Artist Profile: Finding Robert Pattinson

Image: A24

It can only take a few lines for you to fall in love with an actor. Some quirk of delivery, mumbled or half-remembered or slick with a smirk, that makes bad material good or good material insane. Something inspired. When they do it, it seems the only way you can imagine those words spoken, the energy of the scene calibrated just so, as if it could be no other way . . .

This year – burrowing with movies in lieu of many friends – I’ve been seriously aware of how talk transpires, there on my little TV, between famous people and weirdos and black-and-white megaliths who are long dead, their rhythms, how they come together or wrench apart. Small moments stand out. I’m thinking of Choi Min-sik in Old Boy, tenderly speaking to another human for the first time in 15 years as he dangles him off the edge of a rooftop. Pacino in Scent Of A Woman, the sad “Hooah . . .” at his brother’s dinner table. The cherubic blonde Birgitta Pettersson exclaiming, “What a funny little mouth harp!” to a dangerous band of men in The Virgin Spring, unaware of her own perfection.

And now – on a second viewing of Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse – it’s R Patz, the Patented Pattinson, squinting blind drunk at Willem Dafoe. “If I had a steak . . .” he says. “Oh boy, a rare, a bloody steak . . .” Pause. “If I had a steak.” Emphasizing the ownership, the cataclysmic love of meat and all its associations. “I would fuck it.” Dafoe watches, shakes his head, starts moaning about lobsters. Then Pattinson, in disbelief, yelps and throws a pillow. “Oh, don’t be such a bitch!” It’s the movie, right there. Men without women trying to dominate each other, feminising their adversary when other controls fail. Stunned. Impulsive. Bug-eyed. Pattinson is believably crazed. He is a man awed by his own madness. And to my great joy, he seems like that everywhere. I’ve only just realised how crazy he is. Like millions of you, I’m obsessed with him.

Let’s deal with the cliche first. Quite predictably, I hated Twilight. Back in the day, my 16-year-old high school date almost walked out of the cinema on opening weekend because (she whispered furiously) they got the colour of the hallway rug wrong. I sat through two hours of vampire baseball, forest chases and a pinched wrist. The only respite came with Edward. She huffed and pouted and then, at sight of her beloved, let go of me. With every mournful word, she’d look between us, me and him, realising I would never obtain that much repressed danger or lose that much facial blood. But then, as a Potter nerd, she had a strong inkling for Cedric Diggory left to percolate in frantic rewatches of The Goblet Of Fire. So perhaps my first reaction to Pattinson was that of an exhausted rival. He’d won my girl, I decided. Better not pay for more movie tickets just so he could afford to pick her up in a Bentley.

11 years later, I get it. Pattinson, Pattinson, I’d heard. You’ve gotta catch up with Pattinson. A binge was overdue. I had to do it or risk obsoletion. Now that it’s done, I’m happy and far from satiated; he’s clearly one of America’s most versatile leading men. A strange case of someone who started as a franchise poster boy, ducked out to make art films, and is heading back to the mainstream. God knows what it’ll look like. And when has that really happened before? A poster boy pinned to the arthouse, then returning to multiplexes with two films - Nolan’s Tenet and the new Batman? All before he’s had a chance to fade and grow a dad gut.

For in Pattinson, we have a darker strain of Brad Pitt Syndrome – a character actor trapped in a beautiful body. He also has the otherwordly sphinxian drama of Johnny Depp before he began to raid the makeup drawer. With his wincing, almond-shaped eyes and ability to boil into sudden, no-holds panic, he can make you empathic and nervous, attracted and repulsed, like you’re chasing a ghost who’s probably just using you to kill time. He is wan, smouldering, self-conscious. He can play a thief on the run (Good Time), a billionaire on the limo ride through hell (Cosmopolis), or a doting father in an interstellar graveyard (High Life), stretching this way and that with suspicious intent. He really looks as if he’s thinking about thinking what he’s capable of. His hair is similarly malleable. When he vanished into the role of The Lost City Of Z’s Henry Costin, it was with a beard crying for shampoo. Good Time gives him a semi-punk aesthetic with a platinum dye job, the choppy grease of a born renegade. In interviews, he grabs his hair a lot, a sign of how much he hates easy answers. You sense he wants to ruffle up his conventional attractiveness, to play, make it awkward, dirty, desperate. Unlike Brad, he doesn’t mind being a lead and owning it. Unlike Depp, he mastered a franchise in youth, wandered to directors like Claire Denis and now looks as if he’s just getting started in popular cinema all over again.

