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Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult on Equals, Learning Lines, and Being Seen

In the new Drake Doremus-directed film Equals, Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult play deeply repressed characters living in a futuristic society where all emotions are verboten — a problem, since the two of them begin to fall for one another and must keep their burgeoning love secret. Their casting carries a kick, since these are two actors who have no trouble expressing themselves offscreen: Stewart, in particular, is so candid and likely to wear her emotions on her sleeve that the very act of placing her in such a shut-down onscreen society contains inherent suspense. Not long ago, Vulture met up with the actors for a freewheeling chat about the movie and their very particular approaches to acting and fame.

Nicholas, I’ve heard that when you saw Equals for the first time, you felt like a voyeur while watching yourself fall in love with Kristen. Was Drake able to coax you into things you weren’t aware you were doing?
Hoult: At the time, I probably realized I was doing it. But it’s not in the script, it’s not something you planned on doing, it’s just something that was very …
Stewart: Fleeting.
Hoult: And then you don’t think about it, you don’t dwell on it. It’s not until a year later when you’re in the ADR booth and you watch yourself doing something that you go, “Wow, that feels like my real life onscreen. And I shouldn’t be watching that.”

Does that feel like a victory, when you can surprise yourself like that?
Stewart: It’s weird, because since we play people who are very simplified and stripped down, we are very much ourselves in this movie. Without any social development or idiosyncrasies, the most boiled-down version of being alive is what we’re trying to do — and so, in watching it, I don’t feel like I’m watching someone else. The reason it’s surprising is that the little bits of cream that rose to the top were things that just passed us by in a moment. Usually we can take credit for it, but in this case, we go, “Whoa, Drake, thank you for putting us on that path.”

Are you good at watching your own performance in films?
Hoult: I’m not particularly a fan.
Stewart: Yeah, he doesn’t like it.
Hoult: I always think I could have done it better or different. Hindsight is 20/20, isn’t it?

You’re better at it, Kristen?
Stewart: Technically, I’m better at it because I do it more. Because it completes a process for me. I’ve been wanting to make movies forever and I want to direct and write and keep acting forever, so it makes me better to watch the performance. It’s enlightening, and not in a technical way — it’s not like I go, “Ooh, I saw my face do this and now I know how to cry onscreen.” It’s more like, if you can correlate the experience of making the movie to the final product, it affects how you carry on from that point. I want to lose myself in a role, I want to completely be drawn to things for natural reasons and not consider an audience, but at the same time, I really care that the movie is good. I like the process of making a movie so much that to not finish it wouldn’t make sense.

So to what extent did you feel complicit in the finishing of Equals? Did Drake let you in on the postproduction process?
Stewart: Not at all. [Laughs.] I know he has an editor who he loves, but he’s really hands-on and he kind of edits by himself in his house in Los Feliz. The whole time, I was like, “He’s just a few blocks away from me right now,” but I didn’t speak to him for a couple months after we did this movie. There will be times when I’m calling up directors and I’m like, “Hey, what’s up? Can I come see stuff? Can you just tell me what you’re excited about, and what worked and what didn’t, and anything you learned based off those three fucking months we spent together? What’s the deal?” But I never called Drake once. I was just expended after we shot it, and it wasn’t something I was trying to control. But watching it, I see that it took every single person — me, Drake, John the D.P., Nic — to make it. It’s a soup. The movie is a fucking bowl of soup. Drake doesn’t control everything, but he instills his vibe into it in such a natural way, which I’m such a fan of. So I wouldn’t want to affect that. I wouldn’t want to call and say, “Hey, don’t forget this, in case you didn’t see it!”

Have you done that with other directors?
Stewart: Yeah, with people who I feel like didn’t see me. But I felt so visible around Drake and Nic. I was never like, “Do you know what I mean?” Yeah, of course they do. It was fucking done. Unspoken.

How much of Equals was improvised in the moment?
Hoult: You’d have a script, but then Drake would be like, “Nah, don’t say that.” I realized that I’m very used to knowing lines and turning off a bit.
Stewart: I never know my fuckin’ lines. Even in Woody Allen movies, I don’t know my lines.
Hoult: Really?
Stewart: Mhmm.
Hoult: How does that work? What happens?
Stewart: I learn them quickly if it’s necessary, but typically, I just think it’s better if I find it or say something slightly different. If you’ve put in the groundwork properly, it works, and it’s easier if you’re playing somebody close to you. On the Woody Allen movie [Café Society], it was more difficult because I’m playing this girl who’s just the opposite of me — the most buoyant, lovely, little person — but once I found her, we could totally improvise within the rhetoric of his movies, which is crazy because he’s so particular. All I’m saying is: Learning lines gets in my way, but conversely, if you don’t know them, you flounder. It’s a balance. To be honest, sometimes I fuck myself over. I’m like, “Oh shit, I don’t know my lines!” [Laughs.]
Hoult: Have you been on a movie where the writer or director said, “No, say it word-for-word?”
Stewart: One time. With Kelly Reichardt.

