How Kristen Stewart Unlocked the Unknowable Princess Diana

The star of 'Spencer' talks about the honesty and beauty of Diana's "human flail" in the face of rigid traditions.

spencer, kristen stewart
Neon

In Spencer, the brilliant new film directed by Pablo Larraín, the audience watches Kristen Stewart's Princess Diana battling the mechanisms of royal life that prevent her from living honestly. She is told to watch her words because the walls are thin; even in the kitchen, a menacing sign reads THEY CAN HEAR YOU. Her outfits during Christmas at Sandringham are labeled for their scheduled event. Should she swap one gown for another, she will be chastised. But for Stewart, who gives one of her best performances to date in the "fable," it was Diana's desire to be "straight up" in the face of this pressure that endures as one of her defining qualities.

"Straight up" can also be an apt way to describe Stewart herself, who, even during a brief interview, is forthright and exudes passion for her work with an uncensored glee. Here, Stewart discusses how she interpreted the royal woman who has been more frequently perceived than understood, as well as one of the most shocking and funny lines of dialogue in the film.

Thrillist: In your exploration of Diana, was there any specific detail that unlocked your understanding of her?
Kristen Stewart: For someone who had to be so self-protective, she also just was constantly very clearly wanting to be very straight up. And it's weird, because the main thoroughfares of her communicative skills were so stunted. She started doing this so young, you know what I mean? She was 15 when she started this courting process. It happened really early. And then having children that young and already becoming defined in other people's minds, but so generalized, therefore nonexistent. So perpetuating that framework was actually impossible, because she didn't exist. There's not a person there. And she was just starting to figure out who she was. You know, when you're that age you're—

You're sort of an idiot.
You're putting it together, yeah. You're a little crazy, idiot sociopath, that's what it is. So I think because I was so struck by her power—that definitely doesn't imply classical strength. Her power was that she just permeated a room. So even though she was never allowed to be honest, her presence is honest. Even if she's completely lying or not leaning into a question, the way she leans away from questions is so honest. So I just felt like I'm lucky enough to kind of say whatever I want, but I've been reticent in the past. I've tried to have more control over that communication. I could just see her not being allowed to figure that out for herself, but craving it.

So for me, in looking at all of this stuff, one awesome thing that you can't be dishonest about is the way that you laugh. And there were times that she would just bubble out this, sometimes, manic laughter. It wouldn't always hit, that's the thing. It would make some people really uncomfortable, and you could just see what that must have been like behind closed doors, where her laughter was obviously not received. And then conversely, she would be in public and start laughing, and it would be the most contagious, incredible thing. It's what connected her with people.

So no, I don't think there was any one thing that unlocked her. Pablo always says in these interviews, he still doesn't know her. We couldn't. But I don't know, I think that she wanted so desperately to be understood, that it is such an ironic and sad space that she fills in cultural history now. I think the reason we're so obsessed with her is because we lost her so early, and we just want to know more, and we never know more. Having said that, she was very articulate about her experience at the end of her life. I mean, she did try and let people in on that, but hindsight is 2020, and she never got to the point where she could share that with us. Do you know what I mean? It's so embedded in that moment, and it was fucking emotional, and it was very reactive. It was a woman clearly inhabiting a liberated space. It was a human flail. And we saw that. But that's what I love about her. She was willing to fall on her face in public because, actually, that is what felt more honest and true and beautiful.

spencer
Neon

You mentioned how she's a straight shooter. One of the favorite lines in the film is when she tells a dresser, "Now leave me. I wish to masturbate." What were your thoughts on that line?
Well, what I love about that line is that it's not true. She then goes and self-harms and runs into her kids' room. I wasn't trying to make it dour, but it's interesting. You're like, "Leave me alone. I wish to masturbate." And that's what she goes to do. I also just think when something is said about you that you don't find to be true, sometimes the defiant, immature version of you comes out, because the mature, collected, open person is being denied access to communication. Therefore, what you do is, you lean into being a child. "OK, well I'm going to be exactly what you think I am, because you're not receiving me honestly. You think I'm petulant? Watch this."

"You think I'm having an affair..."
Yeah, "watch this," exactly. I just think that makes so much sense. It's just, that's human. She's been totally criticized for being manipulative and knew what she was doing with the press and set-up photo ops. If you were so backed into a corner and muzzled, and never really able to feel control over—it's not even the way you're perceived—but just your experience, I understand completely trying to take the power from them and sort of disarming them of their weapons and using them against them, and to your benefit.

The film uses the ritual of meals as an indication of the oppression of the tradition. How did you approach that?
There are aspects of their lives that, when you examine them literally, are absurd. And there are a few things that we use and that are in the movie, and there are a few things that I know Pablo and [screenwriter] Steve [Knight] discovered that they didn't use because, to tell the truth about certain details that, for us, are so unrelatable. It just would add a satiric element to the movie that they definitely didn't want. So it's even weirder than what we present. We really pulled back on that. The only times we ever do anything that isn't reflective of what's going on in that house, custom-wise, ritual-wise, they would never go to dinner dressed like that. But that's the scene, that you fall into her perspective completely. And for the rest of the movie, you're not quite sure what's real. That's how she felt. You imagine a sort of stifled, overtly dressed, overtly indulgent, farcical picture of privilege and happiness. And that, to her, just looks absurd. And she doesn't fit inside of it. And then, in one cut, there's this image of Anne Boleyn that flashes. And so we go back in history, we go back in time hundreds of years, in one second. In that moment, we're clearly not trying to depict what really happened in there, but it is, maybe, an idea of what happened inside of her.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.