Not to be crass, but it struck me yesterday that a screening of “Anna Karenina” followed by moderating a Q&A with Kristen Stewart (along with Walter Salles and Garrett Hedlund for “On the Road”) was an interesting juxtaposition. Young lady errs and gets maligned by society. Hmm. But stripping the tabloid away from a persona is always a good thing, and spending a few hours with Stewart, first on stage then later in the evening at an after-party, really endeared me to her, I must say.
People put their best face on in this game so you’re always going to be charmed, seduced, wooed by the “please like me” thing of it all. But Stewart (who was nevertheless exposed to the film industry from a very early age) is a very normal girl in the throes of very abnormal circumstances. And her “best face” is difficult to manage. She squirms on stage in between the smoothly collected Hedlund and the cerebral Salles. She feels like she doesn’t belong, but she desperately wants to. Indeed, she thinks she deserves to.
A film like “On the Road” (as well as “The Runaways” and “Welcome to the Rileys” before it) feels like a step toward putting a little distance between her and the franchise that made her, a yearning for the legitimacy someone like Emma Watson is searching for now. It’s hard, though, when you’ve been that pigeonholed, and the perception of what you have to offer has been that ingrained in the pop culture consciousness. And that’s if you’ve even succeeded at getting people to look at the work rather than the image portrayed in “Us Weekly.”
At one point during the on-stage discussion, Stewart recalled working on the film and being transfixed by the opportunity and the talent involved. “Look, I’m just a stupid kid but I totally deserve to be here,” she would humbly but assertively say when offering this or that suggestion during the collaborative process. And it was a big, bright, illuminated sign that could easily serve as the thesis of Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining work: I’m just a stupid kid, but I totally deserve to be here.
That is, in part, what drew Salles to the project, which has languished as “the unfilmable” for decades. After making the great South American road trip movie in 2004’s “The Motorcycle Diaries,” he moved on to the great North American road trip. The films separately “tell stories of socio-political and cultural change,” he told the audience. “And they’re about learning to grow up, which is interesting. Because growing up is hard.”
Immediately the notion brought me back to Stewart, learning to grow up, but with the whole world watching. And it’s not just growing up in general but growing up as an actress. Later the 22-year-old told me about how nervous she always gets during a Q&A because of the balance of comfort with her colleagues and the sense that she is representing them, to an extent. “On one hand it’s like, it’s just a bunch of actors,” she said. “But then I’m like, shit, it’s a bunch of actors! They care about what I have to say!”
You can tell the experience, particularly working with this cast and being guided by someone like Salles through the journey, has been life-changing. And it’s a bit surprising for her. When she first read the novel, she said she couldn’t relate to the Marylou character at all. And more than that, “you don’t get a sense of her heart or her mind in the novel because of how it’s written,” she told the audience.
But after all, the character was based on someone with a heart and a mind of her own: Luanne Henderson. So Stewart was eager to get inside her head. She met with Henderson’s daughter to help fill in this and that, but ultimately, she was completely taken by a person she kept calling “magic.” And given that Henderson passed away just two years before shooting began, “I felt like she was with me,” Stewart told the audience.
However, the actors in the film aren’t depicting real-life characters, and that’s something Salles would keep telling them during production. “You’re not playing Jack Kerouac, you’re playing Sal Paradise,” he would tell Sam Riley. “You’re not playing Neal Cassady, you’re playing Dean Moriarty,” he would tell Hedlund. And, “You’re not playing Luanne, you’re playing Marylou,” he would tell Stewart. The distinction is important, because while Sal, Dean and Marylou are characters fleshed out in their own right in the novel, they are also archetypes for a generation, and embossing those highlights is key to the greatness of what “On the Road” is.
The reverse is in the cards for Stewart. “Kristen Stewart” is an archetype right now. The two words conjure tabloid imagery and big box office romance spectacle. For many, they don’t feel real. They’re ethereal. But — and not that this should be a news flash — there is flesh and blood, desires and dreams, commitment and passion beneath that archetype. There is a Luanne to Stewart’s Marylou, and she’s finding her — or perhaps, more to the point, we are — one humble step at a time.