It's hard to live down a role like Bella Swan. The enigmatic lead character of the Twilight "saga" was less a fully fleshed-out human than a series of loosely justified motivations on which to attach one's own desires. For young women, she was everything they were, feeling everything they felt, living out a fantasy. When Kristen Stewart was chosen to play Bella in the film franchise, she'd already had an impressive body of work, having acted in films by David Fincher, Jon Favreau, Sean Penn, David Gordon Green, and more. Her jump to the fore as the central character in the adaptation of a incredibly popular YA novel presented Stewart with a massive public profile: an opportunity, but also a curse.
If Twilight made Kristen Stewart a star, then it was also responsible for a serious underestimation of her talent. Whatever you think of the franchise, it's hard to argue that they were bastions of artistic worth. Frequently overwrought dialogue and an often-troubling gender and sexual dynamic tinged every performance with a degree of bad camp. Outside the realm of the series's young female fans, Stewart became something of a joke in the eyes of most moviegoers. Her stilted delivery of impossible-to-speak lines, her consistent mannerisms—every Kristen Stewart impression begins with pushing one's bangs aside and stammering a little—and her usually dour expression stuck in the public imagination, representing the worst of modern star acting.
Setting aside the sexist undertones of Stewart detractors, what we find is a critical public unwilling to imagine an actress outside the confines of her YA presence. Added to that is an utter inability to grant Stewart some agency in her own acting choices. It's not that she had difficult material and her acting choices failed to overcome that material, but simply that she herself must be a bad actress. But to look at her filmography before, during, and after Twilight is to witness a young star with great talent and an intelligent eye for quality. She's not merely attaching herself to great filmmakers, but defining, throughout her career, a consistent vision of realism in performance.
Stewart's recent work with French director Olivier Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria and the upcoming Personal Shopper have often been written about as a classic "artist and his muse" partnership. It's a romantic idea of artistic creation, but an antiquated one, and not at all accurate. To watch Stewart in Assayas's films is to watch an actress absolutely command the screen with her presence—every facet of her character's interiority is brought to life in the smallest movements and stutters. She is as much the auteur as he is, completely in control of the reality the audience sees. In Personal Shopper, Stewart often finds herself acting against text messages on her phone, and it's just about the most riveting bit of performance this year.
Of course, Stewart has always been great, going back to her performance opposite Jodie Foster in Panic Room, where she made a huge impression against one of the best American actresses of the past 40 years. The year after Twilight came out, Stewart starred opposite Jesse Eisenberg in Adventureland, breathing a depth into her character, Em, which very well might have been lost in the hands of less capable actress. Though she's not exactly the main character of the film, she never allows herself to get sidelined by the film's dude-centric appeal. Her character is, on paper, a nerd's damaged dream girl, but she never plays it that way. Em's tragedies are her own, as are her desires, and Stewart makes sure of that. She will not be defined by her male love interest, but by her own startling, complex sense of self—something that comes through in every glance and every pause.
What Stewart has that so many actors of her generation lack is a perfect sense for naturalism. Last year, Stewart had a supporting role in Ang Lee's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, a drama that the director shot in 3D at 120 frames per second. At five times the normal frame rate, Billy Lynn sought to immerse audiences in total realism. At that frame rate the screen practically becomes a window into the scene. But realism has costs. Besides shining a sharp, glaring light on some skimpy production values, Ang Lee's choice did a massive disservice to his actors by making even the smallest moments of unrealistic behavior or dialogue seem like the product of terrible acting. A format geared to absolute realism demands absolute realism, which is hard to deliver. The only performance to come out of Billy Lynn unscathed is Stewart's. Every scene of hers is a wonder of naturalism on the screen, drawing the audience in the way she would in any other format, expressing in those added frames the most subtle expressions of mood and emotion, as though she were a real person sitting right in front of you.
It takes an amazing level of intelligence and self-assuredness to jump into a project like Billy Lynn knowing you can deliver the goods, but Stewart has proven quite adept at finding the projects that bring out her best qualities. In Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, sadly overlooked last year amid all the awards-season clutter, Stewart plays the disarming object of affection for another woman. Her character's self-centeredness does nothing to suppress her obvious allure, made potent by the simplest of acting choices, like the way she wipes her mouth without unwrapping the diner napkin from the cutlery. And in a recent sketch on Saturday Night Live, about Totino's Pizza Rolls of all things, the thrust of the joke comes from Stewart's disarming nature. She brings her distinct realism to bear on a cheesy Super Bowl commercial, transforming the ad into a French, lesbian, art-house drama with the power of her stare.
If it seems like too much to claim Kristen Stewart is one of the best actresses of her generation, it's only because those old associations remain in the mind. Never mind that. By the end of the Twilight series, Stewart's comfort in the role made her easily the most compelling figure on the screen. Reach past that moment in Stewart's career, and you'll find a young actress whose instincts as a performer are unmatched, and whose ability to capture an audience's attention while lifting up everything and everyone around her is a sign of both her strength and generosity. With Personal Shopper coming out, and more great work on the horizon, if Twilight had caused you to dismiss Kristen Stewart, it's time for another look.
Follow Corey Atad on Twitter.