Kristen Stewart is in a tough spot. She's best known as Bella Swan, the heroine of the “Twilight” series, which, thanks in large part to the film franchise, has become a cultural phenomenon.
But hitching her acting wagon to the “Twilight” series for too long could get Stewart burned long term. The Bella role is a huge one in terms of its visibility, but that big opportunity comes with equally big pitfalls — starting with the “Twilight” demographic. Enjoyment of the books and films isn't limited to tweens, of course, but the series' appeal isn't universal; moviegoers outside the intended audience may never have heard of her. Worse, the franchise's detractors — as vocal as its fans are loyal — may view Stewart as guilty by association, assuming that her acting is subpar and avoiding her future non-“Twilight” projects.
But “Twilight” devotees will follow Stewart to other films, right? Not necessarily. Bella Swan isn't Buffy the Vampire Slayer; she's not a relatable character so much as a surrogate, a proxy for the audience's own unrequited teenage desire. What makes Bella appealing isn't so much who she is, but rather what she does (kiss, and exchange moist heartfelt pledges of love with, an attractively pouty undead boy), and what she cannot do (have sex with said undead boy). Bella is a stand-in for the viewer's own drama.
As such, it doesn't matter who plays Bella, really, or whether the actress has any talent. Stewart's acting is almost beside the point. The engine that drives “Twilight” is the man candy, those beautiful monstrous boys. Even if Stewart's line readings put one in mind of Keanu Reeves, it wouldn't matter; it's Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner and their various features of chiselment that sell the tickets.
The irony is that Stewart is quite talented. “Twilight” and its sequel, “New Moon,” don't call on her to do much besides look either pained, frightened or bewitched by Pattinson's Edward Cullen; the upcoming third part of the series, “Eclipse,” due out this summer, probably won't provide any further opportunities for Stewart to stretch.
But Stewart works hard to create variations on a theme of melodramatic sulking, and gives some of the soggier lines an edge that rescues them from utter cliché. "If this is about my soul, take it — I don't want it without you" is a tough sell, but you almost buy it coming from Stewart.
Can she break away from Bella?Stewart also seems determined to avoid the trap that a strong association with a wildly successful film franchise can set for a young actor. Recent projects include “The Yellow Handkerchief,” a road-trip movie with a dark twist, and the Joan Jett bio-pic “The Runaways,” in which Stewart plays Jett.
Apparently Jett herself approves of the casting — she and Stewart have spent time together during filming, Jett coaching Stewart on the fine points of playing a rock icon — and Stewart has played guitar and sung onscreen before (as the underwritten Traci in Sean Penn's adaptation of Jon Krakauer's “Into the Wild”).
Is the gap between the histrionic faux-Poe atmosphere of “Twilight” and the punky edge of “The Runaways” too big for Stewart to bridge? And is Stewart overcompensating, biting off roles too big for her to chew in a desperate attempt to distance herself from Bella?
Maybe, but it's hard to see how she has a choice. Eventually, the “Twilight” series will end; if Stewart wants to keep working afterwards, she'll have to demonstrate that she can play roles besides Bella.
And it's easy to forget that Stewart played a range of parts and distinguished herself with them before Bella. Stewart's first major role put her alongside Jodie Foster as the diabetic daughter in 2002's “Panic Room.”
In addition to looking spookily like a young Foster (and also, it should be noted, like a boy; many viewers, including this one, thought she was playing Foster's diabetic son until a key pronoun in the script finally solved the mystery), Stewart had all her scenes with the Oscar-winning Foster, and rendered fear, determination and insulin shock convincingly.
More recently, in “The Cake Eaters,” Stewart played a girl eager to lose her virginity before her life is claimed by a degenerative nerve disorder. The melodramatic script asks Stewart to do a lot of physical as well as emotional acting, but the writing isn't very good; Stewart rises to both challenges, and to a truly wretched wig after her character tritely decides to cut her hair off to change her luck. The performance is natural and not showy. She's not always at a Meryl Streep level of skill, but she has charisma.
Upcoming releases will find Stewart playing a stripper in “Welcome to the Rileys,” and a male character in jailhouse drama “K-11” (there's that androgynous advantage again). We'll have to wait and see if she can pull off these parts, but at least she's trying.
Even if these moves don't work — if the films flop; if Stewart's performances stink — she's smart to make them now, before it's too late. “Twilight” isn't taken seriously as art, and the buzz about a reported real-life relationship between Stewart and Pattinson won't do much to change the perception of the franchise as tabloid and teen-mag bait. The entire cast is dangerously close to "famous for being famous" territory, through no real fault of their own, and Stewart is shrewd to start choosing challenging roles now, branding herself as something besides Bella Swan.
Stewart also frequently seems less than comfortable with the public aspect of her career. In interviews and on the red carpet, she fidgets, doesn't make eye contact, looks like her couture is itchy and she can't wait to change.
It's the price of participating in a juggernaut like “Twilight,” but Stewart may enjoy other roles not just to stretch her acting muscles, but to escape into a lower-pressure work environment.
Kristen Stewart is still young (she turns 20 in April). She's still got plenty of time to make mistakes. But one mistake she's not making is that of coasting on “Twilight.” She should probably start reading the entire script more closely before taking a part on the basis of how much the character differs from Bella — she's got more than one "good part, written badly" on her résumé — but if she's trying to lay a foundation for a long and varied post-“Twilight” career, she's going about it the right way.
Sarah D. Bunting is a writer in New York.