"I was 16, 17, maybe, when I spoke with Walter for the first time," Kristen Stewart is saying about director Walter Salles, whose film version of the Jack Kerouac novel "On the Road" premiered as one of the competition titles (unawarded, as it turned out) at last year's Cannes Film Festival.
Stewart and company spoke at the morning press conference after the first Cannes screening. In the movie the actress, now 22, plays Marylou, the fictionalized version of LuAnne Henderson, whose adventures with the Kerouac characters Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and narrator Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) provide "On the Road" with its central triangle. "We found out," she said, "that Walter and I loved the novel for the same reasons. But I was very happy to age a couple of years before we shot the film. I was a younger 16, I think, than the real LuAnne was at that age." Then someone in the Cannes press room asked Stewart about the nudity — discreet and brief, but thanks to the "Twilight" franchise, a noteworthy change-up. A quick, tense exhale, and then: "I love scaring myself. To watch genuine experience on screen is is so much more interesting than faking it. The reason I want to do this job … I don't know, I want to get as close to the character's experience as I possibly can.
"As long as you're being honest, there's nothing to be ashamed of."
At Cannes, "On the Road" premiered in a 137-minute version; four months later, by the time it played at the Toronto International Film Festival, Salles had cut 13 minutes, giving the film (for better or worse) more of a hurry-up-while-going-nowhere-in-particular rhythm. Of Marylou, Stewart said in Cannes: "She never made herself a commodity."
Which movies are, of course. "On the Road" already has opened in much of the rest of the world, beginning last summer. Four months after Cannes, Stewart, Hedlund, director Salles and others attended the Toronto International Film Festival. I spoke to Stewart and Hedlund in a hotel room. Hedlund talked at great length about research, filming, bebop and lying around naked in the desert with his co-stars (the footage never made the final cut). The actor's answers tended to end with Hedlund saying: "Sorry for the long explanation." Stewart meanwhile seemed both vexed and relieved, in a low-key way, at Hedlund's bigfoot interview approach.
Hedlund's first paid acting gig came when he was 17; Stewart's came at 9. In Toronto, Stewart spoke of the faraway notion, embodied by "On the Road," of a time when nonconformists and oddballs could actually hide out for a while. "Everyone I really hold close," she said, "all my friends, the ones I can actually experience the present with, they all have a kind of disdain for Twitter, Facebook, all that. Even if it's just them saying, 'Uck, I gotta stop going on Facebook."
Hedlund: "No one's communicating face to face. Online, or texting, you don't see the emotion in somebody's eyes. You only get to analyze their emotions by their texts."
They filmed "On the Road" in 2010. At Cannes, co-star Viggo Mortensen (who plays Bull Weed, the William Burroughs stand-in) said he initially worried that any movie adaptation of Kerouac's novel would court a kind of "cinematic Americana, something safe, that you could put in a box. " He wondered, too, whether director Salles would pay sufficient attention to the "women who got left behind, who got pregnant. I liked the script but some directors might've minimized that. Not Walter."
Salles, at the Cannes press conference, said the novel captured "the courage to experience everything in the flesh, and not vicariously." He added: "The only way you can develop a critical perception of the world is through personal experience."
Then came a question from the international press gaggle at Cannes, inevitably and uncomfortably directed at Stewart. In broken English: "Ms. Stewart, just ... thank you. So. In 'Twilight' you are playing a character who is not having sex before marriage … " And then he was cut off, politely but firmly. And then Hedlund jumped in. And Stewart looked like she regretted "Twilight" ever happened. And then "On the Road" made way for the next festival hopeful.
"On the Road" opens in Chicago this weekend.