HNS, along with other media outlets, got to sit down and chat with Personal Shopper star Kristen Stewart and Director Oliver Assayas this week. Check out the interview below and be sure to go see the film, which opens today in select theaters across the US!
What I think your film really nails is this overwhelming sense of feeling loneliness, of feeling adrift in the grief process, just really nailing that. Where did this project begin for you as the storyteller and where did you start with your character?
Oliver: Well in my case, I had this image of this really lonely girl in Paris trying to find some consolationa in her inner space, something like that, doing this job she dislikes in the fashion industry, was always part of this character. It’s really like someone who works in something that’s very superficial, that is very frustrating, that doesn’t give her satisfaction and find some protections in the art, in her own imagination. And somehow I think the tension between those two sides of her became accentuated in the process of writing the story. Because all of a sudden it became someone who is doing this ultra alienating job, dressing someone else and at the same time trying to connect with something that has to do with herself and another dimension, ultimately it has to do with connecting with her own self conscious. To boil it down with something.
Kristen: It’s a strange place to start with someone too, because usually you have to kind of…. This person would sort of pre-exist you. And you need to substantiate them with every answer to every question, like where are they from? Who are they? What are they into? What do they want? What are their hopes and dreams? But this person starts off so utterly fragmented, that like the idea, the inexplicable definition of reality doesn’t allow her to exist. She’s like if I can’t define existence, then who am I? And so, for me, like starting this, preparing for this was really more about just being willing to be present in something that you actually cannot remotely define. She would love to be present and interact with people and find connections that are kind of like something that would feel comforting, but she doesn’t exist and therefore how could she? So yeah it’s just about like somebody who goes through a really traumatic event like loss. Traumatic events are catalysts for existential fucking crises.
Oliver: I think what was important for me, I mean what kind of was the key for the film when I started writing it was pretty much the first scene of the film. I liked the idea, you know we start the story, we don’t know who this character is, she’s in this strange house in a strange space, and she is trying to get in touch with something that’s beyond her. Like we all do in a certain way and I like the idea of not knowing a thing about her. We don’t know where we are, we don’t know who she is, we don’t know what this is all about but we are with her. We become her, we are there walking in the dark with her. And I don’t know, I think a lot of what the film is about stems from there.
This is a fun question. Do you see yourself a shopping junkie person/ how in touch are you with shopping and fashion and all that stuff? Do you have a good sense of what to wear? Do you have a personal shopper?
Kristen: No, that’s funny. That doesn’t really, it’s not quite something that actors… like I guess certain celebrities would have that, people that are extraordinarily rich and strange. But yeah, no I like clothes. They’re ok.
Oliver: People like that who work for people who have an actual job, and who do a lot of representation, meaning you know whose job includes doing a lot of red carpet stuff, you can’t really be on the red carpet with exactly the same outfit every single time, you know so you need to have somebody who does that kind of job for you, who helps you with that. It kind of makes sense ultimately as crazy as it sounds. It has some kind of validity.
Did you get to keep any of the dresses?
Kristen: Actually, yeah.
Which one? The sparkly one?
Kristen: No, Chanel owns that. No but the harness-y one. I kept that one. That’s like mine. Nobody can have that.
So does any of the work you’ve done over the years, you’ve done so many great independent films as well as so many great mainstream films, and I’ve been a big fan since Speak. What do you think the biggest challenge is going back and forth between these totally different movies, I mean you always take on different roles, what’s the hardest thing for you?
Kristen: It’s funny like, I normally don’t, I don’t think that I’ve really done too many… I mean I guess maybe I can identify like one or two times, but I can read really beautifully written scripts all day long, and that doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a part in it, whether or not I fit the description physically or by age or gender doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s in me or like it’s the right time to play the part. So honestly it’s never, like the difference between them, it’s not hard … I never bring anything other than myself to different parts. You change the circumstances, essentially yes, you’re changing the person but I never want to step outside of myself and represent a character in order to entertain people or service a story. My main goal is to be stirred up by something and allow it to reveal parts. I’d really rather stumble upon discoveries and sort of unanswerable questions rather than like package and deliver stories to people. It’s not hard going… I like working. I like to do it. I like to do it a lot.
Did a lot of your own personality come out in this role? I felt like it kind of tackled a little bit of your dislike for fame, some aspect of fame. I know you like doing the work, but I also know, I’ve been a big fan for a long time, that I know this kind of stuff makes you uncomfortable so like the character a little bit, the character in this movie kind of having that anti-celebrity kind of feel, didn’t really like that.
Kristen: I liked that she was like at once really attracted to something that she also thought was partially or potentially empty. Yeah, and sort of like this… you need to be fairly confident to, there’s a vanity surrounding like wanting to look good in clothes, and there’s a sort of self-obsessed thing that you have to have in order to be like, ‘Oh god, I imagine myself in that, I want to feel that.’ So that I know that feeling, of being like, ‘No, nobody can wear that. I should be the one wearing that.’ But then at the same time, that’s absurd and I don’t want to be the person that thinks like that. So I feel that. I have less trouble navigating that because I have access and choice, which is the luckiest thing in the world, whereas she is in the position where she is attracted to something and servicing this thing but is so much smaller than it and kind of like resents it but is at the same time is aggrandizing it.
Oliver: I also think that when I’m writing, what of course interests me is with Kristen, as with any actor, is the real person. So in the case of Kristen, both movies, I think I’m kind of throwing the burden of celebrity on someone else so that she doesn’t have to carry it herself in the film.
