When Robert Pattinson signed on to play the antagonistic dauphin of France in Netflix’s medieval epic The King, he knew it was a juicy role that would give him the pleasure of taunting Timothée Chalamet. Still, Pattinson hadn’t quite figured out his character until he saw hair-and-make-up photographs of his costar Lily-Rose Depp, who was cast as a royal ingenue. “I was, like, ‘I want to play a princess, too,’” Pattinson says.
The hairdresser capitulated by giving him long, honeyed locks, but Pattinson had one more surprise in store: on set he unfurled a French accent so deliciously over the top that his scenes became charged with a camp jolt. At first “I couldn’t quite tell, is this ridiculous?” Pattinson recalls. But after the first take he found another costar, Joel Edgerton, doubled over in laughter. “And then I thought, I love this! This is the best.”
There is little that Pattinson, who is now 33, likes more than confounding expectations, and plenty were placed on him after the megahit Twilight franchise ended, in 2012. Since then he has reinvented himself as an auteur’s muse, eager to add his mischievous spirit and pop-cultural frisson to art-house films by directors such as Claire Denis, David Cronenberg and the Safdie brothers.
His irreverent instincts get their most sustained showcase yet in The Lighthouse, a wild, darkly funny new film from Robert Eggers that pits Pattinson against Willem Dafoe as 19th-century lighthouse keepers who drink, spar, shout and even cuddle. The Nova Scotia shoot was arduous, and Pattinson’s unusual approach – to psyche himself up before takes he would sometimes gag and hit himself in the face – often surprised Eggers and Dafoe.
Still, Pattinson found that tension to be helpful. “Even if it’s rage you’re feeling, it’s more interesting than boredom, because you can use rage,” Pattinson says.
After spending the past few years in independent films, Pattinson is planning another zig: he’s shooting Tenet, a big-budget summer movie, for Christopher Nolan, and he was just cast as the lead in The Batman, a new take on the comic-book character due in 2021. “It’s an entirely different experience from the movies I’ve been doing,” the actor says. “Normally I shoot six weeks, and now it’s six months!”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Is it fair to say you’re drawn to eccentric characters?
I’ve always thought that the only reason you’d want to play a good guy all the time is because you’re desperately ashamed of what you’re doing in real life, whereas if you’re a pretty normal person the most fun part of doing movies is that you can explore the more grotesque or naughty sides of your psyche in a somewhat safe environment. And it’s always more fun if you’re shocking the people in the room. If you end up being boring, that’s the lowest of the low.
Do you think you’ve been boring before?
All the time. You can bore yourself! On The Lighthouse I’d do two out of 17 takes that work, and on the other ones I’d roll the dice in a different direction that leads me nowhere. But it’s more fun doing that than making a plan and sticking to it.
What was the first day of shooting The Lighthouse like?
Well, my first shot was this ferocious masturbation scene. It’s always nice to do something massive for your opening shot, and I went really massive on the first take. It was a 180 from everything we’d done in rehearsal, and I could see Robert [Eggers] a little in shock afterward. But I was, like, “Okay, cool, I didn’t get told to stop, so I’ll keep going in that direction.” As soon as I’d done that, it was like the road started getting paved.
Why did you feel like you couldn’t uncork that character in rehearsals?
I want to do it different every time, and if you rehearse it 30 times you have to think of 30 different ways to do it – even if the first way is probably the best way. I just hate it when I do a second take exactly the same as the first take. They might as well fire me.
Doing it the same feels false to you?
It’s just boring! I mean, I’ve definitely seen actors who love rehearsing and are very good, so there’s got to be some benefit to it. But there’s something about that full commitment when you’re shooting, when it’s do or die, that allows you to be more free. Or maybe I’m just lazy and I can’t be bothered to do it until the day we shoot!
Did The Lighthouse strike you as a comedy at first?
I thought the script was hilarious when I read it, but I had a similar experience on High Life [a space drama about convicts sent to a black hole]. When Claire Denis and I watched that by ourselves, we were pissing our pants laughing – it’s insane, that movie. But at the premiere of High Life there was this deadly silence as everyone watched it. I was, like, “Oh, God, no one’s seeing the absurdity of this.”
People just assume that if it’s an art-house film, it can’t be funny.
It made me worry that if people aren’t told that The Lighthouse is a comedy, they might not feel like they’re allowed to laugh at it. You know, I used to think that doing movies was almost like taking a test, and there was so much pressure to do it right, but I’ve now swung more over to the other side of things: it’s supposed to be really fun, and if you just play it that way it’s more enjoyable and ends up in a good place. Having a laugh really changes everything.
You’re currently working on Christopher Nolan’s next film, and you’ll begin shooting The Batman soon. How does it feel to have traded art-house movies for big studio blockbusters?
I mean, Dunkirk is almost an art-house movie! Chris Nolan is literally the one director who can make an art-house movie for hundreds of millions of dollars, so it doesn’t really feel like a studio thing. With Batman, if I’d done it a few years ago I would have been incredibly nervous, but I’ve still got a few months before we start shooting. Plenty of time to have a panic attack!
You were saying earlier that we should be sceptical of any actor who wants to play the hero, and yet here you are playing Batman.
Batman’s not a hero, though. He’s a complicated character. I don’t think I could ever play a real hero – there’s always got to be something a little bit wrong. I think it’s because one of my eyes is smaller than the other one.
What is it about Batman that excites you?
I love the director, Matt Reeves, and it’s a dope character. His morality is a little bit off. He’s not the golden boy, unlike almost every other comic-book character. There is a simplicity to his world view, but where it sits is strange, which allows you to have more scope with the character.
You just paused.
I just fear that when I say anything about Batman, people online are, like, “What does this mean?” And I don’t know! I used to be very good at censoring myself, but I’ve said so many ridiculous things over the years, so I’m always curious when I’m promoting these movies how many times I can mess up. It feels like with every movie that comes out there’s always one quote from me where it’s, like, “How? What kind of out-of-body experience produced that screaming nonsense?”
You’ve said that after you were cast as Batman, you anticipated a vitriolic reaction online.
Maybe I’m just used to abuse by now. At least I didn’t get death threats this time – that’s a plus! It’s funny that people are so very angry about Twilight. I never particularly understood it.
When an actor stars in a franchise that’s made for women, there are men who resent that: “My girlfriend likes him, so I don’t.”
They need to think about why they feel that way. Maybe it’s time for a deep soul-search: “Why do you fear what you don’t understand?” But, yeah, it’s very strange. All the stuff with Twilight was strange. I used to walk down the street with no one recognising me, and then that changed for four years.
Are you worried that, by making big movies again, you may invite that scrutiny back into your life?
People don’t really mess with me in the same way now that I’m older. When I was younger the paparazzi would be crazy to me – I’d be leaving a place, and people would be screaming abuse – but I can’t imagine it going back to that. Do people really care any more? The gossip magazines have all kind of gone away, and everyone just puts their stuff on Instagram anyway.
Everyone but you.
Well, I’m old and boring. And I only have abs, like, two weeks a year. – New York Times
The King is in cinemas now. It will be available on Netflix from November 1st