Kristen Stewart: Playing Princess Diana In Spencer Felt “Spiritual”

Photo by Claire Mathon
Daddy. I’m face to face with Kristen Stewart in a London hotel room, talking about Spencer, the sublime, Pablo Larraín-directed drama in which she plays Princess Diana, when at the most inconvenient moment possible I draw a blank. Except for one word: Daddy. I'm cursing this pinnacle of all intrusive thoughts when suddenly it dawns on me. It’s embroidered in baby pink cursive on the crown of her baseball cap, so small it’s barely perceptible. A quick wink, a sartorial flash of mischief to throw anyone off their train of thought, even if for a millisecond. 
The Los Angeles actress has made a career out of throwing people off. Her roles are as varied as they are unpredictable, ranging from her fame-propelling turn as a sullen teenager in love with a vampire in Twilight to a grief-ridden personal shopper, an agent in the big-budget Charlie’s Angels reboot and a student planning on proposing to her girlfriend in queer Christmas rom-com Happiest Season. Each character vibrates on its own frequency but always retains something of the 31-year-old’s guarded mannerisms and awkward aloofness – a physicality pushed to an uncanny degree in Spencer, with a coquettish head tilt and infallible British accent thrown in for good measure, to emulate Lady Diana’s own. 
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So many stories lash her for being manipulative and petulant and somebody who rebelled just for the sake of disruption, or just to be an attention-seeking person. She's painted that way quite often. And I think that's so violent.

kristen stewart
"I think it’s in The Crown and it’s really good." She pauses, laughing, as I recalibrate. "She just sort of falls down the side of Charles and goes, 'Darling, I think I'm going to disappear. I feel like I'm going to disappear.'" Spencer imagines a particularly horrific Christmas weekend in 1991 at the queen's Sandringham Estate, when Diana's relationship with Prince Charles had splintered and she was hounded by the press at every turn. The title card tells us that what we’re about to see is "a fable from a true tragedy", a concoction of surrealism and melodrama weighted by elements of truth. In one scene, we see Diana’s real-life struggle with bulimia play out as she crouches over a toilet; in the next scene, she fantasises about eating the pearl necklace gifted to her by Charles at the dinner table.
"The whole relationship that she had with food and binge-eating and purging, to me was just self-diminishing," Stewart continues. "She just wants to go away and be invisible, but interestingly also in a way that goes completely against that, she just wanted to be with people. She had a talent that she was born with, to connect with others and to get other people to take care of each other and realise that we need each other. That it's okay to be vulnerable." 
Photo by Claire Mathon
This isn't the first time that Chilean director Pablo Larraín has won acclaim for the portrayal of a heavily scrutinised female public figure. His 2016 film Jackie garnered Natalie Portman an Oscar nomination for her role as a grieving Jackie Kennedy following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Similarly to Jackie, Spencer is often loudest at points where nothing is said yet much is conveyed with the widening of eyes or the tensing of a jaw. The film feels like the personification of a stifled scream into a silk pillow.
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"At times, it felt like she was somebody who hated herself – and I love her so much," says Stewart. "These moments where she felt completely and utterly worthless. I don't mean to be hyperbolic, it's true. The idea of her running to her kid's bedroom and locking herself in the bathroom, and that the one person who she could turn to was an 11-year-old kid, it’s just so heartbreaking. There were times I was just like, ‘I can't fucking believe this!’ I just get so angry for her. I literally want to go back in time and be like, 'Dude, you need a best friend.'"

I don't mean that her ghost helped me, but who she was definitely lingers. I just can't believe that she died in a car accident. Like how this story played out crashes over me every once in a while and just fucking destroys me.

