There’s a scene in last year’s clever, disorienting art-house drama Clouds of Sils Maria in which the elegant fortysomething actress Maria Enders (played by Juliette Binoche) is debating whether to take a part opposite a much younger American ingenue — a wild child known for her scandalous personal life and star-making turn in a critically reviled movie franchise. Maria is doubtful, but her personal assistant insists that the girl is smarter than she seems: “She’s not completely antiseptic like the rest of Hollywood…. She’s brave enough to be herself. At her age, I think that’s pretty f—ing cool.”
Because director Olivier Assayas’ entire film is a kind of fun-house mirror, Kristen Stewart — no stranger, of course, to billion-dollar franchises and tabloid frenzies — is cast as the assistant, not the ingenue. And her impassioned defense of the not-antiseptic could easily be autobiographical. Stewart even presaged that line, with another F-bomb for emphasis, in a 2012 EW interview: “I’ve never been able to fully form this thing, this persona, that some people are so f—ing good at. That’s an art,” she said. “And thank God! I don’t like people like that, people who are a complete nonperson but somehow through the lens seem like they are on and interesting and engaged. I care way more about the people standing in the room.”
At 25, Stewart has been in show business for well over half her life, but she’s never seemed at ease with the bizarre personal transactions it demands. It’s a quality that can read as petulant, ungrateful, or simply awkward in interviews; even when she accepted the French equivalent of an Oscar earlier this year for Best Supporting Actress in Sils Maria — the only American ever to take home that prize — she stuttered and flailed like an honors student caught stealing a candy bar. But she’s fantastic in the movie: unmannered and utterly convincing as a smart, self-possessed young woman living adjacent to fame but not in it. And her real-life reluctance to trade her soul for fawning profiles and TMZ clicks does feel like it comes from genuine discomfort, not coyness. In other words, she might actually be that rare star who doesn’t want or need to perform when she’s off screen.
That’s probably not something most people who never need to hear the word Twilight again — and who have already decided that Stewart is a subpar actress and/ or human Grumpy Cat — will believe or even care to investigate. It also may have kept them away from her latest project, American Ultra. It’s true that Ultra, billed as a sort of Manchurian Candidate–meets–Pineapple Express action-comedy, isn’t much: a sticky, short-fused little cherry bomb full of wham-bam dialogue and winky violence. Still, Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg (who also appeared alongside her in 2009’s underappreciated Adventureland) bring something tender and goofy to their stoner-Bonnie-and-Clyde roles — a distinction that likely wouldn’t exist if those parts had been filled by a pair of prettily vacant CW starlets instead. As a couple caught up in the kind of CIA conspiracy that mostly exists in Bourne movies or on deeply paranoid subreddit boards, they’re not exactly heroes. Even as the body count reaches cartoonish levels of Tarantino-style splatter, though, you still root for those crazy kids to make it.
Ultra essentially slots Stewart in a glorified girlfriend role, not exactly a great leap forward for her. But her choices, from Sils Maria to last year’s Oscar-winning Still Alice and the Guantánamo drama Camp X-Ray, have been consistently interesting even when they’re not successful. (And certainly better than other Twilight alumni: Robert Pattinson has mostly misfired in strenuously eccentric indies, while Taylor Lautner’s last big project, a heist flick set in the criminal underworld of parkour — apparently that’s a thing — topped out at 22 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) To millions of fans and detractors, Stewart will always be Bella, and that’s fine. They should see what they’re missing, though; they might be surprised.
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