By Sarah Druhan
Photo: The New York Times – Source
From the late 2000s to the mid 2010s, cultural resistance to the Twilight franchise was so strong that any actress stepping into the role of Bella Swan was in for a tough time of it. But Kristen Stewart’s well-known performance seemed to incite tidal waves of instant vitriol and backlash from audiences and critics alike.
Although Stewart had starred in a couple indie films and even received a nomination for a Young Artist Award after playing Jodie Foster’s daughter in the 2002 Panic Room, there was simply no way to prepare for the global phenomenon that was playing the main character in Twilight. She may have gone on to earn a BAFTA Rising Star Award in 2010 and be named the highest-paid actress of 2012, but her take on Bella Swan was panned by critics and mocked from what felt like every corner of the internet. Her blank expressions and awkward demeanor felt off to the reviewers who dismissed her performance as ‘wooden’, and her quiet distance from the public spotlight likely
displeased drama-hungry teen tabloids and gossip columns alike. Once Breaking Dawn: Part 2 hit theaters in 2012, pop culture had made it very clear: it had had enough of Kristen Stewart. But it seemed like the actress had had enough of the limelight too. She never totally left the acting scene, but rather began picking up roles in quiet indie dramas like Tim Blake Nelson’s Anesthesia and Peter Sattler’s Camp X-Ray, keeping a distance from the kinds of epic blockbusters that had made her famous.
This all being said, if you had told someone in 2012 that not only was Stewart starring in the horror-biopic Spencer as the titular Princess Diana of Wales, but that the role had earned her a nomination for the Best Actress Academy Award, they likely wouldn’t have believed you. But it’s true, and comparing her acting in Spencer to her acting in Twilight is even more jarring: not because Stewart learned her lesson from critics and changed her style, but because she committed to it all the more. The notes of Bella Swan in Spencer belay the confidence Stewart has in herself and in the characters she chooses to play, a confidence that took her all the way to Princess Diana and to the Academy Awards.
What early viewers of Twilight largely failed to realize was how Kristen Stewart’s talent lay in playing ‘out of place’ characters that frequently felt isolated from the people around them. Stewart performed Bella with all the purposeful gracelessness of a teenaged girl who was both new to an area and caught between the worlds of humans and vampires. In 2020, she stunned audiences with her moving portrayal of a lesbian woman who struggles in hiding her sexuality and her relationship to appease her girlfriend’s parents in The Happiest Season. This area of expertise was tailor-made for the iconic role of Princess Diana, even if many couldn’t see it.
Spencer takes place amidst the Royal Family’s Christmas celebrations in 1991, focusing on Princess Diana’s increasing feelings of claustrophobia as she grapples with the knowledge of her husband’s affair and with being accepted by his family. Stewart weaponizes the same uncertain impassiveness and darting eyes she did as Bella Swan to perfectly ratchet up these frictions until the audience can barely breathe. Underlying this tense performance is a subtle innocence that harkens back to both Twilight and The Happiest Season, endearing us to the character and making her impending breakdown all the more heartbreaking. The ‘woodenness’ that Stewart imbued into Twilight brings a sad reality to the introverted prince’s wife painstakingly working on redesigning
herself to be something pleasing to the Royal Family. And while critics rejected Bella Swan’s random outbursts as awkwardly misplaced, similar moments in Spencer were widely praised: the scene in which Diana loses patience with Charles, smacking his pool table repeatedly, was shown during the presentation of Best Actress nominations during the Oscars. These sudden shows of emotion from Stewart emphasize flashes of desperate humanity in characters that struggle with genuine confidence.
Stewart has additionally made it clear that she draws on issues and emotions in her everyday life to inform her performances, making them feel all the more authentic. For her, acting isn’t about “losing yourself in a character”, but rather about “getting the closest to yourself.” “You open yourself in a way that’s a little scary,” the actress told Backstage last February. “It’s not what I gravitate towards, trying to hide behind characters…I really want to bare myself and feel revealed and discovered.”
In playing a character who had abruptly found herself in one of society’s highest, most glamorous places, experiencing waves of adoration at the same time that she had never felt more isolated, it seemed as though Stewart was able to echo a lot of these sentiments in her performance. Her starring role in the Twilight franchise catapulted her to instant celebrity, seemingly overnight, but it also ignited high amounts of animosity against her from what felt like pretty much everywhere. She was targeted by endless scrutiny from critics, paparazzi, and almost every single Twilight viewer, in a way that indeed almost paralleled the world’s treatment of the late Princess Diana, as odd as it may sound to equate the two. It’s also worthwhile to note that Stewart was a closeted gay woman at the time of Twilight’s filming, another experience of deep isolation that likely informs the kinds of characters Stewart chooses to play.
Her use of personal experiences in the craft and her practiced style of acting were what got Stewart notice from the Academy Awards and from the world this year. This all adds up to a truth that seemed to completely miss many Twilight critics and naysayers in response to the announcement of this casting: Kristen Stewart was ultimately the perfect actress to play Princess Diana, wielding an acting expertise and more nuanced performances than we often give her credit for.