In Venice: Kristen Stewart on “Seberg”

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen September 1, 2019
Actress Kristen Stewart in Venice 2019

vittorio zunino celotto/getty images

Kristen Stewart stars as American actress Jean Seberg, whose life was tragically destroyed when she became a target of the FBI's COINTELPRO program. The actress, who became a darling of the French new wave best known for Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, was a political activist who supported the Black Panther Party and was thus placed on the FBI’s list of persons to be ‘neutralized’. Benedict Andrews’s film shows how the wiretaps and harassment lead to the actress’ downfall and her untimely death at the age of 40 in 1979.

The film starts with a scene from Saint Joan in which Jean Seberg is burned at the stake, like a witch. Is this symbolic of what happened to the actress in real life too?

Yes, but in a much less transparent way, which makes it all the more painful. She is somebody who is so willing to sacrifice herself.  There was a selfless and very open nature to her humanitarianism and it was not self-serving in any sense. I don’t assign the martyrdom to her, but she was viciously crucified not only for the way that she thought but the way that she really wanted to reach people. The powerful imagery that the movie starts with gets you on the right foot. This person’s heart was definitely in the right place.

Do you think that the way they went for her because she was a supporter of the Black Panther Party had anything to do with the fact that she was a white woman?

Actually, I do. I think that anything that would threaten the status of these selfish and empowered white men motivated by foundational and systemic racism would have been taken out.

Most people know about Jean Seberg as the icon or the darling of the new wave in French film. Were you surprised by this story?

I knew Breathless. I was surprised that it is not more commonly known. I understand why it was not publicized then but it is really crazy how this story fell by the wayside. It is such a shame. It is hard to celebrate such a tragedy but the opportunity to sort of dignify her and validate her is such a beautiful opportunity and I wish she had left to see it.

Kristen Stewart in ascene from "Seberg"

Kristen Stewart in a scene from Seberg.

courtesy of the Venice Film Festival

 

How did you relate to her? You are an actress too, you are famous and you are also very politically outspoken. Were there many similarities?

I think we are tonally very different, so it was a bit of a stretch to play somebody who was so light. She has such an air about her. Not in a way that is wishy-washy but literally she inhabits a space in such a breathy way. When you watch interviews or watch her movies, she inhabits a space very differently from me, so the biggest challenge was that buoyancy about her. She was assertive but there was a grace and an ease, which she managed to live her life with that was really contagious. There is an openness and a willingness to engage. She has a really beautiful energy and to see that person have to protect herself and go away and recede is so sad. Watching some of her later movies, you can see that she is no longer with us and knowing the reasons for that now is really interesting.

How do you relate to that as an actress though?

I am fully committed to the idea that if you function from a place of honesty that you can really vouch for yourself. You cannot have full control over how everything goes down or how people perceive you. But as long as you are functioning from a really true place, you can put your foot in your mouth and you can make mistakes, you can feel good about what you are putting out and I think that there is a naiveté to her and an impulsiveness and sometimes simplifies nature but it was always so well-intentional and so true that it is impossible not to find that endearing rather than think it is silly or stupid.

You saw the film with an audience at the premiere here in Venice. What was this experience like? How did you feel the audience reacted to the film?

I don’t know. I could not get a strong gage in the room. I have only seen it one other time. I was sitting next to Benedict Andrews, who directed the film and Anthony Mackie, who plays Hakim Jamal and I was gaging both of them. There is this kind of weird cosmic, mystic thing about her story that she feels present in this way that I could be making up. It was the 40th anniversary of her death and it was a total coincidence that the premiere was on that very day. When I was watching the film I thought that most people don’t know her story and whether or not we did a “good job”, we know that our intentions were very clear.

When you leave the film you are very emotional, because you cannot believe what happened to her.

Yes. The film ends in a very dark place.