Kristen Stewart on what’s personal about playing queer in her gay Christmas rom-com and how ‘the time calls for it’
Kristen Stewart is waving around what appears to be a joint. Even her Happiest Season co-star Mackenzie Davis, who’s seen on Zoom with Stewart, doesn’t quite know exactly what Stewart has lit. “Oh my god,” Davis says. “I thought that was a blunt.”
It is actually Palo Santo, a South American tree that translates to “holy wood.” But for a moment, Stewart gets silly and pretends her soothing wood stick is an actual joint, moving it toward her mouth as if she’s going to smoke it. They both crack up at the thought of Stewart maybe getting blazed during our interview. “Just cleansing the energy!” Stewart assures.
After her Twilight years, a Charlie’s Angels reboot and a range of indies, Stewart’s latest movie, Happiest Season, feels a lot like taking a whiff of some Palo Santo – an energy-cleanser. For 102 festive minutes, it restores some of the downer pandemic energy of 2020 with comfort, joy and the promise of a yuletide so gay it makes sense that Clea DuVall, the openly lesbian actress who starred in the 1999 queer camp classic But I’m a Cheerleader, directed and co-wrote it.
The film is the first of its kind: a major studio-backed holiday rom-com with a queer love story at its center. In the movie, Stewart stars as Abby, whose girlfriend, Harper (Davis, who is straight and adored by the LGBTQ community for playing queer in the “San Junipero” episode of Black Mirror), invites her home for Christmas. At first, she’s not sure about meeting Harper’s family, but then decides she’s all in. Abby even plans to propose to her (with guidance from BFF John, played by Dan Levy). But what Abby doesn’t know until they’re en route: Harper hasn’t come out to her family.
Shot in February just before the film industry was forced to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the movie was originally slated for a wide theatrical release backed by Sony’s TriStar Pictures. But with many theaters still shuttered, Happiest Season has found a new (streaming) home for the holidays on Hulu.
During our recent Zoom call, Stewart and Davis talked about moving beyond the fetishizing of lesbian relationships, why they love gay bars and how Stewart plans to continue to use her A-list power to radicalize conventional genres with queerness.
As a kid, could you have imagined a world in which a movie like this existed?
Kristen Stewart: Yeah! That’s kind of why it seems a little bit overdue now. But we have a bunch of really rad stories, like fringy independent films that I grew up with that didn’t lack in joy or sort of splendor, even Clea’s movie that I love so much, But I’m a Cheerleader. They’re very much together and happy and run off into the sunset. But that’s a tiny, little movie and not everyone has seen it, and it’s so nice to think that you don’t have to go out and search for this movie. It’s inviting, it’s warm, and it’s open. And yeah, helpful!
I was into strange movies when I was little; that’s not the most normal thing, do you know what I mean? But I’m a Cheerleader is seminal and it’s iconic, but I wish it was bigger and this is, so that’s rad.
This is a big year. You’re part of a queer Christmas movie movement. Lifetime, Hulu, Hallmark are all doing them.
Mackenzie Davis: Hallmark’s doing a (queer) Christmas movie?
Stewart: Ohh… really? But we want to be the only one!
Davis: No, no, no. We’re the first. No. I’m just shocked that Hallmark is doing that. They are historically not progressive, to say the least. Ha! That’s so cool.
Stewart: You know what’s cool? Now they have to be, or else they get left behind! Ha!
Kristen, this movie is a big deal to a lot of LGBTQ people. But for you, what is the significance that you are an openly queer A-lister playing a queer character in a major studio queer Christmas movie?
Stewart: It’s really fun. I love playing characters that feel sort of further away from my natural wheelhouse because I like to expand my horizon, and also kind of deeply explore uncharted territory within myself that exists but might not be the most obvious.
But what feels great is leaning fully into what’s easy and obvious and comfortable when it is supported and recognized and loved. I’ve never had that on such a big movie that people were willing to put so much money into. Because that is a huge risk! And, like, the fact that people are taking risks for, well… look, it’s not a huge risk. It’s that the time calls for it. And there’s a huge gaping desire for it. And that is something I feel because I live in this world.
So the fact that I got to play this part after being in so many big movies where I never feel like I’m not being myself or trying to pass or anything like that, but I do feel like I’m ambitious about hitting marks that people don’t think I can hit. So this one was not that, this was the opposite of that. It was, no, no, no; I get to be the star of a big movie, and also get to be this person? It felt great.
