When Kristen Stewart was approached to play Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s impressionistic biopic, Spencer, she couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing.
“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 f–king wildly crazy’,” the 31-year-old actor explains. “Of course, I couldn’t be more of an outsider.”
What Stewart initially failed to consider is that there was also a rebellious, unpredictable streak to Diana, Princess of Wales.
And it wasn’t the only thing the pair had in common.
Both women struggled with being in the public eye and, more specifically, the media scrutiny that comes with it. And both fought to maintain some sense of autonomy away from their public glare.
“Diana was the most beloved person in the whole world and the most rejected at the same time,” Stewart says. “She just couldn’t really define her own power, but she definitely felt it. She would wield it sometimes like a banshee, but then other times she felt normal and small.
“Judging from where I’m standing, she had little control over her life and nothing was unconditional, ever. Everything was a negotiation.”
Stewart says 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, though that is something that is said about her,” she says. “And I have 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.”
A Los Angeles native, Stewart is the daughter of a stage manager and television producer father and a script supervisor and filmmaker mother. She starred in her first movie at age eight. In 2002, when she was 11, she starred in David Fincher’s film Panic Room, alongside Jodie Foster.
Her fame sky-rocketed when she was cast as Bella Swan opposite Robert Pattinson in the blockbuster Twilight film franchise based on the bestselling books by Stephenie Meyer. When Stewart and Pattinson fell in love on set, fans (known as Twihards) couldn’t get enough. Over the course of five years and five films the were one of the most beloved and idolised couples in Hollywood.
But Stewart never took to the spotlight. She was often photographed looking overwhelmed (a look that many read as petulant) at red carpet events. She told Elle UK in 2016 that at the height of her fame she felt trapped and was so anxious she felt physically sick every day.
“I had panic attacks,” she said “I used to puke every day. I always had a stomach ache and I was a control freak. I couldn’t anticipate what was going to happen in a given situation, so I’d be like, ‘maybe I’m going to get sick.’ Then I’d be sick.”
Stewart took a match to her popularity in 2012 when she was photographed getting cosy with married director Rupert Sanders who she worked with on Snow White and the Huntsman. Both Stewart and Sanders issued public apologies for their tryst — 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 done her utmost to safeguard her private life, lying low at home in Los Angeles and maintaining no public social media presence.
Stewart says while her life is now much more manageable, she maintains a complicated relationship with fame.
“Actors want to be looked at,” she told Elle UK. “I am the antithesis of that when I’m in public. Then I’m like, ‘Please everyone, I don’t want to exist’. But there is still a strong desire in me to be seen. It’s so weird.”
For Larrain, Stewart was the obvious choice for Diana. Not only because of her skill as an actor but also for the fact she has an unknowable quality to her that Diana also maintained, only letting her guard slip in front of her children and those closest to her.
“The more I looked into Diana, I realised she carried an enormous amount of mystery,” Larrian says. “And that mystery, combined with such magnetism creates the perfect elements for a movie. And we found this miracle, named Kristen, that can carry that mystery.”
Co-written by Larrain and Steven Knight (Locked Down) Spencer is a fairytale about a woman in a gilded cage. Described by the filmmakers as “a fable from a true tragedy” it takes place over the course of three days — from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day —at the royal residence of Sandringham Estate. It looks into Diana’s disintegrating relationship with Prince Charles (Jack Farthing) and the rest of the royal family. It depicts her bouts of bulimia, her tantrums and even some hallucinations. Her rare moments of joy are shared with her adored sons William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry).
“It was a great opportunity to create a fairytale,” Larrain says. “When we grow up we understand that living in a fairytale is actually very difficult. And in this case, we have a princess who’s going away from the idea of being a queen. You have a character that is trapped in the wheels of tradition and history.”
Larrain directed Natalie Portman in the 2016 film, Jackie, about another trailblazer, Jackie Kennedy. The film chronicled her life in the aftermath of her husband John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“For me, I think it’s interesting when you look at someone in a crisis instead of going over a longer period of time in someone’s life,” he says.
Critics have called the film “enthralling”, “haunting” and “beautifully crafted”. Stewart’s performance has already earned her Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Best Actress nominations and she’s a favourite to make the Oscar shortlist with many proclaiming her performance “fearless”.
For the role Stewart immersed herself in 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 leading into filming and developed temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) which causes severe jaw pain.
She attributes the condition to a “physical manifestation of genuine fear of failure”.
Her anxiety is justified considering almost everyone in the world has a reference point, a memory and awareness of the so-called People’s Princess. Diana’s were difficult stylish pumps to step into. However, Stewart says once filming began and she could relax into the part, she found her groove.
The most resounding takeaway that I have from making this movie was probably how big and how small I felt as her.
“She’s not difficult to absorb,” she said in an interview with the US Today show. “I took her into my physicality in a sort of emotional and spiritual way. I’m such a huge, enormous admirer of her, it’s hard not to be impacted by that energy.
“The most resounding takeaway that I have from making this movie was probably how big and how small I felt as her,” she said in an interview with Entertainment Tonight. “I’ve never felt so big and so small at the same time.”
Stewart wasn’t aiming to impersonate the princess but rather give the impression of her. The familiar tilt of the head, the defiant lift of the chin and the sadness that seemed to pool in her eyes.
“I feel like everyone feels like they knew her,” Stewart says. “That was her talent and that is what is beautiful about her. She was accessible and you felt like you were friends with her.”
The poetic nature of the film gave her space to explore the maybes of Diana’s life rather than the known reality.
“It was an opportunity to dream and not just regurgitate facts,” she said during the Today interview. “That’s what actors do, they take internal feelings and externalise them.”
Diana was not only known for her philanthropy, but for her empathy, particularly during the AIDS crisis, and her bravery, particularly for that unforgettable walk through an Angolan land mine. She was also an international fashion icon.
“I think she was somebody who knew how to use clothes as armour, but at the same time she was so available and visible. She couldn’t hide — she wore her heart on her sleeve, and that to me was the coolest thing about 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 just something that she was born with,” Stewart says. “Some people are endowed with an undeniable, penetrating energy. I think the really sad thing about her is that she could be normal and casual and disarming, but she also felt so isolated and so lonely.
“She was able to make other people feel so good while feeling so bad on the inside. And at the same time she was so generous with her energy. We haven’t had many of those people throughout history, which is why she really sticks out as a house on fire.”
Spencer is in cinemas on January 20.