NEW YORK (USA TODAY) - Kristen Stewart has a solid, vigorous handshake.
When she arrives at the darkened restaurant at the Tribeca Grand hotel, precisely seven minutes late, she's guardedly apologetic about her tardiness. A table of men gawks at Stewart as she keeps her head down, her hair loose around her face, clad in jeans and a T-shirt and sneakers, and quickly crosses the room to a more secluded table in the corner.
Stewart, barely out of her teens, has tasted the flip side of fame, and it isn't much to her liking. She's cautious and watchful and ill at ease, until she's not. The thing is, give Stewart a little bit of time, a glass of pinot grigio, and some thoughtful conversation, and she warms up.
Being gaped at, she says, brings out her inner dork.
"I feel like I'm in the sixth grade, and everyone in the room is laughing at me. Some people can come into a room and say hello to everyone, and it's fine. I'm not that person. I don't think I'm very approachable," says the actress, 22.
She's no pushover. If there's one thing you need to note about her, it's this: When she suddenly was anointed the tabloid scarlet woman, after photos surfaced of her getting cozy with married director Rupert Sanders - while ostensibly dating her Twilight co-star Robert Pattinson - Stewart didn't hunker down and hide under the covers. She went to Toronto in September to promote her labor of love, On the Road, the adaptation of Jack Kerouac's classic 1957 novel about the Beat Generation. She talked to press. She posed for photos. She attended the premiere of the film.
"I've been working on this thing for five years. When it makes sense, when there's a platform for it, it makes so much sense for me to be there. I can stand tall. I can stand proud," Stewart says. "I've never been the type of person who can stand in the forefront of nothing. That occasionally makes public appearances awkward. It feels a lot different when you're going to unleash something that feels worth it."
A conversation with the actress isn't linear. It ebbs and flows and touches on everything from her love of cooking to her appreciation of Kerouac to her recent fascination with the reality show Duck Dynasty, courtesy of her best friend Dakota Fanning.
"She is 100% herself 100% of the time, which is admirable and difficult to do," Fanning says. "She's very unapologetic of herself. She does everything to the fullest. She's really honest."
Silver Linings Playbook and The Hunger Games star Jennifer Lawrence calls Stewart "one of the coolest people I've ever met. She's just really laid-back. She's one of those people who owns her own energy. She's down to earth and funny and nice and just cool."
And for someone who has never been at ease in the spotlight, Stewart isn't about to start spilling her guts now. She's not telling whether she and Pattinson are back together, or not, or something in between. And she doesn't really care what anyone thinks, either way.
"People think they knew a lot about me before. They know even less now," she says. "People will project whatever. It's a huge form of entertainment. As soon as you step outside your own life and look at it like that and think that you can shape something - you need to live your life. I'm just going to live my life, actually."
Stewart's career is also at a crossroads of sorts. She just wrapped up the Twilight film series, based on the insanely popular books and starring Stewart as Bella Swan, the love of vampire Edward Cullen (Pattinson). The films made her famous beyond belief, rich beyond comprehension, and even more leery of being a superstar who can't go out to dinner without being mobbed. Stewart is grateful to have been part of the Twilight behemoth, and to have played a character who was so pivotal in many teens' lives.
"I never felt stuck in that. Not at all," she says. "I had so many opportunities in the midst of that to do a million things. If it kept me from doing other things, I still wouldn't resent it. You start a project to finish it. I was eager to get back and finish the story."
A different kind of role
As for On the Road, which shows a far more adult side of Stewart, "this wasn't me stepping out to do a different thing to liberate myself," she says.
Playing Marylou, the free-spirited, uninhibited girlfriend of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) is a departure for Stewart, who is an observer by nature.
"I had to jump into somebody who wasn't watching, who wasn't thinking about being watched," she says. "She's the least vain person who completely lets her face hang out. Those people are few and far between. I was sort of nervous I would be playing the crazy girl, the girl who was wild. She offers the exuberance in the story, as well. I'm so not that person, so it was hard."
Director Walter Salles met Stewart when she was 16, after seeing her in Sean Penn's Into the Wild, and he approached her about playing Marylou.
"She thought the role was very different from who she was but she was tempted to do it. She's been part of this ever since. It speaks a lot to how much she reads, how sharp she is, and how attracted she is by challenging material," Salles says. "She's very different from Marylou and yet - she truly understands that it is important to constantly redefine her sense of the future, which is what Marylou does."
And Stewart felt liberated by playing Marylou, a woman who is free just being herself.
"It's easier to not throw up so many barriers," she says. "Do you have butterflies in your stomach? Great. Don't try and get rid of them. I'm oddly incredibly measured. I take things too seriously sometimes. I take myself too seriously sometimes."
Stewart is loath to sound like a complainer. She's not going to whine about being famous, or her inability to walk through an airport without paparazzi intrusion.
"Rob is (noticed) way more than I am, especially if we're out together. He's so recognizable, and I'm not. I put a hood on, and I'm a girl with long hair. I can go out," she shrugs.
And even though, at the height of her scandal she issued a statement apologizing to Pattinson, she's not going to address what's written about her in endless stories that speculate about her romantic status.
"They don't write about my personal life. You know what I mean? The same exact thing about being able to choose your path and your career - you don't step outside your life and look at it like you're someone else. It's the most disjointed, uninformed, and completely unsatisfying and completely depressing (stuff)," she says. "I have the same friends I've had for years and years. I make new friends. I'm a really good judge of character. I know who I like, and I know who I don't like, almost to a fault."
Fanning says: "People don't know her as a person. What she says is what she believes. She's never fake. She does what she cares about and lives her life and has to deal with a lot and does it the best way she knows how."
This kitchen whiz shoots pool
It's hard to dislike Stewart after spending any amount of time with her. She seems solid and smart, an observant, attentive person to whom quotes and sound bites don't come easily.
"She's a good listener," Salles says. "When you cut for lunch, you can bet the best music will come from her trailer. She can be extremely funny and loose, and she's great company to have around. She's a fierce pool player. There's a lot to Kristen that is very revealing of a personality that is curious and open to the world and certainly very accessible."
And she's a whiz in the kitchen. Stewart eagerly shares her foolproof way of roasting vegetables to ensure that they're fully cooked yet also crisp (heat the oven as high as it will go). Her hobbies are simple: music, books, friends.
"We're homebodies," Fanning says. "She cooks for me. She loves to cook. I go to her house. Certainly there are times it's crazy, but we're also just friends. We go to Target to get wrapping paper. She has to do things like everyone else."
At the top of Stewart's to-do list: getting a script in her hands. She has spent this year doing non-stop press, first for Twilight and then for On the Road. And she's ready to be back on set in the grifter comedy Focus.
"I really want to work," she says. "I'm working in April, but that's too long. I haven't worked in a year. I've been promoting (stuff). I should go and chill somewhere. But at the same time, I haven't done what I do in so long. I need to get back there."
Donna Freydkin, USA TODAY