PARK CITY, Utah -- Kristen Stewart found common ground between herself and the taciturn Guantanamo Bay Marine guard she played in Camp X-Ray, which premiered Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.
"She had aspects that I have and that I really felt," said Stewart of Pvt. Amy Cole, assigned to guard the detainees held for years at Guantanamo Bay. The film is a fictional story about a friendship that develops between Cole and Ali, a suspected terrorist imprisoned on the U.S. Naval base since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001.
Stewart spoke of portraying someone not so different from herself, presumably in contrast to playing a teenager in love with a vampire in the Twilight movies.
When asked about her experiences filming, she joked: "I forgot how to turn left. I was constantly rotating," referring to her character doing rounds in a small cellblock, often pushing a cart of library books.
On a more serious note, she spoke of the importance of preparation for the role.
"Rehearsal was very necessary," she said. "Luckily there's a lot of material [for research]. There are multiple documentaries we watched. There were memoirs written on both sides of the coin. And then I hung out with this really awesome Marine for three days and learned things in a very accelerated way."
Among them, how to stand and walk like a Marine.
"He literally showed me how to walk," said Stewart. "It's not like a physically strenuous role, but it should be clear I have training -- even though I just walk around in circles."
As key as her ramrod-straight posture was, it also was necessary to delve into her character's internal state.
"What was important to me was figuring out who she was," Stewart said.
When asked further about the role, she deferred to her co-star, Payman Maadi, who plays Ali.
"You're so charismatic," she said to him.
Maadi cheerfully took the cue. "We rehearsed for like a week. It was just like theater rehearsals for us. We shared a lot of ideas. It was very important to get the vibe.
"We did another thing: Some of us stayed in cells. We asked to be locked up. I stayed there for a couple of hours."
Added Camp X-Ray writer-director Peter Sattler: "We just left him there."
Maadi quipped: "I just came out for this. I'll go back."
Sattler said he sought to approach the story from a personal, not political, angle.
"I've always been attracted to small stories about big things," Sattler said. "Guantanamo Bay is a weird subject. It is fraught with all sorts of prickly things to tiptoe around. Because there's so much propaganda surrounding it, from the beginning we really wanted to make a movie that was not propaganda at all, one that didn't tell you what to think, but just kind of presented a very human story."
The idea derived from an image he saw in a documentary in which a detainee and a guard were talking about books on a nearby cart.
"I thought, 'Wow, what if you just did this kind of two-hander, one-room type of movie where these two characters just talk? What would these two people talk about? What would their relationship be like? It seemed like a cool way to address Guantanamo Bay indirectly. It's not about Guantanamo Bay, but we can still kind of touch on the subject. "
During a Q&A after the film’s premiere, the actress told the audience at the Eccles Theater just how she prepared for this particular dramatic departure. “There were multiple documentaries that we watched,” she explained. “I hung out with this really awesome Marine, J.B., for like three days and he kind of, in a very accelerated way, whipped me into shape. It’s not a very physically strenuous role, [but] obviously you should be able to see that I have training.”
“Just putting on the uniform was a huge transformation," added Strattler. “We did so much drilling, because it completely affected your posture.”
Maadi, who shares the film’s most poignant scenes with Stewart, said that the two rehearsed as guard and detainee for over a week, even opting to stay inside the prison “for hours at a time” to get a better sense of their roles. Stewart, whose character has to walk circuitously through the camp’s halls on suicide watch, peeking in each detainee’s window and making sure they are still alive, joked that she had a hard time “learning how to turn left” after all of that right-ward circling.
And as different as her character might seem from Kristen Stewart, Twilight star, the actress said that she was “not necessarily playing someone so far outside of [herself].” In fact, they share some of the same “feelings.”
In other revelations, Strattler said that he originally wrote Stewart’s character as a man, but decided to make her female once his wife became pregnant with a daughter, causing him to contemplate issues of gender strength. Strattler also said that he was first inspired to write his script after “watching footage of a detainee and a guard in some documentary talking about some books on a book cart. ‘What is that book? Is that a good book?’ It was one of the most surreal exchanges I’ve seen in my life.” (In the film, a surprisingly funny exchange occurs when a prisoner, a rabid Harry Potter fan, suggests that the Gitmo guards’ refusal to stock the final book in the J.K. Rowling series constitutes yet another form of torture.)
Strattler says he wanted to approach the prisoner-prison guard dynamic from a new angle. “For me,” Strattler said, “it seemed like a cool way to address Guantánamo Bay indirectly.”
In "Camp X-Ray," which premiered on Friday at the Sundance Film Festival and is a contender in the festival's U.S. drama competition, Stewart plays young military officer Amy Cole on the suicide watch team at Guantanamo Bay detention camp. The U.S. prison is located in Cuba and has been condemned internationally for holding enemy combatants for years without trial.
The role was a new direction for Stewart, 23, who is best known for being the lead in the teen vampire "Twilight" film franchise, but has been taking riskier choices, such as 2012's "On the Road," to break out of the "Twilight" spotlight.
The actress said that while "people are a little bit afraid of doing movies about current issues," writer-director Peter Sattler had created a character in Cole that reflected most young women today.
"It's a story about a girl who is really simple and really relatable, and just like probably most girls across the entire country. She's a really normal, simple-minded girl from Florida who wants to do the right thing and ultimately doesn't feel like she is," Stewart told Reuters.
While observing detainees every three minutes to make sure no one has harmed themselves, Cole bonds with detainee 417, otherwise known as Ali (played by Payman Maadi), who constantly asks for the final installment of the Harry Potter novels.
The seemingly simple request generates laughs on the surface, but deeper down, unearths Ali's own desperate search for how both Harry Potter and his own story will end.
"When you involve people from very different backgrounds and differences of opinions, there's something there that never goes away but you're both human, even though you may be in a position where you're pitted against each other," Stewart said.
Stewart's performance has already been gaining buzz early in the festival, and the film garnered a positive response from the audience at Friday's premiere. In an early review from The Hollywood Reporter on Friday, film critic David Rooney called the film "riveting," and Stewart's performance "her best screen work to date."
Sattler, who makes his feature film debut with "Camp X-Ray," said he wanted to avoid making a political comment on Guantanamo Bay, and instead focus on something that he felt would connect with audiences - a friendship.
"I'm always fascinated by movies and art that takes extraordinary and difficult subjects but focuses on some of the unexpected, more mundane aspects of it," Sattler said.
"I was really interested in the idea of how to explore the subject matter in a different way, through characters, not through politics."
The result is an intimate drama that is littered with lighter moments such as the young U.S. officers bonding off duty, that quickly inhabit darker undertones, be it Cole's attempt to understand her place among her peers or Ali's eager and often rash attempts to understand humanity.
"There's something very uplifting in a sense about that, even though the movie has darker notes and bittersweet moments, there is this really human connection that exists in this movie," Sattler said.
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