Having spoken to Kristen Stewart numerous times over the years, her passion for her work is always at the forefront. That’s why it was no surprise that after an incredibly long publicity campaign for “Charlie’s Angels” this fall, she was willing to jump on the phone to discuss “Seberg,” a new true-life drama opening in limited release on Friday. When Stewart believes in a project such as the Benedict Andrews-directed picture, she pretty much stands by it no matter what. That’s one reason why her response over the disastrous box office performance of “Angels” wasn’t that surprising.
“Well, to be honest with you, I think if I had made a movie that wasn’t good and one that I wasn’t proud of and a lot of people saw it, I would be devastated,” Stewart says. “Luckily I’m not feeling gutted because I really am proud of the movie. And I think that the kind of the climate that we’re living in right now is polarizing and it’s weird and it’s kind of hard to promote a movie like that. And I think trying to have a really complicated, overly politicized feminist conversation in a five minute TV interview about ‘Charlie’s Angels’….I’m like, ‘Dude, we just wanted to have a good time.'”
She continues, “I’m bummed that we probably won’t make another one, but at the same time I’m really proud of the movie and I’m so happy that it exists and can live in the world. Because I think for a lot of people it’s still kind of important even in a very non-serious way.”
The good news is that with “Seberg,” Stewart can celebrate one of the most well-regarded performances of her career. It may have gotten lost in awards season, but her portrayal of Jean Seberg, an actress viciously targeted by the FBI in the 1970s, stands with alongside her acclaimed work in films such as “Personal Shopper,” “Certain Women,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Still Alice” and “The Runaways.”
In a conversation condensed for this Q&A, Stewart discussed her passion for Seberg’s story, its relevance to today’s media takedowns and the importance of good cinematographer to a project (in this case Oscar-nominated Director of Photography Rachel Morrison).
The Playlist: What made you want to commit to telling Jean’s story?
Kristen Stewart: I knew who Jean Seberg was sort of solely through “Breathless.” I hadn’t seen any of her other work and I was obviously very unfamiliar with her work as an activist and sort of this ultimately completely violent relationship that she had with the FBI and then with surveillance. The idea that it was a widely perpetuated story that this eccentric actress became an expatriate by moving to Paris because she always loved it there more and drank herself into oblivion is an idea that is so wrong. It’s so not true. And so kind of a familiar narrative that is so maddening, which is that some kooky lady that was just bothering people with her opinions basically needed to be exiled and called crazy. And in reality, she was just somebody who believed in equality in a time where that was like a violent notion or sort of very threatening notion. So yeah, not only did I think that the script was completely well written, it was so sort of concerned with telling one aspect of her story and did it really very well. It was not attempting to be a biopic. It was just really concerned with revealing this very little known aspect of history and kind of validating her struggle. And she always struck me as somebody who was capable and really unbridled and instinctive. And at times definitely kind of naive and out of place, but her heart was always really pumping in the right direction. Everything ever said about her was that she did have these purely altruistic aspirations that weren’t propelled solely by what it might look like to be that type of person, but really put herself in harm’s way to do the right thing. And I thought that was a really cool story to tell currently.
From your research, what did you take away from her as a person? Was there anything unexpected that maybe you didn’t realize about her?
She always was unexpected. Everything about her felt unpredictable. Everything about her as an actor, as a performer in a time where acting wasn’t itself more performative, she always felt really naturalistic and present and really available and honest. And that always really struck me. And I think that’s probably something that struck more European filmmakers. So I think that energy, that sort of infectious nature, that buoyancy, she brought into every aspect of her life. You know what I mean? Like she had this sort of voracious curiosity and this sort of really innocent, positive desire to connect to people ahead and connect as many people as possible and bridge gaps. You can feel it in her work as an actress. Hearing the way that she spoke about things that mattered to her, her career, her family, her politics. [She] just seemed like somebody who was fiercely protective of her ideas, but at the same time a little bit sprawling in the way that she wanted to make things happen. She was definitely somebody who was not afraid. And I feel that in her art and I feel that in her politics.
If you watch her movies, she’s so available and so present and honest and kind of bright and there’s this undeniable light that kind of shoots out of her at the beginning of her career. All these things [that happened with the FBI] sort of helped to diminish that light. As the years go by you can see that light literally going away in her movies. And so I wanted to be able to sort of like really nail her, the fun side of her, really nail the side that’s wonderful, the side that is so appealing and draws everyone in. And then in a short, kind of reductive way considering her life is very long, show that in the movie that in the beginning, she was kind of unstoppable and at the end she looked a little bit remote and a little lifeless and a little gaunt.
When you get a script like this do you take notes or grade the performance so that you know where you are on her arc? Or, is it something that you feel like you know in the moment because of the scene itself?
It’s sort of something that you know in the moment and obviously working with a good director, that’s something that they are responsible for tempering. So you’re allowed to kind of lose a little control within that, knowing that it’s going to be measured. I think it was a really sort of well-defined story before I even got to it.
It sounds like you watched a good deal of her interviews and other films. Were there any specific facts about the whole story itself that you discovered that either helped you with your portrayal or that you were really surprised about?
