At age 26, Kristen Stewart has already built a film career that many a young actress would envy. Perhaps best known as Bella Swan, the heroine of the “Twilight” vampire franchise, Stewart has achieved commercial success while earning critical respect. Last summer, she could be found on the cover of Film Comment, the bible of serious moviegoers.
Her latest film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” opens Friday. Based on the novel by Ben Fountain and directed by Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”), it’s the story of a heroic soldier, his experience in Iraq and his doubts about being put on patriotic display at a football game. Stewart portrays Lynn’s sister Kathryn, who objects to his plans to return to the war.
In a recent interview, Stewart said that in addressing a soldier’s perspective, two-time Oscar winner Lee has created a film that “externalizes a very internal feeling.” Although Kathryn is a supporting role, she said, it’s one that she felt was worth taking on.
“The part is really economical,” Stewart said. “But it’s really impactful and definitely provides this emotional space.”
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” allowed Lee to experiment with technology. Among the options available is screening the film at 120 frames per second rather than the standard 24, creating an effect that viewers have called hyper-real. But in most theaters, including those in St. Louis, the film will be presented in the usual format.
Stewart said the technology posed unique acting challenges.
“I was out of my element,” she said. “Usually, I’m very aware of the process and really kind of nosey. In this case, it was like swimming around in an Olympic swimming pool. But it was really cool.”
Lee took a similarly experimental approach to “Hulk” (2003), in which he sought to mimic the design imperatives of a comic book.
A native of Los Angeles, Stewart has been acting since she was 9 years old. One of her earliest big-screen roles was as Jodie Foster’s daughter in director David Fincher’s “Panic Room.” Since then she has become one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses.
Critics were impressed with Stewart’s supporting work as Julianne Moore’s daughter in “Still Alice” and as Juliette Binoche’s personal assistant in “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
“I’ve known Julianne since I was 12 years old,” she said. “I worked with her husband (director Bart Freundlich) on a movie (‘Catch That Kid’), and she’s always felt like family to me. So playing her daughter, there was an ease to it. We approach our work quite similarly, and I think she’s a really impressive, deeply inspiring woman.”
Stewart describes Binoche — a French actress perhaps best known to American audiences for her Oscar-winning supporting performance in “The English Patient” — as “so powerful and so smart.”
Both Moore and Binoche, she said, are actresses whom she looks up to and who made her “want to rise to the occasion.”
As one of the film industry’s most in-demand actresses, Stewart has her pick of projects. What she looks for in a script, she said, is something that moves her.
“There’s a really particular emotion that occurs inside when you read something that you feel you’d like to join,” she said. The screenplay for “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” written by Jean-Christophe Castelli, “just articulated something really human and something that I really believed in.”
Stewart is just as likely to sign on to a low-profile indie project as to a potential mainstream blockbuster.
“In the case of Ang’s film, the only way to tell that story is big,” she said. “And I have no aversion to big movies if they’re motivated by something important and worthwhile — and they don’t feel like they’re being made for purely cash-in entertainment. That, I’m not into.”
What was the motivation behind inventing a new kind of cinematic language for this film?
Ang Lee: I believe art is what you don’t have, not necessarily what you do have. That compensation very frequently becomes the art itself. Twenty-four frames per second has been the standard for almost a hundred years, and has given us so much great art and so many great movies. How dare I challenge that? But when it comes to digital cinema, I just get the urge to see dimension, and when I see dimension, 24 frames per second doesn’t suffice, which leads to the next step. And I know that is a big leap.
Do you think this is the next step in the evolution of cinema?
AL: I have no interest in technology. But since I did [Life of] Pi, I’ve seen what digital cinema can do, and what it does is allow cinema to be dimensionalized, to be seen the way our eyes see. This seems like a logical step for me. I think it’s just the beginning. It can do anything, as long as you know how to do it. I know eventually I want the reality of a thing, the information. I want to read faces, and the close-up of the human face and the spaces that you put them in — that really draws me in.
As an actor, what was it like to be approached with this whole new way of making a film?
Steve Martin: Going into it, I thought, “I’m 70 years old, and I’m going to be shot in high-def, with no makeup. I’m gonna look fantastic.” You know how you take a photo of your dog with your phone, and their nose comes out, and it’s so cute, because the nose looks almost as big as their head? I thought, “I’m gonna be in 3-D; does that mean my nose is going to be poking out into the audience?” But I prepared for the role — I went to fancy restaurants, I drove around in fancy cars. But I was impressed by the idea of the technology.
So there was an appeal in the newness and potential of it?
SM: The camera was actually quite physically beautiful, and I became rather attracted to it. It’s a gorgeous piece of machinery, and the operation of it is so skillful. I felt like I could only act, and do my job. And it felt like, a lot of the time, that we weren’t really acting; it became quite a natural experience. As a process, it became really fun, especially when working with so many talented people.
It seems like one of the main recurrences in both Fountain’s book and in the film is the way in which no two people seem to know what the concept of “supporting the troops” means or entails. How did you approach that?
Kristen Stewart: What I found most interesting about this was that you have [Kathryn, the titular character’s sister], who is essentially a pacifist, but who never expresses her liberalism in any way that isn’t humanitarian. She’s never provoking anyone, and she’s being made to acknowledge a gap that has grown between her and someone that she’s known her entire life but can now no longer hold as close as she has before, because they’re now completely different beings. That changes a person, when you can no longer keep someone close enough to love them and comfort them as much as you want to. You’re so deep inside of something that you’ve never been able to get an exterior perspective on, and is that fair? Can you be proud of that?
It’s very contentious now in modern storytelling: Who can represent whom? How do we responsibly tell the story of others?
KS: I have so much more distance than someone who has served does, yet I still have that same feeling. Can I own my feelings? Do I really understand the situation? I think Kathryn is coming from a place of, “Let’s understand what we’re fighting for.” It’s a personal response, but she’s genuinely worried for him. Because what’s going to happen when his training fades, when the conditioned responses fade and you have to be a human being again who doesn’t necessarily know how to contend with what happened? And further on from that, how do we contend with having put those people there, in that situation?
She’s a different kind of a character than we usually get in stories about military families.
KS: She’s the personification of Question, rather than Opinion.
Are there any of your other films you wish you could have had this technology for?
AL: No. Only a few shots in Hulk. He has a big head, and the separation between the eyes is greater than a normal human head, so you can represent “puny human.” It’s not for everything.
Are you at all worried about how audiences will react to the film, especially depending on how they are able to see it?
AL: My eyes are different than your eyes, because I’ve been doing this film for two years. Before that, it was a four-year struggle getting into digital cinema and 3-D. I think you get used to it. I think it can allow you more ways to put things together in your mind, and when you have more and more detail from the image, more information, it’s not necessarily overwhelming. It becomes comforting.