Robert Pattinson has never been uninteresting. Easily written off as, “The Guy From Twilight”, his work since that teen vampire series ended has refused to follow the path of least resistance for a young star. Instead of bankable familiarity, he turned to David Cronenberg, David Michôd and Werner Herzog for roles that would push his artistic drive. And this year, he alighted on the little-known Safdie brothers for the Cannes-premiering Good Time, a film that asked more of him than he has ever given. The result: one of the best performances of the year, which has seen him nominated for Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards. Over beers in West Hollywood, he explains more.
You reached out to the Safdie brothers after seeing a still from one of their films, and nothing else. Is that right?
It was the still of Arielle Holmes from Heaven Knows What. There’s just something about that photo. I love the expression on her face. I was just so certain it was going to say that they were Czech filmmakers, or something, but then to find out they’re from New York… My friend Brady Corbet knows everyone in New York so he put me in touch and I sent them the most extraordinarily effusive email, basically saying, “I’m interested.” I mean, I’d never met them, and I hadn’t even seen the film. I didn’t know if they’d even done other movies at that point. This is all in the space of about half an hour.
Fortunately, the trailer for Heaven Knows What came out about a week later, and it was incredible. It was exactly what I was looking for; I keep looking for that super high-intensity thing where it felt punk and had this kind of out-of-control feeling to it. Josh and Benny have just the most phenomenal attitudes. They’re not afraid to be drastic, and they do really audacious cuts and stuff.
I was describing to them earlier, there are some people you know when you get in the car with them, it feels like you’re going to die in the car. They’re driving so quickly and it feels out-of-control. If you do it enough times, you’re like, “Oh, no, you’re just a good driver who drives really fast.” It takes a second to realize, if you just surrender to it you’re probably not going to die. You might [laughs]. But you’re probably going to die if you drive too slowly, too.
People described this role as a reinvention for you. But aren’t you just a reinventor? Going from Twilight to David Cronenberg and Werner Herzog isn’t exactly playing it safe.
I suppose the other things I’ve done haven’t been contemporary, and I think because this was a really identifiable character type, people were like, “Oh.” People know that world. You can go to New York and see it, and I think people found it weird that I might live in it. If a part ever came where it was like, “You can play yourself,” maybe I’d find comfort in it. But I don’t think my actual personality translates particularly to a character type. I don’t really have a comfort zone. I keep thinking I’m trying to do the opposite of the last thing every time. I’d love to find out if there’s a comfort zone for me to fall back on. Maybe an incredibly insecure English person filled with self-loathing and doubt… I don’t know how many parts like that come along [laughs].
But perhaps living on the knife’s edge of unfamiliarity is exactly what you’re drawn to. It is your comfort zone.
It is. I feel like it’s always got to be on the knife’s edge. Though it also feels like you’ve just fallen into something by accident and you’re learning on the job. It does seem so random, whether something works or not. Especially if you’re not naturally a performative person. I’ve grown up thinking that excessive, outward displays of emotion are always fake. It’s so ironic that I wound up being an actor. Every single time I try and do something that feels too effusive, I feel like a fraud.
I’m sort of drawn to things that are a bit odd. If I described the plot to Good Time to somebody I’d say, “It’s this guy who’s mentally ill, and he’s trying to kidnap his mentally ill brother, and then they rob a bank together immediately, and then they steal and try to sell a bottle of Sprite filled with liquid acid for the rest of the movie.” If someone pitched that to me I’d be like, “That sounds fucking dope.”
With the Claire Denis movie I’m doing [High Life] it’s kind of the same thing. If you have someone pitch it, it sounds crazy. I like that. It sounds like it can’t easily be categorized. I guess it is sort of scary, but that’s OK. As soon as I can sum something up like that, it stops being scary to me because I know it. It feels like my kind of territory.
At the same time, there’s humanity in there. Isn’t your character, Connie, just in love with his brother and wanting to protect him?
If you’re in love with someone, they’ll either not love you and you’ll realize and be heartbroken, or you’ll love them and it’s all wrapped up and everything’s fine. There’s also this other kind of love, which I thought was really interesting. You can not know what love is. You can think you’re feeling love. He’s like, “I love my brother, and therefore I know what’s best.” And it doesn’t fit. It’s a very one-sided kind of love, and he’s not even listening to what his brother is saying to him. He’s just a narcissist, but a narcissist still loves, too. The love, for him, is as real as any normal person would feel it. But it’s also this toxic, delusional kind of love. He does genuinely love his brother, but you really don’t want to be loved by someone like that.
Didn’t the Safdie brothers send you to live in Harlem before the movie? Did that immersion help you feel like you understood this guy?
Yeah, I really like the way they work. It’s how I’d want to work with everybody, where the work never stops. It’s not like you clock off at the end of the day. Even a year after we’ve finished, we’re still talking about it, and talking about the next thing. That level of enthusiasm is really infectious. I can’t stand it when you work with a director, and you call them when they’re not on set and they’re just not into it. No, you have to be into it all the time.
It’s fun working with people who are audacious. No matter what we did—even when we went to visit a prison—something would happen which just ended up with us being able to go much further than we were supposed to. If it was me doing it I’d try and obey the rules.
So we went to this prison, and the guy who was supposed to show us around couldn’t show up, so they gave us the deputy. We were only supposed to visit one area, but when the deputy asked Josh, “Where did they say you were allowed to go?” He was like, “They said we could go anywhere.” So we’re going around every single f—king area of this prison and talked to whoever we wanted to. It was crazy. I like that audaciousness.
