When Personal Shopper’s director Olivier Assayas declared his star Kristen Stewart the “best actress of her generation”, you could probably hear the smack from eyebrows rising so high they hit the ceiling. Stewart’s detractors are forceful, they are unforgiving, and they somehow have enough time on their hands to make extensive YouTube compilations on the subject.
Yet, this isn’t 2008 anymore. Her critics may not have moved past Twilight, but Stewart certainly has, quietly been trying to shrug off those parasitic “worst actress” labels that still so obstinately cling to her. Adventureland, Camp X-Ray, Certain Women — it’s all work that speaks for itself far more eloquently than the expectation that an actress will deliver lines about sparkling vampire flesh with absolute sincerity. If only those critics would listen. Star power may have gotten her in the room, but it’s pure talent that has made her the critical and creative obsession she’s increasingly becoming; now the first American actress to win the highly esteemed French César for her work in Assayas’ previous project, Clouds of Sils Maria.
Both her collaborations with Assayas, in fact, have proved perfect showcases for what Stewart has to offer the world; their quiet, unobtrusive reflections — Personal Shopper’s on the ghostly nature of modern communication and Sils Maria’s on the art of acting — allow Stewart to luxuriate in her most essential element: truth.
Critics can poke fun at her lip-biting, her hair-touching, her stuttering; but Stewart is the kind of actress with the centredness not to try and stifle those tics and twitches, understanding that it’s that kind of awkwardness that defines humanity at its most honest. Nothing is suppressed with her, since she makes herself entirely available to the camera. Stewart’s never really declared herself an adherent to any of the established schools of acting (Meisner, Strasberg, Adler), but she’s at least let slip a few revelatory indicators of her approach. She told Elle magazine in 2014, for example, that: “Some people try to do that thing where you craft a character. I cannot be anyone other than who I am. If I can’t empathize with something (my character) does, it’s a problem. And sometimes I’ve had directors be like, It’s not you, Kristen, it’s the character. And I’m like, that’s the laziest thing you can possibly say to me. It is me. It’s definitely me.”
Stewart has a certain affection for the modern obsession with method acting — of actors immersing themselves so fully in the character that they actually ‘become’ the character as opposed to just playing it. For her role in Welcome to the Rileys, Stewart deprived herself of sleep, ate endless amounts of junk food, and chain-smoked for the role of a young stripper who was never taught how to take care of herself.
However, Stewart displays a much stronger sense of self in her work than those who focus on the transformative aspect of their roles. Rather than leaving herself behind, she opens herself up to new conditions and perspectives.
By stressing that she can’t perform if she can’t empathise with the motivations of her character, Stewart seems almost to hint that she readjusts her own personality with each new role — that she remains essentially herself, but changed.
One of the greatest issues with cinematic acting and the star system is that the two almost always bleed into each other, and affect the way we receive and digest film. Physical, technical, and emotional transformations on the actor’s part can certainly help, but there’s still an unwavering part of us that sees Leonardo DiCaprio — not his character Hugh Glass — eating bison liver or sleeping inside a horse.
Conversely, there’s something quite freeing for an audience to see an actor who’s not insistent on going to increasing lengths to “lose” themselves within a part as completely and outrageously as possible, but instead focuses on losing themselves in the truth of the moment and lives the material as authentically and as honestly as possible.
In Personal Shopper, we may just see Stewart as Stewart receiving mysterious texts that may come from her deceased twin but, boy, are we concerned for Stewart’s wellbeing in that moment.
Interestingly, Stewart’s really only done the whole ‘celebrity biopic’ deal once, the most demandingly transformative role out there, since an actor must imitate, at least to a degree, the real life person in the public eye.
Yet, what’s fascinating about Stewart’s take on rocker Joan Jett in 2010’s The Runaways is that it’s a perfect portrait without needing to betray the actress’ core mantra; as if she’s approached the character by finding the kinship between herself and Jett, instead of trying to launch herself into Jett’s mind-set. The result manages to be both quintessentially Jett and quintessentially Stewart, and it somehow works perfectly.
Certainly, Stewart’s flaw is that she won’t ever be a Meryl Streep; there’s no launching her into any role out there and expecting it all to magically fit into place. But it’s her almost stubborn commitment to absolute authenticity that makes her so utterly unique as a talent, and an absolutely mesmerising presence onscreen. There are plenty of other actors to put on the masks. Kristen Stewart lives truth.