In the new film The Runaways, Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning play Joan Jett and Cherie Currie, musical pioneers who broke down gender stereotypes as members of the eponymous band. A sex-charged rejoinder to the argument that men rock harder than women, Jett and Currie found their strength even as their producer and promoter, industry luminary Kim Fowley, took advantage of their youth and feminine appeal. Unlike the characters they play, however, Stewart and Fanning aren't letting anyone exploit them, even if it's in the guise of empowerment; the actresses have spent much of their careers redefining the limits of roles young actresses can play, and the women offer equally powerful turns in this film, proving that even a downbeat ending, such as the one that eventually befell The Runaways, can turn into triumph later on.
At a recent press day in Los Angeles, Cinematical spoke to Stewart and Fanning about both The Runaways and the exploits, both good and bad, of the band that inspired the film. In addition to talking about the influence the real women had on the way they played their characters, Fanning and Stewart reflected on their own process for playing different roles, and offered a few insights about acting against a seemingly unstoppable wall of analysis coming both from the public, and occasionally, from within themselves.
Cinematical: Cherie is trying to find herself throughout the film. I don't know how much of the film was shot in sequence, but how much of the character did you have defined when you started shooting and how much did your development of the character take place throughout filming?
Dakota Fanning: I think I was pretty prepared before the movie started. Like I spent a lot of time with Cherie and I kind of knew where she was going to end up before I started. I kind of think that's how movies are for me – I know beforehand what it's going to be like, and it's like reliving it again when you're actually filming it. [But] the only thing that was shot in sequence I think was on my first day of shooting, the first scene of the movie. That was cool, to start out fresh.
Cinematical: Joan seems to just want to make music. Did that single-mindedness make it easy to know how to drive each scene forward?
Kristen Stewart: Well, I mean, yeah, at her core essentially that's one thing that you notice about Joan, that she's on a road and she's got a goal – she's on a mission. She never forgets that, but it doesn't consume her; there's so much more – I mean, the fact that she has that goal is who she is. It's not just obtaining, you know what I mean? It comes from somewhere, and that's more rich than just somebody who's determined.
Cinematical: How much do you intellectualize the process of figuring out how to inject scenes with these themes or through-lines? Is it more important to be present or do you have to figure out the stakes of each scene before you act it out?
Fanning: I think for this one, when you're playing an actual person, you should probably have it figured out beforehand. That's how I felt. Because it's like you're taking someone's life in your own hands, and it's your responsibility to do them justice, especially because this time is so important to both Joan and Cherie. It's one of the most treasured times of their lives, so I think it was kind of important to figure out before[hand]. One thing that sticks out that I did have to figure out on the day was [when] there's a scene with me in the corset and I'm on the phone with my sister and Johnny [Lewis], he plays Scottie, he was in the background. I'm on the phone and Marie is saying you're dad is sick, you need to come home, blah blah blah, and I had to figure out because it's a very find line because Cherie loved her dad so much, and her sister, and if she had actually really heard them say 'you need to come home', she would have come home. So you had to figure out how drugged out is she, and that was a time when I had to figure it out to not make it something that Cherie wouldn't have done.
Stewart: A number of things draw you to a script. It's not just like wanting to live out this experience; sometimes it is thematic. But that's not your job; people that you're working with can keep that together, and you need to make sure that you do everything you can to do your part. And also, playing another person, I had like a constant resource, so we were never filling in blanks. We were never going, 'oh, I think maybe at this point, she would be...' [because] we'd already asked what they were thinking or what that may have meant. Anything that was up for deliberation wasn't because we had them there, so it was a different experience because it wasn't creating a new thing. But in terms of intellectualizing acting, you have to do it a little bit, but I feel way more than I think, and I think that's good for an actor. I mean, even if you have really good ideas about things, you have to sort of think about them and digest them and turn them out so you're more able to just be there.
Cinematical: It is fair to say we think a lot more about all the tiny little choices you make that you make than you do?
Stewart: I mean, I'm so obsessed with little details, but they're not conscious. I'm obsessed with like the little things [Dakota] does, and she may not be conscious of what she's doing, but it's because she know this person so well. So I'll be like, oh my God – did you notice that you just did that? And you should never tell an actor that, because they don't know, but they're doing it for a reason. Because she's not Dakota when she's doing stuff like that, so it's not like it means nothing. It's definitely coming from somewhere but hopefully she's not thinking about it. Because the only reason she's able to do it is because she's not thinking about it.
Cinematical: Does over-analysis become an obstacle for you, especially in a day where every aspect of your work and lives is constantly examined and deconstructed?
Stewart: It seems like when it does, it gets in the way, that's a problem. Because when things are going well, you don't.
Fanning: I've been saying this a lot, but even acting for me is something that when you just know the person [you're playing], I can be thinking about so many other things in my head and doing it because you are that person in that moment. If you think about it, that's not good.
Cinematical: Do you feel a sense of responsibility or do you need to feel a sense of responsibility to the young viewers that might be seeing this film? How do you make sure that your portrayal of a character is as authentic as possible and yet doesn't present something that might negatively influence impressionable audiences?
Fanning: I think this is a different thing because it's a real life, a real story, and this happened. So I don't know if you can really think about people coming to see it because they're choosing to come to see something that's a difficult time in their life, and that's why there are ratings. I mean, maybe you can think about it when it's an original screenplay or something, but it's based on actual events, and if you're not being authentic to that then you might as well not make the film, I feel like.
Stewart: and if you're looking at details that make these women bad examples for people, then you're not going to ever choose the right role model.
Fanning: Well, it's not about Cherie being a bad person because she does drugs. It's about seeing that because she did drugs, she saw that she was becoming a bad person and she made the choice to not be that bad person by leaving the band, and now she is who she is today. So if you can't realize that then maybe you shouldn't be seeing the movie.
Stewart: Plus, actors as role models, I think a lot of girls have role models that they don't want to emulate specifically, but just that they are who they are. I mean, I really admire Joan for being who she is and not making excuses for it, but I don't want to wear leather all day, know what I mean? So I think just who she is essentially is something to look up to, and not everyone is completely perfect.
Fanning: I also think sometimes it's different with actors because I think you're more of a role model in your real life as opposed to who you're playing.
Stewart: Who you play! Yeah, exactly.
Cinematical: Ultimately why do you think this story is important, and why was it important for this story to be told now?
Stewart: I think this would always be sort of topical just because, for one thing, I didn't know about The Runaways, neither did Dakota, and I don't think a lot of people our age do. Why is it relevant right now? Because, well, I was really inspired by it; we don't face the things that they faced at that time, so to know that things are a little different now. So to know that maybe they were a help in that is an interesting thing, and just to see a different perspective on an adolescent girl's life is probably interesting for any young girl. And, people that age then are now 50, Joan's age, and it's cool for them to see that too so that now people who watch movies can see their childhood or whatever on screen.