In Underwater, which begins with a calamitous incident at a mining company’s facility 10 kilometres below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, Stewart plays Norah Price, a buzz-cropped mechanical engineer trying to stay alive minute to minute with a handful of survivors as tenable options diminish and unknown creatures reveal themselves. Directed by independent filmmaker William Eubank (The Signal) with echoes of both Alien and Aliens, the film draws a claustrophobic B-movie charge from limited air supply and swarming threats.
I thought it would be fun to do an action movie, but I forget that they’re scary to do and hurt like hell.
The camera work in Underwater, often handheld, emphasises the physicality of survival, and with its feel for straining sinew and desperate endurance it tries to remove gender as a consideration. Unable to ignore her growing existential doubts, Stewart’s Norah is simply an individual defined by the will to survive, as opposed to her unseen relationship or children.
“Gender is something we fixate on as a culture and as an audience. I dislike the idea that for women being represented in movies there’s always an overt curiosity about who she wants to be with, versus that not always being the focal point for male characters,” Stewart says. “I want to shy away from that and make movies about people rather than a girl movie, which tends to be reductive and boring. That’s something I’m interested in very much.”
Stewart took a similar approach to Charlie’s Angels, a film of caper hijinks and female-focused fight scenes. Within the constraints of writer/director Elizabeth Banks’ reboot, Stewart’s Sabina Banks is a source of insouciant commentary and flippant bravery. She crashes cars and roundhouse kicks anonymous goons, but also folds her body across furniture like a golden age Hollywood screen goddess aware of the camera’s fascination.
“I was definitely never going to play a role in a mainstream movie that seemed archetypal or useless to perpetuate. I wanted to offer some different ideas that you don’t normally get from a leading lady in movies that size,” Stewart says. “I would love to not step outside of my own tonal quality, which hasn’t always been very mainstream, and have that be successful.”
Charlie’s Angels underperformed at the box office, and Underwater faces competition for the attention of genre fans, but Stewart tends to look ahead with an optimistic outlook. Her answers have a nervy, enthusiastic energy and when she punctuates a sentence with a hearty expletive it indicates her excitement at something, rather than annoyance.
Advances in digital effects technology meant that Underwater was not actually shot in a water tank, but even so, the bulky replica deep-sea diving suits the actors wore on the dry studio sets required a level of exertion that Stewart hadn’t planned for in the excitement of making a genre film. When production wrapped, Stewart happily walked away from her suit.
“I just wanted to end that toxic relationship as soon as possible,” she jokes. “This movie was just something to get through because it was uncomfortable and deeply claustrophobic. I thought it would be fun to do an action movie, but I forget that they’re scary to do and hurt like hell. It ended up being a total bitch but one that I’m glad I did.”
Later this month Stewart stars in the 1960s biopic Seberg for Australian director Benedict Andrews (Una), but beyond that she’s hoping to shoot her own feature debut this year. Stewart adapted The Chronology of Water, a study of grief and emerging sexuality, from the 2011 memoir of Portland writer Lidia Yuknavitch. Part of the production process will be finding a young actor for the lead role – Stewart is too old to play the book’s Yuknavitch.
Stewart makes choices that open up her life and career. In the same way that she makes a variety of movies she’s been open about her bisexuality and being in relationships with women, even after some in Hollywood explicitly advised her against that. She will go to Paris as part of being a brand ambassador for Chanel, but also seek out filmmakers. Last year she saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the acclaimed French period romance currently in Australian cinemas, and then sought out director Celine Sciamma.
“I f–king love that movie. We met up and talked about making movies for a few hours,” Stewart says. “I do feel entirely activated and stimulated by the times we live in and the stories we’re discovering and the people I’m meeting. I definitely feel like I’m gunning it.”
Underwater opens nationally on Thursday, January 23.
Craig Mathieson is a TV, film and music writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.