It's been two years since the head-popping conclusion of the Twilight saga, and since she bid farewell to Bella Swan, the character who's come to define her career, Kristen Stewart has pretty much stayed off movie screens — until now.
The child actor turned supernatural romance star has a trio of indie movies that have all premiered at film festivals this year, and this week, the first of those three finally arrives in theaters: Camp X-Ray, a claustrophobic drama in which Stewart plays a soldier assigned to Guantanamo Bay, opening in select theaters and on VOD Oct. 17.
Stewart also appears alongside Julianne Moore in the upcoming Alzheimer's drama Still Alice, and plays the assistant to a renowned actor played by Juliette Binoche in the French film Clouds of Sils Maria — ambitious movies that seem chosen to show off a new, non-YA side to Stewart. BuzzFeed News' film critic Alison Willmore has seen both Camp X-Ray and Clouds of Sils Maria, and entertainment reporter Emily Orley has seen all three films. Below, they discuss the new stage of Stewart's career.
Alison Willmore: So Emily, before we get to these new films — were you a fan of the Twilight movies, and of Stewart's performance in them?
Emily Orley: I was not a fan of the Twilight films in general and found Stewart's Bella to be quite awkward. There was something about her monotone voice that was a real turnoff for me.
AW: I always thought the role of Bella might have been an impossible one for any actor, since she was deliberately lacking in major characteristics. Her blankness as a character made it all the easier to insert yourself in her place as a reader, but when you're charged with bringing her to life on screen, that vagueness of personality is a huge, maybe insurmountable challenge. Stewart may have looked a little lifeless in the role (rimshot!) but she showed herself capable of being far more vivid in earlier films like Panic Room and Into The Wild.
EO: Well, when I went to see Still Alice, which was the first of Stewart's three movies I saw this year, I was uncertain how she would fit into such an emotional story. But when I walked out of the movie, my perception of Stewart's abilities as an actor had completely changed. Moore is excellent as Alice, a mother of three who is diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of early onset Alzheimer's just weeks after her 50th birthday. But Stewart is exceptional as the youngest of her children, Lydia. She expertly portrays Lydia's rebellious, childish side in the beginning. She's the daughter who disagrees with her mother's belief that she needs a college degree and instead moves from New York to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. But, as her mother's disease progresses, it is not her lawyer sister, Anna (Kate Bosworth), or medical student brother, Tom (Hunter Parrish), who are the most mature, it's Lydia. She's patient and kind and engaging, offering gentle support when her mother insists on unnecessary tactics. Stewart's expression when Alice doesn't recognize Lydia is downright haunting. The role allowed Stewart to tap into an array of emotions and she did so effortlessly.
While Still Alice provided a space for Stewart to be emotional, Clouds of Sils Maria demonstrated how far she can stretch her mental capacity, didn't you think, Alison?
AW: Absolutely. I'm looking forward to seeing Still Alice, which is getting an Oscar qualifying run this year, but I'm really happy to have gotten to see Clouds of Sils Maria at Cannes. The nifty thing about that movie, from French director Olivier Assayas, is that, like fellow festival favorite Birdman, it's a showbiz story about the pursuit of fame versus the desire to be taken seriously, a clash that has to be on Stewart's mind in setting out to rebrand herself this year. And she's so wonderfully normal in the movie as Valentine, the assistant to an acclaimed actor named Maria Enders (Binoche). She's restless and dressed down, her character is one who's used to being in the background, and the fidgeting Stewart is (in)famous for becomes just another regular quality that sets her aside from the outsize presence of her boss. Isn't it interesting that she's so deliberately deglammed in these roles?
EO: I completely agree! What was so interesting to me was, at the press conference after the New York Film Festival screening of Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart said she had been originally approached to play the reckless A-list YA star Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), but asked if she could play the quieter, honest Valentine instead.
And she plays her so well. It's not a glamorous part — it looks like she wore her clothes from home right onto set. But that helps to focus on her direct — and sometimes quite confrontational — conversations with her boss Maria. It made me feel like I was learning a lot about Stewart as a person. Each discussion Valentine has with Maria — and there are a lot — feels like you're let in on a conversation between friends.
Exclusive to BuzzFeed News, here's a clip from Camp X-Ray.
AW: And in Camp X-Ray, she's the least glamorous of all. As Amy Cole, a young enlistee who ends up working in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp, she attempts to be just one of the guys — hair pulled back into a severe bun, wearing the same uniform as everyone else. She's even the first newbie to volunteer to help restrain an angered detainee, and gets kicked in the face and spat on in the process.
The movie, which is the first feature from writer/director Peter Sattler, isn't my favorite — it feels a little on the nose and schematic in its depiction of a guard befriending one of the prisoners (Peyman Moaadi) (though both Stewart and Moaadi do very good work as people forced to recognize each other's humanity in an inhumane system). But I loved the nuanced way it showed what it was like for a female in such a testosterone-heavy, sometimes threatening, environment. Cole can't be one of the men, because she isn't one and because they will never see her that way, and how she deals with a commanding officer who's interested in more from her during their off hours is allowed to unfold in a delicate, disturbingly believable fashion. Stewart's particularly good at making her character's vulnerabilities clear to the audience even as Cole works to keep up defensive walls.
Also of note about this trio of new features: Stewart spent five movies playing out an epic vampire love story alongside co-star Robert Pattinson, but romance isn't a major factor to any of these newer roles.
EO: In Still Alice, Lydia has one conversation with her mom about a past fling with her male roommate. In Clouds of Sils Maria, Valentine takes off twice to visit a photographer she's fooling around with (though you never see the two of them together). And in Camp X-Ray, Cole has a brief moment in a bathroom with her CO Ransdell (Lane Garrison). But all of these interactions are one-offs. They're completely irrelevant to any of the stories and could be easily removed; nothing would be missing. She is playing women who stand on their own, allowing Stewart's performance to also stand alone and not hinder on that of a male counterpart.
These movies all break the mold from what Stewart is traditionally known for — they're smaller films and her characters are stripped down. She approaches each part uniquely. The only thing she carries throughout all three movies is genuine personality. I wanted more.
AW: I've really enjoyed seeing her, and Pattinson, for the matter, diving into chancier and more difficult roles post-Twilight. Being part of a phenomenon like that skyrockets you to fame, but also looks to have been a kind of mixed blessing for both of them in terms of the crazy media scrutiny that followed, as well as having to deal with the expectations of the franchise's incredibly, sometimes scarily passionate fandom.
Stewart's not just a very capable actor, she seems unusually focused on parts that aren't the most pretty or showy. She's good at playing grounded, which sounds like the least sexy quality for a performer to pursue, but that makes her surprisingly compelling in these films. It's one thing to play the girl everyone's fixated on — it's a tougher and quietly more impressive thing to play the one who's just part of the crowd, and to make her someone you want to pay close attention to anyway.