An Intimate Conversation with Actress Kristen Stewart and Writer/Director Olivier Assayas at the Los Angeles Premiere of Personal Shopper
Following her César Award-winning performance in Clouds of Sils Maria, Kristen Stewart reteams with acclaimed director Olivier Assayas for a mesmerizing 21st century ghost story. By day, American in Paris, Maureen (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper, motor-biking around the city buying up deluxe couture for a jet-setting celebrity client. By night, she attempts to channel the spirits of the dead, hoping to make contact with her recently deceased twin brother. When Maureen begins receiving a series of chilling, increasingly sinister text messages, it seems she may have made contact—but with whom? And what do they want?
This seductive, mind-scrambling psychological thriller is a riveting showcase for one of this generation’s most adventurous actresses.
We all perceive loss differently. Even though that is not an unknown fact, the amazing new movie Personal Shopper is a great example of how individual and personal, that process can be. Kristen Stewart brings us a deep and beautiful characterization of Maureen Cartwright, the young girl in Paris who is as lonely and lost as a person can be. To read my whole review of the movie, you can click here.
I was incredibly excited when I got the invite to interview both Kristen Stewart and her Writer/Director Olivier Assayas before the Los Angeles premiere of Personal Shopper. Both were amazingly gracious and a joy to talk to. For anyone who says Kristen is less than friendly, they are so wrong. She was wonderful; smart, sweet, funny and a little shy.
In Personal Shopper you brought us a sense of loneliness, of feeling adrift in the grief process. Olivier, where did this project begin for you as a storyteller?
Olivier Assayas: “Well in my case I had this image of this really lonely girl in Paris, trying to find some consolation in her inner space. Doing a job she dislikes in the fashion industry, that’s part of the character. It’s really like someone who works in a job that is very superficial, that is frustrating, that doesn’t give her satisfaction, who finds some protection in art, in her own imagination. Somehow, I think the tension between those two sides of her become accentuated. In the process of writing the story, all of a sudden it became an ultra-alienated job, I mean dressing someone else, and trying to connect with something that has to do with another dimension. It had to do with connecting with her own subconscious.”
“It was important for me — the key when I started writing it, was pretty much the first scene in the film. I like the idea, that we are just thrown into the story. We don’t know who the character is. She’s in this strange house, in a strange space, and she is trying to get in touch with something that is beyond her, like we all do in a certain way. I like not knowing a thing about her. We don’t know where we are, we don’t know who she is, we don’t know what this is all about, but we are with her, we become her. We are there walking in the dark with her and I think a lot of what the film is about stems from there.”
How did you develop the character of Maureen after reading the script?
Kristen Stewart: “It’s a strange place to start with someone, because usually this person would sort of preexist you, and you need to substantiate them with every question. Who are they, where are they from, what are they into, what do they want, what are their hopes and dreams?” She laughs. “But this person starts out so, utterly fragmented that the inexplicable definition of reality doesn’t allow her to exist. She’s like, if I can’t define my existence, then who am I?”
“For me, starting this, preparing was more about just being willing to be present, in something that you cannot remotely define. She (Maureen) would love to be present and interact with people, and find connections, that would seem comforting. But she doesn’t exist, so, how could she? It’s like somebody who goes through a traumatic event or loss. I mean, traumatic events are catalysts for existential fucking crises!”
You were surrounded by some fabulous clothes in the film. Are you a clothing junkie? You seem to have an amazing sense of fashion. Do you have a personal shopper, and did you get to keep any of the clothes?
Kristen: “I guess certain celebrities would have that, people that are extraordinarily rich. And strange, but, yes, I like clothes. Actually, I got to keep the harnessy dress, I kept that one. It’s mine, nobody can have that one!”
Olivier: “And, I think it’s vital to have a sense of style in this business. People who have an actual job and whose job requires a lot of red carpet stuff, can’t really be on the red carpet in exactly the same outfit every single time, so you would need to have someone who does that for you. It makes sense, as crazy as it sounds. It has some sort of validation.”
Even though you are young, you have already done many films over the years. The Twilight Saga obviously, but so many great independent films as well. What do you think is the biggest challenge going between the different types of diverse roles. What is the hardest part for you?
Kristen: “I can read really beautifully written scripts all day long, and that doesn’t mean that there is going to be a part in it for me. Whether I fit the description physically, or by age or gender, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s in me or the right time to play that part. I never bring anything other than myself to different parts. You change the circumstances, eventually and yes you are changing the person, but I never want to step outside myself, and represent a character in order to entertain people, or service a story. My main goal is to be stirred up by something and then allow it to reveal parts. I’d really rather stumble upon discoveries and unanswerable questions, rather than package and deliver stories to people. It’s not hard, I like working, I like to do it a lot.”
Did any of your own personality come out in the role of Maureen?