KRISTEN STEWART
Despite being just 7 when Diana passed away – Stewart tells me she remembers "all the flowers in front of Buckingham Palace" – and her LA upbringing meaning that she didn’t "have a more involved relationship with the saga of it all", it’s obvious why the actress would feel a preternatural affinity with the princess. Catapulted to global stardom as a teenager and growing up in the public eye, she has a personal understanding of the crushing pressure that fame can present. There is a scene in the film where Charles tells Diana: "There has to be two of you: the real one and the one they take pictures of." No doubt this statement would have carried a stinging pertinence for Stewart, who has had to ward off the attentions of a particularly rabid YA fanbase with Twilight
"People have said that so much to me," she agrees. "When I was younger, it was harder for me to have these conversations. Advice I would get all the time was, 'Just go and play the part, don't let it affect you, just be someone else.' How do you do that? I don’t think it’s possible. And that was exactly how she felt. It was never going to work for her; it was just something she couldn't stomach. I think even people that like to think they're playing parts and feel in control, they also feel disconnected and it's so obvious. That’s not you. You’re not real."
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Photo by Claire Mathon
Throughout the film you really get a sense of Diana’s fragile state of mind at this point in her life. She roams the sprawling expanse of Sandringham, suffocated but craving connection. Her paranoia over who she can trust within her small inner circle comes to a head when she hears the rumour that Maggie (Sally Hawkins), her dresser and one true confidante, believes she is "cracking up". Unsurprisingly, Stewart shares this distrust. Spend enough years in the film industry and you’re liable to get burned at one point or another.
"I love having personal conversations with journalists about things that I work on and my own life but, at the same time, I have to acknowledge that you're going to...go and write an article," she shrugs and lowers her eyes. "I’m talking to the whole world right now. Let's be fucking real about this! And so it's crazy to judge somebody like her for trying to break down those very complex communication passages. All of the ways that she tried to break through and be a real person seem really clear to me. If you put someone in a position where they are not allowed to really be honest and then you judge them for being manipulative or trying to show who they are, it makes total sense."

She led with love and a disarming, casual confidence that made everyone feel so good. I felt good. She was tall and I felt tall. And that to me feels spiritual.

KRISTEN STEWART
At points in our conversation, it's unclear whether Stewart is referring to herself or Diana, often speaking of the latter in the present tense and then correcting herself. It seems that for Stewart, Diana is a figure who is very much alive. And in a way, Spencer is a ghost story: a study of the light slowly going out inside a vivacious person. It is the story, too, of powerful women laid waste by the structures that surround them. The haunting spectre of Anne Boleyn makes an appearance throughout the film.
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Photo by Pablo Larraín
"There are some people that are really spiritual and believe in energy and lingering energy, and I very much fall on the [side of] 'I have absolutely no idea'," Stewart offers when I ask her if she felt anything while filming on the sprawling estate. "I don’t mean that her ghost helped me, but who she was definitely lingers. I just can't believe that she died in a car accident. Like how this story played out crashes over me every once in a while and just fucking destroys me. She led with love and a disarming, casual confidence that made everyone feel so good. I felt good. She was tall and I felt tall. And that to me feels spiritual. I felt like when I came to set, I could just make everyone immediately feel comfortable and happy. And like we were doing the right thing. And we all needed each other. And the support system was fucking beautiful. It was such a cool feeling."
The film pulls no punches with poetic licence, especially when it comes to celebrating Diana's acts of rebellion. A triumphant dance sequence at the end of the film is a tribute to beloved pieces of public knowledge left out of the history books, such as the fact that Freddie Mercury once snuck Diana into a gay club. For someone who has admitted they hate dancing, Stewart was nervous about shooting the sequence.
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Photo by Pablo Larraín
"Yeah, to be honest, it was a real cliff jumper," she admits. "It’s not like we rehearsed anything either. [Larraín] wouldn't tell me how we were going to shoot everything. I was like, should I work with someone? She has such a particular physicality, buoyancy and elegance. She really grew up loving dance, loving ballet. But to be honest, I thought one of the most confident and inspired choices that Pablo made was not allowing me to get ready, because once we went in I took everything we learned about her and everything I felt about this story, and it found its way into those moments in an unarticulated but ephemeral way. We shot it every single day as well, so some days it was really exuberant and happy and fun and there were days where it was filled with a lot of weight and heaviness."
These liberties with poetic licence extend to many satisfying moments in the script, from the inclusion of a queer confession of love from one of the royal staff to imaginings of naughty things that Diana may have said or done, like shutting a door on a member of staff and telling them: "I’m going to masturbate now." Even the casting of a queer actress, in Stewart, to play Diana feels like a middle finger to the monarchy’s antiquated expectations and traditions. (Coincidentally, Emma Corrin, who plays Diana in The Crown, is another prolific out and queer actress. Stewart admits this is an "interesting, weird, cool coincidence – like, look at how the world has changed so rapidly.")
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It’s been 24 years now since Diana’s death and arguably we’re at the point where the torch of keeping her legacy alive will soon be passed on to the next generation. With Spencer, Stewart can rest easy that if her portrayal plays a hand in how the People’s Princess lives on, it’s in a blaze of defiant glory.
"So many stories lash her for being manipulative and petulant and somebody who rebelled just for the sake of disruption, or just to be an attention-seeking person," says Stewart. "She's painted that way quite often. And I think that's so violent. So it was satisfying to play her like this. She just made so much sense to me."
Spencer is released in cinemas on 5th November

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