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Robert Pattinson: Exclusive Interview For Esquire September Issue
He's the 28-year-old British actor who has survived trial by fire – the Twilight phenomenon, tabloid hysteria – to become one of our most promising leading men. Over the next few months, you’ll see him deliver top-drawer performances in movies by David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog and Anton Corbijn. First, The Rover, this summer’s must-see film. To celebrate, Esquire’s man in LA invited September's cover star over for beers and a barbecue
He doesn’t seem the nervous type, Robert Pattinson. He always looks so calm, in the face of all those screaming girls. But there are times when he gets very anxious indeed, and the heart quickens and the behaviour changes. And when he does, he lies, he just makes stuff up. Or at least that’s what he told US late-night chat-show host Jimmy Kimmel recently, when he was a guest on the show to promote his latest movie, The Rover.
Given that he was clearly quite nervous for the interview itself, perhaps he was lying all along, which would mean he wasn’t, which would mean he was and so on forever. But then he proved it. As he squirmed and fidgeted in his seat, he told Kimmel, apropos of nothing, that he had “extraordinarily heavy saliva”, which was why he couldn’t spit very far, no more than a foot. He also said that he quite enjoyed being spat on in an erotic way. The audience loved it, and it was quite funny. But it was also quite weird.
“OK, I can explain,” he says. “On all those talk shows you have to do a pre-interview with some producer the day before. And then a second before you go on, they tell you what you said in the pre-interview to prep you for it – and then you have to go and say it all again. So, I was sitting there with Jimmy, and that story I said the day before suddenly seemed not funny at all. I mean it wasn’t that funny in the first place and now I’ve got to perform this unfunny story which Jimmy’s going to fake laugh at it, and… I just can’t take it. So I started panicking. I was literally pouring with sweat. And I felt myself drooling. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m starting to drool.’ So, I made up this stupid story about having heavy saliva, and Jimmy’s face just went, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”
He laughs. It’s a mumbled kind of laugh, full of self-deprecation and restraint. “As soon as I saw his face, I felt much better!” he grins. “I was back in my comfort zone!”
He’s telling me all this while sitting in my backyard in Eagle Rock, Northeast Los Angeles. Yes, Robert Pattinson is in my house, having a beer while I putz around with the grill, a scenario that probably ought to feel weirder than it does. He’s never come over before. It’s not like we’re mates or anything. We only met the one time, three years ago, an occasion he’s long forgotten.
It was some cattle call press junket for the last Twilight movie. He was holed up in a sterile hotel suite in Beverly Hills, and I was one of a trillion journalists he met that day. I remember he showed up with a T-shirt that flapped open at the side and he hadn’t noticed – it wasn’t a fashion thing, the stitching had just gone. He mentioned his nerves then, too, saying he got so jumpy before auditions that he took a Xanax before the final Twilight one, only he overdid it, and showed up all drowsy. “Oh that interview! I had to live that down. People were like, ‘Drug addict!’ My fault. I brought it up about 50 times in the interviews, too.”
This time, I suggested we try something a bit more congenial. Maybe hang out like regular people for a change? After all, he’s a bloke from Barnes, south-west London, at the end of the day, 28 years old. Perhaps we could go down the pub? His people said it was too public: Barnes or not, he’s still Robert Pattinson.
What if he wore a disguise, I said? Isn’t that what celebrities do, wear ski masks to Starbucks and so on? They baulked: Robert really doesn’t go out much, and when he does, he just goes to other people’s houses.
And that’s how it happened. I said, come to my house, I’ll put the beers on ice and grill up some lunch. It’s LA in the summertime, it’s what people do. And now here he is, this tall and entirely affable Englishman in a white T-shirt and black jeans, petting my dogs and making pleasant remarks about the neighbourhood. There’s no publicist in tow, no minder at the gate. You have to hand it to him: not a lot of movie stars would pitch up at a reporter’s house like this, and subject themselves to questioning.
