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Kristen Stewart on ‘Still Alice’

Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart (photo by Gage Skidmore*)
It’s a figure of speech to talk about losing one’s mind, but the idea takes on new and awful meaning when it actually happens — when language and concepts and sense of where and who you are begin to deteriorate and you slowly lose the faculties you’ve always taken for granted. I have a terrible fear of this happening to me, and as I settled into a screening of Still Alice, my anxiety level rose. Why do I keep getting stuck with a word on the tip of my tongue? Why have I always walked into rooms and forgotten what I’ve come there to do? Yet as the film progressed, the realism it brought to bear far overshadowed my panic. My pounding chest calmed, then turned to heartbreak with the unfolding of the story of a family whose bonds are tested by the ravages of a neurodegenerative disease.

Still Alice offers an intimate narrative of a 50-year-old woman still in her prime who’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her story is told from a deeply personal perspective, getting the audience about as close to a first-person experience as possible. Julianne Moore plays Dr. Alice Howland, a renowned linguistics professor who one day forgets the word “lexicon” in the midst of a lecture. It’s a far more significant moment than she thinks, ultimately symbolizing the imminent loss of her entire store of knowledge.

Alice’s youngest daughter, played by Kristen Stewart, is a struggling actress. First seen butting heads with her mother at a restaurant, Lydia appears stubborn, rebellious and adamant that she’s making the right decisions. And as we get to know the whole family — including Alice’s other two children (Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish) and husband (Alec Baldwin) — it becomes clear that Lydia is much more than the rough-edged black sheep.

Stewart’s character is the only one who can face her mother, illness and all, head-on with love, sympathy and the innate decency not to treat her any differently. Alice’s relationship with Lydia is the tie that truly binds.

Speaking about her role in Still Alice at a press event in Beverly Hills, Stewart expresses a feeling of kinship with Lydia — from her character’s need for artistic fulfillment to her free-form outlook that’s open to uncertain situations.

“I think it is easier for a person who lives and indulges in the ambiguity of life,” she suggests of Lydia’s adapting to her mother’s circumstance. “And I think that it’s easier for a child [like that], looking at a mother with something that is so indefinable; it’s easier for [her] to appreciate and live in the moments. And just because you can’t have a final answer in terms of how it’s all going to work out, or you can’t call it by a name, it’s still worth living in that potentially wonderful moment, [as opposed to] somebody who wants to map it all out, and if they can’t solve it like an equation then they just can’t have it in their lives. I can relate to my character in that I definitely don’t have the answers and that’s not even what I’m looking for. I’m not the type of person who’s like, ‘I just need to feel concrete. I just need to feel like nothing is going to change.’ I revel in the change, and it’s not that [Lydia is] more apt or has the tools to be more emotional — she’s not emotionally stronger. It’s not strength; it’s just the way people are. I think within this story and within anyone’s realities that might be similar, I hope to God they have someone who doesn’t need the answer, and who’s just willing to sit there and forget every other sentence and still enjoy the afternoon.”

When asked how she can relate to Lydia’s life as a struggling actress when Stewart herself is already a “mega-star,” she suggests that the search for artistic fulfillment doesn’t end, even when you’re at the top. “One of the greatest struggles as someone is becoming an adult is figuring out what they want to do, what makes them happy. I feel like Lydia actually figured it out quite early. The courageous thing is to stick with it, and see it through, and see if you are correct.”

She admires the tenacity of her friends who are still working to achieve their goals, and that even with her own success, she knows what it’s like to seek avenues for self-expression. “If I stopped working tomorrow, I would still have these impulses, these feelings to get out,” says Stewart. “These questions and desires to explore — I still can completely relate. I feel that way every time [I take on] a responsibility as great as saying that I’m good enough to be in your movie. It’s a huge statement to make and every time I do it, I think — is this the right choice?”

Though she hasn’t experienced a loved one suffering from Alzheimer’s, Stewart describes a childhood memory of sharing an emotional moment with an elderly woman and later witnessing her isolation even when surrounded by family at the dinner table. “Her soul is singing and she’s definitely not being heard,” she recalls. “And I remembered that for a long time.” Stewart suggests that though knowledge and memories fade, the essence of someone afflicted with the illness remains. “If anything,” she opines, “you see a truer side of somebody who is so stripped and showing only their bare bones. There’s no affectation; there’s no pretense. You can almost see a version that is clearer.”

Introspective, playfully sarcastic and uncomfortable with praise, Stewart has the respect of her colleagues whether she wants to hear it or not. As co-writer/co-director Richard Glatzer — who speaks with the aid of an iPad due to his own battle with ALS — notes, “She doubts herself constantly and is the last person to recognize how great she really is.”

