Kristen Stewart hit the height of her fame as the star of the Twilight movies about a decade ago, and to many audiences she will always be a teenage girl falling in love with a vampire. Last month, in an interview with Britain’s Sunday Times, the actor said she’s probably made “five really good films” at most. The quip immediately inspired blog posts and social-media jokes about how perhaps the Twilight quintet filled all of those slots. Stewart didn’t name the movies she had in mind, but for the internet, the opportunity to dredge up her early filmography was irresistible.
After all, when the franchise about shiny vampires who play baseball came out, film pundits maligned Stewart’s melancholic air and nervous energy. She had “two expressions: blank and slightly less blank,” Claudia Puig wrote for USA Today. “She’s such a bundle of bland that you wonder why these supernatural creatures are so crazed about her,” the critic Richard Roeper wrote. YouTubers made compilation videos of her overused lip-biting quirk. It didn’t help that Stewart seemed to bring the same walled-off discomfort to her public appearances, a defiance that implied ingratitude. Here was the headliner of a franchise that would make her the highest-paid actress when she was 22 years old, and she refused to appreciate her luck.
Today, Stewart remains off social media and doles out details of her personal life only to trusted interviewers. This strategy has helped her during a roughly two-decade-long career in Hollywood. But her obvious anxiety about fame hasn’t disappeared from her work. Instead, Stewart is the rare actor who has channeled her love-hate relationship with public scrutiny into her roles—and is now thriving because of it.
With her performance as Princess Diana in Spencer, the woozy, Pablo Larraín–directed art-house film, this innate tension is fully on show. Stewart doesn’t deliver an impression of the late royal but rather interprets her spirit, embodying a woman haunted by the weight of her desire and disdain for the attention she attracts. Though Stewart has downplayed comparisons between her experience of celebrity and Diana’s, this is the film in which she contends most directly with the intimate horror of stardom. Her unexpected—and mischievously meta—casting is just the kind of art-meets-life narrative that awards committees seem to value. Since the film’s debut on the festival circuit, Stewart has inspired some of the best reviews of her career—she’s “one of the most exciting actors working today,” critics have written, with an “ability to mesmerize the camera even in moments of stillness.”
What’s changed since the Twilight films? For one, she’s now seen as a survivor of a vicious celebrity press cycle, recontextualizing her displays of teenage angst as vulnerability. She has stopped making it onto “most hated celebrities” lists; instead, headlines say that “it’s time to admit” she’s a good actor. For another, Stewart has done impressive indie work, such as her supporting turn in Still Alice and her collaboration with the French auteur Olivier Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she won a César Award, the French equivalent of an Oscar. That post-Twilight pivot came with new descriptors, even when the roles echoed the signature stiffness of her past: Her melancholy was now “refined,” her blankness now “cool watchfulness.”
Contemporary audiences could easily dismiss the Twilight movies as a dull and mumbly young-adult series better left forgotten. But Stewart’s work in those movies shaped her identity as a performer. She imbued Bella Swan—a “vessel,” she often put it to reporters, who was little more than a fantasy onto which fans could project themselves—with a relatable and awkward teenage malaise. And she did it well. If the eye-rolling, lip-pouting, and sullen attitude didn’t result in critical adoration, so be it; they were memorable enough to keep audiences invested across five films.
Stewart has since built a body of work translating the internal turmoil of troubled characters into off-putting surface tension. Bella in Twilight is a blank slate for viewers in a similar way to Maureen in Personal Shopper, Stewart’s second film with Assayas. Both are characters caught in a supernatural story, and both are grounded by Stewart’s delicate touch. Actors and filmmakers tend to ignore their derided work—or join in on the mockery, as Stewart’s co-star Robert Pattinson has done with Twilight—but Stewart has approached her past differently. She seems to relish exploring the idea of fame and intrusion as an actor, a through line that can be found in The Runaways, Seberg, and now Spencer. It’s as if the negative impression she left on the public only strengthened her attraction to misunderstood characters who keep audiences at arm’s length.
The evolution of Stewart’s career, then, isn’t a process of escaping the Twilight franchise, or the way she acted in it. In Spencer, she appears to fully understand the fact that her performances are inextricably linked to dated audience perceptions—and she embraces that. “She’s such a strange combination of things that don’t seem to go together,” Stewart said recently of Diana. She may as well have been talking about herself.