And yet today he seems relaxed, quite happy to just chill and natter as I get the food going. No sign of those nerves he was talking about. The goal is cedar plank salmon, grilled vegetables and no explosions. I thought keep it light because you never know with actors. Pick a recipe that looks harder than it is. And get loads of sides, just in case. I got a bit carried away at the Wholefoods deli this morning. Potato salad, orzo with feta, some kale thingy with raisins... Does R-Patz like raisins? Can I Google it?
“Sorry, I’d help but I’m useless with all that,” he says, pointing at the grill.
But grilling’s manly, that’s what they say.
“I know, but my ideal of manliness is to be incapable of doing anything,” he grins.
What, like changing a tyre?
“No, just anything. Be proud of your ignorance. ‘Don’t ask me, I’m a man! Get someone else to do it!’” He laughs and drinks his beer. “It’s funny, the less and less you do, the more the mountain of doing something grows. These days, just making a phone call is exhausting.”
He’s not the practical type, let’s say. The other day, he tried opening a bottle with his iPhone; now he can’t turn off its speakerphone. He loves Game of Thrones, but he doesn’t know how to record it on his TV, so he watches it live every Sunday. There’s something of the eccentric about him, the scatterbrained professor, away in his thoughts. At least this time his T-shirt is intact.
The one thing he might have done himself was drive here. He likes driving in LA, even with the traffic jams. He says he’s “a relatively solitary person”, so driving is perfect: he listens to stand-up comedy on Sirius satellite radio and the jams just melt away. But today, his assistant had to drop him off. Apparently, the paparazzi have got the scent again. A couple of days ago, they showed up outside Pattinson’s gym class and when his personal trainer told them the actor was not there and tried to move them on, a fight ensued which ended up all over TMZ.
This morning, there were six cars outside his house.
“I don’t understand why,” he says, looking puzzled. “I think it goes through periods where you’re assigned ‘this is the guy to follow’. But whenever I see a bunch of paparazzi hanging out, I always think, ‘Oh God, what have they found out!’” He laughs. “Oh, THAT love child! I totally forgot!”
It’s not scandal that has put him in the cross hairs. He’s just not the scandal type. The only real gossip he’s been involved in was his split with Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart in 2012, from which he came out smelling of roses – it was Stewart who cheated on him, and with a married man, too. No, the reason the paps are in pursuit is more prosaic: he’s just busy, that’s all. Over the last year, he has been diligently making movie after independent movie, in what has been his first stretch of work post-Twilight. And so far, his direction seems clear – he’s working exclusively with auteurs, on films that are not obviously commercial, and in roles that are uniquely challenging and wildly different, one to the next.
Last summer, he finished The Rover in Australia, a dystopian western from David Michôd, who made 2010’s brilliant Animal Kingdom. Pattinson’s performance is already receiving rave reviews. He then spent 10 days on Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg’s merciless satire about Hollywood, followed by Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert in which he plays Lawrence of Arabia. This spring, he made Anton Corbijn’s Life, in which he plays the photographer Dennis Stock, who took iconic photos of celebrities in the Fifties. And later, there’s a crime drama by the French director Olivier Assayas, co-starring Robert De Niro.
These are just the confirmed productions. There’s a long list of other compelling indie projects in the pipeline. A film with James Gray (The Immigrant) based on David Grann’s book The Lost City of Z, and a couple of films that are actually being written for him – Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers), is writing him a gangster movie, set in Miami, and Brady Corbet, one of the killers in Michael Haneke’s blood-chilling Funny Games, is developing a script called Childhood of a Leader. “It’s about the youth of a future dictator in the Thirties,” he says. “Like an amalgamation of Hitler, Mussolini and some others. I don’t want to jinx it, but Brady is like a savant of film. I’ve known him for like eight years, and he’s only 25 now.”
