Spencer: Kristen Stewart Shines as Princess Diana–How a Fairy Tale Became Horror Story

Kristen Stewart Discusses her Role as Princess Diana

The rapturous response at the world premiere of Spencer, a new biopic of Princess Diana, at the Venice Film Festival, almost insures that its star, Kristen Stewart, would land an Oscar nod for her dazzling transformation.

Despite many accomplished roles, it would be the actress, who’s 31, her first Oscar nod.

Kristen Stewart
Aurore Marechal/Abaca/Sipa USA

The film is directed by Pablo Larraín, who in 2016 made Jackie, starring Natalie Portman in an Oscar-nominated performance as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis following the assassination of JFK.

Spencer opens in theaters in the U.S. on November 5.

In Spencer, Stewart plays Diana over the course of three days during a bruising Christmas holiday at the Sandringham Estate with the Royal family.

The movie is bound to be controversial, as it shows Diana teetering on the brink of a nervous breakdown.  We observe the Princess of Wales throws up as she grapples with bulimia, talks about cutting herself, and, in one scene, tells her dresser to give her some privacy so that she can pleasure herself.

Instead of showing her interactions with the Royal family–the Queen is invisible–the film focuses on Diana’s role as a doting mother to William (Jack Nielen) and Harry (Freddie Spry). She brings them Christmas presents, complains that they are too cold due to lack of proper heating, sneaks them out of bed for a game, and even takes them to the drive-through of a KFC for a meal.

Asked why he chose to make a film about Diana, director Larraín says: “I wanted to make a movie that my mother could like. I have movies that she doesn’t like at all.  I also wanted to make a movie that could relate to what my mother saw or sees in Diana. Diana was a very famous icon on many levels, but she was a mother as well, and more importantly, was someone who created something incredibly beautiful–a high level of empathy. I was always curious to examine someone like her, born to privileged circumstance, linked to the Royal aristocracy, and yet so normal, a woman that could feel ordinary and build this bridge of empathy all around the world.”

He elaborates: “My mother imitated her, I saw her having her hair like her, and she would try to dress like her. But the more I looked into Diana, I realized she really carried an enormous amount of mystery. And that mystery combined with  magnetism, create the perfect elements for an intriguing movie, even if we will never completely understand her.”

For Kristen Stewart, “the really sad thing about Diana is that she, as normal, casual and disarming as she was, she also fel isolated and lonely. She was able to make everyone else feel bolstered by her beautiful sort of light, and all she wanted was to just have it back. It’s like we are all mirrors of each other, what you give is what you get, and she was desperate to reveal some truth in the special environment in which she was an outsider.”

She adds: “The Brits are perceived as people that have stiff upper lip mentality, but when I think of Diana, when I look at pictures of her, I feel like the ground shakes and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I was intrigued by the idea of somebody being so desperate for connection and somebody who is able to make other people feel so good, feeling herself so bad on the inside.  We haven’t had many such people in history; she really sticks out as a sparkly, just a house on fire.

The actress emphasizes Diana’s powerful impact on people’s imagination. She thinks “this quality is just something that she was born with. There are some people who are just endowed with undeniable penetrating energy.”  Stewart singles out her ability to be “genuinely touchable.” She was really so present wherever she was, and that’s my favorite thing about her.”

Realizing that Diana was also a fashion icon, Stewart observes: “There’s this common thread in the fashion world which is elevation, sort of ‘let’s give them a dream.’ That is one way of being an aspiration. But even when she looked at her most glamorous, she also felt like she could kick her shoes off and walk outside with you and ask you how you are, and touch your face and be with you, and you would feel that honesty from her. It’s hard to do that when you are teetering around on heels and looking like nobody can come near you.”

As for wardrobe, “it didn’t matter what she was wearing–even though she had incredible style sense–Diana was somebody who knew how to use clothes as armor, but at the same time, she was so available. She couldn’t hide in her clothes, because she wore her heart on her sleeve and that to me was the coolest thing about her.”

Burden of Being Celeb and Icon

She says: “It must have been tough for her to be the most famous woman in the world,  the most photographed woman in the world.” As a famous actor herself, Stewart (still best known for the Twilight movies) could relate to that: “I have tasted a high level of fame, but nowhere near that monumental symbolic representation of an entire country, and then the whole world.”

Her experience of being a celeb is “that feeling, like you don’t have control over a situation, or no control over people’s impression of you, but that’s life, that’s normal, every celeb experiences that, you can’t control everyone’s opinions of you.”