Writing this piece, my anxiety spiked once again as I began to hyper-focus on the limits of my cognition and wonder if any of my findings indicate a downward spiral looming ahead. Yet as I plunged back into my recollections of Still Alice, the cataclysmic scenarios my brain was cooking up gave way to the truth and emotion of the film. Powerful stories and powerhouse performances blast away superficialities and draw attention to what’s actually important.

Still Alice was written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, and based on the novel by Lisa Genova. This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post

*Photo by Gage Skidmore, March 2012, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Photo depicted remains under this license.

A Reflection of Modern Times: An Insider’s Take on The Knick

We’re progressing so fast that the technology of a decade ago seems laughably quaint. We can’t imagine living in the dark ages of 15 years back, and the immediate future is an expanse of exponentially unfolding possibilities so broad that it feels like anything can happen — a great leap in evolution or maybe the end of everything. The steady build of excitement and dread emblematic of our modern age is likely how our forebears felt at the turn of the 20th century, which is why now is the perfect time to revisit 1900, a similar age of ingenuity overdrive.

The Cinemax series The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh, explores the achievements, exploits and improprieties in and around a fictionalized version of New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the dawn of the surgical revolution. Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) has just taken over as chief surgeon after the suicide of his mentor, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), and faces the jarring reality that Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) — a black man with an M.D. from Harvard and European training — will be the new assistant chief surgeon. The show takes the opportunity to investigate this period of great upheaval, when innovation was mushrooming and a move toward racial and gender equality was quietly and slowly beginning.

“We are living through a time of great technological change,” notes Steven Katz, supervising producer and a writer for The Knick, during our recent chat. “Like our ancestors — they didn’t know where X-rays and things like that were going to lead, and we don’t really know where things like the Internet and social media and all these other cutting-edge technologies are going to take us.”

The turn of the century was the heyday of the Wright Brothers and Einstein and saw the invention of the first motion-picture camera. Germ theory had been formally proven by the likes of Louis Pasteur just a few decades earlier, and along with Joseph Lister’s pioneering of antiseptic surgery, it was possible for “an infinite variety of surgeries to take place that were not possible before,” says Katz. “Most people probably thought of a visit to the hospital as a death sentence, but this actually made it possible to do some really radical things. As Thackery says in the pilot, more discoveries were made [during] the turn of the century than in the previous 500 years.”

The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, begins with a failed experimental placenta previa surgery presented in graphic detail. The subsequent pursuit of perfecting that technique reveals a dark side of the medical progress of the day. Surgeons depended on human subjects with terminal conditions, most of whom died as they provided data for the next attempt. “It does seem like you probably could expect to be treated a little bit like a lab rat when you went into a hospital at the time,” confirms Katz, yet the cold truth was that patients with no hope of survival provided essential learning opportunities.

With Soderbergh’s handheld shots and dimly lit sets instilling a prevailing sense of apprehension, the show takes on racial issues as well. Thackery at first dismisses the idea of accepting Edwards as an equal. He is infuriated upon discovering that Edwards has converted the hospital’s basement into a clinic and operating room for African-Americans who are institutionally denied treatment at the Knick, yet he starts to come around when he sees the groundbreaking work that Edwards is doing — like the development of an electric suction device and a silver-wire suture technique for a new hernia procedure.

“I think [Thackery is] the kind of person who admires talent and brains first and foremost,” Katz suggests. He explains that in the original drafts of the episodes he wrote, Thackery was more of an abjectly racist character, yet “one of the interesting things during the course of the production has been watching Thackery develop, especially under Clive’s interpretation of the character. What you see now is a far more complicated character with definitely racist attitudes — but are they especially virulent, or are they simply a reflection of the times? It’s hard to tell. Clive is a very smart actor and he’s made the character seem so intelligent, and it seems like this is something the character is actually wrestling with as we watch him develop.”

Katz is quick to note the parallels to the current day, pointing out that “the country is still going through it. Turn on the TV. It’s shocking that all these years after the Civil War, we’re still wrestling with these racial issues. The thing that really strikes me about this stuff is that it has so many echoes now — to use [historian and author] Barbara Tuchman’s phrase — it’s like a ‘distant mirror.’ It’s a little bit spooky. One of the things [that happened] at the end of the Gilded Age was everybody felt pretty good about themselves, but there was a lurking fear that something bad was going to happen. And something bad did happen — World War I. I think you get that sense now in the world.”

Having pursued several historical New York City projects through the years, Katz is thrilled to be working on The Knick. “It’s great to see an early 20th-century New York project actually exist,” he enthuses. “I’ve worked on a lot that didn’t come to fruition; it’s not a cheap period to evoke [on screen]. I love this period; I love the city of New York. I’ve lived here 30 years. It’s also an incredible pleasure to be working with Steven Soderbergh and sitting in a room and having script discussions with him, and watching him shoot. I used to play this game whenever we were shooting, to try to predict how he would shoot a scene, and I never got it right. It shows you how unexpected [his work can be] and what an extraordinary visual imagination he has.”