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Why it was so smart for Kristen Stewart to hit the 'Road'
What's next for the actress after 'Twilight'

By Mary Pols
Special to MSN Movies

Yes, I noticed that Kristen Stewart's role in her new film "On the Road," includes a few topless scenes and a threesome (two boys, one girl). I have seen the pictures of the alleged "trampire" and her married "Snow White and the Huntsman" director Rupert Sanders making out in that infamous Mini Cooper. Also, it seems undeniable that the star does not adhere to societal norms when it comes to washing her hair. So I understand why Stewart — as Hollywood role model for teenagers, "Twilight"-loving and otherwise — makes some people distinctly uncomfortable.

Bing: More about Kristen Stewart | More about 'On the Road'

But Kristen Stewart has artistic integrity. More so than many ingénues, which no longer seems an appropriate word for a 22-year-old who has become the highest paid actress in Hollywood according to Forbes Magazine (In June 2012 the magazine estimated she brought in $34.5 million in the past year). I am not speaking from the perspective of a "Twilight" fan, since I have no use for the franchise (unless we're talking about the installment where they unexpectedly ripped each other's heads off, which was like cinematic nachos — irresistibly cheesy). I stood up for Stewart a couple of years ago in this piece, and as "On the Road" takes her into a new stage of her career, I'm even more on her side.

Related: Farewell to 'Twilight'

That's because of the way Kristen Stewart is conducting her career. The Walter Salles directed "On the Road," reportedly made for a relatively modest $25 million, is exactly the movie you d avoid making if you wanted to have a safe, lucrative career.  After Bella Swan's days of denial, Stewart gets to play a girl who sleeps with anyone and everyone and enjoys it. Stewart committed to "On the Road" in 2007, after Salles saw her in "Into the Wild" and decided she was the right actress to play Dean Moriarty's first wife and on- and off-again girlfriend Marylou. A long line of directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, had already attempted to adapt Jack Kerouac's famed but trickily freewheeling narrative of sex, drugs and road trips in late 1940s America. But Salles — coming to the project fresh from the success of the beautiful "The Motorcycle Diaries," about a pre-revolutionary Che Guevara driving around South America with his best friend in 1952 — seemed an inspired choice to make a movie about a rambling band of friends whose leader was a shameless hedonist.

The character of Marylou is based on Luanne Henderson, who met and married the real-life version of Moriarty, Neal Cassady, when she was 15. In the movie, Kerouac's narrator (and stand-in) Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) meets Marylou on the same night he first meets Moriarty.  When Sal and his buddy (Allen Ginsberg stand-in Carlo Marx) approach the apartment where Dean and Marylou are staying, Marylou s moans float through the hallway. Our first glimpse of Marylou is as she rolls over in bed languidly, clad only in underwear and not at all embarrassed that her breasts are bare. Sal's instant attraction to Marylou is sustained throughout the movie, even though it is the friendship with Dean, passionate if intermittent, that drives "On the Road."

Marylou is a key role, not just the hot girlfriend the other guys envy Dean for. Marylou, who at one point drives naked with one hand on Dean's naked lap and another in Sal's, grinning gleefully. She is in love with Dean but understands the limitations of his loyalty. She foreshadows the lesson Sal eventually learns — after a lot of wild partying in various nooks and crannies of America and Mexico — that Dean is not to be trusted or relied upon. She's the first to leave the nomadic life, doing so quietly the morning after she and Sal have finally been truly alone together and consummated their mutual attraction. Marylou could have started something fresh with Sal but instead she moves on, putting distance between herself and the heartbreak of Dean. She's a survivor, young on the outside, but wise, more Edward than Bella. It's a good performance, not great (like the movie) but a bold choice in terms of character.

Stewart is a reader. She didn't have to run out and get a copy of "On the Road" before she agreed to Salles pitch — she already knew it well. She knew exactly what kind of dicey territory she was getting into with Marylou.  At a Los Angeles bookstore while doing press for "Breaking Dawn: Part 2" and "On the Road" she tried to press Bukowski on her Elle interviewer while musing about how much she'd like to play Cathy in her favorite Steinbeck novel, "East of Eden." I love what her "Adventureland" (other than "Into the Wild," the best movie Stewart has ever been in as far as I m concerned) director Greg Mottola told Elle about Stewart: "The thing that makes Kristen so interesting to watch is that she's willing to play a character who has moments of unsympathetic behavior and commit to it  not undercut it for the sake of vanity, like some actors & Kristen s not interested in putting out some please me love vibe."

The closest she's ever come was in the public statement released to People Magazine after the pictures of her kissing Sanders came to light. Apologizing for what she called a "momentary indiscretion" Stewart said she'd "jeopardized the most important thing in my life, the person I love and respect the most, Rob (Pattinson). I love him, I love him, I'm so sorry." This was to the boyfriend she didn t even admit to being with for years. Does that sudden willingness to open up speak to desperation to get a message to Pattinson? Maybe. Who knows what really happened there. I just know I liked the directness and passion of the apology and wish them well in what are likely to ultimately be separate lives.

What Stewart does do, in lieu of sending out a "please me love" vibe, is issue regular missives from the land of fame about how fake and meaningless it all is. (A lesson her now-divorcing parents, who both worked below the line in Hollywood when she was growing up, her mom as a script supervisor, her dad as a stage manager, must have reinforced throughout the years.) This is especially true when it comes to Hollywood obsession with physical perfection. Stewart walks the walk down that red carpet, but her choices often feel ironic, more like costumes than clothes, the see-through lace cat suit with the heart-shaped outline on her butt, the gold dress that screamed "Dynasty," tight leather dresses and short shorts with t-shirts. The outfits are edgy, boundary pushing and rarely are they the choices of someone who wants to look beautiful in the way that her peers look beautiful (otherwise she d wash her hair). The business of being pretty is, bless her, something she doesn t seem to buy into.  Describing her first encounter, at 15, with former Balenciaga creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere, at a Bruce Weber fashion shoot, she marveled to Jay Leno that "it was so not about anything surface level or superficial. It wasn t about being pretty the whole time, it felt like we were telling a story." That experience led her to do the entirely girly and unexpected thing of collaborating with Ghesquiere on a Balenciaga perfume.

Although she s finally getting more relaxed about doing press interviews, she still frequently breaks fame s third wall with self-deprecating remarks about whatever she s just said ("I sound like a psychopath" to Leno).  Telling Jimmy Kimmel a story about hanging out with a "buddy" at Coachella, she stammered a bit, said, "I'm not dropping and I feel like such a weirdo right now" and then admitted the buddy was Katy Perry. It was a classic Stewart interview moment. She wanted to tell the story, probably knew people would know she' d been with Perry (the duo was hard to miss) and decided to just own up to it. But she still didn t want to sound like a fame whore. You could argue that she's the greatest actress in the world, and that rube is just another act, but her performances in all those "Twilight" movies suggest she is not exactly the Meryl Streep of her day. She's a work in progress, a talent who will get better because she clearly wants to push herself to be better. The daring and desire on display in "On the Road" demonstrates that.

"On the Road" is out in theaters Friday, Dec. 21.

Mary Pols is a Bay Area-based journalist. She reviews movies and books for Time.com, writes regularly for MSN's Mom & Pop Culture page and was for many years a film critic for the San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times. She is also the author of a memoir, "Accidentally on Purpose," published in 2008 by Ecco/ Harper Collins. She's working on a novel. Her website is www.maryfpols.com.

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