Even so, “when you know that the story on the street is wrong and there’s no way to correct it, you feel desperate. I am going to get back on track, but the idea that maybe you had five minutes where somebody thought that you hadn’t connected with them and they have gotten this bad impression of you.”

She admits to having “wanted to run back a million times every day, and be like, ‘oh can we actually redo that interview?’ the feeling that I didn’t say the right thing. So imagine what that was like for Diana, imagine her feeling backed into a corner by the media At some point, every celeb wants to bury her teeth because it makes you feel like a trapped animal.”

“Diana created a notion that encouraged people to feel like they know her. That was her talent.  She made herself accessible, and you feel like you are friends with her, you feel like she is your mother or cousin or sister.”

“But ironically, she was the most unknowable person and somebody who really never wanted to be alone. Some people are good at it, others hate it. Diana wanted the connection, she wanted people in her life, and yet she was often the most isolated human being.”

Narrative Spanning Only Three Days

As noted, the narrative spans only three days: “We tried to imagine the nature of these three days, we wanted that to come to a head. But it’s tough, I don’t think anyone can understand what she felt like. We tried to imagine, but the ironic and saddest part of the story is that we will never really know her.”

Larraín holds that “it’s interesting when you look at someone in a crisis, instead of just going over a longer period of time. If you choose a specific moment where there is huge crisis, then things become very interesting, and you can get to know that person better. As a character, Diana starts broken in big crisis, then she becomes a ghost, then she is back again healed and ready to move on. We–Steve Knight, who wrote this beautiful script, and my producers–felt that it was great opportunity to create a fairy tale that had a different structure. We all tell fairy tales to our children when they go to bed, trying to transmit an optimistic perspective, but then we grow up and get to understand that fairy tales also can be troubled and difficult.”

Says Stewart: “We have a Princess that is just going away from the idea of being a queen, because she wants is to be herself. It’s fascinating to observe this identity crisis in a compressed amount of time. It also allowed us to use a single space, this palace, this castle, they call it ‘house’ in England. We view that physical space as a metaphor of a bigger structure, that house is really a formal organization. Diana is a character trapped in the wheels of tradition and history.”

“We imagined that her experience during those days, when she decided to leave the Royal Family, was very painful but also liberating. I took more pleasure into my physicality making this movie than I ever had on anything, I felt more free and alive than ever before. The best days on set for me, which actually ended up being almost every day, is when we shot this dance montage, which was very free form. The only plan we had was based on her look, the room and the song. And the song informed the energy. It was just about inhabiting the space and kind of taking your impression of everything you have ever learned inside and outside of the script and shoving it into one moment and just allowing it to become physical.”

“Whenever Pablo would choose a song, I was shaking before every single time I had to do this, I was like, ‘oh God, what’s it going to be.’ I am over the stairs and I am going to fall down, what’s the song, is it happy or is it sad? And he was like, just inhabit the space. But he chose songs that were eerily perfect for me, songs that are really girly of an angsty teenager.”

“Almost every day we had a space in the schedule for me to dance in a different space, with specific wardrobe, and choice of songs. Pablo took a loose, spontaneous approach, he would roll the camera and then play the song and see what happens. It was just a different type of songs to get me moving and feeling different emotions. Some of the songs were sadder, while others were more fun and more aggressive. Miles Davis, Talking Head, Lou Reed, and Sinead O’Connor.”

In preparation for the role, Stewart says: “We had Royal advisors to tell us all the things that you couldn’t know as an outsider.  The stage that we depict in the film is unraveling. So I learned the curtsy and I learned what we are supposed to, like not go in the kitchen ourselves and steal food. All of those details. There was always someone around to make sure that nothing was out of line, that we remained authentic. Because obviously I am American and not from that country, and Pablo is from Chile.”

Is the movie reflecting voyeuristic obsession? Stewart draws a distinction between just intruding into one’s life, and the sort of multiplicity that art can brings to that world. We were inspired by her life. I came into this project at a later stage, but the movie doesn’t profess to know everything. It imagines a feeling. And my impression can only be my own. Diana was a woman who wanted people to come together, and one goal of our movie is to bridge gaps. There’s nothing salacious about our intention in this movie.”

Diana’s Life as Fairy Tale and Horror Film

“Our movie tries to capture the desirable imagination of billions of people around the world of the possibility of a fairy tale,” Larrain says. “When we all saw her in that wedding dress, we all wanted her to succeed. Diana was a woman chosen by a Prince, who was meant to eventually become the queen and then they would live happily ever after. But that just doesn’t always happen.  Growing up and becoming an adult make your realize that real life isn’t like that. Andin Diana’s case, it just didn’t happen, and what began as a real fairy tale ended like a horror movie.”