This is an extraordinary résumé he’s building. And he’s doing it with purpose, actively seeking out the filmmakers he admires. He cold-called Harmony Korine and met him for dinner, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “it took me a long time to realise I could do that”.
If it looks like he’s picking projects that are everything that Twilight isn’t – intelligent, adult, independent – who can blame him? Twilight may have made $3.3bn worldwide, and earned Pattinson $20m for the last instalment alone, but much of it was extracted from the piggy banks of young tween girls, the One Direction demographic, not an audience known for its taste in movies. The series was critically panned, gleefully so, and neither Pattinson nor Stewart were spared. It fared poorly in comparisons with other huge franchises of the era like Harry Potter or Hunger Games. Even Pattinson expressed his reservations, while the series was underway. He told Vanity Fair, “It’s weird... kind of representing something you don’t particularly like.”
But auteur-led films are exactly who he is. He’s not just trying to wash off the stink, he’s revealing himself. Pattinson was always an indie guy, a classicist, a fan of Godard, a true cinephile. He would show up on the Twilight set, reading Molière. Corbet describes him as being “uncommonly knowledgeable about cinema”. Even between Twilights, he would skip out to make ambitious dramas like Bel Ami and Cosmopolis, both in 2012. In May, David Cronenberg said, “He could grab that brass ring and keep doing big-budget studio movies, but it’s not his desire to be a big Hollywood star.”
“I’ve literally only done jobs which interest me,” Pattinson says. “There have been two which I auditioned for and didn’t get, but other than that…”
“A couple of offers, but with those things, if you express any interest, you have to do a screen test or whatever, and they make you sign a six-picture deal before you even know what the part is. It’s crazy. And I didn’t grow up reading comic books and stuff, so…”
It’s risky what he’s doing. He has a long way to fall, and yet he’s chancing failure at every turn. It’s not easy to work with the best directors in the business, on increasingly ambitious roles. Especially when the critics have already drawn blood: during his career they’ve called him a minimalist who lacks passion and emotion. With Bel Ami, it’s a fair criticism, but not for Twilight – his character Edward Cullen is a vampire who isn’t expressive by nature.
That’s why Twilight was, he says, “one of the hardest acting jobs I’ve ever done”. But fundamentally, he doesn’t care. He feels critics give indie movies an inordinately hard time anyway: “you’re judged so much more harshly if you step outside the norms of mass entertainment.” And anyway, he’s not doing it for the critics. Not even the audience.
“From my cod-psychoanalysis of myself, I think I do it for myself,” he says. “I like to see if I’m capable of something, and I don’t really care what people think, even though I read all the reviews. If it really mattered, it would have destroyed me years ago.”
So he’ll continue “going to school”, which is how he describes the path he has chosen. “I never went to acting school, so this is just me trying to get better.” And presumably, the filmmakers get a boost, too, from having such a big star attached – a boost in raising money, attracting an audience, generating publicity – all the things independent movies need?
“Mmm…” Pattinson looks skeptical. “I don’t know. These films could all get made without me. It’s not like I even promote them that well.” Evidently his own narrative, about fame and paparazzi, tends to overwhelm whatever project he’s trying to push. “I tell every production company I work for, I’m probably going to fuck up your entire marketing campaign.”
And as for this idea that the Twilight audience will follow him, Pattinson doesn’t buy it for a second. “They won’t go. I’ve said that from the beginning. Also, I’m trying to do stuff that will confuse an audience. When you watch a Joaquin Phoenix movie, his performance doesn’t remind you of his other performances. That element of being an actor is almost completely gone.”
A nice thought, though – the Twilight demographic subjecting itself to the twisted visions of David Cronenberg. He beams. “We’ll see. I think Maps to the Stars is probably more accessible than The Rover…”
'Maps…' is Pattinson’s second collaboration with the Canadian director, the first was Cosmopolis two years ago. And like so many of Cronenberg’s films, it’s unsettling, nightmarish even. Pattinson insists that he’s “the sweetest guy in the world, like a really kind university lecturer”. But Maps isn’t sweet or kind. If the Twihards come, they’d better be ready.
