He’s been trying to shed Edward Cullen for years — and now he may finally have done it.
Robert Pattinson rose to megafame playing Cullen, a lovelorn vampire, in the “Twilight” series, but has in his off-dury hours been trying to become something more interesting than a leading man. After the period piece “Bel Ami” and the romantic dramas “Remember Me” and “Water for Elephants” didn’t connect, Pattinson has styled himself as a versatile supporting actor. In David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis,” Pattinson, perpetually picking up new visitors in his limousine, was nominally the lead but was willing to cede the role of most interesting person on-screen to just about anyone who crossed his path; in Cronenberg’s forthcoming “Maps to the Stars,” Pattinson plays the limo driver.
And in David Michôd’s new film “The Rover,” Pattinson makes his greatest departure yet, playing a mentally challenged vagrant who’s migrated to a post-apocalyptic Australia and finds himself on a quest to help Guy Pearce find his car. It’s the sort of role that at a different time of year, and in a tonier, more tasteful sort of film, ends up in Oscar conversations: Pattinson has mottled brown teeth and a thick Southern accent. If this sounds like a way for Pattinson to finally shed the constraints of his leading-man roles, it is — but it’s clear that Pattinson is having fun while doing it.
He seemed open and relaxed in his standard white T-shirt when we met at New York’s Bowery Hotel, where he chugged sparkling water between answers. He spoke freely about what’s next up — including James Gray’s “Lost City of Z” adaptation and “Life,” a James Dean biopic by Anton Corbijn. Spoiler alert: Pattinson is not playing Dean.
When you go for weeks at a time promoting something, are there questions you’re repeatedly asked that you’re tired of answering?
Well, I can never remember what I’m asked. But I kept getting asked about flies in the outback, because I’d mentioned one time in the very first interview I did, “Oh, there’s loads of flies there — it’s really crazy.” And when interviewers will ask you again, I’m like, “Surely, surely you’ve seen this. Yes, there are a lot of flies.” And they just keep asking. What do I say? “Oh, actually flies are amazing; it was the best part of all of it.”
I feel like there’s only so much you can say about flies.
Which is absolutely nothing.
So you started filming last year – take me through a little bit of your state of mind. You must have been feeling pretty free in some sense, now that the “Twilight” franchise is completely over.
I got the part about eight or nine months before we started shooting it. And then I was supposed to shoot another movie before I ended up doing it. And I did “Maps to the Stars” as well, just a little part. I was going to do another lead role and then it got pushed, so I’ve basically been thinking about this for so long that it kind of feels like I was almost working the whole time.
But yeah, I finished “Twilight” like, six or seven months before maybe. It’s strange, I mean, it’s kind of — it feels like it was such a long time ago because we finished shooting ages ago, like two or three years ago. But yeah, it is interesting – you’re kind of like, “Oh, this is actually what you’re branching out doing now, this is what your career is and it’s actually kind of looking like something.” Whereas when I did each of the movies in between the “Twilight” movies it kind of reset every time. Every “Twilight” was so huge that it just overshadowed everything.
In this film you’re, to a degree, supporting Guy Pearce, and your role in “Maps to the Stars” is small, too. Are you backing away from leading-man roles?
Yeah. Well, for this I just really loved the part but a lot of the movies I’ve done that haven’t really come out yet — actually, no, I guess I’m playing the lead in the Corbijn movie. But even if it’s a lead, it’s not like the flashy role. I mean, in the movie I’m doing with Corbijn, it has James Dean in it and I’m the guy who’s photographing him. But it’s not like a part where I’m hiding away, but you’re sharing the burden a lot of the time. Stuff that appeals to me as a lead is so specific, and I kind of want to work with these directors just to go to the school, and so if I’m doing 10 days in a Werner Herzog movie, I can basically do any part.
I think there was a perception out there with “Cosmopolis,” in particular, that you were kind of consciously choosing to really take a part that was radically different from your persona. Does that enter your mind when you’re choosing parts?
No, because it’s not like – no, not really at all. I did this movie called “Bel Ami” — I mean, I was really young when I decided to do it as well. But I was thinking of it as kind of meta – there was a subtext to it. Where you have basically an entirely female audience from “Twilight,” and you play a part of a guy who’s basically like cheating women out of money, like, exclusively cheating them. And I thought that was kind of funny. I don’t think anyone really noticed the meta context of it.
Do you pay attention to how things are received?
Yeah, I understand. I don’t really know why. Because you do end up just thinking like, it doesn’t really matter. I’ve never had the experience where I’ve really hated a movie and it suddenly got great reviews. Maybe that would change my mind. But if you like something, the reviews mean nothing. The only person it really matters to is the filmmaker.
