Why Kristen Stewart really is the finest actress of her generation
When Personal Shopper’s director Olivier Assayas declared his star Kristen Stewart the “best actress of her generation”, you could probably hear the smack from eyebrows rising so high they hit the ceiling.
Stewart’s detractors are forceful, they are unforgiving, and they somehow have enough time on their hands to make extensive YouTube compilations on the subject.
Yet, this isn’t 2008 anymore. Her critics may not have moved past Twilight, but Stewart certainly has, quietly trying to shrug off those parasitic “worst actress” labels that still so obstinately cling to her. Adventureland, Camp X-Ray, Certain Women; it’s all work that speaks for itself far more eloquently than the expectation for an actress to deliver lines about sparkling vampire flesh with absolute sincerity, if only those critics will listen.
Star power may have gotten her in the room, but it’s pure talent that’s crowned her the critical and creative obsession she’s increasingly becoming; now the first American actress to win the highly esteemed French César for her work in Assayas’ previous project, Clouds of Sils Maria.
Both her collaborations with Assayas, in fact, have proved perfect showcases for what Stewart has to offer the world; their quiet, unobtrusive reflections – Personal Shopper’s on the ghostly nature of modern communication and Sils Maria’s on the very art of acting – allowing Stewart to relish in her most essential element: truth.
Kristen Stewart is real. And it’s in a way so brusque and unashamed that it can feel off-putting, or even at odds with where her contemporaries are currently at.
Critics can poke fun of her lip-biting, her hair-touching, her stuttering; but Stewart is the kind of actress with the centredness not to try and stifle those tics and twitches, understanding that it’s that kind of awkwardness that defines humanity at its most honest. Watch any interview and you’ll see the same: the lip-biting, hair-touching, stuttering manner. Nothing is suppressed with her, since she makes herself entirely available to the camera.
It’s an attitude, certainly, at odds with the usual transformative aims of the craft; the many perfect, flawless disguises of Meryl Streep that she slips into so effortlessly like silk robes. Or that oh-so macho approach to the method; like Leonardo DiCaprio eating raw bison liver so he could replicate the extreme emotions of… eating raw bison liver for The Revenant.
Stewart’s never really declared herself an adherent to any of the established schools of thought on acting (Meisner, Strasberg, Adler etc.), but she’s at least let slip a few revelatory indicators on her approach. She told Elle in 2014, for example, that; “Some people try to do that thing where you craft a character. I cannot be anyone other than who I am. If I can’t empathize with something [my character] does, it’s a problem. And sometimes I’ve had directors be like, It’s not you, Kristen, it’s the character. And I’m like, that’s the laziest thing you can possibly say to me. It is me. It’s definitely me.”
Sure, Stewart has a certain affectation for the modern obsession over the Method – at least, in the Strasberg sense of an actor submerging themself so fully that they become the character as opposed to just playing it – specifically, in the replication of the conditions under which their characters operate with. For her role in Welcome to the Rileys, Stewart deprived herself of sleep, ate endless amounts of junk food, and chain-smoked for the role of a young stripper who was never taught how to take care of herself.
However, Stewart shows a much stronger sense of self in her work than in those who focus on the transformative aspect of their roles. Her approach feels less like the act of leaving herself behind, but of opening herself up to new conditions and perspectives. By stressing that she can’t perform if she can’t empathise with the motivations of her character, Stewart seems almost to hint that she readjusts her own personality with each new role – that she remains essentially herself, but changed.
Likely unwittingly, but Stewart’s doing something incredibly smart here, by recognising that a screen star can never truly leave oneself behind. One of the greatest issues with cinematic acting and the star system is that the two almost always bleed into each other, and affect the way we receive and digest film. Try as we might, but we are always aware of the star behind the façade. Physical, technical, and emotional transformations on the actor’s part can certainly help, but there’s still an unwavering part of us that sees Leonardo DiCaprio – not his character Hugh Glass – eating bison liver or sleeping inside a horse.
Conversely, there’s something quite freeing for an audience to see an actor who’s not insistent on going to increasing lengths to “lose” themselves within a part as completely and outrageously as possible, but instead to focus on losing themselves within the truth of the moment and to live the material as authentically and as honestly as possible.
Stewart’s acknowledgment that we’re always watching Stewart gives us the freedom to re-focus ourselves on the narrative, to channel any natural empathy we may have for our celebrity figure into the pathos of the situation. In Personal Shopper, we may just see Stewart as Stewart receiving mysterious texts that may come from her deceased twin but, boy, are we concerned for Stewart’s wellbeing in that moment.
Interestingly, Stewart’s really only done the whole ‘biopic’ deal once, the most demandingly transformative role out there, since an actor can’t exactly afford not to level of a measure of imitation in playing someone so intimately known by the public.
Yet, what’s fascinating about Stewart’s take on rocker Joan Jett in 2010’s The Runaways is that it’s a perfect portrait without needing to betray the actress’ core mantra; as if she’s approached the character by finding the kinship between herself and Jett, instead of trying to launch herself into Jett’s mind-set. The result manages to be both quintessentially Jett and quintessentially Stewart, and it somehow works perfectly.
Certainly, Stewart’s flaw is that she won’t ever be a Meryl Streep; there’s no launching her into any role out there and expecting it all to magically fit into place. But it’s her almost stubborn commitment to absolute authenticity that makes her so utterly unique as a talent, and an absolutely mesmerising presence onscreen. There are plenty of other actors to put on the masks. Kristen Stewart lives truth.
Independent News Service