With Runaways, I remember a lot of talk about your kiss with Dakota Fanning. It seems dated to be talking about a girl-on-girl kiss at this point. Obviously you two kiss in this movie, but with Happiest Season, do you get the impression that people and the press are less like, “A gay kiss! What was that like?” and is that a relief?
Stewart: Yeah, nobody’s asked that.
Davis: Oh, god. It hasn’t been brought up. Culture’s moved so fast after not moving (laughs) at all for a very long time. But in the last 10 years it feels like so much has changed.
Stewart: No, nobody has fetishized it in (that) way. I have experience with that being, like, “So tell me about the …,” especially depending on who it’s coming from. You sit down with some news outlet man who’s been a news outlet man for, like, 50 years…
Stewart: … and you’re like, “Don’t ask me that.” Wow, that’s so weird. Makes me feel really weird. Yeah, we haven’t had that.
Davis: I just wanted to change the subject so badly when Matt Lauer (asked) Anne Hathaway about when she was not wearing any underwear. It’s like the absolute worst moment I’ve ever witnessed.
Even though this is based on Clea’s story, it will be relatable to a lot of queer people, like myself. What parts of this Abby-Harper dynamic of coming out and self-acceptance did you identify with the most?
Stewart: Look, doing things that are really normal and natural to you physically and then having to sort of curb those instincts around people because you don’t want to make other people uncomfortable so you are willing to make yourself so uncomfortable for other people’s benefit is something that I have done (and) probably still_ (do).
I tried to go on a houseboat trip recently and it was in northern California like around Tahoe. It’s a really Trumpian area up there, and I was like, “We gotta get the fuck outta here.” I was holding my girlfriend’s hand, just walking around. I’m not saying every single person… I don’t even know what I’m saying. But I didn’t feel safe. I don’t mean to imply that I know where that would’ve gone, but even just emotionally, it was a violent experience.
In the movie, it’s really nice to be able to laugh at certain feelings that are heavier, because when you repossess and then sort of release a feeling, it feels cool and triumphant and like I’ve won something back. There were things in the movie – just little moments – where we have to drop each other’s hands or, even though we know we’re lying for just a brief period, the lie hurts and, yeah, I’ve never gone home with someone and had to lie.
I’ve never specifically had to keep myself in a closet with a person, but all of that, as somebody who’s grown up queer – not to put any limits on my own sexuality – I’ve dealt with that forever. And that’s triggering. But, specifically, just the general experience of being gay and thinking that maybe people think you’re gross or weird is something that is nice to laugh at in this environment.
In the film, you’re at a gay bar and RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon are performing. What’s the best time you’ve had at a gay bar?
Stewart: Even before I knew I was gay – even before I had a girlfriend! – I was like, “Oh my god, this is the most fun I’ve ever had at a bar ever! Why are you all the best people?!”
Davis: Yeah, being a female and experiencing men at bars and being in a space where you can…
Davis: … be completely unleashed and not fucking worry about anybody touching you or approaching you or coming up behind you is especially – when I was younger it was just such a safe, incredible feeling. It felt very great. And also not worrying about how you looked because nobody wanted to fuck you.
Stewart: Ha! I know! You never want to take up space where you don’t belong, but it’s typically not an alienating group, not to generalize, and it’s such a nice feeling to go into a queer bar and be like, “Doesn’t matter, whatever, no one’s coming for you.”
Kristen, after playing queer in Charlie’s Angels and now in Happiest Season, do you plan to continue radicalizing conventional genres with queerness? Basically, will you continue trying to actively make Hollywood gayer?
Stewart: Yeah! Yeah, naturally. But, like, it’s funny when you start just applying restrictive rules on who is allowed to have what perspectives. I still want to play straight sometimes, if that’s OK! Ha! But I will say that, primarily, it’s really important for me to really pick and choose those opportunities and not have it be the default-given setting that someone is straight in a movie when maybe it’s not a romantic movie.
If it’s not about the romance, then why am I playing straight? Because it’s normal? Well, that’s a ridiculous idea. Because in Charlie’s I didn’t have any romantic (interest). I had no one in the movie. But I just thought it was important to drop an Easter egg and be like, “No, that doesn’t mean you can have me, boys.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, GQ and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.