It is, Kristen Stewart agrees, just like falling in love.
“It’s just a very familiar, necessary feeling when you read a script you want to do,” the actress says, coming alive at just the memory. “I’ve gone with my gut, taken a lot of the thinking away, and been very lucky.
“As an artist,” she continues, her energy rising, “If you view what you do as product, you’ll never do anything true to yourself, never do anything you’re proud of. I’ve never thought, ‘My career should go in this direction.’ There’s no way to be tactical for me.”
Stewart got that familiar feeling when she read writer-director Peter Sattler’s script for “Camp X-Ray,” which has its debut Friday as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s dramatic competition.
A quietly involving drama, part character study, part meditation on the nature of shared humanity, “Camp X-Ray” is powered by Stewart’s focused, convincing performance as Cole, a young Army guard at Guantanamo who makes a connection with a prisoner played by Payman Maadi, the star of Iran’s Oscar-winning “A Separation.”
“It had been two years since I worked, but it wasn’t my choice to take a break,” the 23-year-old actress says, sitting in a Sunset Boulevard conference room a few days before the festival began. “But nothing had given me that compulsion, nothing that made me feel it was meant for me to do.”
Even though “Camp X-Ray” was “a tiny little movie, a million-dollar budget, five-week shooting schedule,” Stewart responded to it at once. “The character seemed so whole to me,” she says, “it was very emotional and a genuine fresh perspective on something current. It had everything I look for in a project.”
Once Stewart committed, she was all in, reading extensively, watching films, talking to people who filled her in on the military mind-set. “I developed a back story for Cole, I know her father, her mother, I can tell you anything about that girl,” she says. “It’s important to be a real person, not a representation.”
Stewart is also always on the lookout for what she calls “footholds, touchstones, little details that communicate to an audience, that make things evident without being heavy-handed.”
To express Cole’s uncertainty, for instance, the character wears tube socks and sandals on a day off, “trying to be cool but missing the mark.” Even more vivid is the way Cole attacks her long hair, forcing it into the most precise bun imaginable.
“She takes her long hair and binds it, oppresses the … out of it,” Stewart says. “These buns are a reflection of the soldier, and Cole’s is perfection. The only moments she feels confident is when she is in uniform.”
Even doing all this work doesn’t stop the pre-production anxiety that is part of Stewart’s experience. Though in person she is aware, lively and engaging, the actress says that “there is a scary thing about signing on to a project that feels ambitious: ‘Can you stand up to it?’ is the fear. I don’t want to ruin a brilliant script. I give a disclaimer to every director I work with: I will do anything, I will jump off buildings, but I don’t know if I will be able to deliver what you want.”
That fiercer than fierce commitment to the part can also manifest itself during production. On “Camp X-Ray” Stewart is processing what happened during the shooting of the film’s climactic emotional scene between guard and prisoner. It was a scene in which director Sattler made the decision to start with costar Maadi’s coverage, with Stewart playing the scene off camera rather than the other way around, which the actress would have preferred.
“I am such a weirdo freak of an actor that I can’t repeat anything, and Maadi has done a lot of theater, he likes to do a scene over and over,” she says. Not having her first reactions on camera “made me hysterical, at the end of the day I sat in the cellblock crying, I was just done. I was so anxious to have that experience. Looking back on it now, it still makes me crazy, I want to bang my head through the table.”
An established independent film actor before she took on the role of Bella Swan, Stewart is relieved to find the frenzy around the “Twilight” series starting to abate.
“It was crazy, it reached insane levels,” she says, still a bit disbelieving. “People would ask about maintaining that and I said, ‘Everyone take a breath. That is not going to happen.’ There is no way you could ever want to stay at that level.”
Smiling and saying that her “Twilight” experience “has given me a unique perspective on the world, that’s the positive way of looking at it,” Stewart wonders why it is sometimes difficult for others to realize that it was her unmistakable passion for the work and not a zeal for celebrity that led her to acting.
“It’s not easy for people to understand my discomfort with the spotlight, they say, ‘Why would you become an actor if you feel that way?’” Stewart says. “People don’t know what to do with those feelings, they feel you’re ungrateful, and that does kind of kill me.
“You can’t be saying, ‘You’re wrong about me,’ the worst thing is if you remotely sound like you’re complaining. Then you become the misconception.” All you can do, Kristen Stewart realizes, is to continue to do the work, and that’s what she has done.