For once, Kristen Stewart seemed at ease.
The 20-year-old "Twilight" star was enjoying a rare moment of anonymity at one of her favorite restaurants, a rustic hideaway shrouded by a canopy of ferns, perched alongside a twisty road in Topanga Canyon. Notices for a local farmers market, a childbirth preparation class and a 70th birthday celebration for John Lennon decorated the haunt's bulletin board.
A few honeybees circled the veggie burger on her plate as she chatted about playing a teenage runaway-turned-stripper in her latest film, "Welcome to the Rileys," a drama coming to theaters Friday. She wasn't running her hands through her hair, or incessantly shaking her leg, or stuttering as she tried to express herself — all of the characteristic nervous tics she's often displayed in public since the first "Twilight" film rocketed her into a frightening orbit of celebrity two years ago.
Then, suddenly, her face fell. A stranger was timidly inching over to her table.
"Could I take a picture for my girlfriend in Thailand?" the man, who appeared to be in his 30s, asked. "She's a great-looking girl. I just recently got into your movies with her. Is that cool?"
Stewart paused, her left leg slowly beginning to bounce. "Yeah," she sighed. "Yeah, sure." She posed for a photo with the interloper.
Oblivious to her agitation, he lingered. "What's your name again? Kristen, right? Want me to show you my girl?" he asked, beginning to flip through images on his digital camera. "Just for her to know that I picked up breakfast at your restaurant. You know, we're the type of people that don't get out much."
Finally, he retreated. Stewart pulled the hood of her black sweatshirt over her head.
"It's strange when you become a novelty," she said, slouching down into her seat. "It's sort of like, 'Yeah, sure. Go put this on your Facebook so your friends can laugh at it.' Because that's what they will do. And I usually say no to people like that, when they're like, 'Yo, yo, can I get a picture of you?' And it's like, 'No, … you,' '' she said, interjecting an obscenity. "That's what I'm thinking."
Stewart, it's clear, is still grappling with fame, which came at her hard and fast when at age 17 she took on the role of Bella Swan in the "Twilight" vampire franchise, whose fourth installment begins production next month. She's always trailed by paparazzi. A frenzy breaks out whenever she's spotted off-set with "Twilight" co-star Robert Pattinson; tabloids speculate breathlessly about their personal lives.
(One celebrity website, for example, recently gushed about its "exclusive new details" on the pair's visit to a Play N Trade video game store in Prairieville, La., where they are preparing to film the first part of "Breaking Dawn." If you must know, they reportedly bought the game "Fallout: New Vegas.")
Unlike other young stars like Justin Bieber or Lindsay Lohan, who seem to relish sharing tidbits about their lives with fans on social networking sites like Twitter, Stewart has strenuously resisted constant demands to divulge more of herself to the public.
In past interviews, she's displayed a penchant for stuttering and eye rolling, consequently developing a reputation for being sullen, or awkward. During a 2008 interview with David Letterman, she self-consciously referred to herself as "actually really boring."
"I don't have a personality fit for television. I just don't," she admitted, sounding genuinely friendly. "Even when I really feel like I've had fun with something and been totally fine and we talked about stuff that I thought was interesting — even then. I don't know. It's getting easier. It used to be a lot worse. And it's totally my fault, too. I guess I just put too much pressure on myself before, and it showed."
Though she started acting half a lifetime ago — garnering early acclaim from the likes of Jodie Foster, who co-starred with her in 2002's "Panic Room," and Sean Penn, who directed her in 2007's "Into the Wild" — Stewart says she's been unable to nail a performance as a carefree, charming or cute interview subject, because that's simply not who she is.
Sixteen-year-old Dakota Fanning, who costarred with Stewart in "The Runaways" this year, picked up on her uneasiness during the film's media tour.
"I think that her being uncomfortable doing interviews — Kristen is exactly who she is. It's something that I admire her for," Fanning said. "When she's doing an interview, she really thinks about what she's saying. She's a truthful, honest person, and wants that to come across so badly."
Things got so bad, her team sent her to media training.
"Basically, they told me that I should be ready for any question that's thrown at me, and I should have a stock answer, because then it won't confuse things and you'll never be caught off guard," she recalled. "And there's no way to do that. There's no way to be prepared for a conversation with someone you don't know about something that means the world to you."
What seems to worry Stewart most about all the scrutiny, though, is that it could take away from her reputation as an actress with actual talent. It was her performance in "Into the Wild," before "Twilight" even came out, that convinced director Jake Scott that she was right for the lead in "Welcome to the Rileys."
"What I got from her in that movie was this vulpine, wily, kind of fox-like quality," he said. "She's got a way of looking at people that I found really compelling."
In Scott's film, Stewart plays Mallory, a foul-mouthed teen living on her own in New Orleans, working at a strip club. When she crosses paths with married couple Doug and Lois Riley ( James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo), they take her under their wing and help her begin to turn her life around.
To prepare, Stewart took pole dancing lessons, visited strip clubs and didn't wash her hair for five weeks. Her appearance was so convincingly trashy, she said, that when she walked into a club off Sunset Boulevard, the owner offered her a job. The actress persuaded him to let her talk to the dancers to get insight about their lives.
"The only thing that I can figure out is that something most of the time was taken from them," she said. "Like, you can't hurt me more than I've already been hurt. And you can't abuse me more than I abuse myself every day, so I'm gonna take from you. I'm gonna take your money."
Her interest in bringing authenticity to the film energized Leo.
"There's a lot of young folks who want to be actors, but when they really have something going on, it makes me excited," said the Oscar-nominated actress. "She was 18 when we shot the movie — almost too young to know all the stuff she does, to get inside something like that. She had the willingness to literally be exposed in the way she was."
Scott says Stewart has become more confident in the two years he's known her and hasn't let celebrity warp her identity. "She's still Kristen to me — this kid from the Valley who's into Van Morrison and watching movies and hanging out," he says.
Fanning, though, says it might behoove Stewart to recalibrate her attitude about fame.
"Situations have happened to me when I was a cheerleader at school and paparazzi would sneak onto the field. It's something that comes along with what I've chosen to do with my life," said Fanning, who wasn't even 10 when her star took off after 2001's "I Am Sam." "Sometimes you have to accept it, even if you don't think it's fair or right."
Stewart fears that adopting that attitude might destroy her.
"I love my job," she said. "And because of that, I need to protect it."