Hollywood has long been satirised by filmmakers, but 'Map's goes further than anything previously – there’s incest, pyromania and murder, the deaths of both children and animals. The characters are so grotesque they’re often hard to watch, and yet since it’s Cronenberg, they’re also quite funny; it’s that queasy experience of being amused and deeply disturbed at the same time.
Pattinson’s role is small but memorable. He’s a limo driver and one of the only sane characters on the screen, albeit an opportunistic and amoral one. He starts a relationship with a personal assistant (Mia Wasikowska), and then in full view of her, has sex with her boss, Julianne Moore. They do it in the back of his limo. It’s a scene he remembers well. “It was the first time I met Julianne,” he says. “And that was the first scene I shot. It was that part of the scene, too, the sex part.”
This wasn’t some directorial manipulation to elicit a certain performance – it was just pragmatism, an efficient schedule. But for Pattinson it presented some unique challenges. Not only did he have to plunge into sex with a perfect stranger – and it wasn’t pretty sex, but grunting doggie style, neither side particularly enjoying themselves – but he had one of his nervous episodes in the process. Call it performance anxiety, just not that kind.
“I noticed I was sweating,” he says. “Like really heavy sweat.” Already there’s a theme here, just like the saliva story, Pattinson is a man who has sweaty adventures. When the going gets tough, his glands get going. In this case, we’re not talking a damp film of sweat across the brow, but big bulbous droplets, like he’s got malaria, or he’s a footballer in Manaus. “I remember trying to catch the drops as they fell onto her back. It was weird. Huge splashing drops. At one point she turned around and said, ‘Are you all right?’” (There may be no connection, but Pattinson took up meditation on the 'Maps' set.)
Moore won best actress at Cannes this year for her performance as Havana Segrand, a fading star who’s so damaged that she literally dances with joy when she hears that a rival actress’s son has drowned. In another scene, she invites her assistant, or “chore whore”, to watch as she tries to take a shit. “I’ve definitely met people like Julianne’s character,” he says. “I just don’t think she’s a bad person. I see her as desperate and sad. But maybe my moral compass is just all over the place!”
What’s the worst behaviour you’ve seen?
“There’s so much I… it’s amazing how quickly people change in this business. There was one guy who’d never been on a movie set before. And after just three days, he was holding out his water bottle and waiting for someone to take it. Three days. Some people just have it in them.”
And people just accept it?
“Well, yes, but it’s not like you get away with it. This actress was doing a scene in the bath and she kept complaining about the temperature, how it was too hot or too cold. So everyone pissed in it and put a bunch of bubble bath in afterwards so you couldn’t smell it! This stuff happens. That’s why I avoid asking for anything. I don’t want to get anyone’s piss on me.”
There was no chance of having lunch at Robert’s house (we asked). It’s just not his style. “People have journalists over because it’s part of the whole ‘show’,” he says. “But my house doesn’t reflect my personality. There’s, like, no furniture! It looks a bit psychotic.” He’s renting a house on Mulholland Drive, which he describes as “weird and a bit cabin-fevery”. He’s been there a year. “But I spend most of my time in one room anyway.”
Before that, though, he owned a mansion in Griffith Park, a gorgeous neighbourhood of canyons, hikes and all kinds of trendiness in central LA. Not that Pattinson could enjoy much of that stuff: he hiked the canyon maybe twice, and as always, avoided all the cool bars. “I can’t go to hip places,” he shrugs. “I have to find weird little restaurants on the fringes. But they’re so much nicer. I love empty bars. Any empty bar, actually.”
He adored his house. Soon as he saw it, he fell for it. “The garden was so huge there were people working on it every day, and you forget,” he says. “So you’d be naked in the pool, and there’s the guy for the koi pond. Hi!”
