PARK CITY, Utah — Kristen Stewart stops herself before she articulates the exact words spoken to her by Joan Jett when she strapped on the electric guitar to play the ‘70s-era rock chick.
One might say the Twilight star even looks trepidatious, despite the tight black pants and mug shot hoodie that lend her an air of bulletproof toughness. And no wonder, when the words finally come out, they’re evocative — not to mention a tad obscene.
“Put your p—- to the wood! F— your guitar!” says Stewart, citing Jett.
The words might sound a little harsh, but for Stewart, having Jett share her rock ‘n’ roll wisdom on the set of The Runaways was manna from heaven.
The debut narrative feature from the veteran Canadian music video director Floria Sigismondi, The Runaways tells the story of what history books now call the first all-girl rock band.
Formed by Joan Jett and Cherie Currie in the sweaty cradle of the Los Angeles club scene under the tutelage of freak-show rock promoter Kim Fowley, The Runaways earned fame for their single Cherry Bomb, then essentially imploded under the now-cliche pressures of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle: booze, drugs, sex and the dissolution of personal relationships.
The movie, which had its world premiere here at the Sundance Film Festival Sunday night, takes the viewer on the frenetic voyage shared by Currie and Jett, two women who accidentally rewrote the book on “c— rock” and, according to Jett herself, endured the ridicule of iconic Canadian band Rush when they shared the same bill.
Stewart plays Jett in the new movie while Dakota Fanning takes on the role of redesigned sex symbol Cherie Currie. Both young actors say they were familiar with Jett before they signed on for the project, but the Runaways story was somewhat new and entirely revelatory.
“People don’t realize The Runaways were the first girls playing music like that. And really, it could have been anybody, but it was them (and finding out why) made it an interesting movie,” says Stewart.
“Both (of these women have) a dominant sexuality. They had to fight,” says Stewart. “People like girls to be sexy and they did then, too, but in a different way. They didn’t want to get f—ed (by the girl), they wanted to f— them.”
Stewart, who has a habit of casting her eyes into her lap with the same awkward energy of a wallflower asking the prom queen for a date, says taking on Jett’s persona for several weeks reframed the way she approached her own generation’s view of sex and sexuality.
On one hand, she recognizes what Jett and Currie accomplished in terms of breaking down gender walls by strapping on Stratocasters, but on the other, she also sees how today’s generation of young women may have overcompensated for the blurring of masculine-feminine energy by going too far to one side.
“Generally, those girls in tall boots and short skirts might have overcompensated, like, ‘I can do what the guys do.’ I don’t want to say that girls aren’t cut out for that, and it’s not like I have fully developed thoughts on this s— either, but like it’s weird — I feel — (because) we’re never (typically) the aggressor, that girls do what guys do now, and maybe it’s not healthy. You know what I mean?”
It’s a hard area for anyone to navigate, especially for a young woman with as many different demographic mandates and contractual obligations as the star of the Twilight franchise.
But Stewart doesn’t back down. She almost seems to relish the chance to shed some Bella Swan skin here at Sundance by reasserting her identity as a serious actor first, teen sensation a distant second.
“I have a fan base that ... loves Bella, and I do too, but I’m not her,” she says.
“I don’t think people can expect me, for the rest of my entire career, to please an audience that once liked Twilight, you know what I mean. I just think that’s crazy. It’s really always an afterthought. I’ll decide to do a movie and then go, oh, Twilight fans are probably going to react to this or whatever, but it’s an afterthought. I don’t plan things out based on how I think other people are going to receive them. I do it for the experience.”
Stewart says Jett’s story is a universal story about empowerment, and one anyone can learn from. This is why she doesn’t believe in censoring her own decisions, or the art itself, just to please a vampire-loving audience — even if part of the Runaways demanded a girl-on-girl kiss between the two leads.
“People are always going to find the weird, buzz-worthy thing about a movie and run with it. I don’t think it’s really relevant. It’s not a romantic relationship. They are best friends and a fleeting love story, and they both realize it. They see it’s cool right now ... but they don’t even talk about it afterwards.”
Stewart says as an actor, the “makeout scene” wasn’t even the most daunting part of that particular shooting day.
“We were doing a song that day ... and I was way, way more worried about that,” says Stewart, who learned how to sing and play guitar to meet her own professional expectations for perfection.
“Although, I do remember a few extras taking pictures, (and that) really, really pissed me off.”
The Runaways has been acquired in Canada by E1, and is slated for a March 19 release.