Why Kris­ten Stew­art is best at play­ing herself

Public consensus was that Stewart could not act. But she’s just being herself, and that’s what makes her riveting onscreen.

Louise Brooks, the sen­su­ous, mod­ern-seem­ing silent era actress, is by now so indeli­ble in the his­to­ry of cin­e­ma that it feels strange to think of her as being con­tro­ver­sial. Still: crit­ics are fal­li­ble, and the next big thing can feel too next and too big on first expo­sure. Brooks, with her black hel­met bob, her out-of-time per­sona, her sar­don­ic eyes and smirk­ing mouth, was unlike any­thing imme­di­ate­ly famil­iar to the audi­ences of the 1920s. Where her con­tem­po­raries and imme­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors favoured melo­dra­ma, she gave the impres­sion of being dis­in­ter­est­ed in dra­ma, peri­od; in 1929’s Pandora’s Box, she plays a blasé nympho­ma­ni­ac who has a les­bian affair, appear­ing not only to accept her debase­ment but to get off on it. Foxy, casu­al, she con­vinces as a fatal­is­tic slut. Straighter actress­es like Mary Pick­ford or Lil­lian Gish, with their expan­sive ges­tures and sweet airs, might soon­er have been sub­ject to death by a sex­u­al mani­ac for real than to be caught behav­ing nat­u­ral­is­ti­cal­ly in one of Brooks’ slinky, kinky roles.

Louise Brooks,” one crit­ic grum­bled in a review of Pandora’s Box, can­not act. She does not suf­fer… she does noth­ing.” Always, she appeared to be a hair’s breadth from inten­tion­al­ly break­ing down the fourth wall; always, she was sex­u­al in a man­ner that swung between mis­chie­vous and dan­ger­ous, simul­ta­ne­ous­ly explic­it and unknow­able. (“Care­less, but over­whelm­ing,” said the writer David Den­by a few years ago, per­fect­ly peg­ging her unusu­al alem­bic of chill non­cha­lance and burn­ing super-pres­ence). A bril­liant writer of film crit­i­cism as well as an actress, Brooks did not think of the things she did onscreen as pas­sive, but as active in a way that tran­scend­ed the pure­ly phys­i­cal. Act­ing,” she once wrote, does not con­sist of descrip­tive move­ment of face and body, but in the move­ments of thought and soul trans­mit­ted in a kind of intense isolation.”

Which brings us, some­what neat­ly, to the actress Kris­ten Stew­art. Vil­i­fied for her deci­sion to sign on for a tril­o­gy of YA vam­pire films before she had turned old enough to vote, then fur­ther vil­i­fied for her appar­ent unwill­ing­ness to appear delight­ed with the oppor­tu­ni­ty, the pub­lic con­sen­sus was that Stew­art could not act – that she did noth­ing on film oth­er than look furi­ous and hot. If Brooks was dis­liked for not suf­fer­ing enough, Stew­art was seen to suf­fer too open­ly as a direct result of her extreme famous­ness, and if Brooks shocked her crit­ics in the twen­ties and the thir­ties by appear­ing to do lit­tle else but show up onscreen, Stew­art was said to look as though she wished she had not shown up on her movies’ sets at all. 

I can be noth­ing oth­er than myself,” she told The Guardian in 2017. I know actors who say: Oh, this role had noth­ing to do with me, it’s just the char­ac­ter’. And I think: Yeah, but it is your inter­pre­ta­tion of the char­ac­ter.’ Because you can nev­er get away from being you. That’s always going to be there. An inter­ac­tion with a good direc­tor might bring you clos­er to aspects of your­self that might have been less appar­ent before. But it’s still about self. It’s still all about me.” 

Being her­self had become eas­i­er by far a few weeks ear­li­er after she came out live on an episode of Sat­ur­day Night Live. I’m, like, so gay, dude,” she smirked glee­ful­ly dur­ing her open­ing mono­logue, her cropped hair and leather-babe look sig­nalling much the same thing. (Louise Brooks, who report­ed­ly fucked Gre­ta Gar­bo and described her as a charm­ing, ten­der” lover, if a lit­tle mas­cu­line,” evi­dent­ly shared Stewart’s ener­gy in oth­er ways, too. When I’m dead,” she mused, I believe that film writ­ers will fas­ten on the sto­ry that I am a les­bian… I have done lots to make it believable.”)