There’s sort of a notion in American film that genre film should not be introspective or character-driven or interesting, and I find that is usually the opposite case in European film, can you speak about that?
Oliver: The thing is, I’ve always been influenced by genre filmmaking. When I started making films, the filmmakers I admired were David Cronenberg, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, I think those movies somehow they deal with something that can be deeper in terms of understanding human beings. I think that something there, that touches something that’s deeper than psychology.
Kristen: Well also because it’s physical. A physical reaction.
Oliver: Because it’s physical. It connects physically with the audience, and I think it’s something extremely profound there. So you know it’s not like I’m saying I admire guys who are doing horror movies, ultimately I admire guys who deal with complex issues through that medium and I admire them for the depth of it ultimately. And so it always makes me want to use those elements because it’s a way of getting at something I’m fascinated with I suppose, and I think also the difference in approach is not so much about Hollywood vs. indie European films, it’s more like something that has to do with American identity which is very much connected to a Meinken world view where what is visible is good and what is not visible…
Kristen: Doesn’t exist.
Oliver: is evil. Evil is lurking there or something. Whereas I think that if we’re discussing visible and invisible, I think that visible might be certainly more evil than what is invisible and what is invisible is further inside us and in many ways more precious.
In the movie, we see different ways that people deal with death. Does the new technology change the way people remember the dead or process the fact that they’re just not there anymore?
Oliver: Yes, it does in a certain disturbing way. I think that movies have been about that in a certain way you know. It’s kind of interesting if you look at things, how at the end of the 1950’s all of a sudden, it’s like the end of the studio system, and you have indie films and you have this book by Kenneth Anger, “Hollywood Babylon,” which ultimately deals on the death of Hollywood movie stars and he writes it as that specific moment is because it’s the one moment when you realize all of a sudden everything written in the silent era is about ghosts. I mean those guys are gone, you know you see people who are alive [onscreen], people who are actually dead and I think that it’s not just technology, it’s the world of images that changes our relationship with the dead. The dead are still around in strange ways and especially movies.
Kristen: You’re not allowed to forget it. Your brain has much less ability than this guy.
Do the both of you believe in the afterlife or paranormal situations or what not?
Oliver: Well you know you live in a country, where which has become involved in the supernatural so yeah. [laughs]
Speaking a little bit about the invisible and not visible, in your last film together, you played an assistant which is also another sort of invisible role in this whole Hollywood industry. There seems to be this running theme, maybe an emotional through line, am I even supposed to be seeing an emotional through line between these two films? Do you even look at it that way when you play a character like both of those characters and when you have a movie like that?
Kristen: I mean I guess like, from an outsider’s perspective, I could look at these two movies and intellectually assess them and probably be like oh these are similarities and this came first and maybe if I did that… but the process of making these movies, they had fucking nothing to do with one another whatsoever. But maybe in conceptualizing them it’s a different story.
Do you see that as a filmmaker? Do you see emotional through lines?
Oliver: Those two films are completely different dynamics in the sense that one is really based off the relationship between two women. So it’s really the dynamics are really defined by how things function between Juliette and Kristen. And there’s some kind of energy, which has to do also with comedy you know, it’s both a movie that has some kind of serious subject, it’s about aging or this or that, but it’s also a comedy. This is not a comedy. Even if we have here and there, it’s allowed to laugh or smile, but still it’s a movie about mourning, about how we deal with death and so on and so forth, and it’s more about Kristen and Kristen. It’s really Kristen trying to struggle with something happening within herself so the logic of the film is radically different.
Kristen, when you were reading the script, was there a specific part that you had an “Aha!” moment that yes, I’m definitely on board or was it the overall script that you liked?
Kristen: Like while reading the script?
Yeah, while you were reading the script.
Kristen: Yeah, I would say I read the entire thing and got to the end and the line was like roughly translated, because he wrote the script in French and then it was translated and sent to me, and so the last line it just didn’t make sense, and it was like you were kind of waiting. I didn’t know that that line was coming but you were kind of waiting for something to crystalize in some way. It wasn’t happening, it wasn’t happening, it wasn’t happening, like third to the last page, second to the last page, the last page, and then there’s one line that ends it, I was like what is that? What the fuck does that even mean? So I thought that I was being like tricked or something or that I was stupid, that I just didn’t understand. And I knew what it should be, and so then I knew that I understood my relationship with the movie, and everyone has a different response to it cause everyone has a different relationship with what they think reality is, but like I knew, I just knew what it… there’s no should, but like I knew what it should be. And so in that moment, I was like I can’t articulate everything that I feel about this, but I get it because I can answer this question and I asked him, ‘What is this?’ and he’s like, ‘Oh that’s probably not right,’ and I was like, ‘Well do you know what it is going to be?’ and he’s like, ‘Oh I’m not sure exactly, I’m still thinking about that’ in terms of the translation, and so I was like, ‘No, I’m telling you I know!’ and he’s like, ‘Ok, great well just do that.’ And then I was like, ‘You don’t want to hear it?’ because I’m like an over-sharer, I want to talk about everything, and I was like, ‘Well let me tell you what it is!’ And he was like, ‘No, no just do it like when we do it,’ and that scene was coming like weeks and weeks later in the schedule and I was like wow, but that would mean that we were on the same page in terms of what this movie was about. And he’s like, we don’t have to be on the same page, we just have to be asking the same questions. We just need to be together doing it.