PARK CITY, Utah — Call it a casting fluke, call it kismet. In both of her movies premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Kristen Stewart portrays a 16-year-old runaway.
For the gritty family drama “Welcome to the Rileys,” the “Twilight Saga” star inhabits a role quite unlike Bella Swan, the long-suffering vampire-lover character that made Stewart an international icon. She plays Mallory, a stripper-hooker with a porn star’s wardrobe and a mascara-tarred visage whose sexual frankness could make a trucker blush.
In the high-octane coming-of-age drama “The Runaways,” meanwhile, Stewart portrays real-life proto-punk Joan Jett, who co-founded the all-girl teenage rock band called — you guessed it — the Runaways at age 16. In the film, Stewart’s character snorts cocaine, makes out with costar Dakota Fanning and drunkenly urinates on an electric guitar.
Although both characters’ shock quotient would be hard to deny even if the actress inhabiting them was not a household name synonymous with exquisite romantic longing (and vampires), neither of her new roles can match Stewart’s real-life influence on this year’s festival. As has been widely reported, she’s 2010’s unofficial “Ms. Sundance”: the high profile leading lady who appears in at least two of the fest’s buzzworthiest films.
But what many media types — and by extension, their audiences — have been discussing in the wake of Stewart’s trudge across Sundance’s red carpets and press junkets could be fairly called the central paradox of K-Stew.
That is, her continuing hostility toward the celebrity limelight vis-a-vis an unending impulse to self-promote, a predicament that was thrown into stark relief as a reporter trailed the actress over the course of two days.
Sundance has historically been a place where actors have come to reboot their careers by appearing in gritty, challenging fare for little or no money. As the thinking goes, a festival appearance reestablishes a performer’s bona fides as a “Serious Thespian” — not a movie star — opening the door to choice parts down the line, of course.
An appearance in a movie here amounts to a declaration of purpose for an actress with Stewart’s Q rating, to say nothing of two edgy movie roles. And judging by her “Rileys” red carpet commentary, Stewart was intent on publicly declaring her allegiance to scrappy indie upstarts like the Jake Scott-directed “Welcome to the Rileys” — in which she appears opposite James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo, who play a married couple struggling to come to grips with the death of their teenage daughter — while implicitly damning her work in the world-conquering “Twilight” films that have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.
“I had the most truthful, like, beginning-to-end experience,” said Stewart said at the first screening of “Rileys,” which is still looking for a distribution deal. “This was the best experience I’ve had on a movie in years. I really love this movie.”
On Saturday afternoon, the 19-year-old actress slipped quietly into Park City’s Racquet Club Theatre unnoticed by paparazzi or salivating fans — at least two of whom had paid $2,000 for tickets on EBay — into its premiere. So low-key was the “New Moon” phenom (or “incognito” as a movie publicist put it), she passed from her SUV to the movie’s red carpet line without raising the suspicion of a mob desperate for any vestige of her. Until, that is, the precise moment Stewart came to face reporters and photographers. (The performer declined to do a one-on-one interview for this story.)
Flashbulbs popped, a few cameramen did the requisite jostling and the questions came at Stewart furious and fast. Does she have a Sundance “ritual” after having premiered films here four times in the past? Does she think Twi-hards will be surprised to see her portray a stripper-hooker?
“No,” Stewart curtly replied, rolling her eyes with contempt.
To get ready for the flesh- and soul-bearing part, the diminutive Stewart — dressed in Sundance’s regalia of military parka, distressed denim and sneakers — explained that she hadn’t done any “prep” per se, although she studied some pole dancing for the sake of greater realism and spoke to a few strippers.
“I’m not playing a stripper,” Stewart said with snarling emphasis before the film’s first screening Saturday. “My character — basically nothing belongs to her. She’s an open sore.”
Stewart knitted her brow. “It’s really not a stripper movie at all. It sort of just opens your eyes about people that don’t have options.” She paused. “I know I’m speaking really vaguely about it.”
These are strange days for the world’s most reticent teen movie icon who seemed to take to heart the festival’s signage about this year’s Sundance being “the re-charged fight against the establishment of the expected.”
Sunday evening’s premiere of the Stewart-costarring “Runaways” was a media-saturated environment thick with spotlights, shouting reporters, elbowing paparazzi and camera crews standing on ladders. And the moment Stewart stepped into the building — the culmination of her and Fanning’s all-day media marathon — everybody knew it.
The “Twilight” star appeared visibly repulsed by the red-carpet action at Sundance’s most prestigious venue, the Eccles Theater, answering no more than two questions per camera crew (and addressing the print reporter scrum for only a meager four minutes). As usual, Stewart emanated her signature ambivalence toward stardom, biting her lip and running her hands through her hair in the face of many questions about getting in character.
Asked at the “Runaways” premiere how much she consulted with Jett to prepare for the role, Stewart appeared perplexed. “I always feel weird talking about my friends,” she said, surrounded by reporters. “So, ahh ... yeah ... if you understand the character ... I don’t really prepare. You just do it. You just know it and you do it.”
Another reporter prodded Stewart about whether she “liked getting naughty with Dakota” for the movie’s infamous kissing scenes, Stewart replied with surprisingly blithe aplomb.
“In the story it’s so not like a romantic thing. It’s something they just do,” she explained. “We had so many other really crazy, really heavy things that we were intimidated by scene-wise. So when that came up on the schedule, we were like, ‘Whoa! All right, whatever.’”
And a third interviewer commented on Stewart’s resemblance to Jett, one of rock’s foremost female titans, provoking an emotional outburst from the actress: “It’s, like, crazy. I can’t even accept it!”
Her remarks having been doled out in discrete (if somewhat oblique) increments and her artistic integrity bolstered (by appearing in a “hard R”-rated film that her tween following will require a parent or adult guardian’s in order to see), Stewart was hustled into the bowels of the theater by handlers, leaving a cluster of disgruntled media rabble in her wake.
Some reporters couldn’t help but take the actress’ lack of enthusiasm personally.
“(She) absolutely hated me,” Australian celebrity journalist Brad Blanks commented of Stewart into his video camera before turning it off.
Others felt shortchanged. “That was total chaos,” groused a producer for a prominent national media outlet who asked not to be named.
Still, by revealing so little about herself, Stewart exposed certain balder truths about her personality, youth and her priorities that no interview segment or photograph could ever capture. And with that, the actress had achieved what few movie ingenues in today’s Twitter-crazy-culture-of-confession have been able to do — she left her audience wanting more.