Critic's Notebook: Robert Pattinson Knows What You Think, but He Can Work With That

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During his “Twilight” years, Mr. Pattinson was not always treated kindly by critics who did not necessarily see beyond his beauty or his utility as one of that series’ cinematic objects of desire. Unlike Ms. Stewart, he also did not have an earlier body of work that indicated he could do more than pout prettily, even if his turns in small movies like “Remember Me” (2010) showed promise. It was, however, “Cosmopolis,” the 2012 dystopian fantasy from David Cronenberg, based on the Don DeLillo novel, that effectively set Mr. Pattinson’s career path. “I think it was the first time when I worked on something that was quite complex,” he said.

“Cosmopolis” was, he added, essentially the first movie he made after he finished the final chapter of the “Twilight” series. “I especially love the fact that it came out really at the height of my popularity,” he said. Cast as a master of the universe who endures a spectacular, increasingly violent and humiliating fall, Mr. Pattinson sees the movie as “the big turning point for me — I just realized that was what I wanted to do.”

Mr. Cronenberg had made a movie without a mold, and his star became eager to follow suit. “I think it’s so rare for something to break a pattern,” Mr. Pattinson continued. “I feel like almost everything in the world is designed to be predictable.”

Movie stardom depends on charisma and that alchemical quality called presence, as well as a certain amount of predictability and patterns, genres and types. But longevity means occasionally breaking patterns. Mr. Pattinson is clearly set on avoiding obviousness, and this may be why, instructively, he has gravitated toward roles that call for his characters to undergo punishing physical abuse — they’ve been beaten, throttled, shot and endured a proctologist’s probing — as if he were trying to expunge the last trace of Edward. This at times seems to go beyond the showy, self-regarding transformations that stars like to take on, into a deeper transfiguration.

It’s common for stars to obscure their looks, pop on a fake nose and fright wig, of course; it’s less common for actors to wholly embrace the irredeemable and risk the audience’s love. “Anyone can look ugly,” Mr. Pattinson said. “It doesn’t take much.”

In “Good Time,” the ugliness he taps into goes beyond Connie’s greasy hair and torrents of flop sweat, and seems to exude from his very pores. Mr. Pattinson, who conveys a warmth and openness in person, conceded that it could be a problem when audiences confuse actor and character. But that hasn’t happened to him, which is why he is, he said, “pretty blasé about it.” If anything, he seemed happy at all the “revolting parts” he has coming up.

Looking further ahead, he would love to work with the German director Maren Ade, whose “Toni Erdmann” played big at Cannes last year. During this year’s festival, it was announced that Mr. Pattinson would star in “The Souvenir,” an ambitious movie from the British director Joanna Hogg that Martin Scorsese will executive produce. Mr. Pattinson also hopes that this summer he can start on a project (“High Life”) that he and the French director Claire Denis — he counts her film “White Material” among his favorites — have been working on for three years. (“That, to me, that’s kind of the biggest thing I’ve got. I literally still can’t really believe it.”)

“I think one of the best things, basically, about being a bit of a sellout,” Mr. Pattinson said, is “if you’ve done five movies in a series, you’ve had to accept some responsibility for playing the same character.” He didn’t sound regretful, just matter-of-fact. Working on the “Twilight” movies, he said, was “an amazing luxury” and it was “amazing luck, as well, to just have fallen into it with the group of people I worked with on it.” They were kids in it together, kids who rebelled or tried to, and felt emboldened to act out. He even came close, he said, to being fired on the first movie, until his agents flew in to straighten him out. “I didn’t have to kiss anybody’s” rear end “the entire time,” he said. “I don’t think I did, anyway.”

Mr. Pattinson seems entirely at peace with “Twilight” and has clearly found a way to harness its legacy, which includes going dark and making the kinds of art films that find love at Cannes. He says he always thinks he’s terrible in every take. “I can’t say that about anyone I work with,” he added. “I’ve never seen anyone give themselves such a hard time. I’m beating myself up afterward. And I think there’s some weird perverted energy that comes out of when people criticize previous work or think you represent this certain thing; it gives you this energy.”

Maybe that sounds disingenuous, but I believed him. He was on a roll, though, and soon added that he was “almost scared of anyone saying anything I do is good.” He then laughed, perhaps a touch self-consciously.

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