He’s taken one of the most fascinating and unconventional routes with his stardom.
The thinkpiece-industrial complex is running at full speed this spring to update the cinephile community’s consensus of major stars. In case you’re behind, adjust your opinions to reflect the following changes: Reese Witherspoon is still good, Kristen Stewart is now really good, Anne Hathaway is great because her haters were sexist, and Nicole Kidman is underappreciated despite receiving an Oscar nomination this very year.
One star whose evaluation has yet to appear from the hot take factory is Robert Pattinson, who features in two theatrical releases this April, Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert (quickly dumped in theaters and VOD over two years after its 2015 Berlin premiere) and James Gray’s The Lost City of Z. Five years ago, the cultural ubiquity of “R-Pattz” was so enormous that the future President of the United States tweeted about him six times. So where’s the Film Comment cover, the critical revisiting or the cultural chatter about Pattinson’s peculiar career choices as of late?
Perhaps to his detriment, Pattinson never fit neatly into any recognizable category of star, nor did he take any well-established routes to mainstream respectability as an adult actor. He kicked around Hollywood in the early 2000s with fellow British imports Eddie Redmayne, Andrew Garfield, Tom Sturridge and Jamie Dornan but never pursued the same kind of theatrical or transformative parts that launched their careers. He reached tabloid superstardom at the beginning of the social media era alongside fellow hunks Zac Efron and Channing Tatum, yet Pattinson shows little desire to openly burlesque his matinee idol appearance as those two did to soften their appeal to male audiences and thus become less threatening. And then there’s his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, who weaponized the tics that made her an Internet joke to become an arthouse meme trading on her well-established persona. She’s reintroduced herself to the world through ironic detachment from an already detached acting style.
Pattinson’s current path most closely resembles fellow YA franchise front man (and former co-star) Daniel Radcliffe. In the years following the final installment of Harry Potter, Radcliffe dabbled in just about any form of entertainment he could fit in his schedule. He’s made multiple appearances on the New York and London stages, starred in a BBC miniseries, headlined a romantic comedy, tackled a towering real-life figure in Allen Ginsberg, returned to the well of effects-driven studio action and gone completely gonzo playing a horn-spouting telepath and a farting corpse. Radcliffe had the advantage, though, of projecting a monolithic image during the Hogwarts years. Performer and character were one in the same since Radcliffe took no major film roles while acting in the franchise. This allowed him to make a clean break from the series and start fresh in a post-Potter career.
Pattinson did not give himself such a luxury while starring in his $3.3 billion series. His frustration mounted on the Twilight set — “you think you’d get more power as an actor, but you get less and less,” he bemoaned on the 2011 Water for Elephants press tour — and the disillusionment began to show in a parallel track of films that directly contradicted his iconic character. While the chilly, chaste Edward Cullen forces Kristen Stewart’s Bella to wait until marriage to consummate their love, Pattinson’s characters in Remember Me, Water for Elephants and Bel Ami exhibit no such reticence. These films brim over with sexuality as Pattinson’s lotharios conquer any barrier necessary to bed the women who catch his eye. 2012’s Bel Ami makes the most intriguing use of his Casanova as Pattinson’s George Duroy thrives on adoration by women but must find a way to advance in a male-dominated world.
His simultaneous Twilight-era work was not an exploratory phase for Pattinson. It was a cry for help. Remarkable similarities tie the films together, like the fact that Pattinson manages to get physically beaten in all three, perhaps an indicator of his self-loathing. His insecurities about maturing into an adult manifest themselves in serious parental issues — these authority figures are either negligent, nagging or dead. Only one, 2010’s Remember Me, really seemed to catch on in the public imagination. As Tyler Hawkins, Pattinson plays the public perception of himself — unkempt, dispassionate and mostly disinterested, though his empty gazes and blank expressions hint at the desire for something greater. Something not attainable in the straightjacket of a major franchise, he implies.
Stars regularly lean on an established alternate persona after retiring a major character like Edward Cullen. For decades, actors have slipped out of an iconic costume and into their own skin by cultivating a more authentic identity presumably closer to their own. Perhaps far too many of us were willing to assume that the Pattinson of Remember Me was that true self. (He certainly sold it convincingly on the press tour.) Pattinson had the misfortune of emerging into the public eye as the feedback loop of celebrity and idol worship constricted, especially with niche fan forums spilling onto more public platforms like Twitter and Tumblr. As the Twilight demographic fit their own identities into streamlined online profiles, so they boxed in their star.
But the journey from the bedhead in Remember Me to the bushy beard he sports in The Lost City of Z is a continuous one, surprisingly enough. The Pattinson of 2010 is the Pattinson of 2017. He did not reinvent himself. He did not spurn Twilight. He simply shifted his attention away from brandishing his star image towards building a résumé.
Pattinson now appears less interested with how each role he chooses plays into the grand narrative of his public image and more concerned with the potential experience he can have with a director. Journalists often struggle to grasp the rationale behind actors selecting roles — we are only privy to the result, after all. But the process of playing a part can mean more to some performers than the destination it takes their career. Since the final Twilight film, Pattinson enlisted with esteemed masters David Cronenberg, James Gray and Werner Herzog, emerging talents David Michod and Anton Corbjin, and first-time filmmaker Brady Corbet. This side of Adam Driver, no young actor has amassed such an impressive, eclectic slate of directors to guide him.
