Franchise actors these days often will tackle the small and the quirky in an attempt to get us to see them differently, or just to shake things up.
Few have done that lately with the diligence of Kristen Stewart. As the “Twilight” series began to wind down several years ago, Stewart began using her leverage to try on all sorts of on-screen guises, including the teenage Marylou in Walter Salles' adaptation of “On the Road,” a tough-minded soldier in the military drama “Camp X-Ray” and, as of its Cannes premiere a few days ago, a personal assistant to a famous actress in “Sils Maria,” a drama about the performing life from the French polymath Olivier Assayas.
According to the director, at least, it is a role that will change radically the actress' public standing. “I think people will have a completely different notion of Kristen after this movie,” Assayas said in an interview. “They'll see all the places she can go."
The dialogue-heavy “Sils Maria” (the name comes from the Alps town where much of the action takes place) centers on an aging Euro-actress queen Maria (Juliette Binoche), her assistant Val (Stewart) and their interactions during a turbulent time in Maria’s life, as she loses someone close to her and also is preparing to star in the revival of a stage version of a film that made her career.
This time, though, she’s playing (somewhat hesitantly but at the behest of Val) the piece’s elder role. The younger part will be inhabited by Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), an outspoken Hollywood up-and-comer whose franchise parts have given her an outsized popularity and tabloid celebrity.
Ironically for one of the most famous Hollywood faces on the planet, Stewart appears here as one of the few personalities who isn’t a celebrity. Ostensibly a simple assistant, Val nonetheless takes on a much bigger part in her boss’ life, advising and accompanying her on trips and forming a dynamic that is both intimate and occasionally disturbing, particularly as the two retire to a villa in Sils Maria to figure out Maria's next step.
Stewart actually was given the choice by Assayas to play Jo-Ann, in what would have been a sly, if somewhat gimmicky, riff on her own career. But she turned it down, a decision the director hails as one of several bold choices Stewart has made.
“To me it shows how brilliant Kristen is,” Assayas said. “It shows how she understands the need to eradicate any confusion between her public persona and the characters she plays.”
Still, it wouldn’t be an overreach to read Val as channeling some of Stewart’s own story, very much at the center of the action but still often seen as a handmaiden to the more serious actors around her. (That’s at times rendered literally true here, as Binoche maintains her usual larger-than-life presence.)
Assayas initially believed he would have a hard time persuading Stewart to star in the film. “I really thought she wouldn’t do it, that it would be too scary for her. (He also allowed her to have some fun with her off-screen fame, giving Val a line in which she wonders why so many modern movies must contain werewolves.)
The English-language film, which IFC will release later this year, is part of a personal quest for Assayas, who created it as a response to a challenge from Binoche (with whom he collaborated on the 2008 family drama “Summer Hours”) to write layered female characters. He did Binoche one better, making a movie that he thought captured some of her own dilemmas.
“I wanted to write a part based on the person Juliette and not the movie star Juliette,” he said. It is not, it should be said, the first time he’s deployed an actress with full knowledge of how we perceive her. He attempted a similar experiment with Maggie Cheung in his early-career “Irma Vep”; the Hong Kong actress played herself in a fictional story about her arrival in Europe to shoot a remake of a silent-film classic.
Assayas also has the movie industry on his mind here — specifically, modern Hollywood and the crucibles of young talent — via the Jo-Ann character (Moretz, prodigious and mouthy, as is her wont). Jo-Ann takes no guff from the tabloid media, even though her outbursts, entertaining and independent-minded as they are, could be seen as one more sign of a media-entertainment complex that has gone off the rails.
The director said these ideas grew out of his observations of modern actors in general, who increasingly need to survive on several planes, including “that third circle, the Internet, a place that isn’t your life and you really just exist as an avatar.”
That doppelganger effect probably isn’t going away for Stewart anytime soon. But with each post-“Twilight” role, things for her seem to become a little less about the tabloids and a little more about the work.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times