chat room

How Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern Fell for Each Other on the Set of JT Leroy

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

It’s the end of a long press day for JT Leroy, and Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern are, as they put it, “going off.” In a conversation peppered with frequent bursts of loud laughter, the two women compliment each other constantly, interrupt each other to underscore one another’s salient points, and get unexpectedly deep on topics like identity, sexuality, gender, vulnerability, personal growth, and the difficulties of sharing themselves with the public. “I don’t know what’s going on,” laughs Dern at one point. “We’re really on a tear.”

The surprising complexity of the conversation makes more sense when you consider its jumping-off point. JT Leroy is a complicated movie with an even thornier, real-life backstory: In the early 2000s, the literary and film worlds alike were captivated by Jeremiah Terminator Leroy, a young man who wrote harrowing books about his own life, which included bouts of homelessness, sex work alongside his mother as a child, profound sexual and physical abuse, an addiction to heroin, and an HIV diagnosis, among other things. Leroy was beloved by critics, bombarded with film offers, wined and dined by celebrities — until it was revealed that he wasn’t real. In fact, Leroy was the product of two people: Laura Albert, a 30-something Brooklyn woman who wrote Leroy’s books, and Savannah Knoop, Laura’s boyfriend’s younger sister, who dressed up as Leroy in public.

The film, based on Knoop’s memoir and co-written by Knoop and director Justin Kelly, is a fascinating look at how they built their scam, piece by piece. As Laura, Dern is simultaneously manipulative and profoundly vulnerable, a woman so unable to confront herself that she creates layers of personas to hide behind. Stewart’s Savannah is viscerally uncomfortable in both her skin and JT’s, grappling with complicated questions about her own identity and sexuality, and the idea of personality as performance. So Stewart, Dern, and I decided to grapple with those questions, too.

There are so many levels to each of your performances in this film. You’re playing people who are playing people who are playing people. How did you keep from getting lost in those rabbit holes?
Kristen Stewart: I think … the point of it was to get a little bit lost in the rabbit hole. In a somewhat measured way, obviously, so the story makes sense and you don’t lose your fuckin’ mind. [Laughs.] The story is from Savannah’s perspective, about a woman telling her story [who] needs somebody else to tell her story from a wildly altered perspective. Bringing someone in to find themselves through something that’s untrue, but then is ultimately true — God, it chases its tail into a Tasmanian devil storm.

That wasn’t well-articulated, but I don’t know a good way to put it! I felt a closeness and a kinship with Savannah for a lot of reasons. I felt utterly seen by Laura [Dern], and I thought that that really reflected the way that Savannah and Laura Albert’s characters related to each other. Though we have a pretty healthy relationship, comparatively.

Laura Dern: Yeah!

KS: But who knows, it hasn’t been as long.

LD: Just give us time. [Laughs.]

Kristen, can you speak more about this kinship you felt with Savannah? Because having followed your career, she does seem similar to you in a lot of ways. You’ve spoken in the past about your own uncomfortability with press, with red carpets, with leading a public life, and about your own sexuality —
KS: While we were making this movie, Savannah identified as “she,” and now they identify as “they.” In terms of the process and the evolution of being a person and being a self, I can relate to that unarticulated nature — of [not having] answers to very, very demanding questions. It’s something I’ve always been a little weird with — not opposed to, because that makes it sound like I’ve really articulated it. But I’ve had this physical aversion to nailing things down in a way that’s digestible for other people. There’s this misconception that, if you’re able to state something as simple and easy and confidently, you’re more self-possessed or more realized. That’s not true. I only recently became comfortable with that idea.

And fuck, thank God — I think it just happened in our current times, too. It’s easier to have a longer conversation that requires patience, versus fucking five years ago, when people were demanding that I come out as gay. And I was like, “Dude, how do you know? I don’t even know!” It was crazy. For me and Savannah, I do relate to the idea that they’re a complex person who’s never going to stop changing. Not changing as in, “becoming who you’re supposed to be.” You’re always who you’re supposed to be. There’s just an evolution there. It’s not that easy to know people, and I think we’re all [developing] better intentions in terms of knowing each other. We’re gaining patience with that. It’s not an easy thing. I have a very easy relationship with identity, I just don’t have an easy relationship with conveying that identity to the masses.

