Playing an iconic character in a movie franchise that's also a cultural phenomenon can be a proverbial blessing as well as a curse. On the plus side, portraying Bella Swan has brought Kristen Stewart fame, fortune and a (frighteningly) dedicated fan-base who thinks she can do no wrong. On the other hand, there are pockets of film-lovers who can't stand the "Twilight" films or think Stewart is nothing more than a doe-eyed ingenue.

"Gossip Girl" star Blake Lively recently admitted: "I don't think I'd say, watch 'Gossip Girl' for my best quality of work. But I am very lucky to have had that experience." I honestly believe Stewart feels the exact same way about "The Twilight Saga."

Because, regardless of what you think of the five "Twilight" films (or the Stephenie Meyer books on which they were based), Stewart is a fascinating young actress who deserves to be considered for much more than taking a part in a paranormal romance that just happened to be a global sensation. In fact, it's widely known by now that the reason she even landed the Bella gig is because she appeared opposite Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn's Academy Award-nominated drama "Into the Wild" -- one of the many roles in which Kristen has proved she has more range than Bella allows her to show.

Emile was so impressed with Kristen's performance as a sensitive 16-year-old living in a countercultural commune that when his friend (and "Lords of Dogtown" director) Catherine Hardwicke mentioned she was casting Bella, he immediately recommended Kristen. While the rest is dazzling vampire history, her standout turn in "Into the Wild" is far from her only praise-worthy role.

From her earliest role as Jodie Foster's tomboyish daughter in "Panic Room" to more recent performances in "The Runaways," "Adventureland" to lesser-known indies like "Welcome to the Rileys" and "The Yellow Handkerchief," Stewart has proven she's not just interested in another big-budget, teen-friendly film.

In the New York Times review of "Welcome to the Rileys," in which Stewart plays a teenage prostitute, critic Manohla Dargis said of Stewart's performance: "She's an exceptionally appealing screen presence, and she makes Mallory's confusion -- the swings between vulgar braggadocio and clutching vulnerability -- reverberant and real."

It's precisely that vulnerability, that authenticity, that makes her a compelling actress.

Of course, "Snow White and the Huntsman" is not a small indie drama. But even that movie isn't your typical fairy-tale adaptation, and there's no guarantee there will be a sequel, despite expressing interest in making one. "Snow White" is dark, dark, dark and there's barely a romance to speak of (although there is a potential love triangle set up that isn't resolved).

Even if there is no "Snow White and the Huntsman 2," Stewart seems well-positioned to continue making independent films that draw her attention, like the upcoming adaptation of "On the Road." Her "Twilight" salary has given her the kind of cushion that means she doesn't have to do a film unless she really wants to, and her choices reflect her ambition to be taken seriously as an actor.

Off camera, Stewart doesn't play the publicity game of acting perfectly polished in interviews. She's painfully awkward and doesn't seem to care how she's perceived. And the fact that she doesn't publicly acknowledge what everyone in the world already knows -- that she is dating her on-screen love Robert Pattinson -- only makes the media circus that much crazier.

If she and Pattinson, who seem to have let down their guard about their barely disguised relationship, would stop being coy about dating each other, maybe there wouldn't be quite as ridiculous a frenzy every time they so much as show up in the same time zone.

Their personal dramatics aside, Stewart -- and Pattinson for that matter -- are so much more (and so much better) than Bella and Edward. Audiences who aren't fans of the vampire series should give Stewart a chance to show that she can do a lot more than pout and swoon.

Into the Wild Movie Poster
Into the Wild
Based on 38 critics

Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), son of wealthy parents (Marcia Gay Harden, William Hurt), graduates... Read More

Welcome to the Rileys Movie Poster
Welcome to the Rileys
Based on 30 critics

Seeking refuge from his grief and crumbling marriage, a salesman (James Gandolfini) becomes a surrogate... Read More

Snow White and the Huntsman Movie Poster
Snow White and the Huntsman
Based on 39 critics

Queen Ravenna (Charlize Theron), who seized control of her kingdom by marrying and killing its rightful... Read More

categories Movies