He’d still be there, if he wasn’t so popular with the paparazzi – that is, if he wasn’t Robert Pattinson. The snappers were everywhere. “They photographed anyone who came up to the gate, anyone who rang the bell, and they followed any car that came in and out,” he says. “I used to dress up my assistant as me, and get him to drive off with like five cars following him around for hours.”
So he sold it for $6.37m earlier this year, and for a while, he might have gone in any direction. He thought about Toronto but “the winters are ridiculous”. New York was a possibility, but “everyone honks their horns all the time, which drives me absolutely insane!” And London just didn’t feel right anymore, not after seven years in LA.
“My friends are all having kids and stuff, it’s a totally different life,” he says. “And I like people who want to actually make things and do stuff. In England, it’s so difficult that most people just give up.”
So LA won out. “Just waking up when it’s sunny every day means so much to me,” he says. “I like the levity here.” But this time, it had to be a gated community, and there aren’t that many of them in LA, oddly enough. “All the houses are like $25m, these enormous castles,” he says. It’s not the money that’s the issue, it’s the size. His last place, he says, was like Versailles, but he leads a somewhat ascetic lifestyle now, immersed in his interests. His only real extravagance is his collection of 17 guitars.
So he rented the place he’s in now. And gates give him great comfort. Besides, his next door neighbour is Suge Knight, the former CEO of Death Row Records. The same Knight who was entrenched in the Bloods gang of Compton, who would carry out his own beatings, and who has done his share of prison. “He’s really nice!” Robert says. “I see him playing catch with his kid and stuff. And he lives in this nice little cottage, it’s really tasteful!”
It’s easy to forget that Pattinson didn’t arrive at his extreme celebrity in increments – he was plunged in. Imagine what that’s like.
You’re a 15-year-old in south-west London, acting in the local theatre company because that’s where the cute girls hang out. Your mum’s a model booker, your dad sells vintage cars, and you’d like to be a singer, deep down, so you do so in a band called Bad Girls. Even after you score a part in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005), you’re still not sold on acting. Maybe political speechwriting is more your thing? But your agent persuades you to go to LA to read for some romcom called Post Grad (2009), so you go and stay at her house, try for the part, and when you don’t get it, you’re crushed. You’re 21 and it feels like your career is over already.
When your agent brings up this other audition, you say fine, whatever, no one else is hiring you. It’s some vampire movie and the director has already seen 5,000 boys. Also: you’re too old. But who knows, maybe it’ll be like the director’s other movie, Thirteen, which was a pretty cool indie.
And that was it – last chance saloon one minute, Bieber fever the next. You stayed more or less the same, but the world around you changed forever.
“I remember when it happened,” he says. “I was going to clubs in LA and you had to call the promoters ahead of time to get on the guest list. But one time I forgot to call, and I was on the list anyway. That’s when I knew. I showed up with mustard down my T-shirt and they’re like giving me the wink, ‘Yeah, man, you’re on the list.’”
And from there the madness began – the constant screaming, the hounding by the press, the dramatic loss of privacy. Dating Kristen Stewart didn’t exactly help. The Twilight audience was already having issues separating fantasy from fact, and here was a real-life soap opera to confuse them further. You know the juicy part, how Stewart had an affair (with the director Rupert Sanders in July 2012), how the tabloids went bananas. On Conan, Will Ferrell broke down and expressed the feelings of a million Twihards: “She’s a trampire!”
Like all things Twilight, the whole K-Stew / R-Patz saga was horribly overcooked. It’s not unusual for co-stars to date – they were both living and working in a strange bubble for many years, both of them under intense and obsessive scrutiny. And then it ended in betrayal.
“Shit happens, you know?” he laughs. “It’s just young people… it’s normal! And honestly, who gives a shit?”
Well, a lot of people, that’s what’s weird.
“The hardest part was talking about it afterwards. Because when you talk about other people, it affects them in ways you can’t predict,” he says. “It’s like that scene in Doubt [2008, in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a priest suspected of inappropriate behaviour], where he’s talking about how to take back gossip? They throw all those feathers from a pillow into the sky and you’ve got to go and collect all the feathers.”