LD: This is some amazing and articulate dialogue.

KS: I’m really on a tear. [Laughs.] My progress has been kind of retroactive. Maybe I was really frustrated [in the past], trying to conduct interviews that I was clearly, like, failing miserably at. But I think the kids watching those interviews probably looked at me and thought — and the reason why I’m now [looked up to] by them — “We’re a generation that doesn’t have to identify as one thing if we don’t want to.” I’ve been involved in a narrative that I wasn’t aware of. And I feel that way about Savannah. I look up to them in such a foundational way. If you consume any of their art, look at their fucking Instagram, you’ll know why I look up to them. They’re a courageous, authentic, unique person. It’s not always been easy to be that.

I do think things have changed drastically in the past five years in the exact way you’re talking about, Kristen. It’s much easier to exist in that in-between space. Your career has, too — you’re playing a lot of roles where women are either openly or subtly queer. What’s behind that choice?
KS: It’s not conscious or intentional. But I think it’s natural. We’re all drawn to the things we’re drawn to. I didn’t call my agents and say, “This is my direction now. All of my choices have to reflect my — you ready for this? — my fucking TRUTH!” [Laughs.]

LD: But [that] also speaks to Kristen’s boldness, which is a rare gift. You know better than anybody as a film journalist — it’s rare that the artist is matched by the human. That’s what I fell in love with in Kristen. She matches it by saying, “This is who I am. These are the things that interest me. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s make a film to ask more questions, not because we need to shove a moral down anyone’s throat.” She expresses herself as an individual, and that’s a rare, beautiful thing.

KS: This is Laura Dern. I take her everywhere I go. [Both laugh.]

Can you guys talk about how you developed this friendship? What’d you do on the set when you weren’t filming?
LD: We talked about this movie when we weren’t filming! And when we had social time, Kristen adopted my teenage son, who is obsessed with her. They became besties. That made it easier. I had a built-in nanny, co-star, love interest — an all-in-one. The film is a love story; it’s complex, it’s about intimacy, there’s love-hate. But in real life, we get to be buddies. Plus the nanny thing. It’s a small, indie movie, so we couldn’t really fly a nanny out. [Laughs.]

Laura, how old is your son? And why was he so obsessed with Kristen?
LD: He’s now 17, so he was 15 at the time. Turning 16.

KS: I travel with my best friend [Suzie Riemer] when she can, and Laura does, too. So we had a little crew. And we were just like, “Ellory, come over here!” I know what it’s like to grow up on a set, because my mom was a script supervisor, and you want someone to grab you and make you part of the fold, because we’re all stuck here. Also, by the way, Ellory is incredibly fucking cool. When I was 16, I was a serious dweeberson. We were obsessed with him, to be honest. Me and Suzie were marveling at how dope he was for his age, and how dorky we were. Now he’s cooler than our friends.

LD: My compliment back to Kristen is she comes at it with truth. She allows him to be an adult in the room. It’s not like, “Oh, what are your interests?” She was like, “Dude, what are you feeling? What’s happening?”

KS: And he answered everything!

LD: He likes to go deep too.

KS: It was an amazing experience. And we got to wear wigs the whole time.

I’m curious if you guys find the performance inherent in this movie similar to the performance of fame. Do you ever feel like you’re more of a persona than a person, or that the public is trying to craft your narrative for you?
KS: I’ve always really fervently fought against that. But I felt it an immense amount. I’ve had people really close to me for years be like, “Why don’t you make it easier on yourself? When you go to a press day or do an interview or a red carpet — you’re an actor! Can’t you do things that won’t make people write weird shit about you, or have conversations that are hard?” And I’m like, “No, I would rather have them.” I’d rather not be, or not be an actor, if I was just a big lie.

LD: I feel the same. Interestingly, it’s how our friendship developed. Because we met doing press. We met on a Kelly Reichardt movie, Certain Women, having been in different stories [within the film]. But we were paired together for press. And we were like, “Whoa! It’s somebody who wants to answer in the same way, and try to be very available, and maybe even vulnerable in press.” Ten years ago it was easier to be at a junket and hear an actor do what Kristen just said. “Hey, you gotta do your press, just create a story.” But now [actors and the press are] on the same team. Not that we weren’t, but we have a mission. The artist and the press are equally in that “fake news” category, and we want the truth to be exposed through art and through journalism. We have an opportunity to talk about real things, so let’s use it. It feels like we’re part of a tight-knit community now. And it’s a gorgeous feeling you didn’t really have before.

