before Spencer is set; it earned Diana the nickname “Sleeping Beauty” in some corners. The day after it was taken, Buckingham Palace released a statement that helped explain the snooze: Diana and her husband, Prince Charles, were expecting their first child.

“Today’s news threatens to transform adulation into idolatry,” The New York Times reported that day, 40 years ago. “For this weary nation, struggling with no visible sign of success against the currents of economic decline, a pregnant Princess will be a vivid symbol of the continuity of the monarchy, with its links to the past and its promise of at least one element of stability in the future.” Diana was 20 years old at the time.

The more Stewart learned about the princess, the more she marveled at Steven Knight’s screenplay, which is fantastical (it includes several visits from a dead Anne Boleyn) but also rich with deeply sourced composite detail. “I loved the script upon first reading as a complete outsider with very little knowledge of what actually happened,” Stewart says. “And then I read everything and went back to the script and was blown away by how foundational it was, without ever having to hang a lantern on anything, or be specific about anything completely.”

Spencer doesn’t try to take a stance, for example, on whether it’s true that a few months after Diana fell famously asleep at that fete, she threw her pregnant body down the Sandringham stairs—or whether, as one of her butlers later alleged, she simply pretended she had. The film more so seeks to set the stakes such that the answer to any question like that feels like a harrowing toss-up.

“I was always kind of aware,” Stewart says, “of how much more comfortable I myself was, compared to what we were imagining her to feel like in those moments. I was thankful because I could sit on the stairs in between takes and take my shoes off and go, ahhhhhhh.”

Throughout the Spencer press tour, Stewart has been asked, time and again, a variation on the question: You kinda get what she was going through, huh? On the one hand, most people who ask do so apologetically, knowing it’s absurd on its face; Stewart is an actress, not a woman who would be queen. On the other, if there’s anyone in America not named Meghan Markle who knows what it’s like to live in a world where thousands of overenthusiastic onlookers feel as though they are entitled to a personal stake in another’s life, it might be the actress who was catapulted to near infamy thanks to her involvement in everyone’s favorite vampire romance films.

In answering, Stewart has ranged from chill to well-and-truly-over-it. “Look, I’m totally down to lean into the comparison conversation,” she told the Daily Beast last week, while also explaining that the similarities mostly end at the logistical challenges of a constant paparazzi presence. “I’m an artist. I get to say whatever I want. I get to make choices that reflect where I am at a given time in my life. It doesn’t mean that defines me forever. I get to grow. I get to have an ongoing relationship with the public that is completely elective.” To her, Diana never had those choices. In another conversation, with Insider, Stewart was tired of the question and saved by the bell: “We have completely different occupations and I think I’ve talked a lot about that,” she said when asked. “So considering you have no more time, Google that shit. I’m done.”

The daughter of a script supervisor mom and a stage manager dad, Stewart grew up around film sets and has been in movies for about two decades now, ever since she was a kid wearing a Flintstones tunic. She turned 11 on the set of Panic Room, where she played Jodie Foster’s diabetic daughter with compelling calm. (Despite the truly uncanny casting, Stewart has said, Foster actually didn’t sign on to the film until well after she did.) As a young teen, she had an affecting starring role in the film Speak as a high school student scarred by a sexual assault at a party; she also appeared in a number of more family-targeted kid capers. In November 2007, when it was announced that she’d been cast as Bella Swan in the outrageously anticipated adaptation of the smash hit vampire book series Twilight, her most recent work was a small but scene-stealing part in Into the Wild and a role in In the Land of Women, the kind of middlebrow Adam Brody vehicle that doesn’t exist anymore.

Stewart’s casting in Twilight immediately launched her into another realm altogether, professionally and personally. From 2008 to 2012 the franchise grew to five films, all of which grossed between $190 million and $300 million, and she and her costar Robert Pattinson were together (secretly yet obviously, the best kind of love!) practically the whole time. She became an object of absolute obsession for a sprawling generation of fans, which meant that she also turned into a target of cultural ridicule.

For every strong performance, like her turn as Joan Jett in 2010’s The Runaways, there was a distracting snafu, like when she got heat (and profusely apologized) that same year for saying, of tabloid photography, “The photos are so … I feel like I’m looking at someone being raped.” For every burgeoning K-Stew superstan who developed during the Twilight years, which Stewart would later describe as “so fucking pure” in a conversation with Patti Smith, there was an equal and opposite hater, someone who insisted that the actress was never doing much except for playing herself in different outfits, and who derided her as “sullen” or “her usual scowling self.”

But when pictures from the set of the big-budget Snow White and the Huntsman leaked in 2012 that showed her canoodling with the director, Rupert Sanders, the fact pattern was too much for the celebrity-industrial complex to pass up. Sanders was nearly twice Stewart’s age. He was married with kids, and his wife, Liberty Ross, played Stewart’s mom in the film. (Ross, whose brother is Atticus of Nine Inch Nails, divorced Sanders and later married mogul Jimmy Iovine; lots going on here.) Stewart was—well, was she or wasn’t she dating Pattinson, anyway?

She was: Stewart issued a contrite statement that included the words, “I love him, I love him, I’m so sorry,” and apologized to Pattinson by name, the first time she’d publicly acknowledged that they were ever an item. The Atlantic covered her apology, comparing it with similar works written by Tiger Woods, Anthony Weiner, and LeAnn Rimes. Donald Trump called her a “dog” on Twitter. Three months later, she was double-nominated for her first Razzie award. She still hadn’t turned 23.

In a 2020 Interview Magazine conversation between two of Stewart’s former costars, Happiest Season’s Mackenzie Davis and Snow White and the Huntsman’s Charlize Theron, the conversation turned to their mutual colleague.

