Stewart is enthusiastic, conscientious even, in discussing her character, Marylou – fictional stand-in for Lu Anne Henderson, teenage wife of Kerouac’s muse, Neal Cassady – in “On the Road,” which today starts a three-day run at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre and is available on video on demand.
“She was very much an equal part” of the road trips that inspired Kerouac’s novel, she said of Henderson. “She was such a formidable partner for (Cassady). She was his counterpart in that sort of crazy life.”
Stewart first attached herself to the project at 17, after she met with director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) to discuss playing Marylou. She had read the novel at 15. Its story of curious young people finding kindred spirits spoke to her, Stewart said.
“What I loved about the book is that (it chronicles) an age when you sort of get to look up and you get to choose your surroundings,” she said. “You get to find those people who shock you and also make you aware of those things about yourself that also shock and surprise you.”
As a stager of tiny, daily rebellions, Stewart can relate to Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and especially to Henderson, the novel’s and the film’s female representative of the Beat generation’s sex, drugs and jazz-baby-jazz ethos.
Stewart researched her character’s life thoroughly, listening to recordings by Henderson and meeting with Henderson’s daughter. Stewart said she would like to dispel any idea that Henderson was a vulnerable figure in the Beat boys’ club. She was just as sexually adventurous and committed to counterculture pursuits as the famously voracious Cassady (fictionalized as Dean Moriarty and played by Garrett Hedlund in the movie).
“I didn’t want to just be ambiance ” Stewart said of researching her character. “It was always, ‘What is she getting? What is she giving up? Is she being taken from?’ And I would have to say, having gotten to know her daughter and listened to those tapes … there was nothing you could take from her. She was offering it up, and she was getting so much in return.”
Henderson was “ahead of her time by 20 or 30 years,” said director Salles, in San Franciscowith Stewart.
Salles said Stewart’s acting also pushes boundaries.
“She is constantly trying to reach the best performance she can give in every single take, and that is something I find admirable,” Salles said.
Salles met with Stewart after two friends – director Alejandro González Iñárritu and film composer Gustavo Santaolalla – raved about her after seeing an early screening of Sean Penn’s 2007 film “Into the Wild.” In “Wild,” Stewart plays a teen who shares a bond with Emile Hirsch’s wanderer.
“I understood completely why they had been so impacted by her, because there is something completely magnetic in Kristen’s acting in ‘Into the Wild,’ ” Salles said.
Salles settled on Stewart for the Marylou role then, but it took years to secure financing for “On the Road,” the shoot for which traversed Montreal, New Orleans, San Francisco and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta town of Locke (see sidebar) in trying to capture its Beat characters’ travels.
Stewart said she now appreciates the delay, since she was not ready at 17 or 18 for the role’s racier aspects. As the project sat on the back burner, Stewart became a household name through the “Twilight” movies and also showed range by playing real-life rocker Joan Jett in “The Runaways.”
“Her work in independent cinema is very much driven by characters who enter uncharted territories and trespass boundaries that are not immediately acceptable to the culture of the time,” Salles said.
Stewart’s vibrant, sun-kissed Marylou offers a stark visual and philosophical counterpoint to Bella, her dark-haired, pale Pacific Northwest virgin-until-married and human-until-vampired “Twilight” heroine. But no Stewart role is a reaction to any other, she said.
“I am drawn very naturally and very intuitively to everything I have done, including my commercial films,” she said. “I think it is the same thing for those (‘On the Road’) characters and the people who inspired those characters. They weren’t trying to make a statement necessarily. At one point they obviously saw that what they were doing was a statement. But initially, they were just being who they were.”
With the “Twilight” films complete, and after so much focus on a private life also inextricably linked to that franchise, Stewart appears to be entering a new chapter.
Or at least she might be. Stewart will not kowtow to any narrative for herself.
“I guess if I stepped outside of my own life and looked at it, you might put a bookmark in, ‘Oh, there’s a good time to put Chapter 3,’ ” she said. “But when you are actually living it, no. I don’t do things for impact. I have never been able to step outside my career, or especially my life – and you should never, ever mistake the two – and shape it like it is this malleable thing.”