Kristen: “I liked that she was really attracted to something, that she also thought was at the same time potentially empty. You need to be fairly confident, because there’s a vanity surrounding wanting to look good in clothes. A self-obsessed thing that you have to have, in order to be like, ‘Oh God, I imagine myself in that, I want to feel that’. I know that feeling, of being, ‘Nobody should wear that, I should be the one wearing that.’ But at the same time, that’s just absurd. I don’t want to be the person that thinks like that, so I feel bad. I have less trouble navigating that, because I have access and choice, which is the luckiest thing in the world, where she is in the position where, she is attracted to something and services it, but is so much smaller that it is. She resents it, but at the same time, aggrandizes it.”
Olivier: “I also think that when I’m writing, what of course interests me with Kristen, as with any actor, is the real person. So, in the case of Kristen, in both movies, I kind of throw the burden of celebrity on someone else, so that she doesn’t have to carry it herself in the film.”
What was the most difficult aspect of working on Personal Shopper?
Kristen: “I play a young woman who is very lonely, completely isolated and sad. It was exhausting to be in that character all the time. Even when I was in a scene with other actors, I could never really be with them. It’s as if they were all ghosts. I didn’t consider myself to be a finite person. There couldn’t be the slightest interaction between me and them because I didn’t really feel like I existed. That plunged me into a very painful state. Thankfully, I was surrounded by people I love and never felt alone. I was very lucky. If the atmosphere on set hadn’t been as positive or friendly, I would have been devastated and probably collapsed on the floor. In the film, I never stop rushing from one place to another. I’m in constant movement. I lost a lot of weight during the shoot. It was exhausting.”
There’s a sort of notion in America that genre films should not be introspective or character driven or interesting, and I find that is usually the opposite case in European films. How do you feel about that?
Olivier: “I think I have always been influenced by genre film making. When I started making films, the film makers I admired were David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Dario Argento. I think these movies deal with something that can be deeper in the way of understanding human beings. I think there is something there that touches, something that is deeper than psychology, because it connects physically with the audience, and can be extremely profound.”
“It’s not like I’m saying I admire guys who are doing horror movies. I admire guys who deal with complex issues through that medium, and I admire them for the depth of it. It always makes me want to use those elements as a way of getting at something I’m fascinated with, I suppose. I think also the different approach between US and Europe, is it’s not so much Hollywood vs Indie European films. It’s more like something that has to do with the American identity, which is very much connected with the world view, where what is visible is good and what is not visible is evil, or evil is lurking there.”
In Personal Shopper, we see different way people deal with death. Maureen watches the old ways with séances and she is texting with someone who could be a ghost, on her phone. Do you think our new forms of technology and Social Media change the way people process death or deal with the fact that their loved ones just aren’t there anymore?
Olivier: “Yes, it does, in a certainly disturbing way. But I think that movies have been about that, too. It’s kind of interesting if you look at things, how at the end of the 1950s you have the end of the studio system, and you have indie films. Then you have this book by Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon, that ultimately deals with the death of movie stars. He writes that it’s at one specific moment you realize that everything that was made during the silent era is about ghosts. Those guys are gone, you see people who are alive and people who are dead. It’s not just technology, it’s the world of images that has changed our relationship with the dead. The dead are still around us, in strange ways and especially movies.”
Kristen: “In a way, you are not allowed to forget.”
When you were reading the script, was there a specific part where you had an “aha” moment, a feeling of, yes, I’m definitely on board? Or was it the overall script that you liked?
Kristen: “I read the entire thing and got to the end, and the last line was roughly translated. He wrote it in French and then it was translated and sent to me. So, the last line, it just didn’t make sense. I didn’t know that line was coming, and (as I was reading) I was waiting for something to crystalize in some way and it wasn’t happening. So, page after page, and then the last page, and there is one line that ends it. I said, WTF does that mean? So, I thought that I was being tricked or something, or that I was stupid and just didn’t understand. But I knew what it should be, so then I knew that I understood my relationship with the movie.”
“Everyone has a different response to it, because everyone has a different relationship with what they think reality is. There was no should, I knew what it needed to be. So, in that moment, I was like, I can’t articulate everything I feel about this, but I get it, because I can answer this question. So I asked him and he said, it’s probably not right (in terms of translation). I said, well do you know what it is going to be? And he said not exactly, I’m still thinking about that. And I said, no I’m telling you I KNOW. And then he was like OK, we’ll just do that. And I said, don’t you want to know what it is? I wanted him to hear everything, and he said just do it when we do the scene!”
“That scene was weeks and weeks later, so that would mean we were on the same page in terms of what this movie was all about! But he said, we don’t have to be on the same page — we just have to be asking the same questions. We just need to be together doing it.”
Thank you so much Kristen and Olivier for the wonderful opportunity to talk to you both!! Good luck with the film!!