crimes of the future

At Cannes, Kristen Stewart Is Bracing for ‘Quite Certain Destruction’

Kristen Stewart’s new movie, David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, takes place in a world in ruins. As she puts it, “We’re not far off.” Photo: Neon/Serendipity Point Films

About halfway through David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, Kristen Stewart sticks her hands directly into Viggo Mortensen’s mouth and peers into it like it’s a dark tunnel. It’s an attempt at seduction — she tells him she wants him to “cut into” her, then massages the side of his face and dives tongue-first into his open jaw. He’s aroused by the more clinical probing, but he politely demurs when it turns into something vaguely resembling a kiss. “I’m not so good at the old sex,” he says apologetically. On a rooftop the morning after the film’s Cannes premiere, Stewart tells me she came up with the idea to inspect his mouth on the spot during filming. “I’m really fucking proud of that,” she says. “I didn’t tell anyone I was gonna do that.”

The new sex, as Stewart’s character puts it in the film, is surgery. Crimes is set in a dystopian near future in which humans are spontaneously sprouting new organs, are unable to experience pain or infection, and are starting to merge with their synthetic environment. As a result, they’re all whacking away at one another, some as a sensual act and others as performance art. Stewart’s Timlin is a self-described “bureaucratic insect” at the National Organ Registry, a secret government entity that tracks and subdues new organ growths in order to suppress the “Accelerated Evolution” syndrome that’s sweeping the globe. When we meet Timlin, she’s squeaky-voiced and shaky, a scolding government stooge, but over the course of the film, she falls into a sort of lusty obsession with Mortensen’s Saul Tenser, an underground performance artist who’s prolifically growing new organs and surgically removing them onstage with the help of his devoted partner, Caprice (Lea Seydoux).

It’s a freaky, fascinating performance from Stewart, made even richer because it reflects back on her own life as an artist and a longtime object of public sycophancy. The through-the-looking-glass life Stewart leads is even more apparent in a place like Cannes: After the festival’s premiere on Monday night, as is tradition, a cameraman trained his lens directly on Stewart’s face as she reacted to the audience’s reaction to the film, broadcasting that reaction on a gigantic screen to the entire audience, which then reacted to her reaction. At the press conference the next morning, Stewart was swarmed by fans both inside and outside the press room as she spoke about playing a character desperate for a piece of the object of her own manic fixation. Minutes after the conference wrapped, I met Stewart — looking calm and Cannes chic in a red checked Chanel two-piece and big yellow sunglasses — to discuss making a film about being up for public consumption while being publicly consumed.

I love this outfit. How did you get here from the press conference and change so quickly?
I actually didn’t change, which is very unlike me. I’m never in an actual outfit for more than five minutes.

Yeah, I saw you at the after-party last night, and you had instantly changed from your premiere outfit into jeans and a crop top.
I actually had an outfit I was supposed to change into just to watch the movie in and then change into jeans after, but I lost it. I was very angry at myself. I was sitting there completely unable to breathe. That top was way too small for me. I was like, “Why did I do this to myself?” I walked out with these red, like, fuckin’ lacerations on my stomach. It was very in keeping with the movie. I cut myself open.

So how did you end up in this film?
David and I actually met at this festival 12 years ago. When he called me on the phone, he was like, “Hey, honey, how are you?” I had just read the script, and I had a lot of questions about where it came from and why right now because it seemed so completely urgent and vital. He was like, “I wrote it in 1996, actually.” I was like, “Oh, cool, cool, so you’re a fuckin’ oracle.” Not to say we haven’t been on this path for a very long time, toward a quite certain destruction. Not to sound too dark, but it is true. The movie takes place in a future that’s in ruins, and we’re not far off.

No, it is true.
I was so excited to play Timlin because I think she kind of — even though I only have a few minutes to come in and tell a story, it’s really fun to have three scenes. If you don’t nail it, you’re wallpaper. Timlin is so locked up, self-oppressed, wants to be good at her job, and totally represents the rigidity of the government that they live under. And she experiences an awakening in a split second. A huge mission statement of the movie is that art triumphs. It saves. It’s something that doesn’t die because we’ve left it behind; it’s outside of the body but it feels reflective. So it was really fun to let my freak flag fully fly. I’m very rarely asked to play weird little characters like that. It’s usually like, “Come play the strong woman facing adversity.” And I’m like, “Fuck that!”

Timlin’s voice and her mannerisms — was that coming straight from you, or was that something you and David discussed?
I really thought he wrote it like that. I don’t know that he made reference to any type of squeaky voice, but she was described as a creepy little bureaucratic gnome. And so I was like, Okay, I think that’s what this sounds like. I kind of tried to change my voice as it went. At first, it was completely locked in, and as I started to become obsessed with this artist, I was trying to speak in a more full way that he might find sensual or something, trying to do an impression of Caprice. Lea Seydoux, she’s a walking, talking ad for sensuality. So I was trying to be her toward the end.

