The exploits of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were first described in “On the Road,” Kerouac’s autobiographical novel featuring alter-egos Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, more than a half-century ago.
But the stars of the book’s first-ever film adaptation say they believe the Beat bible resonates as much as ever, and that it has coursed through their lives in unexpected ways.
“I read it at 14 or 15 and I was touched. I said ‘I need to find people that push me like this. I want to find people in my life that I want to run after,” Stewart, who costars with Garrett Hedlund (Moriarty) and Sam Riley (Sal Paradise), told 24 Frames.
Stewart plays Moriarty's smart and free-spirited wife, Marylou, in the film, which premiered Wednesday night at the Cannes Film Festival in one of the more youthful galas to hit the Croisette in recent memory. (The “Twilight” actress drove up in a vintage car and posed with costars Viggo Mortensen and Kirsten Dunst as well as Hedlund and Riley, while outside the barricades thousands of fans lined up to catch a glimpse.)
At a rooftop restaurant Thursday morning, Stewart was still taking it all in. Dressed in a sleeveless leather top and sneaking in a quick snack of restaurant rolls, the actress was reflecting on perhaps her most prestigious role to date, as well as her first trip to oft-chaotic Cannes. “I’m a pretty nervous person, but for some reason I feel comfortable here,” she said..
Hedlund did Stewart's Cannes virginity one better — before this trip, the Minnesota native had never been to France. Smoking a cigarette alongside Stewart and Riley, the 27-year-old said he was similarly moved by Kerouac, noting that it echoed through the generations because the feeling it captures hasn’t changed.
“In your early 20s you’re at that place where you can do anything and you have years to do it,” the actor said. “Then life hits you before you know it.”
Director Walter Salles spent nearly a decade developing Kerouac's classic, whose rights have been owned by Francis Ford Coppola’s family for three decades. (Coppola's son Roman produced, after a series of stops-and-starts that had many wondering if the film would ever get made).
The movie pumps up Stewart’s character but generally takes the same free-form and episodic approach Kerouac took on the page, a set of scenes meant to tease out a time as much as a story. The movie will open just before Christmas (not long after "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2") when it could bring its stars the kind of awards-season attention they haven't experienced before.
Stewart acknowledged that "On the Road" made her want to take on other real-life stories. (She also previously played Joan Jett in the femme-rocker biopic "The Runaways")
"You wonder a lot more about the whys" with a real-life tale, she said. "And we had such an emotional responsibility to these people. They became our family, which is so much more driving."
She said that in incarnating Marylou, who is often seen in various states of undress, "I wanted to find the person behind the character, and not the easy way of just playing the character as the girl who likes to [have sex] a lot."
Riley, who played Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis in the music biopic “Control,” said he hoped to continue taking on more serious roles too, but "so much depends on what touches you in the pile of crap that’s sent to you."
As for Hedlund, who is best known for his less Oscar-y turn as the hero in the "Tron" sequel a couple years back, the prospect of a literary work appeals because of what it allows before the camera starts rolling.
"Being involved in this project, there was such as work ethic we all had, such an investment to portray these characters. A lot of self-imposed stress, really," he said, noting that the production delays allowed for an unusual amount of preparation as he met Beat icons and personalities and read countless books. "I crave this kind of workload for every project I do."
Photo: "On the Road." Credit: IFC Films