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Kristen Stewart plays Princess Diana in 'Spencer'

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

It's a haunting three days over Christmas 1991 at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth's estate in the U.K. Princess Diana arrives late after getting lost on her way to the estate and then proceeds to also be late to almost all of the meticulously planned holiday events, much to the ire of the royal family, especially her husband, Prince Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPENCER")

JACK FARTHING: (As Charles) You sure you weren't late yesterday because you were delayed by someone?

KRISTEN STEWART: (As Diana) Someone?

FARTHING: (As Charles) It's just that someone might have delayed you.

STEWART: (As Diana) No. Sometimes you get delayed by someone.

KURTZLEBEN: The movie "Spencer" is a psychological look into Diana's life at a time when her marriage to Prince Charles had all but disintegrated. "Spencer" is directed by Pablo Larrain, who is known for "Jackie," a biopic of another iconic woman, and it stars Kristen Stewart as the princess. Kristen Stewart joins me now. Thank you so much for joining us.

STEWART: Oh, no, thank you so much for having me.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, and I should also say congratulations. I saw on the news you just got engaged.

STEWART: Yeah, that's right. It was actually a couple of months ago, but I had mentioned to Howard Stern, like, a year ago that - he was asking me if I was into the institution of marriage and if I believed in it, if I found it romantic. I was like, yeah, for sure, man. I'd love to get married one day. I'm totally in love with my girlfriend. And then he - I knew it was going to come up again as - but it's not new. So, yeah, it's been a minute. But either way, that is the truth, yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: I suppose new to the celebrity-news-consuming public. So...

STEWART: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: At any rate.

STEWART: What really matters.

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely, right? All right, but let's get to this movie. You must have been around - what? - 7 years old - pretty young when Princess Diana died. So how did you prepare for this role? Did you have much memory of her, or was most of this just very new to you?

STEWART: It was all pretty new. I mean, I had image-based memories. I remember the flowers outside of Buckingham Palace, and I absolutely remember it being an event. The extent of my knowledge or sort of involvement with the story was just that I knew that she was so coveted. I was like - I mean, I could tell people were very upset.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, you've played other real people in your career, and those real people were famous people like rock musician Joan Jett, the actress Jean Seberg. I'm wondering, as an actress, how do you think about playing real people in terms of keeping those portrayals from being just simply impersonations? How do you make them into something more?

STEWART: I think that's what cinema endeavors to do sort of on a fundamental level. I think this movie was absolutely about leaning into the ambiguity of what her life was. She was ironically this, like, entirely unknowable woman. I don't know. Biopics for me just always seem like such a tease. In this case, we kind of examined three days of her life, knowing that people would bring a personal memory or a personal projection to what her story was and kind of fill in the blanks naturally.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, this movie - it's a very tense movie. It's a very intense movie. It really unflinchingly shows us Princess Diana's disordered eating, but also how she dodged the paparazzi, how she distrusted many of the people around her. And I wanted to know, how does it affect you as an actress to shoot a film that is so unrelentingly tense? Is that taxing or exhausting for you?

STEWART: Once you really land on something and something feels pure and present and kind of out of your control, even if it was sad and exhausting to get to that moment, you're kind of celebrating that you were able to get there. It still felt so good to live in her skin, even when we were depicting a kind of terrible, tumultuous situation.

KURTZLEBEN: I saw that there were almost a hundred looks in terms of clothes created for you in the movie. And we know that Diana was well-known to be a fashion trendsetter. Did those outfits help you channel her?

STEWART: Absolutely. There's nothing worse than having a set of wardrobe that feels like it lacks integrity. You feel like a little dressed-up doll. And in this case, we were trying to sort of make me feel like a dressed-up doll, but they bolstered this performance in such a huge way. Jacqueline Durran is a - just a stunning, crazy artist, and she designed all the clothes and built them. And Diana had such a strange way of communicating because she was quite literally muzzled. But she was always, I feel like, trying to, like, reach out behind some veil, and sometimes it was with clothes. It really does go beyond just, like, the wardrobe was beautiful, because it's so defining of who she was.

KURTZLEBEN: A thing that you share in common with Princess Diana is celebrity - the cameras hounding you, the paparazzi. To what degree were you channeling that part of your own life when playing Diana, or did she just experience it to such a different degree than you do?

STEWART: I think we've just had such different experiences. They're hard to compare. My whole job is to reveal myself and to kind of share and feel open. Like, I want to tell everyone everything, but not necessarily my personal details. It's like - I don't know, I want those to sort of come out in my work sort of by osmosis. And her whole job was so different. She was perpetuating a lie. She was a princess. I mean, she felt like what she was supposed to go out and do wasn't true. And it became so painful and impossible for her to continue that she had to make the crazy, groundbreaking decision to leave the royal family, which, obviously, as we all know, is like a - it's not a small thing. And she was never allowed to be herself, and I cannot imagine what that was like.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. Well, along those lines, when watching this movie, I was thinking about other recent TV shows and movies - we've had a run of them - that revisit famous women, rethink their stories, rethink how society treated them. I'm thinking about Monica Lewinsky, Tonya Harding, Anita Hill. Do you consider this movie a part of that?

STEWART: Oh, absolutely. I think we really hang a lantern on the conversation. We really do have, like, a direct conversation about the stark difference in the way that men are treated in the media versus women, especially the way that they're hero-worshipped or condemned. Like, at one point, Diana's saying to Prince Charles over a snooker table, like, you know, they're just following me. They're not even following you. It's all about me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPENCER")

STEWART: (As Diana) They're circling - it seems they're circling just me - not you, just me.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, what is it about Princess Diana that you think makes us - and by us, I mean the entertainment industry, our culture - want to retell her story over and over again in things like "The Crown," musicals, that sort of thing?

STEWART: You know, her legacy is so steeped in liberation. Like, you really - I mean, even the last few years of her life, she became fully embodied and inhabited and, like, so present in her life that she really took control of. And we lost her too soon. So I think we're - I feel like maybe the reason is that we have more questions, and we'll never get answers.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

STEWART: She had a magic power. I can feel it in every picture. I can feel it in every interview. It just makes complete sense why we're still, like, kind of enamored and curious about this person.

KURTZLEBEN: One more question for you. You made headlines recently when you told London's Sunday Times that you, quote, "probably made five really good films." Now, when you said that, it seems to imply that you have really high standards - because you've been in many more than five films - and that those high standards are probably for yourself and the people you work with. So what I'm wondering about is, do you feel like - if that's true, do you feel like those standards ever get in your way, or do they help you produce your best work?

STEWART: Not to sound like such a dweeb right now, but, like, I was being a little reductive because I was just trying to, like...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Sure.

STEWART: ...speak candidly. But, like, I think that I'm such a film nerd. I think I do find them to be not small, but very large miracles when they come together, when you find this balance.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

STEWART: But I think the standards help. I think the standards definitely push - and I, like, watch stuff to be entertained. But what I really love is to watch something and be moved to a different place and feel like I, like, learned and grew. And, as you know, like, that's rare.

KURTZLEBEN: That's actor Kristen Stewart, who plays Princess Diana in the new movie "Spencer." Kristen, thank you so much.

STEWART: No, thank you very much. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.