“I’m a total L.A. scumbag,” Kristen Stewart says, bending her wrist to show me an expertly inked Los Angeles Dodgers logo. It’s the last day of the Telluride Film Festival and we’re heading home on the same charter flight, but not before talking about “Spencer,” the Pablo Larraín-directed drama in which she plays Princess Diana at the moment she’s looking to break free from her loveless marriage and suffocating life during a three-day Christmas weekend at the royal family’s country mansion.
Stewart had just come from a Telluride panel titled “Recreating the Real: What It Means to Reimagine a Known Figure From the Past” and now, sitting on a patio, dressed casually on this warm Colorado day in a white T-shirt, cuffed slacks and her hair pulled back in a ponytail, she’s laughing at the idea of her being an “expert” participant at this kind of thing. Plus, she’s a little taken with the enormous golden retriever constantly looping by where we’re sitting, possibly because I had fed it half an English muffin a few minutes before she arrived.
Fact is, Stewart says she didn’t have that much wisdom to impart, other than this: You do the research and then throw it away so you can be present and impulsive. Yes, she had a dialect coach on “Spencer” and went to school, studying her posture. But Stewart didn’t want these things to define her performance. She wanted to be free to imagine.
“Diana’s such a live wire,” Stewart says, leaning forward. “Any picture or interview I’ve ever seen of her, there’s an explosive, ground-shaking quality to her that I always feel like you never really know what’s going to happen. Even when she’s walking the red carpet, it just feels a little bit scary. That could be projection, because we all know what happened. But she just has this feral cat feel. So I wanted to convey that. There’s no way to plan chaos. You just have to fall into it.”
As there’s some last-minute packing to do, we pushed ahead, delving into the movie and performance that had everyone at the Venice and Telluride film festivals talking.
There’s a dance montage in “Spencer” that feels like you’re taking everything you learned about Diana and putting it into movement. It’s breathtaking ... and then after the movie, I read you hate dancing. C'mon.
I will say now this genuinely did kind of take off whatever leash I had on my energy. This liberated the dancer inside of me. That is one thing I’ve taken from her. I will absolutely get up in front of anyone now. I’m just not embarrassed anymore. It’s like ripping off the Band-Aid. Before, I just couldn’t move. It just wasn’t something that felt good.
We premiered our movie in Venice, and we threw this huge dance party, and I think I lost five pounds of sweat that night. And, yeah, I thought the dancing said so much about Diana. I was trying to plan it. I’d ask Pablo, “Where are we going to shoot this stuff? What does it mean? What are we going to be listening to?” And finally, he just said, “We’re not doing a biopic. Whatever bubbles to the surface, just trust that you love her and allow what you know about her to present itself.” And then he’d choose songs that really ran the gamut. It’d be like Miles Davis’ “Elevator to the Gallows” or Talking Heads, Lou Reed, Sinéad O'Connor covering Nirvana. The song always dictated the mood. Diana was someone who loved pop music. I could just see her listening to Phil Collins and crying in the bathroom. And I could also see her bopping around her closet to Madonna.
How long did you spend filming these Diana dances?
We shot it at the end of every single day for about 30 minutes just randomly throughout the house in different outfits. Some days I was f— angry, some days I was an absolute mess. Some days I felt an immense desire. I felt need and craving and wanting. And sometimes I felt really small and lonely and stupid, and then sometimes really vindictive. By the end of it, I was like, “Please stop, Pablo. You can cut together a f— 12-hour movie.”
And the moods would be dictated by what you were shooting? Watching the movie, there must have been a lot more days when you were feeling angry or lonely. She’s a mess through most of the film.
She harbored an immense rage. You can feel it. There are times where she’s really backed into a corner. It’s easy to start getting into entitlement and ask, “What does she have to be angry about? She knew what she was signing up for.” This is a poetic imagining of what it might have felt like for a woman on a precipice and in a certain state of helplessness. We have no idea what happened. But I don’t think she was ever able to come to terms with the rejection. She just couldn’t stomach the lie anymore. And that is a feeling that is really easy to relate to. That would make me angry. I think it would make anyone angry. How can you not empathize with that?
How much of yourself is in this Diana? A lot of people found your casting to be odd, but you know about life in the spotlight. And you know how the fantasy can be different from the reality.
