Runaway Talent

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Photo Source: Jamie Painter Young

To some, Kristen Stewart is simply "the 'Twilight' girl." Her arresting turn as love-struck teen Bella Swan in the swoony series of vampire romance blockbusters put her on the map and earned her the mantle of "movie star."

And for many young actors, this would have represented the chance to cash in, to do a whole bunch of well-paying wannabe hits with various supernatural love interests. Stewart, on the other hand, prefers the more challenging route: offbeat indies, parts that speak to her in a genuine way, and the occasional portrayal of an icon (like, say, Joan Jett). She only hopes that those who want to see her as nothing more than Bella will give her a chance.

"There's a road I'm going down now, and I'm aware that there's not as much of an audience for strange movies—for different, eclectic movies—and I totally accept that," she says. "But at the same time, if I do films like that, I want people to take it for what it is instead of going, 'Oh, let's see the 'Twilight' girl try to do this.'"

Stewart says she is deeply grateful for all the opportunities the runaway vampire franchise has sent her way, but she has made sure the personas she has taken on since have not been terribly Bella-like. Take her nuanced performance in the recent indie sensation "Welcome to the Rileys." As foul-mouthed teen runaway/stripper Mallory, Stewart is raw and real, a believably bruised troublemaker, and she more than holds her own opposite co-stars James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo. "I'm really glad that it took the time that it did to get made, because I think by the time I was 18, I was ready and more confident and mature enough to play the part," says the actor, now 20. "I had read the script when I was 16, and I was just too young. I would've shied away from stuff, I think."

"Rileys" director Jake Scott first took note of Stewart in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild." Her screen time is limited, but she made it her own. "I went for a drink with Sean Penn, and he said, 'Check this kid out,'" recalls Scott. "She didn't do very much in that film, but she just had this quality that I'd always imagined Mallory would have—I always say 'vulpine.' Kind of feral, a bit of an alley cat. That really is strong in her, even though she's come from a very happy, loving background. It's interesting; maybe that's why she can play such damaged characters, such complex characters."

"Welcome to the Rileys" was in the works pre-"Twilight," and Scott recalls having to fight a bit to cast Stewart. "I was lucky he thought I deserved it," she says with a laugh. Stewart did everything possible to live up to the faith Scott had in her, throwing herself into research and character work. "I'm from the Valley, and I've had the most normal and privileged upbringing, so the fear in that is sort of 'Who are you and what do you know'" she says.

Stewart read books on homeless teens, talked to real-life strip club workers, and even learned to pole dance. "You really don't see it in the movie," she says of the pole dancing, "which sucks—I mean, it doesn't suck. Jake didn't want to exploit Mallory any more than she already is, but I did find that they beat the hell out of themselves. I had bruises all over my legs, all up the sides of my body. I think we did everything we could to do it right. For the girls who can relate to a movie like this, it's so necessary. We would be such frauds if we didn't do the proper work."

For Stewart, "the proper work," the things you have to do to make a performance as authentic as humanly possible, is an integral part of the way she approaches a role. Those who do want to see her as awkward Bella Swan—a sometimes morose, sometimes wishy-washy teen—have likely never heard her talk about acting. There's a striking passion that takes over whenever she discusses truly connecting to a character, and even though she hasn't had to audition in a while, she doesn't make her choices lightly. When she wants a role, she really wants it.

"If you have to sit there and ask yourself if you want to do something, then you don't want to do it," she says firmly. "If you sit around going, 'Well, it's a good story, there are a few things that confuse me, but I can work it out' No, no, no. I couldn't do that. I think I'd be so bad in whatever project that was. I can't make something work that doesn't completely speak to me. You just go, 'I want to live that. I'd really like to learn from that.' And you see it all so clearly."

In the 'Room'

When it comes to performing, Stewart saw things pretty clearly from an early age. Her mother was a script supervisor, so Stewart grew up hanging out on movie sets. "I would go to work with her, and I saw kids on set and I would be like, 'Gosh, I want a job,'" she says, chuckling. An opportunity opened up when someone spotted her "singing some ridiculous song in a holiday performance thing" at school, she recalls. "There was somebody in the audience that helps you find an agent as a kid. It really, really would probably only ever happen in Los Angeles." At 9, she started auditioning for and landing movies. One of her early high-profile roles, as a diabetic youngster in the thriller "Panic Room," put her opposite Jodie Foster and under the direction of David Fincher.

"I think I went in six times over the course of several months, because they'd started production and then shut down and then recast people," Stewart says. "I really fought for that part. They made every kid that came up really work their asses off for it; it wasn't a quick thing. I had to read for David Fincher numerous times, and every time there would be notes. It was really intense." She understands the lengthy process better now, but at the time, she was just itching for the chance to prove herself. "I was like, 'God, dude, fuckin' relax, I can do it!'" she says, laughing. "I was totally thinking that he should just trust me."

"Panic Room" got Stewart's career off to a nice start, but it wasn't until she starred in the dark indie "Speak" at age 13 that things clicked, that she recognized that acting could be fulfilling to her as a career. "I realized that you could get more from the job than just entertainment and not having to go to school," she says. "You could tell stories that people can take a lot from."

She went on to mix big, kid-friendly flicks with thoughtful independent projects, including actor Mary Stuart Masterson's feature directorial debut, "The Cake Eaters." Masterson remembers being impressed with Stewart's "Panic Room" performance, but she was even more blown away once they started working together. Stewart's character in "The Cake Eaters" suffers from Friedreich's ataxia, a disease that affects speech and movement. If the symptoms were depicted inaccurately, says Masterson, the result could have been offensive. But once again, Stewart was determined to do the work.

