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Why Kristen Stewart is one of our greatest living actors

The actor operates on a creative plane many struggle – or downright refuse – to understand, but she’s worked to craft her own unique iconography

Since being (reluctantly?) launched into stardom with the Twilight films, not only has Kristen Stewart made deliberate and exciting choices of which projects to pursue, but she has also developed herself into a bona fide powerhouse of understatement and artifice, always delicately balancing between naturalism and ersatz affect. Her critics call it “barely acting”. I call it masterful and unparalleled.

Stewart has been acting professionally since she was nine-years-old. Before Twilight, she typically played tomboyish weirdos in movies like Panic Room, The Safety of Objects, The Messengers, and others, making an impression on these roles that usually swallow up actors into their nothingness. Stewart was filming Adventureland in late 2007 when Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke visited for an informal screen test for Twilight, which Stewart would end up filming and promoting before Adventureland even came out. Obviously, the Twilight Saga was a global success, with all five films making a combined $3.3 billion between 2008 and 2012.

The films themselves are campy excess, vacillating between masturbatory fantasy-fulfillment and batshit eccentricity, especially in the final film. Throughout, Stewart and co-star/former lover Robert Pattinson are the draw. The franchise attracted plenty of ire and derision, as did Stewart’s so-called ‘wooden’ acting. As Jason Bailey wrote for Flavorwire in 2014, “Here’s how terrible the Twilight movies are: they convinced the world that a good actress was a terrible one.” It’s true: Stewart still feels woefully miscast in that series, and it’s what most people know her from. Her involvement in those films launched her career toward new opportunities, but it has also allowed people to dismiss her.

Their loss. Stewart, who is still only 26-years-old, began making careful choices, mostly because she now had the power to. Our first real hint at her greatness came with The Runaways in 2010, as Stewart played Joan Jett with an attention to detail and positivity that surprised many. But since the Twilight series ended, a new persona has emerged. Camp X-Ray, Still Alice, Certain Women, Café Society and the little-seen Equals (in which Stewart, understandably, plays a character in an emotion-free dystopian future) all exhibit her magnetic presence, which works largely through the way she moves, the way her eyes watch, small gestures or facial movements, every nuance simultaneously intuitive and feigned, synthetic yet organic. She slouches. Her face is neutral. She looks away, or down, or bites her lip. And she is compellingly intense, never fully authentic or fake.

French filmmaker Olivier Assayas has given Stewart her strongest roles to date, in Clouds of Sils Maria opposite Juliette Binoche (for which Stewart became the first American actress to win a César Award, France’s Oscars) and in the quasi-ghost story Personal Shopper, which is out this weekend. Stewart’s acting style is highly internalised, which many misunderstand as flat. She is cooly hard-boiled, and Assayas is perfect at bringing out the best in Stewart because he has patience, and a will to make the seemingly banal into something riveting. She is consistently contained (but only just) in situations that threaten to engulf her, put her in danger. She is a curious performer who is best served by curious characters like these, particularly Maureen in Personal Shopper.

“Stewart’s perceived real-life aloofness translates into how people interpret her performances, as though the public was afraid of someone who simply didn’t want to play the game of celebrity like she was expected to”

Stewart is deadpan and honest in Assayas’ films, and I’m certainly not the first to compare her to Greta Garbo. Back in 2012, Anne Helen Petersen observed about Garbo in The Flesh and the Devil, “That look! It’s equal parts disinterested and orgasmic. The only person who does anything close today is Kristen Stewart.” And like Garbo in Ninotchka, playing a no-nonsense Russian envoy, Stewart is subtle in ways that equally suggest romantic idealism and calculated cunning. But Assayas also knows how to engage with Stewart’s control over her performance within the text, and within the meta-text. Not only is Stewart hyper-aware of her own public persona, but she knows how to craft unpredictable drama and emotional resonance (the latter a much more difficult feat) out of the intertextual representation she offers as an actor.

This is what puts her over the edge, what makes her the most unique and formidable living actor. Her other qualities make an undeniable impact, but it is this control over intertextuality that proves Stewart as Icon. Intertextuality comes into play when, as an actor, she carves her own identity – and at least, what she lets the public know – into her roles. It creates a whole new dimension for characters, and a chance for rich, genuine responses. She performs as her (pointedly chosen) characters. She performs as Kristen Stewart. And she performs as the persona of Kristen Stewart. Virtually all of her films (but especially Sils Maria and Personal Shopper) are bound up in this inevitable soup of representation and identity, partially constructed by Stewart but mostly expressed by her through a creative engagement with her singular presence.

In other words, through some cosmic force not understandable by mere humans, Kristen Stewart has managed to dominate the intertextuality of her identity in ways that other actors have not. She is not the only one to contend with these difficult meta-considerations, but a strange confluence of factors, crucially Stewart’s own hyper-awareness, have developed so that she is the only one to take full advantage of it.

One thing this has offered in many films is an added queer subtext. As a public figure, Stewart’s sexuality has been of interest, and in recent years this has translated to rumours and confirmations about dating women (she appears to be dating model Stella Maxwell, if you were wondering). This subtext added a further erotic tension to her relationship with Binoche’s character in Clouds of Sils Maria, and it adds to her complicated depiction of Maureen in Personal Shopper.

Moreover, her choices reflect an intention to use this persona to support and strengthen the narratives she finds herself in, perhaps most notably as the object of Lily Gladstone’s affection in Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women. Her character, Beth, is quiet and does little, but you can feel the strange but tangible chemistry between the two, you understand Gladstone’s infatuation and her apparent confusion about Beth’s own interest. This stunning effect is a direct result of how Beth, the character, is wrapped up in Stewart, the persona and Stewart, the person. It’s a triple-tiered performance that shows her ability to fuck with your perception of all three simultaneously. She’s working on another level.

Stewart’s perceived real-life aloofness translates into how people interpret her performances, as though the public was afraid of someone who simply didn’t want to play the game of celebrity like she was expected to. There’s something wry about which roles she takes on, alluding to a keen understanding of her own identity, her acting range, and this public perception. She uses it to her benefit, as a defiant middle finger to those that doubted her during the Twilight years. She has done this expertly, to the point that there is now a cult surrounding her, totally upending the old narrative of being one of the most-hated actors in Hollywood (which reached its apex after the Rupert Sanders scandal in 2012).

Charges against her, smugly claiming detachment and a lack of spirit, belie her attention to technique, and her inherent coolness, and her transparent impenetrability, and her performative sui generis. There is something to be said about the best acting coming from someone that is able to become captivating while not really doing or saying anything special. That is Stewart’s power, an ineffable presence that seems to consciously court the line between performative artifice and natural being.

Kristen Stewart is weird, and she is operating within an industry that struggled to understand where she belonged. Luckily, perhaps directly due to her success in those dumb vampire movies, she has determined a place for herself and forces everyone else to fall in line with her. You can’t look away. She does more in the final scene of Personal Shopper, essentially motionless and saying almost nothing, than most performers can do in an entire film, because she is (figuratively) performing on three dimensions at once.

It is an incredibly heavy and surely bewildering burden to exist as yourself, as your characters, and as your persona, but Stewart has managed to make not only a career (again, at 26) but an eternal iconography out of the careful meta-textual balance of these performances. You underestimate her because you have fallen for only one of those performances, and likely only the skewed version of it. Do yourself a favour and board the K-Stew train.