Washington - "She's not what you expect as the lead in Twilight," says Kristen Stewart, of, really, herself, playing Bella Swan, the high school girl who falls in love with a vampire, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), in the movie adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling novel (opening Friday nationwide). "She's not your typical damsel in distress. She really is a woman."
Sitting in an interview suite at the downtown Ritz-Carlton in Washington, this slender, intense actress, 18 and a mere slip of a thing, comes off as girl and woman. She wears jeans and a T-shirt that bears the logo "Defend New Orleans." (The day before she had wrapped shooting Welcome to the Rileys in the Big Easy with James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo.) She shares indecipherable in-jokes with her friend and co-star Nikki Reed, who plays the female vampire Rosalie and six years ago wrote Thirteen with Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke. (Reed wears jeans and a Diet Coke T-shirt.) They frequently swap glances full of private meaning. They even at times giggle.
But then Stewart will pick up her train of thought without missing a stop: "Bella has very innate female qualities, ones I am extremely proud of, and in such extreme situations they are amplified and really brought to the surface. She trusts herself and trusts her feelings even if it's the wrong thing to do pragmatically. She's a very logical girl; she's not prone to fantasy."
Stewart adopts a comical distressed-damsel flutter as she argues that Bella is not just a girl "losing herself in an extravagant situation." And then, as if by reflex, her gaze darkens and her voice deepens when she concludes, "She follows her instincts and gut feelings and she's so much stronger than Edward, her amazing vampire ideological counterpart. He's small and weak and scared. She wears the pants in the relationship."
Did co-star Pattinson resist this interpretation? "Not at all," Stewart says, as Reed laughs.
Stewart's face has just appeared on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and the studio behind Twilight, Summit Entertainment, is putting her in front of us as an acclaimed supporting actor on the brink of becoming a brilliant new star. But Stewart is intent on continuing to conduct her career the way she always has, working on intriguing projects with top, seasoned talents such as Barry Levinson (What Just Happened) and Sean Penn (Into the Wild) and gifted newcomers like Jake Kasdan (In the Company of Women). She took Twilight for the right reasons.
"Regardless of the size of a role, I can only work if I feel I have to. It's an indefinable thing. It's sort of feeling that if you don't do the character, she will die. I feel confused and out of place on a movie if I don't feel I am totally responsible for the character."
Stewart almost sloughed off Twilight. When the script was making the rounds, she was in the last two weeks of shooting for another picture (Adventureland), in Pittsburgh, and didn't want to shake her concentration. She says she read a synopsis that made it sound "shallow and vain - this story does not sum up well. But then I read the screenplay and subsequently begged for it. Catherine came to Pittsburgh, and at the end of a four-hour audition it was clear this was going to be my next project."
Director Hardwicke treated Stewart's casting as the key to the project: The prospective Edwards had to test with her. Edward Cullen is part of a clan of righteous vampires who've learned to control their thirst for human blood by slaking it with wild-animal blood. They nurture their dormant human instincts and pleasures and play down their vampirism. If they feel racial guilt over vampire slaughter, they work it off by serving and protecting humans. Their heightened physical and mental powers help them do just that. Edward possesses super-strength and super-speed and the ability to read minds; he doesn't know his own erotic power until Bella, a knockout who doesn't see her own beauty, starts swooning to his touch.
It was crucial that Bella and Edward have chemistry, but Stewart says that wasn't what won Pattinson the role. "The truth is, you can make chemistry with most actors - you can forge that. Of course, you can find people it's impossible with, and we did run across some of those. But what got Rob the part was his understanding of the character. He came in with a very apparent sense of fear and pain. [Nearly] everybody else came in thinking, 'Do I look good? Am I posing in the right statuesque way?' Rob was clearly thinking about more than that. And he was responsive. As most good actors should do, he wanted to see something before he responded. He watched and listened and observed."
Reed interjects, "That's rare in our generation," and Stewart says, earnestly, "That's very true, a lot of actors our age don't do that."
Then again, Stewart is ahead of her generational curve when it comes to artistic maturity. Stewart was a natural. She was 9 years old when she started to think, "I can do it."
Acting began as "just sort of a fun thing" - also a logical thing for a girl to think of, growing up in Los Angeles with a father who is a stage manager and a mother who is a screenwriter (soon to turn director). Early in her career, she scored a hit as Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room (2002), but it was the 2004 TV movie Speak that brought her a sense of vocation. It dealt with themes of alienation and rape.
"I felt I was really growing myself, and when the movie came out I could see it was really helping people. It gave me a feeling like letting weight off." She began to think of acting as "breathing" and as more than breathing, as honest, vital "exertion, like running."
She thought to herself, "Yeah, I'm going to do this for a while."
Birthday: April 9, 1990
Hometown: Los Angeles
Parents: Jules and John Stewart. John has been a stage manager for shows such as The Weakest Link. Jules has written a script that she will direct in January. Kristen will star.
Stewart on acting: "It's like shaping up a soda bottle - and you feel, I really have to pop the cap right now!"