What kind of direction did David give you, if not that?
Very little. Small, gentle massaging. Like, if he was feeling something wasn’t right, it was like, “Don’t do that.” “Pull back on that.” “It’s not quite right.” Or if he enjoyed it, he’d be like, “You’re on the right path! Go further!” It was subtle support. And we never did more than two takes of anything, which is really scary because you’re like, “Wait!” But he only wants your first instinct. He doesn’t want you to strain. There’s something about straining or pushing that’s dishonest. And also he just doesn’t have the patience for it anymore. He’s like, “Nope! We’re done.”

The scene where you stick your hands into Viggo’s mouth as a way of seducing him is so weird and great. Was that in the script, or did you come up with that together?
So that was not in the script. I’m really fucking proud of that. That’s my favorite part of the movie — or my part in the movie, at least. In the script, it was described as a “pas de deux.” They were sort of dancing together. And I took that really literally, so I was so scared that day. I was like, “How are we gonna learn this pas de deux?” And there was so much dialogue. They’re all very strange things to say and therefore not the easiest to remember. The vocabulary itself was toothsome.

So I was scared! I was like, “I’m not gonna be able to dance and keep my connection with you.” But it ended up being that I just chased Viggo around the room. And in the script, it says that at some point I find myself “entwined with him and I stick my tongue down his throat.” It’s so hard to come near someone that you’re so obsessed with. My hands were shaking because we only did it one time. So I was like, If I want to be Caprice and I want him to cut into me and I want to cut into him and I want to get as close as I can to possibly feel something — if I can’t actually do it, maybe I can unhinge his jaw and get as deeply inside his head as I possibly can and examine the actual anatomy of his mouth. So I didn’t tell anyone I was gonna do that. I was like, “Is it cool if I just try this one thing, and just go with me?”

So I massaged his jaw for a second to get it to open and then I went all the way in, like, How do I get more of you? And we didn’t have to do it again. David came in and was like, “Well, that was an extraordinary fucking take!”

What was Viggo’s reaction when you did that?
We had the best time. Because we were both a little intimidated by the scene itself, when David came out and said that, we literally looked at each other and were like, “I guess we’re done!”

When I spoke to David yesterday, I was surprised by how normal and gentle he was, which he says happens to him a lot. Were you surprised by him on set?
Pretty much from the jump, yeah. Even in the way he was answering questions at the press conference. The most simple answer comes from a place of wisdom. You don’t have to complicate certain ideas. Like, “The body is reality.” At first, I was really trying to shove that concept in my head: What does it mean to me and the world and on every level? But he was like, “I shoot people.” That’s it! It’s a body. All of that is surprising. These are really lofty concepts, but also they’re not at all.

His relationship to pain is kind of admirable. I feel like I share a certain instinct to enjoy pain. Not in a masochistic way, but pain holds hands with pleasure. And I don’t even just mean sexually. I mean that if you can enjoy the sort of excruciating nature of having a body, it means you’re also able to accept the good parts in a way that is deep. He has a fearless and accepting approach to life that is contagious. It feels like your dad or grandpa being like, “Look, we’re all in this together. And there’s no way out. This is it. [She slaps her thighs.] So … enjoy it.” That’s fucking dark and scary. But there’s something really beautiful about his philosophy.

I know. I asked him if he had done therapy and he was like, “No!”
Goddamn. You’re like, “We’re all in therapy!”

You said at the press conference that the cast would all go back to your hotel at the end of the day and be like, “What the fuck are we doing?” What were those conversations like? Did you ever come to any conclusions?
I don’t think we ever came to any conclusions. The coolest part of making a movie is that you figure out why you’re doing it either on the film or after. I had read Sapiens and Homo Deus [books by Israeli author Yuval Noah Harari] right before I did this movie, so I was already trying to figure out why I think the way I think. Like, I’m totally a product of my environment. If I was from Kentucky, maybe I would be pro-life. The way humans have gotten here is just such a mindfuck. So I thought, This movie is about basically everything you’ve ever considered. How did we get here? Are we capable of change? Is there any way to come together?

The only way we’ve gotten here is by shared myths. You believe in a thing, therefore it’s true. The only thing that keeps us bound and cumulative as a society is that we tell each other lies and we go, “Co-signed! Baby, I got you. I believe you. I’m with you.” We just made all this shit up! Money, God, everything. When I say “God,” I mean, sex, power, art, all of it. They’re interchangeable words for me. So yeah, we had these kinds of conversations all the time. What does it take to make art? What does it take from you, and what does it give you back? Is everyone an artist, or are there only some people who are compelled to externalize their inner life? Are there people that just want to be close to that? Or is everything we do art? Is everything we do political? Like, right now, what we’re doing is art, maybe. Who the fuck is defining what that is? Who owns it? It totally makes sense that art is radicalized, because it scares people. All of this shit is what we were talking about the whole time.