Theron: She’s very direct.

Davis: She’s just so fucking direct, but it’s not combative. It’s just curious and open, and it’s weird to meet somebody who’s kind of guileless like that.

Theron: She’s very unapologetic in that behavior, too, which is so refreshing. She really is that person. She can look you straight in the eyes and say something in three words, and it can totally come off as, “I’m about to murder you,” or it can come off as, “I have your back.”

(The math checks out: “Google that shit” is three words.)

Theron then went on to mention something that Stewart has spoken about in various past interviews herself: her tendency to preemptively give up on a scene and begin berating herself like a Tenenbaum on a tennis court. “I don’t know if she still does this,” Theron said, “but it used to break my heart because she would do a take, and if she didn’t like it, she would just start swearing: ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.’ It’s funny in the beginning, and then I was like, ‘Stop beating yourself up like that.’”

To hear Stewart tell it, she increasingly has stopped. In the time between filming Snow White and Happiest Season, she began focusing more of her time and energy on smaller roles and independent films, and found new sources of inspiration. “As I’ve gotten older, I just think I’ve kind of gotten to a place where I don’t have to use fear and anxiety to propel myself into a performance,” Stewart says over Zoom. “I actually want to make myself as comfortable and safe as possible, so I can be more thoughtful.”

In 2014’s The Clouds of Sils Maria, she played the personal assistant to an aging star actress played by Juliette Binoche, a performance that earned her a César, France’s version of an Oscar. It had never been given to an American actress before. When she teamed up with the director Olivier Assayas again a couple years later for Personal Shopper, it was a performance that Larrain wouldn’t forget. Kelly Reichardt, who directed Stewart in Certain Women in 2016, said that she didn’t mind playing a small role. “She was completely unperturbed by the size of the part,” Reichardt told Little White Lies. At the same time, Stewart stopped guarding her personal life quite so intensely, in part because she had started dating women and didn’t want anyone to think she felt same-sex relationships were something to hide. (She also took on roles, like the one in Certain Women, that brought queer representation to the screen. Sorry, hungry guys!)

In a conversation with Howard Stern in 2019, a newly chatty Stewart expressed regret for the way she and Pattinson kept their love on lockdown. “I was so self-conscious about seeming like an attention-seeker,” she told Stern. “But then you deprive yourself of so many experiences.” Not wanting to let the paparazzi win, “we didn’t walk down the street holding hands because we were like, ‘We don’t wanna give it to ’em,’” Stewart said. “But then, we didn’t get to walk down the street holding hands, and it sucked!”

It’s a little wrenching to look back on the way Stewart could be maligned during her late teens and early 20s, during some of the same years that she was also her own biggest critic. (Any errant “sullen” vibes, it turns out, were born of reticence, not haughtiness.) But it provides a clear starting point for seeing how much has changed, both in the way Stewart acts and the way in which she has come to be received in the post–Snow White world. Her awkward tics? Adorable! Her career choices? Ambitious! Her understanding of the industry at large and her own at-times-transactive role within the greater celebrity machine? Authentic as hell!

In that same 2019 conversation, Stern asked Stewart if maybe the problem that sunk her and Pattinson all those years ago was that she had thought it was fundamentally embarrassing or unhip to be the clichéd actor and actress who met on a movie set. On the contrary, Stewart said. “I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I was so proud of it.” She just never got to show it then the way she is happy to do now.

“I have insomnia,” says Stewart via Zoom. But making Spencer was the antidote: “This movie? It put me to bed.” Physically, playing Diana “really just required more muscularity,” she says, which included the constant upkeep of her open-throated accent and distinctive posture. “It was a real workout.” And it was a grueling experience: freezing cold, itchy, cameras right up in her face. “But then what’s weird about this whole experience,” Stewart says, “is like, the other side of the coin is complete and utter transcendent liberation. Like, I felt more alive and taller and more beautiful. Not to sound like a total cheeseball, but I really at times just felt like I was exploding with life.”

Having poured herself into her Diana research, often falling asleep listening to interviews and letting her mind steep, Stewart absorbed enough to feel more empowered than overwhelmed by the performance. And she trusted Larrain enough to let go, which resulted in some of the movie’s most resonant work. A montage showing Diana playing dress-up with her own wardrobe and dancing up and down the cold hallways of Sandringham in a series of impossible evening gowns was the result of Larrain setting aside 30 minutes at the end of each shooting day, pressing Play on some groovy tunes, and instructing Stewart to let loose. She resisted at first. Then she began looking forward to it.

Recently, Stewart was back on Stern to promote Spencer; on the show, she announced her engagement to Dylan Myers, her girlfriend of two years, and wondered aloud whether Guy Fieri might have time to officiate their wedding. (Guy is in.) In a cover shoot and interview for Entertainment Weekly, Stewart told the magazine that she felt like she was in the midst of a bursting creative springtime. (Her latest look, with blond hair and a lot of pastels, reflects this, according to a fascinating conversation with her longtime stylist on the Who What Wear podcast.)

Stewart is in the midst of casting for her directorial debut, an adaptation of the Lidia Yuknavitch novel The Chronology of Water. She says it’s odd but invigorating to be on the other side of things. While filming Spencer, she picked up a great piece of advice from Larrain that can be applied not just to making movies, but to moving forward in life. “Like, don’t not take your camera out in the rain,” she explains, “because then you’ll never get the picture. You can always buy a new camera.”

Hearing her say this, Larrain smiles and reveals that he learned that from a teacher of his own. The bad weather brings the cool light. The imperfection is the point.