SAN FRANCISCO To meet Kristen Stewart is to want to defend her.
A young-looking 22 , she's practically still a kid. Her features appear even more delicate than they do on screen, and she's devoid of swagger, despite the black leather jacket she wears for an interview about "On the Road." The film adapts the classic 1957 Jack Kerouac novel tracking the thrills- and truth-seeking experiences of Kerouac and his postwar Beat generation nonconformist pals.
Stewart is enthusiastic, conscientious even, in discussing her character, Marylou fictional stand-in for Lu Anne Henderson, teenage wife of Kerouac's muse, Neal Cassady in "On the Road," which today starts a three-day run at Sacramento's Crest Theatre and is available on video on demand.
"She was very much an equal part" of the road trips that inspired Kerouac's novel, she said of Henderson. "She was such a formidable partner for (Cassady). She was his counterpart in that sort of crazy life."
Stewart first attached herself to the project at 17, after she met with director Walter Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") to discuss playing Marylou. She had read the novel at 15. Its story of curious young people finding kindred spirits spoke to her, Stewart said.
"What I loved about the book is that (it chronicles) an age when you sort of get to look up and you get to choose your surroundings," she said. "You get to find those people who shock you and also make you aware of those things about yourself that also shock and surprise you."
As she discusses this passion project, Stewart never comes off as sullen, sulky or downcast, as she can in television interviews. It's hard to reconcile this pleasant young woman with the one who draws Lohan-esque levels of scorn in the blogosphere, even though her reputation isn't one of hard-partying excess or courtroom tears.
But she did star in five "Twilight" films, which earned more than $3 billion in worldwide box office and inspired a fandom that bests any other in obsession with its stars. She also made highly publicized mistakes big (the affair with her married "Snow White and the Huntsman" director) and small (those painfully awkward talk show appearances).
Intense scrutiny and criticism became inevitable, and rarely has a movie star been less suited for it. Stewart seems genuinely uncomfortable in the spotlight. When attention focused on her begins to encroach on her personal life, she cannot fake being OK with it, she said.
"I will never kowtow" to media intrusions, she declares. But she's smiling as she says it. And she's fine doing press "when it makes sense when there is context," she said. "I have no problem sitting here and talking about 'On the Road,' or Walter (Salles) or 'Twilight.' "
But just in case, she has girded herself for today's interview with a pair of Allen Ginsberg-esque tortoise-shell eyeglasses. They are not prescription, Stewart acknowledged, grinning and a bit abashed.
"They are just kind of an extra layer, for when you feel tired," she said. "I envy people that actually need them, because I don't want people to think I am a poseur or something. It is just an extra layer of 'get out of my face.' "
As a stager of tiny, daily rebellions, Stewart can relate to Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and especially to Henderson, the novel's and the film's female representative of the Beat generation's sex, drugs and jazz-baby-jazz ethos.
Stewart researched her character's life thoroughly, listening to recordings by Henderson and meeting with Henderson's daughter. Stewart said she would like to dispel any idea that Henderson was a vulnerable figure in the Beat boys' club. She was just as sexually adventurous and committed to counterculture pursuits as the famously voracious Cassady (fictionalized as Dean Moriarty and played by Garrett Hedlund in the movie).
"I didn't want to just be ambience," Stewart said of researching her character. "It was always, 'What is she getting? What is she giving up? Is she being taken from?' And I would have to say, having gotten to know her daughter and listened to those tapes there was nothing you could take from her. She was offering it up, and she was getting so much in return."
Henderson was "ahead of her time by 20 or 30 years," said director Salles, in San Francisco with Stewart.
Yet some fascinations are timeless, and thousands of young Stewart fans who never heard of Kerouac no doubt will arrive at "On the Road" by Googling "Kristen Stewart nude."
Playing an exuberant libertine means the clothes came off.
"There aren't too many scripts or projects that you come across and go, 'It just can't be done without it,' " Stewart said. Remaining clothed in the scenes in question "would have been really dishonest and afraid. All of ('Road') needs to be unabashedly itself and sprawlingly impulsive, and it needs to celebrate life in every way, and that's not by covering up."
Salles said Stewart's acting also pushes boundaries.
"She is constantly trying to reach the best performance she can give in every single take, and that is something I find admirable," Salles said.
Salles met with Stewart after two friends director Alejandro González Iñárritu and film composer Gustavo Santaolalla raved about her after seeing an early screening of Sean Penn's 2007 film "Into the Wild." In "Wild," Stewart plays a teen who shares a bond with Emile Hirsch's wanderer.
"I understood completely why they had been so impacted by her, because there is something completely magnetic in Kristen's acting in 'Into the Wild,' " Salles said.
Salles settled on Stewart for the Marylou role then, but it took years to secure financing for "On the Road," the shoot for which traversed Montreal, New Orleans, San Francisco and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta town of Locke (see sidebar) in trying to capture its Beat characters' travels.
Stewart said she now appreciates the delay, since she was not ready at 17 or 18 for the role's racier aspects. As the project sat on the back burner, Stewart became a household name through the "Twilight" movies and also showed range by playing real-life rocker Joan Jett in "The Runaways."
"Her work in independent cinema is very much driven by characters who enter uncharted territories and trespass boundaries that are not immediately acceptable to the culture of the time," Salles said.
Stewart's vibrant, sun-kissed Marylou offers a stark visual and philosophical counterpoint to Bella, her dark-haired, pale Pacific Northwest virgin-until-married and human-until-vampired "Twilight" heroine. But no Stewart role is a reaction to any other, she said.
"I am drawn very naturally and very intuitively to everything I have done, including my commercial films," she said. "I think it is the same thing for those ('On the Road') characters and the people who inspired those characters. They weren't trying to make a statement necessarily. At one point they obviously saw that what they were doing was a statement. But initially, they were just being who they were."
Stewart's own personality remains in the development stage, as it does for anyone in his or her early 20s. But the public got a peek last summer after photos surfaced of the actress in clinches with her married, 41-year-old "Snow White and the Huntsman" director, Rupert Sanders.
Stewart long was rumored to be dating "Twilight" co-star Robert Pattinson but did not acknowledge the romance until after the Sanders photos went public. She issued a public apology to "the person I respect the most, Rob. I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry."
As if Twihards needed more reason to obsess. Already subjects of ardent curiosity, Stewart and Pattinson (who supposedly reunited after the scandal) became daily are-they-or-aren't-they gossip-site fodder after the Sanders incident. Each bowling and miniature-golf outing gets reported, though photos are rare.
With the "Twilight" films complete, and after so much focus on a private life also inextricably linked to that franchise, Stewart appears to be entering a new chapter.
Or at least she might be. Stewart will not kowtow to any narrative for herself.
"I guess if I stepped outside of my own life and looked at it, you might put a bookmark in, 'Oh, there's a good time to put Chapter 3,' " she said. "But when you are actually living it, no. I don't do things for impact. I have never been able to step outside my career, or especially my life and you should never, ever mistake the two and shape it like it is this malleable thing."
Call The Bee's Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118.. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.