Kristen Stewart was not a global superstar when "Motorcycle Diaries" director Walter Salles cast her in his long-gestating adaptation of "On the Road." It was 2007 and she had just appeared in "Into the Wild," playing a trailer-park siren who almost but doesn't quite tame Emile Hirsch's wanderlust. It would be another year before she become known to millions of fans around the world as Bella Swan from "Twilight."
It would have been easy -- and maybe even prudent -- for Stewart to back out on Salles as her star inexorably rose, but she stayed on board and delivered a performance that is all the more powerful because it comes from a woman with so much to lose. Yes, Kristen takes off her clothes -- she talks about that below -- but that's not the half of it: her character, Marylou, the teenage bride of Beatnik hero Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), may exist as a mere plot device in the testosterone-fueled novel, but at the hands of Salles and Stewart she becomes a symbol of unapologetic feminine self-gratification. As I wrote after seeing "On the Road" at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Stewart's Marylou is pure Id: she steals what she needs and she screws who she wants, when she wants." The point is not that she's admirable; it's that she comes alive, fully and indelibly, which is the only job an actor has.
The creative team behind the film wants the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to recognize Stewart for her role by nominating her for an Oscar for best supporting actress, and although she doesn't appear on any of the short lists I've seen, I think she's earned a place in the conversation. "On the Road" has its slow and meandering moments, but it roars to life when Stewart appears on screen -- and if you don't believe me, take a look at these fan-produced animated gifs and tell me you're not at least intrigued. Stewart and I spoke on the phone for about 20 minutes on Saturday about her character's real-life inspiration, her decision to make her first post-cheating-scandal appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, her feelings about awards season, and, yeah, the pros and cons of taking off her top.
Michael Hogan: I remember reading On the Road as a teenager, and the women didn't register for me so much as characters. So I wonder, as a teenage girl reading it, how the women seemed to you when you first read the book?
Kristen Stewart: Yeah, it's funny, they didn't really register with me, either. People do love to say that this is a boy book and that the female characters tend to be treated as play things and are peripheral. When you read the book, they tend to seem as though they're almost like a tool for Kerouac to show that life's crazy, that things are wild and sexy. That's why, playing the part, we were privy to information that made this thing so different. I think getting to know the women behind the characters and getting to know Jack's relationships with them and Neal's relationships with them, it made it easier to play the character.
Did you meet LuAnne Henderson, whom your character, Marylou, is based on?
She had passed away, like, right before we started. But I met her daughter and there were hours and hours of tapes where she recalled her life in great detail, and very much within that time frame as well. When I first read the book -- I have brothers, and so I always felt like there wasn't a huge distinction. I kinda wanted to be one of the boys for a while, and in some cases still do, and I think there are a lot of girls who read "On the Road" who feel [that way]. I wasn't aware then that the females weren't at the forefront of the story. I was just so into the main characters, I was so enamored by them, I wanted to meet people in my life that were going to shock me and pull something out of me that I didn't expect --
Marylou's a little bit that way too, isn't she?
Oh, definitely. She was such a formidable partner for Neal [Cassady, the real-life inspiration for the book's Dean Moriarty]. Men, especially, love to identify with me and go, "Well, you know, it's kind of a misogynistic viewpoint. The book has a fairly chauvinist feel to it. How do you feel about that?'
Kind of like my first question.
No, no, no. Not at all. That was actually really different. Because their thing is, 'Oh, how could they have allowed all those terrible things to happen to them?' It's like, What makes you think that they were not absolute equal partners in that? What makes you think that they were taken from more than they gave, or more than they got back from the men that were apparently taking from them. I feel like getting to know LuAnne and who she was, and why she did the things that she did, and how she felt about them afterward, there was no thievery going on. She loved his life so much that she didn't want to deprive him of any of that life, and he felt the same about her, and she very, very much carved her own path.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned when you were talking to these folks and listening to the tapes?
I think the most surprising thing for me, given the way [Marylou's] storyline ends in the book and in the movie, was that [LuAnne and Neal] maintained their relationship in some capacity until his death. He could never stop going back to her. And that for me kind of was like the key. She wasn't leaving him. It was just this sliver of life that you see that's not expounded upon because it's not her story. Like, there's an entire "On the Road" for every single one of those characters. It's just that who you follow is Sal and Dean. [Sal Paradise is the fictional stand-in for author Jack Kerouac.]
