When Kristen Stewart was approached to play Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s impressionistic biopic Spencer, she couldn’t believe her ears.
“When I first spoke to Pablo, he said, ‘Have you ever considered this person, Princess Diana? I’m going to make a movie and I think it’s you.’ And I was like, ‘I think you’re fucking crazy,'” explains the 31-year-old actor. “Of course, it couldn’t be more strange.”
What Stewart didn’t initially consider is that there was also a rebellious and unpredictable streak in Diana, Princess of Wales.
And it wasn’t the only thing the couple had in common.
Both women struggled to be in the public eye and, more specifically, the media scrutiny that comes with it. And both struggled to maintain some sense of autonomy away from the public eye.
“Diana was the most loved person in the whole world and the most rejected at the same time,” says Stewart. “She couldn’t really define her own power, but she definitely felt it. Sometimes she handled it like a banshee, but other times she felt normal and small.
“Judging from my position, she had little control over her life and nothing was ever unconditional. It was all a negotiation.”
Stewart says that while the level of fame she has experienced doesn’t touch Diana’s experiences, she can understand some of how she might have felt.
“I would never want to say that she was the most famous woman in the world, that she was the most photographed woman in the world, although that is something that is said about her,” she says. “And I’ve tasted a high level of that, but nowhere near that monumental symbolic representation of an entire group of people, an entire country, and then the world.”
Stewart, a native of Los Angeles, is the daughter of a stage director and television producer father and a script supervisor and filmmaker mother. He starred in his first film at the age of eight. In 2002, when he was 11 years old, he starred in David Fincher’s film Panic Room, opposite Jodie Foster.
Her fame skyrocketed when she was cast as Bella Swan opposite Robert Pattinson in the successful Twilight film franchise based on Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling books. When Stewart and Pattinson fell in love on set, the fans (known as Twihards) couldn’t get enough. For five years and five movies, they were one of the most beloved and idolized couples in Hollywood.
But Stewart was never the center of attention. She was often photographed looking overwhelmed (a look many interpret as smug) at red carpet events. She told Elle UK in 2016 that at the height of her fame she felt trapped and was so anxious that she felt physically sick every day.
“I had panic attacks,” he said, “I used to throw up every day. I always had a stomach ache and was a control freak. I couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen in a given situation, so I thought, ‘maybe I’m going to get sick.’ Then I would be sick.
Stewart matched her popularity in 2012 when she was photographed getting cozy with married director Rupert Sanders, with whom she worked on Snow White and the Huntsman. Both Stewart and Sanders issued public apologies for their date: Stewart to Pattinson and Sanders to his wife, Liberty Ross, and their children. But ultimately neither relationship survived the controversy.
Since then, Stewart, who is now engaged to screenwriter Dylan Meyer, has gone to great lengths to safeguard her private life, keeping a low profile at her home in Los Angeles and having no public presence on social media.
Stewart says that while her life is much more manageable now, she has a complicated relationship with fame.
“Actors want to be looked at,” she told Elle UK. “I’m the antithesis of that when I’m in public. So I say, ‘Please, everyone, I don’t want to exist.’ But there is still a strong desire in me to be seen. It’s so weird.”
To Larrain, Stewart was the obvious choice for Diana. Not only because of her skill as an actress, but also because of the fact that she has an unknowable quality that Diana also maintained, only letting her guard down in front of her children and those closest to her.
“The more I looked at Diana, I realized that she had an enormous amount of mystery,” says Larrian. “And that mystery, combined with such magnetism, creates the perfect elements for a movie. And we found this miracle, named Kristen, who can carry that mystery.”
Co-written by Larrain and Steven Knight (Locked Down), Spencer is a fairy tale about a woman in a gilded cage. Described by the filmmakers as “a fable of a true tragedy”, it takes place over the course of three days, from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day, at the royal residence of the Sandringham Estate. It looks at Diana’s disintegrating relationship with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and the rest of the royal family. It represents her bulimia attacks, her tantrums and even some hallucinations. His rare moments of joy are shared with his beloved sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry).
“It was a great opportunity to create a fairy tale,” says Larrain. “When we grow up we understand that living in a fairy tale is really very difficult. And in this case, we have a princess who walks away from the idea of being a queen. You have a character who is caught in the wheels of lore and history.”
Larrain directed Natalie Portman in the 2016 film Jackie, about another trailblazer, Jackie Kennedy. The film chronicles her life after the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy.
“For me, I think it’s interesting when you look at someone in a crisis rather than going through a longer period of time in someone’s life,” he says.
Critics have called the film “fascinating”, “haunting”, and “beautifully crafted”. Stewart’s performance has already earned her Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Best Actress nominations and she is one of the favorites to make the shortlist for Oscar nominations, with many hailing her performance as “fearless.”
For the role, Stewart dove into Diana, reading everything she could get her hands on and watching countless documentaries and even Emma Corrin’s lauded performance in The Crown.
But as prepared as she was, Stewart still felt the pressure that drove her to film and developed temporomandibular joint (TMJ) dysfunction causing severe jaw pain.
She attributes the condition to a “physical manifestation of genuine fear of failure.”
His anxiety is justified considering that almost everyone has a point of reference, a memory and an awareness of the so-called People’s Princess. Diana’s heels were difficult to put on. However, Stewart says that once filming began and she was able to relax into the role, she found her groove.
The biggest takeaway I got from making this movie was probably how big and how small I felt like her.
“She’s not hard to absorb,” he said in an interview with US Today. “I brought her into my physical body in an emotional and spiritual way. I’m a huge fan of hers, it’s hard not to be struck by that energy.
“The biggest takeaway I got from making this movie was probably how big and how small I felt like it was,” she said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. “I have never felt so big and so small at the same time.”
Stewart did not intend to impersonate the princess, but rather to give the impression of her. The familiar tilt of her head, the defiant lift of her chin, and the sadness that seemed to gather in her eyes.
“I feel like everyone feels like they know her,” says Stewart. “That was her talent and that’s what was beautiful about her. She was approachable and you felt like you were her friend.”
The poetic nature of the film gave it room to explore the maybes of Diana’s life rather than the known reality.
“It was an opportunity to dream and not just regurgitate facts,” he said during the Today interview. “That’s what actors do, they take inner feelings and bring them out.”
Diana was not only known for her philanthropy, but also for her empathy, particularly during the AIDS crisis, and her bravery, particularly for that unforgettable walk through a landmine in Angola. She was also an international fashion icon.
“I think she was someone who knew how to wear clothing as armor, but at the same time she was very available and visible. She couldn’t hide, she had her heart on her sleeve and that for me was the best of her.”
More than her good looks or fashion sense, it was her undeniable charisma and personal power that left a lasting impression on those around her.
“I think it’s something she was born with,” says Stewart. “Some people are endowed with an undeniable and pervasive energy. I think the really sad thing about her is that she could be normal and casual and charming, but she also felt so isolated and alone.
“She was able to make other people feel so good while feeling so bad inside. And at the same time she was so generous with her energy. We haven’t had a lot of those people throughout history, so it really sticks out like a house on fire.”