It’s always fascinating to watch art imitating life, and to have an actor playing a thespian caught in the public eye is no exception to the rule. Especially when said actor has had her own life picked apart by the media, just as her character Jean Seberg does in the aptly entitled Seberg. But Kristen Stewart has not been targeted by the FBI, as her character was. The film is based on real events, focusing on the illegal surveillance program that targeted Seberg in the late 1960s due to her participation in the civil rights movement and romantic involvement with activist Hakim Jamal. Jack O’Connell stars opposite Stewart as one of the agents tasked with surveilling and “neutralizing” the public figure whom Hoover’s FBI saw as a threat. Keep reading to find out how the two leads did with bringing this real life story to the screen.
Just as the woman she portrays in Seberg, Stewart is an American actor who found success in France. In 2015, Stewart became the first American actress to win the coveted César award, the French equivalent to the Oscar. She won the award for Clouds of Sils Maria, a film that demonstrates how much the actor can do when given more than serialized big-budget projects like The Twilight Saga. Seberg also provides the actor with a meaty role to sink her teeth into, and she delivers. It’s a brilliant, biographical performance that is not limited to Stewart’s physical resemblance to the 1960s film star. Stewart said in an interview with France 24 that in one of her best-known films, Breathless, the actor “just sort of jumped off the screen and felt present and honest.” Stewart’s own on-screen presence in Seberg matches that quality; her performance throughout the film is dialed-in and raw.
She also captures the fragility and vulnerability of a person who in Stewart’s own words, “felt really isolated and really kind of crazy towards the end of her life.” This is perhaps most evident during a pivotal scene in the movie when Jean is alone in a bathroom, pregnant and agonizing over a life-altering decision. Stewart poignantly plays the pain of the moment, as the impact of the surveillance and lies surrounding Jean takes its toll on her. It’s a performance that’s already generating some awards season buzz, and it shows what Stewart can do when her character has bigger problems than maintaining a high school, vampire boyfriend.
The British actor may not have the name recognition of Stewart, but his performance as Jack Solomon in Seberg is nothing short of noteworthy. O’Connell exudes quiet strength in the role, a fitting quality for Jack’s profession as an FBI agent. But when pushed, the character’s underlying intensity explodes in outbursts of great vocal or physical force. O’Connell expertly builds up to and executes these moments. A particularly memorable scene involves him unleashing his anger on a fellow agent who kills Jean’s dog.
But Jack’s moment of greatest strength is delivered softly. It comes at the film’s conclusion and offers a resolution to the constant moral battle with which Jack struggles throughout the film. The way O’Connell plays it is masterful. We know what the moment is costing him and what is at stake. We see the effort it takes for him to speak through the guilt he feels and deliver the information that proves his culpability. And it’s all done in the subdued, succinct manner of a federal agent. The scene, as well as O’Connell’s overall performance in Seberg, is one to remember.
Stewart and O’Connell are not alone in the strength of their work. Anthony Mackie plays Hakim Jamal with conviction and heart. Vince Vaughn gives an unsettling portrayal of a racist FBI agent who uses the press to spread lies about Jean. Zazie Beetz and Margaret Qualley round out the film’s supporting cast, and they both bring to life strong female characters. You can catch all of their performances when Amazon Studios releases Seberg on December 13.