Obviously, you're really asked to go places in this role. After I saw "On the Road" in Toronto, I wrote an analysis of it, and one of the things I focused on is that you're committing to the role to an admirable degree, with nudity, with sleeping with two men at the same time, with all this other stuff, and some people attacked me, saying, "Just because she takes off her clothes, you think that's real art?" But what I meant is that it's an actor's job to do the role she's given without holding back. Can you help me defend myself a bit here?
[Laughs.] Actresses love to stand up and say, after they've shown their tits in a movie, that it was done tastefully and that it was, you know, far from gratuitous. I mean, projects that really require it are really few and far between. And I think that in this case, it needed to be. This book celebrates being alive and it celebrates being human, and if you want to cover up and deny any aspect of that, you are denying the spirit of the book. I think that it would have been so wrong to shy away from anything in this movie. I think that I would have gotten flak for that. I think that it would have been that I was scared to disappoint my "Twilight" fans or something.
And I do hate also when people go, "Oh, wow, great performance. So brave." Oh, because I'm naked? That's very annoying. But at the same time, if that's what they're focusing on, then "On the Road" probably isn't for them anyway. Also, I understand when people are already successful, you try to control some perception or you try to choose parts based on some expectation of what people are going to think. You're clearly doing things because you want to be in some position of power and fame, which is not why I do what I do. And people, anyone that consumes that is then obviously going to think that you must have some consideration for those types of things, like what people are going to think.
But how hard is it ignore those considerations when you really are one of the biggest celebrities in the world? I mean, there's no way around that.
It's really not that hard. I can't pragmatically approach anything in terms of my career. I need to be so rocked by something, so moved by something that the idea of letting it down or ruining it is painful, and that's what gets you through the shoot. You read material and it provokes you on some level, and the reason you make the movie is to find out why it made you feel all those things. Those things are so rare to find that if you start also considering what people are going to think, you'll never make a movie.
At the Toronto Film Festival, you took a full hour to come out and be with all your fans, and that was at a difficult time. How important was it for you to come out for the film and reconnect with your fans that day?
You should never step outside of your life and look at it like it's this malleable thing you can shape so that people view it a certain way. I would never not have gone to something like that. I've been working on this for five years. I love this movie. I'm so proud of everyone involved -- I feel so strong standing next to them. I was asked a few times whether I was going to do it or, "Oh, was it difficult for you? What made you stand up and do this?" It was like, why wouldn't I? It made so much sense to me. I mean, the only time I feel comfortable being on TV or doing any sort of public appearance or anything, it has to have context. I don't like just being a famous person, but with "On the Road" it's so clear why I'm there. With the fans and stuff, it's just human energy that you simply cannot deny. People are standing there and sort of screaming for you and I'm not about to turn my back and walk away and go get warm inside, you know what I mean? So I didn't plan anything. I just went to the opening of the movie and there were a bunch of people there and it was really nice to see them.
Have you heard from your "Twilight" fans about this movie yet?
I mean, not really. "Breaking Dawn 2" just came out and we carted that one around the world for a bit. And there were a bunch of people in the crowd in Europe -- because the movie's out already in Europe -- who said, "Oh, my god, 'On the Road, we loved it." Everyone likes to think that we just have teenage fans -- we have girls, women in general, it literally is every single age, well into peoples' 70s. So yeah, people were into it, I think.
What's your feeling about awards season and all the events and interviews it entails? Is it enjoyable? Is it a nightmare? Is it somewhere in between?
I love talking about this movie and everyone involved and the book and everything I've been through since the start of it. I would do anything to get the word out. The fact that it has something to do with the Academy, I simply personally can't acknowledge it in any way because it's a ridiculous notion to suddenly go, like, "Yep, I'm really gunning. I'm really gunning for it."
There's a rumor that you're going to star alongside Ben Affleck in a movie called "Focus."
I can confirm that rumor. It's a comedy, I'm really excited about it, we start shooting in April.
Are there any other projects on the horizon?
Not yet. I would love to find some microproject before then, because April is kind of a ways away, but not yet, haven't been "taken" yet.
"On the Road" opens in limited release on Dec. 21, 2012.