For some reason I feel kind of responsible if something is … even if it’s not singling out me, if something gets a bad review then I feel bad because I haven’t really had a bad experience on a movie. So I want to do my best to elevate them.
To a certain degree — probably less so now — you’re so closely identified with “Twilight.” Does that make it more of a leap of faith for a director to cast you because of preconceptions people have?
It kind of remains to be seen. I know that there’s definitely some kind of baggage, but I guess if it brings people into the cinema, which I’m not entirely sure if it does, then — but I don’t know. I think you end up fighting for all the parts you want anyway. I guess as I’m going further and further away from “Twilight,” the perception slowly becomes something else. Because I haven’t really tried to hit the same market again. Maybe because I don’t really know how to.
When you look at directors you want to work with, is there a list?
It’s kind of a list. I’m basically trying to go to acting school and film school by working with the best possible teachers, and also people who I grew up watching their movies. There are a few people who I really, specifically want to work with because of the performances they get out of their actors. I kind of feel like there’s something in me which is in that kind of ballpark. Like James Gray — I just loved all the stuff he did with Joaquin. And also just talking to James for years, I like his ideas about performance. And people like [“Rust and Bone” director] Jacques Audiard and stuff. But then there are other people like Herzog and Cronenberg; I never even thought I would be in any realm of possibility of getting a part with them. And then you’re suddenly doing it, it’s almost ridiculous. I’ll kind of do any part in any of their movies and just try and figure it out.
The moment in “The Rover” when you’re sitting in the truck and you’re calmly singing a Keri Hilson song ["Pretty Girl Rock"] just before a really violent moment — how did you get in the mind-set for that scene in particular? How long did it take to put that together?
I thought that was just going to be like a little inset shot because it was just briefly mentioned he’s singing along to the radio. And it’s this minute and half long shot, it’s absolutely crazy. A lot of what I was trying to do with the character the whole time is just playing someone who — it’s like someone with crazy ADD is just stuck between two decisions, constantly. Do you know on old TVs when you press down on two channels at the same time and you’re kind of in between? It’s his biggest and most pensive, deep moment. And really at the same time, he’s kind of not really thinking anything. He’s thinking everything and nothing at the same time. He’s almost empty.
How do you get to that place as an actor?
I kind of realized that how I was approaching parts in a kind of cerebral way and trying to analyze stuff is probably not the best way to do it. If you approach it more like music, which — “Cosmopolis” is the first time I’d done something in a very highly stylized dialect and then just started to listen to the rhythm and the cadence of it. It suddenly freed up something. You’re not really thinking and it’s just performing.
And you can approach almost any part just to kind of make it feel nice, like to perform it and then you’re suddenly like, Oh, this is way easier than trying to preempt every possible perception from the audience, from the other actor, and blah, blah, blah. And you can actually have fun doing it.
You’ve now several times played an American. What, if anything, is different there?
I don’t know, I’ve never really thought of it as actually specifically playing an American. I guess there are little elements of it, like — no, you kind of approach it the same way. I mean, I feel extremely uncomfortable playing English people, though. Even if I’m doing an English accent, I don’t even know how to do my normal accent, it just suddenly goes into this weird acting voice. And so I get incredibly self-conscious about it! So when I’m doing an American, it feels more like you’re in a movie.
I gathered that your character in “The Rover” was mean to be from the Southern U.S.
Yeah, the sort of migrant, seasonal laborer. It’s just like all the Chinese people moving to Africa now, it’s kind of the same thing. The Western economy has collapsed so you sort of just go anywhere where there’s any work.
Did you, the director and Guy know more than we, the audience, explicitly know about how the civilization collapsed and everything? Did you work that out together?
I think David and Guy do. Because I was there for three weeks before we started shooting, and I kept trying to push David on it and he was so unwilling to tell me anything. And I guess it makes sense for my character to not know anything; he just followed his brother there.
But I think one of the things that I liked about it so much is that the script — there were two scenes, the dialogue-heavy scenes with me and Guy. There was so much detail in them but it’s detail that doesn’t really pertain to anything else in the story. And then placed in the context of almost no dialogue whatsoever. I liked when it was completely uncompromising to the audience, it’s like, “No, this is a fully realized character and you can either run with it or not.”
It’s putting a lot of trust in the audience, in a way.
And I don’t think a lot of people do that. I think with this, and with “Cosmopolis” as well, it’s one of those — I like movies where you leave and you’re not supposed to know how you feel afterward, ever.