Most people remember Jean Seberg as the ’60s gamine with a daringly short pixie crop selling the Herald Tribune in Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard’s game-changing 1960 film about a gangster’s affair with a naive American tourist. That was pretty much all Kristen Stewart knew about her, she admits, before she was sent the script for Seberg. It was then that she learned that Seberg was an activist – most prominently, a supporter of the Black Panthers – who was pursued, persecuted and her career demolished in covert operations by the FBI.
“Figuring out what her actual story was, I was baffled by the fact it wasn’t more commonly known,” Stewart says. “But I don’t think my view of her was reductive, because I wasn’t surprised by the way she led her life. You can tell when she’s in films that her eyes are open. She’s not a performative actor; she’s instinctive and very present.” The film begins in 1968, with the actress setting out for Los Angeles to audition for Paint Your Wagon. Paris, where Seberg lived with her second husband Romain Gary, had erupted into revolution. In the US, the civil rights movement was increasingly militant. Of course someone like Seberg, infused by the spirit of the times, would nail her political colours to the mast.
Benedict Andrews, the Australian director, says that he thought of Stewart for the role as soon as he read Joe Shrapnel and Anna Waterhouse’s script. “From that moment, I could not imagine making the movie without her.” There were parallels in their biographies – both had starring roles while still in their teens, both were vilified in the US and found a new freedom in the European cinema – that were interesting without being crucial. Whoever played Jean had to “look like one of the icons of 20th century cinema” but that in itself wasn’t so difficult. “A model can get that great haircut, all of that.” The crucial thing was less tangible.
“Jean had a kind of radical openness, a kind of luminous quality and I didn’t want someone trying to impersonate that,” Andrews says. Impersonation can work in a biopic, he says, but he wasn’t after that. “I was after a kind of raw truth. I think Jean possessed that and Kristen possesses that; in different ways, they have an essence that you can’t pin down.” He wanted Stewart to embody Seberg while remaining herself. “That’s what I think great film actors do. They’re both those things, or it’s just an impersonation. And she does both. She is Jean and Kristen simultaneously.”