For your movie Certain Women?
Stewart: Yeah.
Hoult: Was it like with Aaron Sorkin, where you have to say everything exactly, even the punctuation marks?
Stewart: She never said that initially, so I wasn’t prepared for that when I got to set. I would literally say “the” instead of “is” — just the slightest alteration to make it more like how I would say something — and she would be like, “Oh, um, that was great, but actually, the words are like this.” “Oh, okay. Fuck. I didn’t realize. Good to know.” She likes the words. She wrote them a certain way, and she likes them. I don’t think she even realizes she likes the words so much. If I told her she said that, she would be like, “No, I didn’t!” But she did.
Hoult: Did you find that restrictive?
Stewart: Yeah, yeah. But at the same time, I feel like it took me away from “Kristen,” and that was nice. She didn’t hire me for that. Sometimes I’m hired for that, and it’s genuinely what serves the part the best, to be totally in it and natural. But that girl [in Certain Women] was different. I have this slight accent in it …
Hoult: And rhythms of speech can change everything.
Stewart: Exactly. It’s the rhythm, yeah.

The world of Equals, where you’re expected to stifle yourself and “pass” within society, could be a metaphor for so many things. What was your take on it?
Stewart: Whether you’re hiding something integral to yourself or something smaller, like a mood that you think is unacceptable, it’s a terrible feeling to not be seen. It’s the worst, actually. To think how awful it is when you’re trying to show yourself to somebody and they don’t see it? That sucks, but what’s worse is not even trying to be seen, not even giving anyone the opportunity to know you. It’s just the most isolating feeling, and obviously, there are degrees of that in all our lives. But yeah, there’s really nothing worse than having to cover the most important, essential parts of yourself. It means you’re denying what it is to be you, and it’s the worst feeling. Trust me. I’ve done it a lot. I have a job that doesn’t allow for moods — not in the acting part, but during the promotion part.

Because if you’re not happy and upbeat all the time, your mood will be so endlessly parsed and dissected?
Stewart: Yeah.
Hoult: Or misconstrued.

After living in the public eye for so long, do you have to make a concerted effort to remain present and real in interviews, instead of just putting on your armor?
Stewart: Yeah, it’s weird. It’s not a concerted effort, and I don’t have much regard for how it’s going to filter out into the world because of how little control I have over stuff like that. Every conversation I have is a completely personal conversation, and if a question is asked by someone who cares, I will fucking go there with you, do you know what I mean? But if I have someone sitting in front of me who’s prodding into details that will make their website really popular that night, I just don’t engage. And then they’ll criticize that and be like, “Oh, you’re so guarded. That must be sad, to live like that.” And I’m like, “No, it’s just with you, actually. I have really good conversations with your co-workers. You’re bad at your job.”

How do you feel when a movie wraps? You’re asked to have these very intense emotional experiences with people who, suddenly, you don’t see again.
Hoult: I’ve got better at it. I remember when I was a kid, I did a job and my mum said for two days afterward, I went upstairs and cried.
Stewart: You were despondent!
Hoult: For two days! I was just crying. It’s a horrible feeling at the end of a job. Well, it depends on the job. On some jobs, it’s a bit of a relief when it’s done, but on a job like this, you’re not ready for it to end. These things only happen once. The older I get, the more sentimental I get about it. When I was a kid, I was very emotional, and then I went through a phase where I was quite coldhearted about it and thought, “It’s a job, we go through it, blah blah,” but gradually as I get a bit older I look back at the job and go, “Wow, that’s it. That will never happen again. Damn.”

Do you ever feel typecast?
Hoult: I want to do different things. I don’t ever want someone to say, “Oh, he only does those films.” I think I’m fortunate that I’ve so far managed to steer clear of that.

I would hope that after your gonzo performance in Max Mad: Fury Road, you’ve exploded the notion that you could be typecast.
Hoult: That’s kind of the aim. And to do very different things with good people and learn. You always get better the older you get at acting, anyway. It’s one of those jobs where the more you grow as a person, the more interesting the characters get as well.
Stewart: Or not.

Some actors start shutting down later into their careers. You can feel it.
Stewart: Yeah.
Hoult: That’s true, actually.
Stewart: What you just said is kind of, uh, wrong. [Both laugh.]
Hoult: I think the pitfall people fall into is they then believe they’re a great actor because they get told it so much.
Stewart: And then they stop acting.
Hoult: And you can see it.
Stewart: “That person is obsessed with themselves.”
Hoult: That’s what you don’t want. Every job should be a challenge. And then you show up and do your best, I guess.

Kristen Stewart and Nicholas Hoult on Equals