How an on-set environment of collaboration and exploration affects Pattinson’s performances is the real story of his post-Twilight projects. The hallmarks of his acting have remained constant throughout his work — most prominently, Pattinson’s stone-faced stoicism through a still face betraying little emotion. It was there in 2006’s BBC TV movie The Haunted Airman, remarkably underplayed and simple in its quietude for the normally salacious TV movie format, and it continued into the Twilight series with a pallid smolder. (The same goes for his more manic skill set — he lunked about screen as fumbling teenagers in 2007’s The Bad Mother’s Handbook and 2008’s How To Be before settling into more mature expressions of unease in The Rover and Maps to the Stars.)
Pattinson’s subdued restraint requires viewers to project their feelings onto his blank slate, and it can easily pass for non-acting when foiled against someone like Kristen Stewart, whose every exhalation and twitch hints at a psychological undercurrent. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier to see Pattinson’s solid expressions and lack of emphatic intonation as evidence of repressed emotion rather than the absence of thoughtfulness from this current vantage point. He’s refined his signature technique as well as controlled some of the tics that ripple through his frenzied characters. Most importantly, Pattinson has found directors who can utilize it to more effective ends.
Take his role in David Michod’s 2014 film The Rover, where Pattinson plays the emotionally stunted Rey, a childlike figure trying to hold his own in an apocalyptic Australian landscape. After teaming up with Guy Pearce’s Eric to help locate Rey’s brother, the two stop at a motel and soon find themselves ambushed by a tank. Rey fires no bullets, but in the tense shootout, Michod keeps cutting back to a tight close-up of Pattinson’s face. There’s little going on there but breathing and staring. Still, it’s undeniably riveting and tense as all hell since Rey’s true intentions remain unknown.
Later, Michod turns to Pattinson to carry a key scene of emotional release in preparation for the film’s climactic showdown. As Keri Hilson’s “Pretty Girl Rock” blasts from the car radio, the camera slowly pushes in on Rey as he sings a lyric, twitches, returns to his normal blank expressions and repeats the sequence. It’s the clearest example of how Pattinson’s tics are not planned actorly flourishes but instead emerging organically against fierce resistance. In The Rover, he shows how hard-fought the apparent ease of resting Pattinson face is — how many demons must be faced, impulses tamed, emotions mastered.
Pattinson stealing the show in The Rover comes as a byproduct of his hard work, not an intentional feature of his role selection. He demonstrates no desire to keep himself front and center, instead lending his talents to interesting directors and roles. He’s stayed true to his word from a 2012 interview promoting Cosmopolis, his only film since Twilight as a sole lead.
“I thought I was oversaturated, I wanted to do little tiny parts — or no parts at all! […] I was really determined to find ensemble pieces or anything small just so I didn’t have to be in everybody’s face and annoying everyone.”
Young actors tend to use supporting roles as a stepping stone to advance their careers towards leading man status, but since he attained it at such an early age, Pattinson can pursue whatever speaks to him. He doesn’t need to seize the spotlight. It found him, and he can choose to slip in and out of it when he desires. Pattinson’s recent turns as secondary characters in Queen of the Desert, The Childhood of a Leader and The Lost City of Z manifest the beginnings of a natural character actor, one who brings more to a scene than he takes from it. He knows when to accentuate his mannerisms, such as his self-effacing British elite routine as T.E. Lawrence that brings some much-needed levity to Queen of the Desert. But he also knows when to sit back and listen to advance the journey of the leading character like his Henry Costin does for Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z. Pattinson lost 35 pounds for the role, too, yet none of the awe over such a dramatic appearance shift overwhelms the story.
And what’s most remarkable about this latest chapter — the “Pattinssance,” if we must — is that Pattinson never asks anyone to use Twilight as a reference point for his work. The roles neither cut against the grain of his Edward Cullen persona nor consciously trade on any established iconography. The closest he’s come to commentary on his past were a pair of 2015 releases, Maps to the Stars and Life, both of which enter the orbit of movie stars. In the former, Pattinson plays a Hollywood limousine driver who remains cautiously shy of the industry while also attempting to penetrate it, engaging in the incestuous craziness with an extreme outsider’s hesitancy. In the latter, Pattinson takes on the real-life Dennis Stock, a photographer who shot the famous images of James Dean walking in Times Square. It’s no coincidence that he chose to be the subject of this famous gaze, not the object. By wielding the observational lens of the camera, Pattinson gains power and control in directing mass culture, a sly flip of the script for an actor who’s spent the better part of the last decade ducking the paparazzi at every turn.
Stock might be Pattinson’s most effortlessly intuitive role, even as he brandishes one of his most apparent accents. If nothing else, it showcases what makes him such a black sheep among his millennial thespian peers. He is more comfortable quietly performing his part, so long as it’s for a great director, than with transformation or ironic commentary. Pattinson is a rare breed: a born supporting actor in a time of narcissists, a social media era performer who desires not to be obsessively public or private — just to act. And with roles in the can for indie iconoclasts the Safdie Brothers and David Zellner — not to mention looming collaborations with Harmony Korine, Olivier Assayas and Claire Denis — Pattinson has yet to exhaust his capability to redefine the possibilities for actors departing a behemoth franchise.