Last year Kristen Stewart made history by being the first American actress to win a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar. This will have no doubt come as a surprise to her many detractors, who regularly flock to Facebook, YouTube and Goodreads threads to endorse proclamations that, “Her facial expression never changes” and “I can’t believe why anyone keeps hiring her” and “Kristen Stewart can’t act”.
Anyone who has seen Clouds of Sils Maria, the Olivier Assayas film for which Stewart won the award, and in which she holds her own opposite Juliette Binoche, of all people, will disagree. One of the interesting things about the film is the way the younger woman fully embraces her supporting status, allowing her uncertainty and acknowledgement of the French star’s greater experience to flesh out her role as factotum to a celebrated actress at a crossroads in her career. It’s a very human, relatable performance – so much so that when she disappears from the film, her absence leaves us as almost as bereft and disorientated as Binoche’s character.
She is impressive in an equally unshowy role in Still Alice, as the daughter whose response to her mother’s distressing medical condition is the very definition of an impeccable supporting performance. Julianne Moore deservedly won the Oscar for her portrayal of as a linguistic professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, but Stewart is there all the way, quietly backing her up.
And this from an actress who has starred in all five films in one of the most profitable franchises of all time; The Twilight Saga, which has grossed over $3.3 billion worldwide. Personally, I prefer my vampires evil, but within their parameters the films were well made, and fortunate in their casting of two leading players, Stewart and Robert Pattinson, who were able to imbue the colourless cyphers of the novels with a modicum of personality as the films recreated all too accurately the endless inarticulate yearning of adolescents in love. It’s noticeable, however, how much more fun Stewart seems to be having in the fifth film, when Bella Swan stops being a passive ninny and turns into a red-eyed vampire with superpowers.
It wasn’t as though Kristen Stewart came out of nowhere. By the time she was cast in Twilight (2008), she was already a veteran of nearly a decade’s work in movies. Born in 1990, in Los Angeles, to a father who was a TV producer and mother who was a script supervisor, she was initially more interested in what went on behind the camera than performing in front of it, but gradually built up an impressive résumé in indie films and classy commercial productions. She played a 12-year-old tomboy in Rose Troche’s bereavement drama The Safety of Objects, a surly 11-year-old diabetic in David Fincher’s slick home invasion thriller The Panic Room, the sulky teen heroine of the Pang brothers’ horror movie The Messengers.
Without being girly and ingratiating, and showing remarkable self-possession while still managing to express the vulnerability of her characters, she cornered the market in androgynous rebels, played every conceivable variation on sulky teenage girls, and invested what might otherwise have been boring girlfriend roles (Into the Wild, Adventureland, On the Road) with attitude.
She has shared the screen with a wide range of illustrious co-stars – Glenn Close, Jodie Foster, Robert De Niro in What Just Happened, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo in Welcome to the Rileys, William Hurt and Eddie Redmayne in The Yellow Handkerchief – and has started to push out into unexpected and wholly non-commercial directions, giving a convincing performance, for example, in last year’s Camp X-Ray, as a young soldier assigned to Guantanamo Bay. American Ultra was a belated entry in that subgenre wherein nerdy individuals discover they’re bad-ass assassins with mad killing skills (see also: The Long Kiss Goodnight, Wanted), a one-joke fantasy for anyone who still thinks callous 1990s-Tarantino-style ultra-violence is fun, but Stewart, as the nerd’s girlfriend, gave her role more depth and compassion than it deserved.
Whether thanks to her own judgement, or to that of her agent, her career decisions have mostly been smart. Her sole major misstep was Snow White and the Huntsman; not only she had already accumulated too much baggage to play the sort of fairytale ingenue better left to bland starlets (give her a decade or two, and she could make an interesting Evil Queen), but she was photographed snogging the film’s director, Rupert Sanders, a married man nearly twice her age.
The reaction was merciless, and out of all proportion to the perceived offence; fiercely puritanical Bella and Edward “shippers” saw it as a betrayal of the sort of chaste romance being peddled by the franchise, its authenticity confirmed, in their eyes, by the offscreen relationship of Stewart and Pattinson. Sanders hardly got off scot-free (his wife divorced him) but the lion’s share of the fury was directed at the 22-year-old actress, who was denounced as a “home-wrecking tramp”, and a “cheating slutbag”. Many will never forgive her for sullying the purity of “Stewpatz” and, by extension, their own romantic illusions. It must be tough growing up in public, where your youthful indiscretions get plastered all over the tabloids, and the internet never lets you forget them.
But never mind Bella Swan and Snow White – Stewart was more clearly more comfortable playing feisty fledgling rocker Joan Jett in Flora Sigismondi’s undervalued The Runaways, about the 1970s all-girl band. Twilight‘s success, of course, has been a poisoned chalice. It has placed Stewart on the hit-list of the legions of Twilight haters who seem pathologically incapable of not sneering at anything aimed at young female audiences. She has been repeatedly admonished for not smiling for the cameras (why on earth should she if she doesn’t feel like it?), for not standing up straight (What are these people? Maiden aunts?) and can’t step outside without being papped – mundane photographs of her “going for coffee” with a girlfriend have been plastered over the tabloids so repeatedly that even their readers seem to have lost interest.
On the positive side, the notoriety has enabled Stewart to write her own ticket, to lend her famous name to smaller independent films in return for more challenging roles, and to give sterling support to some of cinema’s most accomplished veterans in prestigious productions that get her noticed by the right casting directors. And in the meantime, she is surely watching, and learning.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in March 2015. It has since been edited and updated.