Most moviegoers who were introduced to Kristen Stewart as the sullen lead character Bella Swan in 2008’s “Twilight” probably still think that was her first film. Nope. The reason her face seemed at least slightly familiar when she was becoming involved with vampires and werewolves is that “Twilight” was her 18th feature film. Many of us likely took notice of her when she played Jodie Foster’s diabetic daughter in “Panic Room” (2002) or maybe as Tracy Tatro, Emile Hirsch’s possible love interest, in “Into the Wild” (2007). Stewart was only in supporting roles, but she was on our radar.
The box office success of “Twilight” really jumpstarted her career, with roles in “Adventureland,” “The Runaways” (She played Joan Jett!), and then some popular art house fare, including “On the Road,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” and “Café Society.”
With “Seberg,” she takes on the role of Jean Seberg, the iconic Iowa-born actress who became a star of the French New Wave when she played the part of Patricia in Jean-Luc Goddard’s “Breathless” (1960). While appearing in about 30 films before dying under mysterious circumstances at the age of 40, Seberg also was a victim of an FBI smear campaign after she became involved with a member of the Black Panthers and donated money to a Panther-run school breakfast program. “Seberg” takes a peek into her life and career during that difficult time. Stewart, 29, who disappears into the role, spoke about how she approached playing her.
Q: Did you know much about Jean Seberg before doing the film?
A: I had seen “Breathless.” That was my singular encounter with her before I read the script. Then, in watching more of her films, I found that her first few performances are some of my favorites. They were made in a time when, especially in a commercial sense, things were packaged and delivered in a much different way. People performed things in what felt like a prepared and skillful way. She was really kind of a sprawling energy, and I’m a huge fan. I think in figuring out more about this particular slice of her life, I was bowled over by the idea that this is like a new story. She went through a lot, which this movie does its best to showcase, and by the end, those performances are really beautiful. Initially I had this image of her, as a kind of free, unwranglerable cat. It was no deeper than that at first, so it was interesting to get to know her through this (movie) experience.
Q: Did you find it difficult to channel her?
A: It was scary, for sure. It wasn’t about doing it perfectly; it was about being able to do a sort of imaginative rendering of what it might be like to be able to pull back the veneer of her life that was available to us in research. But there was really no way to know her inside of that period. You take a cumulative impression and then fiercely try to protect her. And the intimidation factor plays into all of it. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t go to work thinking, “I don’t want to mess this up today.”
Q: So, how did you go about preparing for the role?
A: I watched a lot of her movies. Then it was just kind of forgetting that those details were sometimes impossible to nail, which actually behooves the story, because you want to see someone living, not someone pretending.
Q: There’s definitely some of that ever-elusive chemistry between you and Anthony Mackie on the screen. Did you already know each other?
A: No, I didn’t know him before this. It’s really painful to have to create something if it isn’t there, like fabricate a thing. Also, Anthony was really good for this part because he really loves speaking, and I really like listening to him (laughs). That part was very real.
Q: Since you didn’t know much about Jean Seberg before this, what got you to say yes to doing the film?
A: I felt that (the director) Benedict Andrews could tell the story, and that it was safe - not in a way that it was not without risk, but one that had integrity. It’s rare to trust an instinct so confidently, but I felt I was going to be working with the right people. She wasn’t on a list of characters I wanted to play. I don’t have a list like that. I don’t know that I want to do something until it hits me in the face.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.