Where does Robert Pattinson begin and Edward Cullen end? At this point in the young "Twilight" thesp’s career it’s tough to separate the heartthrob actor from the heartthrob bloodsucker, but he’s currently making his second attempt at changing all that – after one false start with the disappointing "Remember Me" - with "Water for Elephants", the upcoming adaptation of Sara Gruen’s bestselling historical novel. In the film, Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowski, a circus veterinarian who gets involved in a messy love triangle with equestrian beauty Marlena (Reese Witherspoon) and her ruthless animal-trainer husband August ("Inglourious Basterds’" charming Christoph Waltz).
Given the talent pedigree of the film, which was directed by "I Am Legend" helmer Francis Lawrence, it would seem a smart choice for Pattinson to take on the more “adult” role opposite Witherspoon and Waltz, though the actor certainly wasn’t about to admit to that kind of career calculation to a room full of image-burnishing journalists (he needs to stay “relatable”, after all). He’d rather have us believe he accepted the part merely for the opportunity to work with “Tai” (in the film she’s named ”Rosie”), the trained elephant who in the film is purchased by August to help boost his traveling show’s anemic ticket sales.
“I basically decided to do the movie at that point”, said the elegantly-rumpled Pattinson of first meeting the pachyderm, who’d earlier been on display outside the swanky Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica where the press conference was being held. “I hadn’t read the script or anything!”
Luckily he wasn’t on the panel for Pattinson to unintentionally offend screenwriter Richard LaGravenese – only Lawrence, Waltz, and Witherspoon, the latter speaking in that slight Tennessee drawl as she described her own first encounter with the enormous animal.
“Francis and I went out and visited Tai probably three months before shooting, or four months before shooting, and [he] brought a camera. [Laughs] And I was like, ‘why [is he bringing] a camera?’ And then he took pictures of me, every moment, the first experiences I had of meeting her”, the actress recounted. “Then he sent me the pictures, and I was like ‘oh my gosh!’…I looked terrified, basically.”
“You were?” Pattinson asked her, seemingly dumbfounded.
“Oh, the first time I was terrified, yeah”, she answered. “I screamed!”
“That’s strange”, he replied blankly, as if being nervous around an animal capable of crushing a human being in a matter of seconds somehow defied all reason.
Or maybe he was just sticking up for his lady. After all, rumors had started circulating that Pattinson and his 9,000 pound costar developed something of a special love connection during filming.
“This is really strange, I don’t know who started this thing”, remarked the actor, as if he’d just ridden a time machine back to 2009 and was once again addressing rumors about dating Kristen Stewart. “I’ve been asked about it all day. It sounds really disturbing! Like [I’ve] been flirting with the elephant. I don’t know…I think I had a relationship with the elephant, [but] it was kind of based purely on candy. I strategically placed mints, like, [I] suck[ed] on a peppermint for a bit and then stick it onto [my] body, like into my armpits…and [I didn’t] tell anyone. So every single time the elephant would be constantly sniffing me, and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know, she just really likes me, it’s crazy!’ [Laughs.] But yeah, I think she was just sniffing around for a treat.”
The possibility of that intriguing inter-species courtship effectively quashed ("Breaking: Robert Pattinson not cheating on Kristen Stewart with an elephant!”), Pattinson and Witherspoon – who, interestingly, shared a brief scene in 2004’s Vanity Fair that ended up on the cutting room floor – later went on to discuss how they managed to immerse themselves in the Depression-era world of their romantically-linked characters. Astonishingly, it turns out there are these other people that work on movies, who are apparently known as “the crew”. I guess sometimes they help the actors out with that “getting into character” sorta stuff.
“There was a kind of comprehensive creation of the world”, said Pattinson of playing his character, a college student who loses everything when his parents are killed in a tragic car crash and end up leaving a mountain of debt behind. “There was an embankment with a train track on the top, and all the trailers were on one side, and then there was the circus world on the other. And once you walked over the tracks, there'd be a camera pretty much, that was the only thing from the 21st century. You could stand on the tracks and look over everything and [you feel like] you’re in the ‘30s.
“Jack Fisk, the production designer, he was using authentic pegs and stuff -- very single thing, the ropes, everything, which built the world, it was all totally real”, he continued. “Authentic period underpants do actually help, as well. I actually wore them every single day. I mean, