Kristen Stewart has reality fright. On-screen, her unleashed energy captivates and her face offers no unfortunate angles. But off-screen, her discomfort is palpable. In her endearingly unpolished public appearances, she fidgets, scratches, runs her fingers through her hair, and generally bungles her words. (Who can forget her audible throat clearing at the Academy Awards?) Her awkwardness seems to arise from a profound distrust of the media, the limelight, and especially of her considerable recent success as the female lead of the billion-dollar-grossing Twilight movie series. Still, uneasiness this extreme is surprising in an actor, someone who has signed up for a lifetime of being watched.
Stewart arrives in the ornate lobby of California’s Four Seasons Hotel Westlake Village, a venue chosen for its proximity to a middle-class section of the San Fernando Valley where Stewart was raised, the only girl among a bevy of brothers. There’s Cameron, her biological brother, who is 24; Taylor, who is Stewart’s age and was adopted at age 13; and Miles and Obie, friends of Cameron’s “that we’ve like helped along the way,” she says. “I’ve always said I’ve had a bunch of brothers because we have a bunch of boys who are like family.” Cameron is a film grip; her parents, John and Jules, also work in the industry (Mom is a script supervisor, Dad a stage manager).
“It’s insane! Once somebody finds out, you have to get the hell out of wherever you are,” she says emphatically, attempting to convey the madness that has become her life. “People freak out. And the photographers, they’re vicious. They’re mean. They’re like thugs. I don’t even want to drive around by myself anymore. It’s fucking dangerous.” It’s a sweltering late-summer afternoon, and Stewart is dressed entirely in black, from her Joy Division T-shirt to the polish on her short nails—the usual teenage suit of armor. Her hair is also black, dyed and chopped into a retro-modern mullet to play Joan Jett in The Runaways, a film she has just finished shooting. As she talks, her words tumble out in knots; she edits herself, starts over, restates her (often wryly funny) point, so that many times it’s made through the accumulation of half-uttered phrases. She fiddles with the multiple silver rings (including one made from a spoon handle) on her skinny fingers. Throughout the interview, she bounces one knee.
Stewart, who turned 20 in April, has worked consistently for the past decade, often in independent films, but she admits the Twilight frenzy has taken her by surprise. “Somebody knocked on my hotel room door and asked for a light, then said that they were a big fan. I was like, ‘Do you really need me to light your cigarette? How do you know what room I’m in?’ ” She mourns the loss of her privacy. (“I can’t be by myself, and I like being by myself,” she says.) “Who wouldn’t who has a soul?” says Jodie Foster, who starred with an 11-year-old Stewart in Panic Room. “It’s a very different time from when I was growing up. We didn’t have those lenses that were 150 feet long, or maybe we had them, but there was still a real delineation between the public and the private.”
What’s mystifying to Stewart—and likely to anyone with either a shred of empathy or a tendency to clam up in public—is the looking- glass reality in which her manner, rather than eliciting sympathy or mere shrugs, has made her a figure of derision. “I think it’s funny that when I go onstage to accept an award, they think I’m nervous, uncomfortable, and awkward—and I am—but those are bad words for them,” Stewart says. She still frets about her MTV Movie Awards appearance last year, during which she fumbled her award, a carton of golden popcorn (then blurted, “I was just about as awkward as you thought I was going to be. Bye!”). “I fucking flung my award on the stage…and I was like, Everything I just said? Gone. Gone. I might as well have just erased it. And they were like, ‘I love how she goes up there and tries to be so serious. She is so pretentious. Why does she always try to sound so smart when she’s not smart?’ ”
The “they” and “them” to which Stewart refers, and to which she returns frequently in conversation, as though to linguistic worry stones, are tabloid journalists, bloggers, and online commentators. Later, I ask her to define this “they.” She gives me an isn’t-it-obvious look. “The people that write shit on the Internet…the professionals that talk bullshit on TV. Bullshit people.” It’s as if she’s internalized the critical voices of our tabloid culture, those whose primary aim is to tear down the idols they themselves have created. But she’s so young and full of promise, that as you watch her ape her detractors, you find yourself hoping she’ll survive the celebrity spin cycle.