As his recent GQ profile indicated, Pattinson can be as scattershot as any of us when we’re genuinely interested by so much at once, we can’t put words together. Writer Zach Baron describes his “generous but thoroughly chaotic energy,” the way he operates sentences like “a broken carnival ride” and how, with constant sighs or laughter, “you momentarily think he’s speaking a different language entirely,” as if there’s a joke none of us are getting. Those qualities don’t harm his enunciation, yet they do bring a calculated intensity to his face – as if there’s a depth of emotion we can’t access, and he’s withholding those feelings because they’re too strange to voice or may just confuse him further.

Off-set, Pattinson is effortlessly, perplexingly charming, happy that anyone at all wants to talk to him, delighted he gets to spend a day in Paris sniffing cedar wood or sitting in on Jennifer Lopez’s monologue for 30 minutes. Insecure with a broad beaming smile. Goofy. Cos he just enjoys his position. He seems shocked at his own success, at his normal, everyday oddness in a job that strives so hard to be mannered and stage-managed. And as the cameras roll, he craves anxiety – it fuels him. “I find it fascinating when people make bad decisions,” he told The Guardian. “The humour and the befuddlement . . .” So to capture that, he does bizarre prep work, like eating mud, sticking his fingers down his throat before a take, and sleeping in his clothes in a basement apartment for two whole months. As a normal person (by Hollywood standards) might see themselves in Pattinson, his half-extreme lengths of psychological torment marks him out as a performer who likes arty stuff primarily, not incidentally, thus making him a loose cannon in the mainstream. Yet he also swans through lush apartments, and is adored, in many cases, for his dapper spontaneity, for leaving you guessing what he’ll say next. One YouTube comment I came across said he acts like a man who is constantly late for his own Powerpoint presentation. 

This is leagues removed from sculpted bald jacked-in-the-box specimens on red carpets waiting for an energy drink with Kevin Hart. Or indeed, actors who take their craft so seriously they can’t cop to winging it. As he says: “I realized that as soon as I try and do something where I feel like I’ve got any understanding of it, it’s just a disaster. As soon as I have a set plan, it will just go wrong.” Can you imagine Chris Pine saying that as lightly? Armie Hammer? Chalamet? They’re too sure of themselves. Pattinson has claimed he sees the world like a dog in an elevator – whenever the doors open, there’s a whole new, delectable challenge to embrace.

Which makes it especially brilliant that he's Batman. R Batz. A Batman who might just lose it. Oh yep. Throw all of his bat shit away. A freak-out. A breakdown, then an air kiss. He’s got the foppishness for a young Bruce Wayne, and plenty of rage for the Caped Crusader. It’ll be raw and probably sad. A bare shard of soul on his face, his pallid, concocting confection. Is it heresy to very much like a new Batman before we even see him? I remember thinking Joaquin Phoenix might screw up in Joker and hit it too broadly. But no, he did good. So Pattinson as a caped sonofabitch, grappling and monologuing? “Eat my fist, dumb nuts, and come to my penthouse at seven for cocktails!” With a bat sign that shines ‘Dior Homme’. Well, that sounds beautiful. If you ask him, he’ll say it’s “commercial viability” or pure enjoyment, depending on the day. He doesn’t know. Nor should he. He’s going backwards in time, as well as forwards, with his curious acuity to blockbusters once more. I’m sure he hasn’t got a clue what’s coming next, which means I don’t either.
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