Skip to main content
bigger picture

Kristen Stewart attends the Los Angeles premiere of Spencer, at the DGA Theater Complex, on Oct. 26.Amy Sussman/Getty Images

Kristen Stewart would never equate herself with Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales. On a Zoom call during September’s Toronto International Film Festival, where her new film, Spencer, was a highlight, she makes that clear: no one could know how Diana felt; she is the only person ever to have lived that very particular level of attention and expectation. But …

“I do know the feeling that your pieces don’t fit – that other people think they know you, but it doesn’t coincide with how you feel,” Stewart said. Her voice is deep, with a pleasant rasp. She was wearing a crisp white button-down shirt and white nail polish. Her bale of pale blond hair was in a deep side part; she often raked her hands through it, flipping it over, exposing the deliberate dark roots. “Then trying to control that, and knowing that you can’t, and yet no one’s perception can be called wrong. So you start to wonder who the hell you are.”

Who Stewart is, is an artist with the career of a worldwide phenomenon. She excels with arthouse directors such as Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, Clouds of Sils Maria), Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women) and David Cronenberg, with whom she just shot Crimes of the Future. But she’s been famous since age 12, when she played Jodie Foster’s daughter in Panic Room; her Twilight franchise grossed nearly US$3.4-billion; and legions of stans track her like surveillance pros. I myself expected her to be flinty, a bit stand-offish – I have no idea why. Instead she was warm, funny and thoughtful. She paused after most questions to genuinely consider them, and then answered beyond what I’d asked.

“There’s an incredible amount of enigma and mystery in Kristen,” said Pablo Larrain, Spencer’s director, in a separate Zoom. (Chilean-born, he also made Jackie, starring Natalie Portman.) “I could hold her hand and jump into the void. I trust her so much. She is completely fearless. Somehow maybe she’s been waiting for a role like this. It seems like cosmic luck.”

Spencer takes place over a stiff, tradition-bound Christmas weekend at Sandringham House, which the film posits was a turning point for Diana: she arrives late, petulant, miserable and leaves determined to escape.

Stewart, who is 31, disappears inside the wardrobe, wigs, accent and mannerisms. “I’m not somebody who dresses up a whole lot,” she says. “But Diana was never not being dressed or done or set. The fact that I couldn’t run my hands through my hair, that I could never really breathe or move or eat – it definitely added to this feeling of my light being diminished. Yeah it’s ‘beautiful,’ but the restriction is palpable.”

Stewart says everything about playing the late Princess of Wales clicked when she realized there’s 'nothing unconditional in Diana’s life. Except for her children, everything is unstable.'Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

The artistry of the film, which Larrain calls a “tone poem,” lies in how Stewart’s portrayal transcends those outer trappings. Just before shooting began, Larrain observed a meeting between Stewart and her dialogue coach. They were working through a key scene, where Charles tells Diana that she has to be two people, the private and the public. “It was the first time I heard Kristen doing the voice,” he says. “I was shocked. I felt it was real, and happening right in front of me. I saw we had the chance now to get to the hardest part, the emotional part.”

For Stewart, everything clicked when she realized, “There’s nothing unconditional in Diana’s life. Except for her children, everything is unstable. I loved the idea of this vulnerable, sensitive, scared animal, backed into a corner, at a precipice moment where she’s about to make a decision that going to change things that have been the same for hundreds of years.”

She also related to Diana’s small rebellions. “There’s a really common criticism of her that she was bratty, irresponsible, annoying, manipulative,” Stewart says. “But if you have so little control in your life, and so few avenues of communication, that’s how you communicate. If you’re not allowed to say certain things, you do certain things instead.”

To reiterate, however, Stewart is not Spencer. “Diana was so alone, whereas I have friends around me to help me look at the right things,” she says. “I like working. I like getting together with people who feel impassioned and willing to do anything to tell a story. A movie set is like this precarious bowl of water that everyone needs to keep one hand on. We’re running a marathon, but don’t lose the water! That’s the best feeling in the world. It’s where I find my catharsis. It feeds itself.”

Stewart grew up in Los Angeles; her parents were both in the entertainment business, and one of her three brothers is a grip. “My parents worked 18-hour days and didn’t make dinner,” she recalls, her enthusiasm building. “I’d jump out of bed at midnight and wrap my arms around their legs, find the craft service in their pockets. It’s a pretty thankless job to work on a movie in whatever position – unless you absolutely love it. Because our business is insane.” (It’s important to note that we had this conversation before the fatal accident on Rust.) “There are times you’ll be one of 20 people hanging on the side of a frozen cliff, and you’re like, ‘Why are we doing this? Because we’re crazy!’ I like being a part of that.”

She’s especially drawn to restless characters. “I think it’s safe to say that I identify more with a marginal side of the world,” Stewart says drily. “With Spencer, I either screamed the first take, or ran during it. It became a joke. Pablo would say, ‘You don’t have to do that, you can just do the scene.’ But there’s something about running in film that is my favourite thing. My favourite films are about breaking away, finding your feet and how fast they can go.”

Film “externalizes internal feelings,” she continues. “We all have inner lives that are non-linear and trippy and surreal. And then we have to act like, ‘Oh, hi!’ Like we’re all normal all the time. When it’s really, ‘What is going on in here?’”

That’s why she’s no longer into “straightforward plot-driven stories that tell you stuff.” She is aching to direct – and in particular, to direct films about young women coming of age. “I want to show what it actually feels like to be a girl, what it feels like inside,” Stewart says. “That is not charted territory. It’s messy, disgusting, embarrassing sometimes. It’s so strong and so feral.”

On Spencer and a few other films, she felt a strong, intrinsic relationship with her director, as if they were doing two sides of the same job. “It was this contagion of emotion, like we were sharing feelings and multiplying them,” she says. “I want to do that for someone. Put someone on a track and see how fast they can run. I can’t wait to construct something from top to bottom. I can’t wait to turn myself and my actors completely inside out.”

What Stewart truly wants – again, I did not expect this – is maybe what Diana wanted, too. “I want to lie prone and subject myself to it all,” Stewart says. “Just go, ‘Give it to me.’ When you put walls up to protect yourself, you enclose yourself. What I want is connection. There’s a huge dichotomy in my personality, because I want to be with the people, I want to be talking, I want to be visible. I want to get naked in public. Straight up. But I want to control how I do it.”

Spencer is now playing in select theatres

Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct