The cast of On the Road is an embarrassment of riches. There’s Viggo Mortensen, high on many people’s lists of favourite contemporary actors, with a rum portrayal of William Burroughs; talented British actors Sam Riley and Tom Sturridge as those other Beat colossi Kerouac and Ginsberg; Kirsten Dunst and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss, and indie stalwart Steve Buscemi.
But the film’s biggest box office draw is the youngest of all. Kristen Stewart may just be 22, but having started acting aged nine she’s now a veteran of 26 movies; moreover, her best-known role is as a certain Bella Swan, heroine of the vampire franchise Twilight, whose four films to date have grossed $2bn, and made her one of the world’s most recognisable faces. It’s no surprise that she is front and centre of all the posters.
Not that director Walter Salles has cynically cashed in Stewart’s success, having cast her as Marylou when she was a teenager, before the Twilight phenomenon. “The composer Gustavo Santaolalla had seen one of the first cuts of Sean Penn’s Into the Wild and was so impressed that he told me, ‘Don’t look anymore for Marylou – just meet this girl’,” the director recalls. “Kristen was indeed everything we were looking for. She knew the book extremely well and she understood Marylou's essence – an independent spirit, a young woman who was way ahead of her time.”
Twilight’s pulpy, bland, teen success has obscured Stewart’s potential as an actress. It was there for all to see in the tomboyish, Sid Vicious T-shirt wearing daughter of Jodie Foster (herself an estimable child star) in David Fincher’s Panic Room, and as the teenage singer with a crush on the doomed young adventurer of Into the Wild; and it’s there in the first Twilight, where she convincingly conveyed the awkward lust of the 15-year-old Bella, looking as hungry, frankly, as her vampire beau.
Kerouac based Marylou on Neal Cassady’s first wife LuAnne Henderson, who joined Cassady and Kerouac on their road trips across America, and was one of the women Salles describes as “the silent heroines” of the piece. theartsdesk spoke with Stewart about the role when the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, where the famously media-shy young woman seemed to come out of her shell in passionate advocacy of the film.
DEMETRIOS MATHEOU : When did you first read On the Road ?
KRISTEN STEWART : When I was 14. It was on a reading list, actually, in my freshman year. I went to a pretty free-form school. The other titles included The Scarlet Letter and The Great Gatsby – which I love – but On the Road looked more fun than any of them. I knew that it was about counter-culture and when you’re 14 years old and putting anarchy signs on your backpack it’s just what you’re drawn to.
Can you say more about what attracted you ?
The characters. I’m from the Valley, I come from a very comfortable, very fortunate household, but the kind where you can become lazy and complacent. When I first read On the Road I realised that I was in a point in life when you can start to choose who your family members are, in the sense of who your friends are, rather than just being put around people and circumstantially becoming close. Obviously when you’re a kid you don’t have too much control of that. But when I read about these characters I thought, "I have to find people like this, who will push me, who don’t compromise on their desires, even if they’re different to the norm." It’s a very fundamental book. And it really did inform how I would want to live.
And how is that working out ? It must be difficult to live freely, to buck the trends, when you’re part of the Hollywood machine.
It’s funny, from an outsider’s perspective I know it looks like I've got no freedom, but it’s so not true. I have more freedom now. I feel very at liberty to do whatever I want to do. It’s hard not to sound trite, but I don’t deprive myself of anything, and I don’t allow others to deprive me of anything.
Having said that, you often look uncomfortably trapped in the spotlight.
I find it ridiculously embarrassing to consider myself worth selling – and that’s literally all they’re doing. I never, ever want to be a commodity. Some actors have perfectly formed, cultivated, fabricated personalities that they present to the public, and they’re very good at it – they’re great actors – you watch any talk show and think, "How do they do that ?" But by the end it takes a serious toll. You start giving away bits of yourself, and you don’t get them back. In trying to satisfy so many different people you lose your identity, you’re no one. I think when you suddenly believe that the person in the bar is looking at you for any reason other than the fact you make movies, it’s over.
Walter Salles created what he called a beatnik boot camp in Montreal before the shoot, for you and your fellow cast members to familiarise yourself with the world of the Beats. What were the most useful aspects of that, for you ?
LuAnne’s daughter, Anne Marie Santos, came to visit us and spent a day sitting with me on a porch, talking. That was so emotionally stimulating. And Gerry Nicosia, who wrote [Kerouac biography] The Memory Babe, came with hours and hours of taped interviews with LuAnne. When we heard those, suddenly she had a voice, and we all fell completely in love with her. I love Marylou, the character’s very vivid, she jumps off the page and smacks you in the face. But meeting LuAnne’s daughter, and listening to those tapes connected me to her as a real person. Unlike Jack and Neal, LuAnne wasn’t rebelling against anything, she was just being herself, being with the people she loved. For me, getting to know this woman made it so much easier to avoid the caricature of the sex object. She really is this amazing link between the two boys; it’s a grand statement to make, but that adventure might not have happened without her.
The book is not particularly flattering about LuAnne. Some feel its depiction of the women is pretty sexist.
I find it a strange criticism. It’s not the girls’ stories, so they’re not fully explained, they’re on the outside of things. It’s a novel, not a biography. When LuAnne first read On the Road she was with Jack and Neal and Al Hinkle, and Jack was going out of his mind, he was so scared, he was saying, "I was mad at you when I wrote that and I know that’s really not how it happened, but it’s more interesting that way, it’s more colourful." So he was kind of aware of that too. He was so apologetic to her, and she was like, "Take it, it’s yours, you’re my friend, I love you." That really says something about her.
I believe the boot camp also served as a bonding exercise.
It was about so much more than research. We got to know each other so well in boot camp that we were able to completely trust that all of that preparation would be in our bones, so that when it came to shooting we didn’t think about it any more. Learning how to dance with Garrett, for example – you don’t dance with every single person the same way, so it needed to be with him. And I think it pays off on screen. Garrett, Sam and I needed to feel safe and completely willing to lose control with each other. This experience was unparallelled, for me. I’m usually pretty self-conscious about running around town with my face hanging out, but I didn’t care at all, because I was with these guys. I loved it. I got to live more in those four weeks, than I usually do.
Walter says you are fearless. Is it true ?
No! I was terrified of this part. I knew I was going to play Marylou since I was 16. And thank God I got to grow up a little bit, because I was a much younger 16-year-old than LuAnne. We made the movie when I was 20, the perfect point. But I love pushing, I love scaring myself. I really wanted to do the sex scenes. As long as you’re being really honest there’s nothing ever to be ashamed of.
How did the filming of this compare to Twilight ?
Both were just as serious. I think the difference between the two adaptations was the approach to the script. In Twilight I was religiously obsessed with getting lines perfect, because I loved them, and I wanted them in a certain way and I knew that fans did as well, because I’m one of them. In On the Road my expectations are very similar to any Beat fan – you don’t want something neatly packaged and contrived and delivered. A truer rendition of this book would be lines that were forgotten and rediscovered in the moment. You want to watch impulse, you want to watch people fall down and get up and not know what’s gonna happen next.
Would you say On the Road has a relevance for the young generation today ?
I don’t think the counter-culture has ever gone anywhere. That’s why the book has never become irrelevant.