"She was totally committed to getting it right," Masterson recalls. "I gave her some interviews I had taped and introduced her to some people living with the disease, and she immersed herself in the process. She was very private about it, and I knew that was a good sign, because I had been through similar work on real-life characters before and I knew that what she was experiencing was a kind of protectiveness for the integrity of those souls suffering with what she would only have to play at."

When Masterson started doing festival Q&As for the film, "Twilight" hadn't come out yet and Stewart was far from a household name. "After every screening," the director says, "someone would always ask how I found an actress that good who had the disease."

'Road' Map

Stewart was in Pittsburgh working on the indie film "Adventureland" when she first got wind of "Twilight." At the time, she says, she didn't really have "enough room in my head" to even consider a project of that magnitude. Still, she was up for the audition and recalls being thrilled when director Catherine Hardwicke and actor Jackson Rathbone flew to Pittsburgh to meet with her. "We worked together for four hours," Stewart says. "And by the end of it, we didn't want to stop talking about it, and Catherine was like, 'Okay, well, I think you should do this. I'm gonna get on a plane now, but hopefully we can continue this discussion later.' I was like, 'Uh, does that mean…' I couldn't believe it."

Like Scott, Hardwicke was charmed by Stewart's brief "Into the Wild" performance. "I felt her vulnerability and yearning leap off the screen when she sat on that bed in the trailer, trying to seduce Emile [Hirsch]," Hardwicke recalls. "Kristen has to feel everything—to connect, to make it her own. She is intense and powerful and athletically gifted. Bella Swan is clumsy. Kristen had to be the most awkward volleyball player in 'Twilight,' but in reality she's a superstar."

Stewart wasn't necessarily prepared for the "superstar" status "Twilight" would afford her, but she has tried to remain grounded and keep her decision-making process basically the same. "A lot changed, but at the same time the process of choosing stuff doesn't change," she says. "I guess I wouldn't know the difference if I didn't have 'Twilight,' because the things that have rolled in probably wouldn't have rolled in. I'm aware and thankful for that. And when something like 'Welcome to the Rileys' speaks to you, you have to jump on it."

That said, she's still genuinely surprised when filmmakers want to cast her in certain things—like Walter Salles' upcoming take on Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road." "When it was sort of coming to be and I was the right age to play the part of Marylou, I didn't even want to think about it a whole lot, because I was like, 'They're gonna hire Scarlett Johansson,'" Stewart says with a laugh. "Which would've been fantastic, but I just couldn't imagine inserting myself into that equation."

Now that she is part of the equation, she's bringing her usual commitment to the role—and, refreshingly, with a sense of wonder not typically found in young stars who have been working as long as she has. "I worked with my friend Tom Sturridge, and he plays Carlo Marx, who's Allen Ginsberg," Stewart says, excitement creeping into her voice. "And I would look over at him, and he's doing this fucking full-on Allen Ginsberg crazy monologue in the corner of some thumping, raving party, and I'm dancing to bebop jazz, and I'd be like, 'Tom, we're doing "On the Road." Just so you know "On the Road."'"

Strategy Game

Though she has a distinctive way of evaluating potential roles, Stewart confesses that she avoids heavy strategizing when it comes to her career, "because to have a strategy, I couldn't have that thing where I didn't know what I wanted to do until it really screamed at me. But eventually—who knows how close or how far away this is—especially now that I've been given this enormous gift of 'yes,' I would love to develop projects and do them with people that are already close to me."

The "gift of yes" that the success of "Twilight" has given her is something Stewart still marvels at. But she understands the gift's limitations—and she doesn't want to use it to rehash Bella Swan. "I haven't tried it yet, but apparently it would be easy for me to greenlight a movie where I play the main part if I play a fairly normal-looking, pretty girl," she says. "There are a lot of those movies. But if I wanted to play, say, a transgendered prisoner [in in-the-works indie 'K-11'], which I really want to do, that doesn't hold the same weight."

Stewart knows that a lot of eyes are on her at this point. And she knows there are some people who will always see her as "the 'Twilight' girl." But she's determined to keep pursuing edgy parts, to build her career by always demonstrating her full commitment to whatever projects she takes on and by working hard for the writers and directors who entrust her with their visions. "Really," she says earnestly, "I just want to keep doing what I'm doing."

-Is set to star in the final two "Twilight" installments, directed by Bill Condon

-Has been nominated for four Young Artist Awards ("Into the Wild," "Cold Creek Manor," "Undertow," "Panic Room") - Is repped by the Gersh Agency

-Was grateful to have Joan Jett by her side while portraying the singer in "The Runaways": "She ended up actually sort of kickin' it with me the entire time, throughout rehearsal, every single day of shooting. She had her own earphones, and we'd be together constantly. She was around, and that's how I felt I was able to do it without thinking that I was just so out of left field and ridiculous. Like, I would've just had black hair: 'Oh yeah, I'm Joan Jett!'"

-Working with Jodie Foster in "Panic Room" gave her a model for how to conduct herself as an actor: "If I had worked with someone else, I might not have gotten the particular impression that I got from her, which was controlled and very focused and professional—and also normal. She is one of the coolest girls that I've ever met, and then, at the same time, she is one of the most extraordinary women."

-Hasn't auditioned much recently, but is always up for it: “You can show a director that you should be there, rather than having to slowly gain their approval and trust. Most of the time for me, you have initial meetings, and they'll be like, 'Do you mind reading with someone, just to see it on its feet?' I'm always like, 'Dude, of course.' It’s better because you can feel it out rather than be surprised."