Who did you meet?
Well, we didn’t really talk that much. I think everyone assumed we were working for the city. We had notepads and stuff. Everyone was asking for their lawyer; I mean absolutely everybody. We went to the women’s holding cells, which you’re not even allowed to go into if you’re a guy. I just knew, as soon as I walked in, someone is going to 100% recognize me.
We were with the same guide who was taking us everywhere, and he had no idea we were even doing this for a movie. I don’t even know what we were saying to them; we weren’t asking them questions, just kind of implying that we were doing some kind of survey. When we got to the women’s booking area, almost immediately people were like, “I recognize you.” I don’t even really know what kind of character I was trying to put on. I was trying to go in disguised—looking like a 15-year-old boy. Someone asked me if I was in there for Scared Straight [laughs].
The thing I really liked about working with them is that the line between the real world and the film world was so blurred. My last experience of shooting in New York was Remember Me, which was at the height of the Twilight stuff. It was fucking insane. We had paparazzi every day of the shoot. The 1st AD actually got hit by a paparazzo and was sent to hospital. The laws are quite strange. There would be a paparazzi who would be standing, following next to the camera, taking pictures. Every take. So he was literally just taking pictures of the movie. It was one of the most stressful experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
So I warned the Safdie brothers, “If we have one person who finds out, we’re f—d.” We were on such unbelievable lockdown, but I know we didn’t even get a single cellphone photo the entire shoot. It’s kind of crazy, considering.
How is that even possible on the streets of New York?
Over the years I’ve kind of realized how to do it. There are disguise techniques. The way you walk in a crowd, the way you hold yourself. There are ways to avoid being noticed. Or, I might just not be famous anymore [laughs]. I mean, it’s a possibility. That was kind of what I was thinking as we were shooting the movie.
Also it helps if you look really dirty. Nobody comes up to you. People avoid you. We all looked filthy, absolutely every single person.
So was this a kind of De Niro, Day-Lewis, Method-style immersion?
I don’t really know how to do that. You kind of work with what you’ve got. It’s impossible to fully improvise. Everyone else was from Queens, and the main thing people talk about when they’re from the same place is shared experiences, and I didn’t know anything about that. You kind of have to make that part of the character. Where someone would ask, you end up pretending to be this arrogant guy who’s like, “No, I don’t relate to you. Just because we’re from the same place doesn’t mean I have to relate, so stop trying to relate to me.” Connie is kind of like that with everybody.
The Safdies are such good writers, too. The dialogue feels authentic to me. It’s interesting, but for all the improvisation, every single f—king line in the script is in the movie. To get to the lines we’d go all over the place. So we’d do lots of improvisation to get up to delivering the lines, but the actual improvised stuff is not in the movie. It just retains that flavor.
They also run a really loud set. I’ve never really experienced a set where it’s not like, “OK, everybody quiet.” I don’t know another word for it, but it just felt punk. Sean Price Williams, the DP, would occasionally even just push me into place to get the perfect shot. On a normal movie I’d have been like, “What the f—k are you doing? Stop pushing me.” But on that set it was great.
It feels exciting that this form can inhabit that way of working, but also, your first big movie would have been Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and I would imagine that was a much more formalized experience.
Well, I find it interesting how even there you can have this level of confidence to just do your thing regardless. I remember Ralph Fiennes being born as Voldemort. I’d shot a lot before, and it was the first moment where everyone was kind of tense, because nobody really knew what he was going to do with it. He came out, and it was interesting seeing someone with that level of experience make it his own. Because you can have so much infrastructure around you, but to have someone come out and everyone be like, “What’s he going to do?” That was really exciting.
I was cast so young, so I had just sort of started when I did it. When I came to doing the first Twilight, I actually felt I had a lot more control over my performance, because I didn’t really realize what it was. And that was because of Catherine Hardwicke, as well—she made it so malleable, which it can be when nobody knows what something is. I really liked doing all of those films, but on the first one I definitely felt like, because we hadn’t set the footprint for the thing… I feel like, as soon as you set a footprint your instinct immediately is to want to break out of it, and you can’t. There are too many reasons you can’t just throw it all up in the air. The only hard thing about doing that series was doing the sequels.
Is one of the benefits of doing a series like Twilight that it buys you the ability to say, “OK, now I can help you get your film made,” to an independent filmmaker?
It’s great, and it definitely, definitely helps. But then the directors I’ve been working with recently, they’d get in financed anyway. Cronenberg, Herzog… Good Time was the first time I really realized that the money came from my casting. And also, the money was so low. So I don’t know. There’s a pressure that comes with feeling like you’ll help with financing, where you think, like, you didn’t really get it because you deserve it. That’s why I like doing work with small budgets, too, because it makes it easier when you really, really believe in something. I’m always plagued with self-doubt, and so I never really make requests of anybody when I’m going into something. I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll dive into your world.” I guess that makes it easier for directors as well. I’ll give whatever power I can give, but after that I don’t have any demands. I don’t think, anyway.
After Twilight, I really just wanted to go off and work with heroes, no matter how small the part was. With the Safdies, I’d really put them in the same category as the people I worked with before. Cronenberg, Herzog, and then a line to them. “Now I want to work with you guys.” I mean, what a perfect thing for me.