So, casual!
Yeah! And also it’s really funny. I read the script and I loved it, but I didn’t find it funny. Then being on set, there was just no way to not laugh at everything. What David says is really true: Some of the hardest stuff that you do, you laugh through. Because those emotions are parallel.

When I was at the premiere last night and at the press conference today, people were shoving me to get photos of you guys. I was struck by how it all related to the film and your character and this idea of sycophantic fandom. I’m interested in hearing about your experience of being here and having cameras stuck in your face relative to the character you play.
I’m always torn between wanting to be such an exhibitionist — being out there and open and showing everything about myself — and being protective. To think that you’re misinterpreted is super-narcissistic anyway because everyone is just having their own experience with what you’re putting out there. But I just have a physical aversion that I can’t actually control. I was at the PGAs, and I was having a great time. Steven Spielberg was behind me! It was a room full of people that I was just like — I was like a kid in a candy store. And then this guy with a camera went like this — [mimics camera in face]. Which is completely normal. I’m an actor, and I’m at an awards show. It’s fine. And my body literally went like this — [raises both middle fingers sarcastically]. I couldn’t understand. I was like, Kristen … But it wasn’t like I was angry that he took my picture. It was just a weird, knee-jerk physical reaction to being looked at in a moment where I wasn’t expecting it.

At Cannes, I just have to focus on the things that are good. You can stare at shit, or you can stare at the things that are pretty in the world. So I was like, Okay, focus on David. This movie is so personal to him. It took me watching the movie to realize that Saul Tenser is David. He’s excavating these organs and coughing them up, and he’s like, How long am I going to be able to do this? I was like, Duh, Kristen. Obviously, that’s him. It’s such a testament to everything he’s done. He said at the press conference that everything he does is intimate, but this does feel personal in a way that’s new. So I focused on that.

Then the cameras moved over to me, and I was like, Dude, just get back to David! And also, why so close? My gosh! Just a medium close-up would be great. This is a literal micro-close-up. I’m like, Fuck off!

How did you feel after the premiere?
Before the credits lifted, it was dead silent. I was like, Ooh, people don’t know how to feel. They don’t know if they should clap or not. I felt like it was the fuckin’ Will Smith moment where everyone was like, Yes? No? No. Okay, actually no! Like, do people have to look to their left and right to see if people like it before they clap? It’s a lot to take on at first, I guess. But to me, the movie is so simply sweet. Yes, we’re barreling towards certain death, for sure. But there’s a delicacy to the movie that, even in the gory stuff, I was really bewitched by it. Everyone talking about walking out and how intense it was. I was like, “It’s not intense! It’s really beautiful.”

There’s a distancing effect and a grace to it.
Yeah. It’s kind of how I visualize the inside of my body. It’s not real. It feels all kind of tender and sensitive.

There’s a whole section in the film about an “inner beauty pageant,” and both you and your co-worker in the film, Wippet, are obsessed with Saul Tenser participating in it, initially in the name of “beauty” but then with his “star power.” It almost feels like a critique of the awards world and festivals like Cannes. Is that your experience of sort of being “consumed” as a celebrity?
Part of me really loves that — the novel David wrote is called Consumed. We do want to digest each other. That’s the closest you can get to a person. There are ugly parts of that, and people lose themselves in that. It’s nice when you don’t. If you can really be, like, present in your desire and your obsession, that’s one thing. But to have it tailspin into oblivion? Wippet is so obsessed with Saul’s star power, and in that moment, he really undermines his whole thing: “Oh, the beauty, the beauty, I can’t stay away!” I’m like, Is it the beauty, or are you just whipped into a frenzy by popularity?

You know so clearly which actors like to act and which actors just like to be famous. It’s so fucking obvious. It’s very clear. Why don’t we just say it? I mean, I do, but the people who just want to be the center of attention: I love it! That’s why I got into this. Instead of being like, Oh, it’s the art! I’m like, Is it?

But then again, what am I doing sitting here trying to define what art is for other people. The thing about doing these interviews for 20, 30 minutes is you start sitting here being like, Everything I just said is wrong. Actually, I feel the opposite in every way.

You’re like, “Strike all of that.”
I just chase my tail.

But you seem to have developed a healthy understanding of and relationship to all of this, having been in this world — and at Cannes — long enough to have come to a level place with it. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah. It doesn’t scare me as much anymore because nothing bad ever actually happens. Even when the worst thing happens, you’re like, Oh, I’m fine.

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Kristen Stewart Is Bracing for ‘Quite Certain Destruction’