Can you both identify when you felt that shift, when you felt like you could be vulnerable with the public?
LD: I prefer to not identify it! [Laughs.] No, I’m kidding. We’re on a roll here.

KS: Did you play the game more when you were younger? Or you were always the same?

LD: I’m literally staring at my publicist I’ve had since I was 19 years old. And I think she’s thrilled that I’ve finally started to want to be a little bit more aware of self-preservation. [Both laugh.] I was raised by hippie vigilante actors to just say what’s true, speak your political truth, talk about global warming. I made a comedy about abortion! I didn’t require a shift, but I think I thought we were supposed to answer all of the questions, even the ones about relationships. Now I don’t answer those questions. I’ve become a grown-up. For me, it took having kids. I don’t think I was as wise as Kristen. Now I’m protecting them, so I create false narratives to make things sound a little bit kinder at times. I’ve loved everyone I’ve ever loved and worked with! [Laughs.] Other than that, I tell the truth about all else.

KS: This goes right back to what we were talking about with the — fucking Goddammit — the sexuality, the gender stuff! It’s the same — relationships, personal stuff. You feel a responsibility to not be this fake thing, sitting in front of people, thinking you have anything interesting to say outside of trying to sell a movie. People ask you questions, and it’s your responsibility to answer those questions, right? Because I’m not just fucking here to be famous. So yes, I want to give you myself. But when people start asking for things that aren’t you, so they can take you, and morph you into a commodity and sell you? That is not your responsibility, to provide them an income. Like, fuck you! But when you’re little, how do you know which questions to answer, and which to not? It takes growing up, and going, “I know what matters to me and what I care about.”

LD: To go even deeper — because we’re on a tear! — how about the fact that we’re the only girls in the movie? We were with five guys doing press, and the five guys weren’t asked the same questions. I’ve dated musicians and actors, and I’d be like, “Oh my God, [this reporter] asked me so many questions about us.” And the guy would say, “They didn’t ask me anything.” But now that we’re working together as a community of actresses.

KS: We’re all talking, guys!

LD: We’ve all had the same experience. If a man said, “Oh, wouldn’t you like to know?” The journalist would say, “Oh, isn’t that adorable?” And then if we said, “Oh, I’m not comfortable with that question,” the journalist would say, “Really? Why aren’t you? Why aren’t you?”

KS: “What are you hiding?”

LD: There was bullying in a different way.

Speaking to this idea of a persona, do you guys follow the internet discourse around you at all?
LD: No. Oh, God, are you gonna tell me?

KS: You’re shining! Everything I ever see about you is very un-sordid.

LD: I will share things about my views or whatever, but I don’t read anything. I’m unaware. Are you aware of how you’re talked about?

KS: I used to be so aware when I was younger. Because it was so … so bad.

LD: Even I knew! It was everywhere.

KS: I was really curious. I needed to not have people know stuff about me that I didn’t know. At a certain point, I stopped that. Because I actually, genuinely — if there was a way to turn myself inside out, or say this while being X-rayed, you’d know I was being honest. I stopped caring. And it got so much easier. I genuinely stopped giving a fuck what the headlines were, what the articles were. And now, if I Google my name and I read the stuff, I look at it like it’s absurdist art. “Oh, cool, look at this weird thing!” I’m not saying everything is not real. Everyone’s opinion and perception is their own, and if you see a picture of me, walking down the street, that happened. But I used to be aware of it because I cared, because I wanted to control it. And now I control it by not caring. Which is ironic, but it works.

When and why did that change?
KS: I think a couple years ago. I got busy. The further I got away from being a kid, it got easier. And this sounds so, literally, such a circle-jerk — but I’ve also been famous for a long time. The first couple years, I couldn’t understand how many people were in the room. When I put them all out of the room, I realized I could just be myself.

Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern on Becoming BFFs for JT Leroy