In the midst of an interview about her new film Welcome to the Rileys, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend, Kristen Stewart’s cellphone, buried under a pile of puffy, winter garb, begins going off.
Stewart, who is dressed in all-black (sweatshirt, leggings, boots), is sitting on an immense leather sofa between director Jake Scott (son of Ridley) and co-star Melissa Leo ( Frozen River), burrowing deeper in the confined space she always seems to create around her. Her head—hair dyed black in a jagged cut—is down, like a shy child. Her leg is tapping nervously.
“There are a lot of people who are like, ‘Wow, you have just turned a new leaf… You can really express yourself very, very eloquently when you care to, and, Oh! You smile sometimes!’” Kristen Stewart says.
Suddenly, she bolts upward and leaps in the direction of the buzzing contraption.
“Oh, shut up! I’m busy—Shut the fuck up!” she cries to no one in particular.
After silencing the phone, she returns to the sofa. “Sorry, Jake,” she says softly, and returns to what seems like her most comfortable stance: self-protected coil.
It is this nervous, very wired, “twitchy”—as she puts it—energy that has come to define Stewart. She is best known as the female lead in Twilight, the blockbuster vampire franchise, which has made her an unlikely star of both movies and tabloids. But with the Sundance debuts of two new films— Rileys and The Runaways, in which Stewart plays iconic rocker Joan Jett—Stewart is becoming known as something else: Indie “It” Girl.
Every year, the festival produces one face that stands for all that is rebellious, unorthodox, and slightly ill-fitting about scrappy movie-making. Chloë Sevigny, Parker Posey, and Zooey Deschanel have all worn the crown. Last year, An Education’s Carey Mulligan was a slightly more polished and proper Sundance debutante, but, hey, in a hoodie, anyone call pull it off.
No one more so than Stewart, who is, both in person and on screen, an awkward and self-effacing pixie. In Rileys, she plays Mallory, an underage prostitute in New Orleans' French Quarter who finds parental figures in Doug Riley (James Gandolfini) and his wife Lois (Leo), who have lost their own, real, daughter. Mallory, who is as damaged as the city she’s living in, hides behind thick, raccoon eyeliner, and shapeless, baggy pants and sweatshirts—at least when she’s not teetering around in hopelessly high heels, ripped fishnets, and little else. In The Runaways, she’s the harder-edged, but no less establishment-averse Jett.
Stewart is coming of age—morphing from girl to woman (she’s 19), and from teen idol to serious actress—in front of a global audience. It’s not always pretty. While doing press for last fall’s Twilight: New Moon, she was lambasted for not being press-friendly enough, and for wearing her signature scowl a little too relentlessly.
Such behavior didn’t fit well with a movie designed to dazzle 13-year-old girls, and Stewart paid the price. Talking to Stewart now about the perception of her, it’s like hearing someone who was forced to parade around in a drab school uniform and has now, at long last, been given her first pair of ripped jeans.
“It was hard to turn on the Twilight stuff... I was doing a movie,” she says of the two weeks she had to leave the Riley set in fall 2008 to promote the first Twilight film.
“There are a lot of people who are like, ‘Wow, you have just turned a new leaf… You can really express yourself very, very eloquently when you care to, and, Oh! You smile sometimes!’ And it’s like: I was doing a movie! I shouldn’t have been where I was! I should have been in New Orleans! That’s why I was so completely inept. I mean, like, that’s why. Because I shouldn’t have been there.”
It is this torn-between-two-worlds quality that makes Stewart different from other alternative-cinema queens: She is being grippingly embraced by two alien universes—mainstream Hollywood and the margins. And yet she seems passionately determined to shed the former role. Over the course of our conversation, the word “movie” is always said in respectful italics. It is clear the term does not refer to Twilight.
But if Stewart is ready to decamp from the slick center of the industry and set up permanent shop on the outskirts, she’s going to have a hard time. Not only did young Stewart die-hards from Salt Lake City battle a blizzard to show up for the premiere of Rileys on Saturday. They showed up to see it again, Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. And at The Runaways premiere on Sunday evening, the red-carpet mayhem rivaled anything that Westwood has to offer: an eruption of shrieks and cellphone flashes as Stewart abashedly slunk by. The same Beatlemania broke out Saturday night during Joan Jett’s concert at Harry O’s on snow-blanketed Main Street. However much the crowd was rocking out to Jett (“ Put another dime in the jukebox, baby…”), it was nothing compared to what happened when she briefly brought Stewart and her Runaways co-star Dakota Fanning out on stage. In response, Stewart shoved her hands in her hoodie and attempted to dissolve into the drum set.
And during the Q&A after the Rileys premiere, Stewart’s leg was shaking so dramatically that it looked like it was going to break off. When she lost herself in an erratic train-of-thought response to a question, Leo jumped in and answered for her in polished actress speak.
It is this palpable discomfort that kids on both side of the cultural divide relate to—the angst and ambivalence about life, fame, everything.
Of filming Rileys in New Orleans, Stewart says, “I sort of called it home. Like, Mallory, she’s not from there, but when she moved there, it became her town. And when I was there, it felt like it was my—like, it was so calm. I would walk down the street and I wasn’t recognized. Walking down the street, compared to how I would normally feel walking down the street, it was so different. Like, I tromped around.”
Stewart’s face brightens at the memory of such freedom, which is clearly a luxury.
But even at Sundance, the very womb of low-budget outsiderdom, Stewart again finds herself split, as she promotes two films, one of which is a tad more indie than the other. ( Runaways already has a distributor, Apparation, and is coming out in March; it also has a splashier veneer than Rileys, which is seeking a buyer.) Having spent the afternoon talking Rileys, she’s now getting ready to dart off to the Runaways premiere.
“Talking about films that you really care about is really, like, the hardest thing for me to do, especially to people that I don’t know,” Stewart says. “So it’s scary.”
“I really, really, really like these movies,” she continues, vehemently. “I put a lot into them, more so than the other ones. So to have both at the festival—it’s weird. It’s like, Jesus! It’s a little overwhelming.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.