Kristen Stewart knows better than most that growing up as a young actor means having a spotlight on your every move – personal and professional. It blighted the Harry Potter kids, whose turbulent journey to adulthood was charted beat for beat in the tabloids – laid bare to be picked apart and overanalysed. It also made their attempted moves away from their defining roles more ungainly.
The Potter franchise was all-consuming across the world, and continues to be. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint will never escape it and their varying attempts at playing to or against the types chosen for them before puberty have played out more like curios and failed experiments.
As that particular film series entered its autumn years, it was rubbing shoulders with fellow teen fantasy juggernaut Twilight, which launched the careers of both Robert Pattinson – himself a Hogwarts alumnus – and former child star Stewart. Not without its share of rabid devotees, the vampire romance was all-consuming for its young fanbase and its young star pair – forced, as the Potter gang was, to navigate their formative years under a microscope.
J.K. Rowling continues to revisit her boy wizard’s world with ill-advised spin-off movies, stage plays and whatever else, keeping Harry Potter alive in collective consciousness and, regrettably, political discourse. Conversely, Twilight seems to have faded from the conversation. It’s remembered, like Tamagotchi or studded belts, as a fad – formative and important to those who loved it, now shrouded in affectionate nostalgia, but not something they carry into adulthood.
This has been a blessing for Pattinson and Stewart who, despite a few false starts and the odd gossip-column scoop, have both gracefully transitioned out of their star-making roles to become mature, accomplished performers making tasteful, intriguing choices in their work. Stewart especially has been a fascinating figure to follow in recent years and, contrary to assumptions that she’s only now experiencing a change of fortune post-Twilight, the signs have been clear from the beginning.
Claiming someone whose second-ever feature role was opposite Jodie Foster in a David Fincher movie has “only recently shown promise” would be pretty egregious. In 2002’s Panic Room, an 11-year-old Stewart goes toe-to-toe with Foster and Forest Whitaker as an integral component in this precision-assembled Hitchcockian nerve-frier. Working with a director infamous for his meticulousness, she’s game and deft alongside her grown-up co-stars, mixing wisdom and dread to staggering effect for someone so young.
As Twilight‘s Bella, Stewart’s lacklustre, inexpressive performance across five instalments became a running joke among detractors, and continues to be an albatross around her neck as she’s moved on. Mired by personal scandal following her very public breakup from Pattinson, the tabloid press was out to see Stewart fail, and a general cynicism towards her validity as a performer permeated the pop-culture conversation.
Undeniably though, Stewart’s approach – a steady reservedness not miles away from the school of Clint Eastwood and John Wayne – is devastating in its subtlety when it’s clear she truly cares about a project. Her emotional disconnect from Twilight is clear, but despite surface-level similarities there are storms of raging, raw feeling beneath the surface in her finest work.
Take, for instance, 2014’s Still Alice. It’s a vehicle largely for Julianne Moore, whose titular Alice descends gradually into Alzheimer’s as the film progresses. While Moore’s horrifying and deeply affecting performance – for which she deservedly won an Oscar and a host more awards – is the focal point of the piece, the nature of her character’s condition means she cannot provide the emotional centre. Here, Stewart’s sturdy, measured anxiety as daughter Lydia anchors the story in feelings more directly empathetic. Worry, uncertainty and frustration all play across her face as she gently guides the viewer through this arduous and knotty emotional arc.
Stewart is often at her best when enjoying the company of great talent – whether it’s performers or filmmakers. She shines under the directorial watch of Kelly Reichardt in 2016’s Certain Women amid equally powerful, if showier, actors like Laura Dern, Michelle Williams and Jared Harris. It’s her assured, but subtly calibrated, approach that balances out a picture crowded with master craftspeople jostling for space.
Her work with Olivier Assayas began similarly, playing off Juliette Binoche and Chloë Grace Moretz in Clouds of Sils Maria, but Assayas saw to the heart of Stewart’s particular style and gave her the space to fully unlock it in his next film, one of the very best of 2017.
Personal Shopper is a frosty and difficult modern ghost story, where spiritualism and superstition collide with technology and modernity. While largely underplayed, any miscalculation in its careful tone could have tipped its concept into ridiculousness. Utilising Stewart’s gift for subtlety and poise, Assayas instead manages to craft a deeply moving and genuinely scary mood piece.
It never pivots into all-out horror and avoids hokeyness entirely, largely thanks to the plausibility of Stewart’s subtle, reactive performance. She exudes fear and confusion, gradually simmering below the surface without ever bubbling over, and her own residual terror practically oozes out of the screen to unsettling effect, making sure Shopper lingers long after its closing frames. Also, her haircut is to die for.
Unwilling to be restricted by past actions or external expectations, Stewart has an intriguing spread of roles in the offing – this weekend she appears opposite Chloë Sevigny in Lizzie, which dramatises and speculates upon the Lizzie Borden murders, as Borden’s housemaid and lover. The year ahead will see her take on loopy literary flick Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy alongside Laura Dern and Diane Kruger, and also make a return to mainstream screens as one of a new trio of Charlie’s Angels.
After a turbulent few years asserting her talents and quashing irrational doubts about her value, there’s little doubt that Kristen Stewart has a handle on things – there’s direction and assurance to her choices these days, both reliably high-quality and consistently surprising. Though Potter remains the high standard for teen-friendly fantasy cinema, its stars could certainly learn a thing or two from Stewart about how to outgrow one’s roots.