Kristen Stewart: ‘Diana was cool. She made the world feel pretty special’

Kristen Stewart stars as Princess Diana in the film Spencer, which opens on November 5th
Kristen Stewart, known for playing Bella Swan in Twilight, now takes on the role of Princess Diana in new film Spencer, which already places STEWART as an early bookies’ favourite for best actress at next year’s Oscars

Kristen Stewart was just seven years old when the news broke that Diana, Princess of Wales, had died in a car crash. The Los Angeles-born actor has something more than a sense memory of the days of global mourning that followed. 

“I remember all the flowers in front of Buckingham Palace and I knew something terrible had happened,” Stewart recalls. “I could feel the emotion around it. There are certain events in history that stick out for you as a kid. You are a bubble. I wasn’t old enough to remember how I felt. I just remember it happening. And now it’s hard to sift through my relationship with her as a figure from any perspective because I’m so in it.”

Not everything you do in life is going to hit. I went into this fully prepared to fail. But, you know, Diana was not allowed to make mistakes

She smiles from under a sweep of blonde hair and a baseball cap. “And I’ve kind of become so obsessed with her. I think she was amazing. I think she was cool. She made the world feel pretty special. I want to be near that.”

In an era when biopics are increasingly characterised by turns that are muscular but removed from their subjects – Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash, Lindsay Lohan’s Elizabeth Taylor – Stewart’s astonishing turn as Princess Diana in Spencer is a welcome anomaly. A startling portrait that captures the voice, the walk, and every tiny mannerism (however paradoxically theatrical) of its subject, it is an uncanny performance, one that goes for broke and places Stewart as an early bookies’ favourite for best actress at next year’s Oscars. 

An eye-opening sequence sees Stewart running – just as the former Lady Di would have sprinted – wearing all of the subject’s most iconic costumes in succession.

“It was so extremely physical,” says Stewart. “It was like taking up a sport. It’s funny, you know. You wouldn’t think that just pretending to walk and talk like someone would be so muscular, but I can’t sound like her without literally working out my face for months. And there’s something about the movie. Once it finds its footing, it really just never stops. It takes place over three days and the movie is a little over an hour and a half, but we shot it for three months and so to sustain that was genuinely exhausting – in a good way. It’s a good feeling to come home and just kind of collapse.” 

Of course, I was petrified that people were not going to respond well

This writer remembers interviewing a spooked Naomi Watts in 2013, after the actor, who had come under heavy fire for playing Diana in the eponymously titled film from Oliver Hirschbiegel, walked out of a high-pressure interview with Simon Mayo for BBC Radio 5 Live. More recently, Daily Mail readers watching The Crown have been horrified to learn of actor Emma Corrin’s scenes headlined thusly: “Royal experts slam The Crown’s Diana bulimia scenes as ‘too graphic’ after viewers see her gorging on desserts before forcing herself to be sick in palace toilets”. 

“Of course, I was petrified that people were not going to respond well,” says Stewart, as we meet in the hours before the film’s London premiere. “But as soon as I saw the movie, and even before – as soon as we started making the film together – I knew that we had such pure intentions that even if we completely missed the mark – a mark which didn’t exist – but even if we fell flat on our faces, it was worth trying. Not everything you do in life is going to hit. I went into this fully prepared to fail. But, you know, Diana was not allowed to make mistakes. She wasn’t allowed to make choices. I read this thing, and I was like, how lucky am I. I took the lead from her.”

Spencer, the ninth feature from Chilean film-maker Pablo Larraín, who previously directed Natalie Portman to an Oscar nomination for her depiction of Jacqueline Kennedy in 2017’s Jackie, is daringly impressionistic. Set over an awful Christmas break with the British royal family at the Queen’s Sandringham Estate, Spencer casts Stewart as the eponymous princess who, by 1991, is struggling with an eating disorder, constant surveillance, her husband’s infidelity, and duty.

Stewart went all out in her preparations for the role – including more than a few wild fantasies – even if practicalities prevented her from growing her own hair into the iconic Lady Di hairdo. 

As long as I stayed present and honest, people will bring their own memory of her and their own projections. My job was to allow for people’s own relationship with history

“It was a lot,” says Stewart. “Every part of it. I am not a sporty person. From the first time I put the wig on. I really wanted to have my own hair but I couldn’t. It was a logistical thing. I spoke to the woman that designed the hair because I was really sure that I wanted to be able to run my hands through and be able to get it wet. She said: you will literally be in the haircare for three hours a day. And we will shoot for eight. It was going to be such a difficult job to maintain.

“I felt like she already has so many layers on. So many veneers. I knew that we were allowed to deconstruct Diana. Her aesthetic is iconic. But Pablo gave me a really good bit of advice towards the beginning, when it was quite daunting. If you get one or two details. If you pick a few things that you identify with – specific things that you feel are really defining for her – then others will fill in the blanks. As long as I stayed present and honest, people will bring their own memory of her and their own projections. My job was to allow for people’s own relationship with history.”

Stewart was born in Los Angeles to John Stewart, who worked for Fox TV, and Jules Mann-Stewart, an Australian script supervisor and film director. When she was just eight, an agent signed her after watching her sing in a school play. Aged 12, she proved a capable screen partner for Jodie Foster in David Fincher’s Panic Room. Aged 17, she was an overnight global sensation at the centre of Twilight. She has, in common with the princess she has just essayed, been a tabloid and paparazzi favourite ever since.

Stewart has parlayed her fame into a fascinatingly international career. Interestingly, she and Robert Pattinson, her co-star in Twilight, have been equally determined to explore interesting work with challenging directors. Neither has slipped into the easy option of endless empty blockbusters (though there have been a few here and there). She has become something of a regular at Cannes. Her spooky performance in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper thrilled the 2016 event and, no doubt, helped Assayas to the best director prize. In 2014 she won a César Award – often dubbed the French Oscars – for her performance in Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria and remains the only American actor to have secured a prize at that ceremony. 

Kristen Stewart: ‘My job was to allow for people’s own relationship with history.’ Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage
Kristen Stewart: ‘My job was to allow for people’s own relationship with history.’ Photograph: Samir Hussein/WireImage

The European experience did much to help her escape from the Twilight shadow. The French critics were quicker to accept her as a serious performer than the scribes in America. Few can now dispute that she is among the world’s most respected young actors. The Oscar nomination is practically nailed down. 

“Well, I love Hollywood,” she says. “I love making movies in America. It’s undeniably an industry – the Hollywood movie business. You know what I mean? People want to make money doing it. That’s the fuel in the engine. But there are artists that rise to the top there. They have specific perspectives that transcend and are beautiful and are true. Their catalyst is more pure than wanting attention or fame or money. But primarily it’s glitz and glamour.”

There is, of course, some of that in Europe. But the attitudes remain different.

“There is a reverence for directors,” she says. “I love romanticising. Good movies are made by a singular director. Sure, it’s a collaborative experience, but somebody needs to carve that path and allow everyone to walk through. I think when something is good it’s because it’s from one person’s perspective.” 

She continues to attract the attention of the best directors. Next up, she appears alongside Viggo Mortensen and Léa Seydoux in David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future. Cronenberg has previously used Pattinson as a something of a muse. It all ties up.

“I love European cinema. I love them both. I love American independent cinema. I love movies from the 70s. I really identify with that steadfast passionate attitude – ‘we’ll do anything to make our movie’. It’s just kind of viewed in a different light there. Also, apples and oranges. You know what I mean?”

Spencer opens on November 5th