Director Ang Lee had only seen one Kristen Stewart film when he approached the actor to play a pivotal role in his groundbreaking drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, about a traumatised US soldier who is celebrated as a hero when he returns from the Iraqi War. It wasn’t Twilight.
The performance that had etched itself onto Lee’s subconscious was the free-spirited teenager Stewart played Sean Penn’s survival drama Into The Wild (2007).
In terms of screen time, that role, shot the best part of a decade ago when Stewart was just 16 or 17, didn’t amount to much more than a cameo.
“It reminds me of how Heath Ledger used to work for me,” says Lee. “If you saw him in one movie — like Monster’s Ball — you just remembered him. He was like the emotional core. “Kristen gave me that vibe.”
The far-reaching impact of Stewart’s performance in Into The Wild goes some way to explaining the success the former “tabloid brat” has had in reinventing herself as a serious independent actor in the wake of the final Twilight instalment, which was released in 2012.
The actor had already received solid reviews for her performances as Joan Jett in The Runaways, Marylou in On the Road, and Em Lewin in Adventureland. Post-Twilight, however, the critics have been positively effusive.
“Sensational” was the adjective Rolling Stone used to described Stewart’s performance in Clouds of Sils Maria, for which she became the first US actor ever to win a Cesar, or French Oscar.
"The role … calls for a baleful eye, rare cunning and expert comic timing. Stewart nails every nuance,” was the verdict.
Recent notices for Woody Allen’s Café Society, in which she starred opposite Jesse Eisenberg, have been even more enthusiastic.
“Stewart is good enough to almost make you wish for another version of The Great Gatsby just so she could play Daisy,” said the Hollywood Reporter.
“Glorious” was New Statesman’s passionate summary of her performance.
“It’s been hard, but obviously every step I have taken has led me to this particular spot,’’ Stewart told News Corp Australia when American Ultra was released last year.
“And I wouldn’t change it. Not personally. Not professionally. Nothing.”
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s the phenomenally-successful Twilight Saga stands out as the aberration in a career that spans Panic Room with Jodie Foster (2002), and more recently Still Alice (2014), with Julianne Moore.
Lee approached Stewart to play the role of Billy Lynn’s sister because he needed an actor who was capable of packing a big punch in a relatively short space of time.
“It’s an angry part. She sort of represents the dissolution of the American dream,’’ he says. “It’s not a big role but it’s a significant one; the emotion lands on her final scene. The movie didn’t have time to develop her actually so it’s a lot to ask. “I think she delivered. ”She has the necessary weight and intensity and devotion.”
For Stewart, who is currently dating singer-songwriter Annie Clark, better known as St Vincent, the character functions as the film’s emotional backbone.
She embraced the challenge but “without sounding simplistic, I would probably have done anything with Ang. I have grown up watching his films.”
An added incentive was Lee’s decision to push the technological boundaries of 3D, shooting the film at 120 frames per second, twice the previous record (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey) and five times the standard speed of 24fps.
The technology is so groundbreaking, only half a dozen cinemas in the world have the capacity to screen it in that form.
"The way it’s being captured is just so forward and I wanted to be the first step in that new process,” says Stewart.
But when it comes to choosing roles, the actor insists she has no real game plan.
"I make really instinctual, impulsive choices in terms of stories and people that I find myself able to bring to life.”
Like the Ben Fountain novel from which it was adapted, Billy Lynn is set on a single day in 2004. The title character’s Iraqi War platoon is to be celebrated at the Dallas Cowboy’s Thanksgiving halftime show. But everybody seems to have their own take on the war hero’s story, which is revealed in flashback. And that makes it exceptionally difficult for the traumatised soldier to work out what his own version might be.
“He comes home a different man. There’s a massive separation or divide that occurs,” says Stewart, whose outspoken character is passionately concerned for her brother’s welfare. She tries desperately to dissuade her brother from going back.
“It’s not the most divided way of looking at things — it was a ridiculous and senseless war,’’ says the actor who plays her. “Let’s be honest, we didn’t know. But when you put young boys in the middle of that, it’s important for our generation of filmmakers to tell those personal stories.
“Yes it’s political. But at the same time it’s just so close to home, it needs to be explored.”
After shooting seven films, back-to-back, over the past two years, Stewart has taken a bit of time to “replenish the well.” “I got a little burned out,” she says.
“My schedule was pretty full on for a long time … I guess I tempered it rather than taking a break.”
During that “down time” she wrote and directed the short film Come Swim, which is currently in the final stages of post- production.
“I have never been happier doing anything,” she says. “It was so much fun.
"I don’t see a huge distinction between acting and directing — it’s kind of like the next level of my life and I feel really lucky to be able to explore that now.”
Over the Christmas break, Stewart intends to start developing her first feature.
But right now, she is filming the psychological thriller Lizzie, based on the infamous 1892 Borden family murders, in Savannah.
Chloe Sevigny plays the title character. Stewart plays the young maid she befriends. After that, the 26-year-old actor is open to offers.
“I am just going to keep my head down and plough through,” she says. “There is no rhyme or reason as to how things fall into your lap, what becomes the story that you want to tell.
“I have nothing other than my gut to lead me and it’s not let me down so far.
"So right now I have no grand plans. I am just going to carry on.”