I’ve never been somebody who is very good at stepping outside of myself. I’m not a character actor. I’m not making any rules for myself, but the most honest work I’ve done contains my own memories. And look, I’ve never touched the monumental aspect of her fame. She was the most photographed woman in the world.
For me, it’s nice to share your work with so many people. Sometimes it’s so ephemeral, though. It’s so untouchable that it doesn’t feel real, and therefore makes you feel distanced. People thinking they know you and you feel like they don’t, and then you think, “Well, no one’s impression can be wrong. Whatever I’m putting out is truthful in that moment, whatever combination of details they’ve thrown together to form their impression is what it is.”
But doesn’t it bother you when it reaches the point where you feel commodified, that it’s all an image and it’s not really you and you can’t control it?
I know what it’s like to feel backed into a corner. I know what it’s like to feel defiance, and then kind of regretful of that, because then suddenly, you are being defined as rebellious. You have no idea how many times people will go, “So you don’t give a f—, huh?” Are you kidding? Is that really the impression? Because it’s the opposite of that. It’s so desperately the opposite. It’s a convoluted idea, but I definitely understand what it feels like to want human connection and actually, ironically, feel distanced by the amount that’s thrust at you.
Standout performances give the Telluride Film Festival new life: Kristen Stewart in ‘Spencer,’ Peter Dinklage in ‘Cyrano,’ Will Smith in ‘King Richard’ and Simon Rex in ‘Red Rocket.’
As a self-described L.A. scumbag, did you ever feel out of place shooting at that ridiculous country estate?
Actually, I felt remarkably in place. I was so scared before we started shooting that it was going to feel theatrical, but there weren’t that many people there, so it didn’t feel large in scope. Yeah, the scope was immense, but the scale felt quite small. So you felt at home. And even though the movie’s sad and heavy, there’s an energy that’s unrelenting. I had so much fun. I felt like I was allowed to and encouraged to be a leader, because she was. It just felt like she had this effortless figurehead kind of feel. Diana just felt like everyone wanted to go with her. She’s, like, the best kindergarten teacher you could ever imagine.
So when I got to set, I had such a love for the crew, I felt every day if anyone was tired — and this could be the most arrogant sounding thing in the world and I don’t care — I just felt like, “Yo, if anyone ever dips, I gotcha. Like f— hop on and I will run us through here,” I felt taller than I’ve ever felt.
I don’t think I need to worry about spoiling the ending. Maybe the choice of the final song is a spoiler? I don’t know. [If you don’t want to know, skip ahead.] But as ’80s songs go, Mike & the Mechanics’ “All I Need Is a Miracle” felt like an inspired choice for a footloose getaway.
When Pablo played that song the first time for me, I started bawling. It’s almost like a John Hughes moment at the end of this movie. Like suddenly, the female protagonist is riding off into the sunset, and then we cut back to the lame ex-boyfriend who’s a loser. It felt so triumphant.
In the film, Diana communes with the ghost of Anne Boleyn. Have you ever had any paranormal encounters?
[Laughs] No. But I felt some spooky, spiritual feelings making this movie. Even if I was just fantasizing. I felt like there were moments where I kind of got the sign-off. It’s scary to tell a story about someone who’s not alive anymore and who already felt so invaded. I never wanted to feel like we were invading anything, just that we were kind of adding to the multiplicity of a beautiful thing.
If you’ve got questions about Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of Princess Diana in the new film ‘Spencer,’ we have the answers.
Were there moments when you could actually feel Diana with you? Maybe that sounds too far out there ...
She felt so alive to me when I was making this movie, even if it’s all between the ears and it was just a fantasy of mine. But there were moments where my body and mind would forget she was dead. And suddenly, I would just have an image of what happened. And remember who she left behind. And I was amazed by the renewed emotion. Every single time. Maybe two or three times a week, I would just fully break down about the fact that she had died. I just could not come to terms with it, because I was fighting to keep her alive every single day.
Our movie is dramatized as hell. It’s condensed into three days. It feels like a ballet to me. But it was still a fight to keep her alive every day, and so remembering that she was dead was just absolutely lacerating. It just destroyed me constantly. And that itself felt spiritual ... there were times where I was like, “Oh, God,” almost like she was, you know, trying to break through. It was weird. And amazing. I’ve never felt anything like it in my life.
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