Since 'Twilight,' Stewart has refused to be confined, taking on daring roles in complex films like 'Personal Shopper' and declaring her sexuality on 'SNL.'
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Premiere Of IFC Films' "Personal Shopper" - Arrivals
Credit: Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

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On Feb, 4, Kristen Stewart arrived at Saturday Night Live for rehearsal. It did not go well. “I couldn’t get out one line,” says Stewart, who was hosting for the first time. “I was embarrassed. I was so nervous. Just being on stage with the whole crew—and that cast is epic—and everyone was killing it immediately. I felt like they were all thinking, ‘This poor girl is going to crash and burn.'”

But when the show went live that night, it was a confident Stewart who strode on stage. In under five minutes she poked fun at her nerves and her image, and reminded the world of the bizarre fact that the current President of the United States used to obsessively tweet about her love life and then boyfriend, Twilight costar Robert Pattinson. “Donald, if you didn’t like me then, you’re probably really not going to like me now,” she said with a sly grin. “Because I’m hosting SNL, and I’m, like, so gay, dude.” The audience roared its approval, Twitter melted down, and Stewart went on to deliver one of the show’s best episodes this season.

“Oh, it was so fun,” Stewart says a few weeks later, stretched out on a sun-dappled balcony in Los Angeles. “If they would have me, I’d go back every year.” She seems amused by the buzz her “coming out” announcement garnered. “I’ve been talking about it for a really long time! I’ve lived pretty openly.” Indeed, she’s been romantically linked to several women, including singer Annie Clark (a.k.a. St. Vincent) and, most recently, model Stella Maxwell. Her declaration shouldn’t have been a big deal, and yet… “I guess because it was simple and straightforward. Just — ‘I’m so gay, dude.'” She pauses, and smiles. “In that moment, to make it normal and cool and completely unashamed? It felt really cool.”

It’s a pleasure to see Stewart so at ease with herself and her place in the world. This was not always the case. The 26-year-old actress endured intense public scrutiny — and a specific crushing fame and hysteria on par with Leo-mania after Titanic — during the $3.3 billion global success of the Twilight movies, and she did not wear it lightly.

Viewed from the outside, her stardom — the movie premieres, the screaming fans, the endless prying interviews — seemed to make her withdraw. She was accused of being aloof, sullen, cooler-than-thou. “Presentation wasn’t my strong suit,” she says drily. What was really going on was a deep shyness that she didn’t know how to navigate in the glare of the public gaze. “I’ve observed other shy people have similar reactions — it can come off as hard or uninvested or something.”

That take on her, says her close friend and frequent costar Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland), is far from the truth. “Kristen is a good example of someone who is totally sane, normal, grounded, and self-critical in all the right ways,” he says. “If you thrust someone like that into a full-spectrum spotlight, they may appear at worst ungrateful, and at best just shy. It’s an understandable but not totally fair assessment.” Stewart he understands; it’s other stars who mystify him. “The people who thrive in the incredibly public forum must be very unusual,” he adds. “It’s an odd kind of person, really.”

Luckily, as Stewart has matured, she has found a way to maneuver through fame and has architected a public persona that feels more natural. Just as important, in the nearly five years since the Twilight franchise concluded, she has returned to the kind of art-house films that she favored before she became Bella Swan (e.g., Into the Wild, The Safety of Objects).

She’s won over critics and audiences in independent films such as Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria, the latter of which earned Stewart a César — making her the first American actress to win the “French Academy Award.” In that film, Stewart plays the assistant to a movie star, portrayed by Juliette Binoche, while they’re in a remote location to prep for a film. “I read that s— and there wasn’t one word of it I didn’t understand,” Stewart says. “It made so much sense to me — the isolation of two people in a place trying to make something and contending with their own personal lives.”

Watching Stewart’s character juggle phone calls, scan emails, and shield her famous boss from paparazzi was mesmerizing in part because of the giant meta wink. “It was more interesting to see some of those words come out of my mouth knowing my placement in the world of celebrity,” Stewart says. “It’s so tongue-in-cheek. No one could understand that more and speak to the mass consumption of [famous] people’s lives as commodities and how silly that is than me.”

If the depth and range of Stewart’s performance came as a revelation for audiences, they were in good company. “When people tell me it was during Clouds of Sils Maria they realized how much Kristen could do, I’m not surprised,” says Sils Maria director Olivier Assayas, who first took note of the actress when she played a small role in 2007’s Into the Wild. “I was in the same position. I really discovered the scope of what she can do during filming. I continually realize just how much more there is to her talent.”

Credit: IFC Films

Assayas and Stewart reteamed for Personal Shopper (in theaters now), a moody and melancholic tale exploring grief and the boundaries of existence that won Assayas best director at Cannes last year. Stewart plays Maureen, a young American in Paris who works as a personal shopper to a celebrity, and is also a medium trying to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother.

Stewart is primarily alone throughout most of the film, invisible within the bustle of the fashion world and the city. In many scenes her only acting partner is a series of text messages from a cell phone. (BTW: Stewart can text really, really fast. “Honestly, people were amazed,” she says.) “I was really scared of this movie,” she says. Her character “is just the most lonely person I’ve ever played. I’ve had some spiral periods where the unanswerable questions keep you up at night to a vaguely debilitating degree, but nothing like this girl.”

The hours were long and the experience wasn’t easy, and Stewart clearly loved it. “Every scene was 800 pounds,” she says gleefully. “I’m used to directors really knowing what they want to say and making sure those concepts are displayed by the actors. In this case, all Olivier wants to do is ask you questions and see you flop around and figure them out. It’s really cool.”

That trust between actor and director allowed Stewart to be naked, both emotionally and physically, on screen, and to do it without fear. “This film in many ways belongs to Kristen,” Assayas says. “I was directing it from the outside, but she was directing it from within.”

She may be doing it from without soon enough. While her work in front of the camera continues, she recently directed a music video for the song “Downside of Me” by the Scottish group Chvrches, and in January her short film, Come Swim, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. “It’s so amazing to have something that exists because you protected it and invested in it all the way to the end,” she says. She hopes to tackle a feature in the future, maybe something she’s written herself. “I don’t think there’s a huge separation from acting and directing for me,” she says. “I come at it with the same intention. I’m pretty obsessed with the process of how things are put together.”

Listening to Stewart talk like this, watching her spark to new opportunities, it feels (not to overstate it) like witnessing a liberation. Maybe it’s just that the Twilight juggernaut is far behind her, or that she’s laid the speculation about her sexual orientation to rest, or that she’s found a way to be herself — or at least an organic facsimile — in public. Getting older surely helps. Whatever the reasons, the sense you can’t escape, sitting with her out on this sunny balcony, is that Kristen Stewart seems…happy.

“This is the year of ideas being translated into action,” she says. “I’ve always had ideas and poems and things where I want to do this or draw that. I’m writing, I’m figuring it out. Instead of procrastinating or thinking you can control everything from a standpoint where time doesn’t exist, you make the first call. After the first call — and who knows what the f— will happen — you take the first step.” She grins. “And I’ve started walking.”