New­ly unbur­dened and new­ly con­tex­tu­alised by her dis­clo­sure, she began to reveal more of her­self through her pub­lic image, her attire, and her work. Shaven-head­ed, clad in cow­boy leather or a back­wards base­ball cap, chew­ing a tooth­pick, gaz­ing at Cate Blanchett with what many fans inter­pret­ed as open lust: of course Stew­art had nev­er quite made sense as Twi­lights bor­ing Mary-Sue, or as a Man­ic Pix­ie Dream Grump in Adven­ture­land, or as the absurd lad-mag FHMs Third Sex­i­est Woman of 2011, when all along she was meant to be this sexy, mouthy queer girl with the wardrobe of a Chanel-infused fuck­boy, and the moody, dude-y ener­gy of James Dean. 

Her trans­for­ma­tion is nev­er more thrilling or more read­i­ly appar­ent than across two films by writer and direc­tor Olivi­er Assayas, both of which fea­ture Stew­art as a gamine, grungy per­son­al assis­tant: 2014’s Clouds of Sils Maria and 2016’s Per­son­al Shop­per. In the for­mer, she has Bel­la Swan’s long hair and an appar­ent crush on Juli­ette Binoche’s char­ac­ter. (Almost too Stew­art is the moment where she wolf-whis­tles Binoche, two fin­gers crammed into her mouth and an expres­sion in her eyes that for some rea­son makes me think of Kather­ine Hep­burn.) In Per­son­al Shop­per, she plays grief like a stringed instru­ment, her char­ac­ter Mau­reen defined by her slope-shoul­dered gait, her mourn­ful eyes, the way her fin­gers trem­ble as if sig­nalling some inte­ri­or earth­quake when­ev­er she is afraid. She looks both mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine, anony­mous and star­ry. The one sex scene is queer-cod­ed by virtue of being a mas­tur­ba­tion scene: she strips out of her boy­ish clothes, slips into her employer’s black organ­za gown, and fucks her­self to the appro­pri­ate­ly gen­der-bend­ing sound­track of Mar­lene Dietrich. 

Both char­ac­ters are, true to the actress’ word, vari­a­tions on the theme of Kris­ten Stew­art. Mau­reen, though, feels realest, most spec­tac­u­lar. The more Stew­art brush­es up against her queer­ness, or against what we per­ceive to be the mas­cu­line, the eas­i­er it is to see her pianis­si­mo approach to act­ing as part of a lega­cy – a style descend­ed from not only Louise Brooks, but Mar­lon Brando.

Think of the way A Street­car Named Desires Blanche Dubois, as played with molto sound and fury by a straw-haired, drag­gi­ly-com­port­ed Vivi­enne Leigh, rubs up against Brando’s volatile, nat­u­ral­is­tic ver­sion of Stan­ley Kowal­s­ki like bro­cade against a crack­ing leather jack­et. Or else, con­sid­er the crit­ic Angela Bastien on the minor flour­ish­es of one Keanu Reeves. Actors like Keanu – who find beau­ty in still­ness – are why film was cre­at­ed in the first place,” she writes in her essay The Grace of Keanu Reeves. It’s a medi­um that can show us the truth of the human con­di­tion in a way no oth­er form can. Keanu often taps into the truth of the shift­ing bound­aries of mod­ern mas­culin­i­ty, of how our bod­ies tell as much of a sto­ry as what we say.”

Switch Keanu” for Kris­ten” and switch mas­culin­i­ty” for fem­i­nin­i­ty,” and the obser­va­tion holds true. Both Reeves and Stew­art have been more or less syn­ony­mous with wood­en act­ing at some point in their careers. Both, too, are increas­ing­ly loved for their sup­pos­ed­ly atyp­i­cal qual­i­ties vis-à-vis gen­der: his evi­dent sen­si­tiv­i­ty, her lack of fucks. 

Richard Brody, review­ing Per­son­al Shop­per for The New York­er, sees Bran­do in her, too – a sense that, as Mail­er once said about the younger Bran­do, what­ev­er [she is] about to say on [her] own seems like­ly more inter­est­ing than what­ev­er a screen­writer has writ­ten for [her].” – but star­tles by sug­gest­ing that she could as eas­i­ly have been replaced, in Per­son­al Shop­per, with anoth­er of the lead­ing lights of her gen­er­a­tion, such as Jen­nifer Lawrence or Tes­sa Thompson.” 