Some pity Pattinson for the way celebrity has deformed his life. We assume fame damages people, especially the young, so Pattinson must surely be hurting.
But he isn’t. Not really. He always saw his experience as surreal and not about him at all. There’s a toughness about him, that’s not immediately apparent, his nervous episodes notwithstanding. He emerged from the Twilight zone, as an amused observer of his own experience, equally practised at deflecting adoration and its opposite. While it wasn’t always easy, it wasn’t that hard either. “There was a time, three years ago, when I didn’t know where to live where I wouldn’t be trapped in my home, you know? But I worked it out. It’s not that big a deal in the end. Half of it is in your head.”
He has a very English, roll-up-your-sleeves resilience. He didn’t reach for rehab or therapists to help him on his way. His own grip is pretty sure. “I know what makes me happy, if I’m feeling down,” he grins. “Doing things that make your friends jealous. It really works!” He laughs. “I just say, ‘I’m working with David Cronenberg,’ and they go, ‘Oh really?’ I love that.”
His friends might well be jealous of the notice he’s getting for The Rover right now. It’s arguably his best performance, and it responds to critics who would call him unexpressive. He might be a minimalist in real life – living in a single room in an unfurnished house, meditating and relishing his time alone – but as an actor, he’s opening up.
Pattinson plays a man who’s been left to die by his brother in post-apocalypse Australia. The brother steals Guy Pearce’s car, and Pattinson and Pearce team up to find him – Pearce to recover his car, Pattinson to find out why he’d been abandoned. His character is clearly impaired somehow. In the film, Pearce asks him, “What are you, a halfwit?” Pattinson is all tics and stumbling speech, a weak, confused look in his eyes. He may not have gone full retard, but he’s on the way, surely?
“That’s not how I thought about him,” he says. He saw his character as someone who’d been severely bullied, like a battered wife who kept going back to her abuser. “He has zero self-esteem, he’s just been criticised so much, that every time he starts speaking, he’s scared that someone will shut him down.”
The location was epic: nine hours north of Adelaide, in the middle of nowhere, 150 miles from the next town. The two actors lived in old shipping containers fitted with windows and swarming with flies, in a village of only 50 people. Temperatures routinely rose to 49ºC. And the kangaroos were so unaccustomed to seeing vehicles that they’d often just jump out in front of them. “Half the crew would have, like, blood splattered all over their cars,” he says. “It’s dangerous. If they jump into your windscreen, they’ll freak out and just kick you to death inside your car.”
He loved it there. David Michôd told The LA Times, “I don’t think I ever saw an actor so happy as when I saw Rob coming down the street toward me all by himself. He was practically bouncing.” No one knew him there. He could go anywhere he wanted. The outback suited him perfectly, and he still misses the isolation. “I forget what the aboriginal language is, but there’s no word for ‘yesterday’ or ‘tomorrow’. And there was this guy, who’d just sit, covered in flies, the entire day, waiting to be called onto set. No comment, nothing. There’s a Zen you get out there. I mean there’s nothing to do anyway. It’s not like you have to get across town for a meeting!”
We sit for a moment and listen to the birds. It’s been a good lunch. He polished off the fish and helped himself to beers – three each, which isn’t bad going, especially in this city. It’s not the outback, but it’s quiet here. And he likes a bit of silence. Pattinson the minimalist. I ask him whether he had any nervous episodes on The Rover, his most open and vulnerable performance yet. Clearly it wasn’t short of sweat, it was 49ºC. He thinks for a minute. “Nope.”
And his phone goes off. “Sorry, this might be my…” And a voice says out loud, “OK, buddy, time to go.” And he laughs. “I’ve got to go across town for a meeting.”
The Rover is released on August 15. Maps to the Stars is out in the autumn.
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