I think if you read the actual FBI file, that’s the most disarming and kind of striking bit of reference material is the strange perception of her from their perspective, the sort of objective jotting down of seemingly inconsequential, but then kind of very telling intimate details. Certain things appear a certain way on the outside, but if you were actually living in those walls that you would understand. It was all very uncontextualized, intimate details that were like just so offensive. If they were about you and you read them, you would just feel so completely stolen from. And I’m curious about certain things that don’t make sense within the file. You’re like, God, they’re really not getting the whole story here, obviously. So that was interesting.
And then I think, Las Vegas isn’t small at all. It’s like [Jean’s ex-husband], Romain Gary, also ultimately took his own life on the very same day as Jean did. And he said, “I know that everyone’s going to make some” – I’m paraphrasing – “but some sort of assumption that this is related to Jean and it’s not.” And then it ends, the whole thing ends. So I was like “Wow.” I mean that’s like screaming it’s not about that. But it is. I just thought that whatever allegedly coincidental nature of that was just wild to me. And reading some of his work and some of her other lovers who they were and sort of like how they functioned in her life and kind of how transient her life was. I was always like, “Wow, I love the people aren’t focusing on her being promiscuous, but it really is more about what she was doing.” And I thought that in itself [was] a really modern woman. There’s something about her energy that was like, “I am my own woman and I am allowed to own that.” She really was a very subversive, progressive, really awesome modern woman.
But on the other hand, she was still banished in a way off to Paris because of this scandal, which was not real in any real way. She still got pushed to the side, which is insanely frustrating.
And you know, everything I’m talking about is probably wrapped up in it. She was not well-liked by quote-unquote “normal” traditionalists of that time. People that were in power, men who called the shots were totally and completely threatened by a woman like that. And had to illegally, because she wasn’t actually breaking the f*cking law by having her own opinion, sort of get her out of the forefront of contemporary attention because they had daughters [and] they didn’t want to see the world go in the direction that she wanted to see it go. And so they had to get rid of her.
I feel like there are parallels to her story and what some public figures endure today. Did that contemporary aspect of it pop into your mind while you were reading the script? Or was it just her unique story?
No, I think the whole kind of idea of truth through perception, what that is, and living in a time where there’s nowhere to receive reliable, trustworthy information that makes you feel in any way comfortable in having even an opinion. If everything is through the mouthpiece of somebody, an oppressive power, then there is always going to be doubt and question as to what the fucking truth is. And I think that in itself, that struggle, knowing for a fact that something is a certain way and having the people that are supposed to take care of you, gaslighting you and telling you that you’re crazy, and you know for a fact that you’re not, that is obviously an incredibly urgent type of story, as such. And this one, considering it’s not made up, it’s actually real, it’s just something that we can’t not know about her, you know what I mean? As a figure in history, we need to understand that she fits into that narrative.
Benedict is an acclaimed stage director, but this is only the second feature he’s directed. What did you take away from working with him?
Benedict is a really brilliant director. I can’t tell you how confidently I believed that he would protect me in this and protect Jean. I just felt that he really cared about her. I spoke to a couple of people that have worked with him on the stage and actors that I trust implicitly said that he was like somebody that knew how to tell a story that would really hold it together and mine it for everything that it is. We both were kind of like [Jean’s] humble servants in this case. I think that he’s just a brilliant dude. He’s so smart. Having dinner with him is always like a sort of an experience. He’s a really smart motherf*cker.
Recently I’ve had a lot of actors sort of mention their relationship with their cinematographers. How important is the cinematographer in terms of your performance and what was it like working with Rachel Morrison in that relationship?
Who’s looking at you matters. The energy between the watcher and the performer is crucial. There’s a certain balance and always a really unique sort of distinct relationship. Sometimes it can open you up as an actor or it can close you down. Some really like to know what the camera’s doing and some like forget it completely. I really like to dance with an operator as she operates her movies. Even if you’re not the operator or the cinematographer and you’re just the focus puller, and you’re standing on set holding a boom, it matters who’s in the room with you. It just affects the temperature of the room. It affects all of the ways that the scene turns out. Those people are present. One thing I can say about Rachel is that I know that she’s never missing anything. Sometimes you’re not [an actor] who’s incredibly overt or somebody who’s playing to the camera or playing sort of quote-unquote “out.” She’s able to sort of duck under a certain shade that can be put up by, sometimes I think, the very best actors that there are. And so like you know that maybe if you’re doing something very tiny, she’s so aware of you. Her camera is really penetrating and it’s also a gaze that’s in no way obtrusive. So she’s really somebody that I covet working with. She’s become a really good friend. I think she’s so fucking great at what she does. She also accomplished this cool, really stark difference in the film between my world and Jack [O’Connell] and the FBI. I think that one is very cold and objective and feels icky and the other one is really saturated and kind of has this romantic perspective. The one that might resemble Jean’s world is really vivid and kind of naive. So I think that the movie jumps back and forth really over-stylized or overdone or self-aware. Actually, I think she did really beautiful work in this movie.
“Seberg” opens in limited release on Friday.