While watch­ing the film, he adds, I found myself imag­in­ing their more overt emo­tion­al­ism in lieu of the strained expres­siv­i­ty to which Assayas push­es Stew­art.” Stew­art, to my mind, does not appear to have been pushed to any­thing, and if her emo­tion is less overt, it is also in my expe­ri­ence clos­er to express­ing the inte­ri­or void of grief. She suf­fers, doing noth­ing. She does not act; she exists. The effect is only one of inscrutabil­i­ty if one is used to read­ing women as if they are open books, look­ing for easy cues when tiny, minute­ly expres­sive ges­tures – move­ments, Louise Brooks might say, of thought and soul – are capa­ble of send­ing the same mes­sages, albeit cod­ed and at a con­sid­er­ably low­er vol­ume. Like Mau­reen, who side­lines as a medi­um, inter­est­ed view­ers must be capa­ble of pick­ing up minor, ethe­re­al vibrations.

You’re always who you’re sup­posed to be. There’s just an evo­lu­tion there” – Kris­ten Stewart

This spring, as well as bleach­ing off her eye­brows, bewitch­ing Paul Schrad­er, and appear­ing at the Met Gala dressed as anoth­er hot queer alien, David Bowie, Stew­art has been on the pro­mo­tion­al cir­cuit for J.T. Leroy, a film about the famous lit­er­ary hoax that saw a mid­dle-aged cis woman writ­ing as a gen­der-flu­id teenage hus­tler with a pen­chant for disguise.

In life, the role of J.T. Leroy had been played by a petite blonde with they/​them pro­nouns, Savan­nah Knoop. In J.T. Leroy, Savan­nah is played by a shaven-head­ed Kris­ten Stew­art. In terms of the process and the evo­lu­tion of being a per­son and being a self, I can relate to… [not hav­ing] answers to very, very demand­ing ques­tions,” Stew­art told New York Mag­a­zine, con­sid­er­ing her own rela­tion­ship with gen­der. You’re always who you’re sup­posed to be. There’s just an evo­lu­tion there.” 

Watch­ing her play Savan­nah Knoop with her buzz cut and her fine, cut-glass fea­tures, her louche, soft deliv­ery and effort­less charis­ma, I thought of anoth­er recent, wide­ly-writ­ten-about evo­lu­tion: that of Robert Pat­tin­son, her for­mer part­ner, for­mer Twi­light co-star and cur­rent equal in bril­liance, whose recent appear­ance in High Life as a death row astro­naut has drawn some of the best notices of his 15-year career. 

I thought about his buzz cut and fine, cut-glass fea­tures; his louche, soft deliv­ery and effort­less charis­ma. I thought about the small cot­tage indus­try of think pieces about the way he has excelled out­side the Twi­light movies, and how much of a sur­prise this rev­e­la­tion should be. Most­ly, I thought about the way that Robert Pat­tin­son and Kris­ten Stew­art looked togeth­er in those movies; the way that it did not suit him to be sparkling and dandy, the male ver­sion of a Man­ic Pix­ie Dream Girl, and it did not suit her to be bor­ing, het­ero­nor­ma­tive, and dressed like the most aver­age girl on cam­pus. I could nev­er see them togeth­er, could nev­er buy their cou­ple­dom. Fun­ny how it seems more believ­able in 2019 when they look more like sib­lings – pret­ty broth­ers, even, or mas­cu­line sis­ters – than like a mid­dle-aged Mormon’s idea of what sex ought to be.

A clip of Stew­art at the TIFF pre­miere of J.T. Leroy shows her being asked whether she would con­sid­er reboot­ing, or else return­ing to, the Twi­light fran­chise. Robert Pat­tin­son, the inter­view­er adds with the mis­guid­ed con­fi­dence of some­body who has not ever heard of sar­casm, is already on board. She lifts her fin­ger from her mouth, a ges­ture as del­i­cate and as mean­ing­ful as any she has made on film. Yeah sure,” she dead­pans, nar­row­ing her sea-green eyes like a dis­dain­ful cat. Absolute­ly, hon­est­ly, start send­ing scripts my way. Let’s start build­ing this, let’s real­ly explore.” Real­ly explor­ing has been Kris­ten Stewart’s meti­er since rough­ly 2012, when she was final­ly allowed to give up being Bel­la Swan in favour of begin­ning the slow meta­mor­pho­sis into being her­self. She has no rea­son to go back – no rea­son to return to being some­one else’s pale, unin­ter­est­ing, het­ero­sex­u­al dream­girl. When she says absolute­ly, hon­est­ly, what she means is: you’re fuck­ing kid­ding, right?

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