If the Stephenie Meyer vampire movie explodes, so will the young actress's career; is she ready for fame? A candid chat with the girl who will be Bella, Edward's mortal beloved
Kristen Stewart

She begins with a disclaimer. ”I usually don’t look like such a skank,” Kristen Stewart says, fanning out 10 dirt-caked fingernails. Fresh off her star turn as innocent, lovestruck Bella Swan in Twilight, the 18-year-old actress — best known as the hippie chick in Sean Penn‘s Into the Wild — is researching a very different movie role at the moment, that of a young stripper. She’s been spending time at a run-down strip club in New Orleans’ French Quarter called Dixie Divas, taking in the show and learning how to gyrate around a pole, though she doesn’t shed many layers. ”I danced on the bar there three nights this week, and my legs are covered in bruises,” Stewart says proudly. ”Hopefully, the Twilight fans won’t totally freak out.”

Stewart has every right to be concerned. Ever since Stephenie Meyer‘s best-selling series of supernatural romance novels spawned a nation of Twilighters, millions of girls (and their moms) have followed the first book’s journey to the screen. Casting the schoolgirl was every bit as perilous as casting the vampire. Fortunately, director Catherine Hardwicke was roundly cheered when she zeroed in on Stewart to play Bella, a shy, ordinary 17-year-old every-mortal. The actress’ agents, of course, were doing backflips when they heard the news. Stewart herself wasn’t so sure how she felt about being at the center of a cultural tsunami. She’s still not. ”It’s just surreal to be a crucial part of a machine like this,” says Stewart, over a lunch of raw oysters and po’boys. ”I’m sort of the vessel. The book is what it is because of these girls’ obsession with [Edward] through me. If I wasn’t right, I’d be persecuted, and put on a cross.”

Not exactly the breathless enthusiasm you might expect from a young actress in the kind of big, splashy blockbuster that could launch her onto young Hollywood’s A list. Stewart is Kate Winslet on the eve of Titanic‘s release or, at the very least, Shia LaBeouf pre-Transformers. But then again, she isn’t much seduced by hype. ”I don’t want to do something that’s just a big moneymaker,” says the actress, who has worked steadily for nearly a decade but hasn’t appeared in a genuine hit since her breakthrough role, at age 11, as Jodie Foster‘s daughter in Panic Room. Instead, she’s built up indie credibility by working with an impressive array of top-tier directors like Mike Figgis (Cold Creek Manor), Jon Favreau (Zathura), and Doug Liman (Jumper), among others. She also scored a moderate success with last year’s paranormal horror flick The Messengers. ”I just want to make sure Twilight‘s worth the ginormous attention it receives,” says Stewart. ”Everyone said this is a big-deal movie. But I hate when people celebrate before you have something to celebrate about.”

NEXT PAGE: ”We had to rewrite and improvise a lot of the most intense scenes, because Kristen will not say something if she doesn’t feel good about it,” recalls Hardwicke. ”Kristen is very tough and she does not tolerate bulls—.”

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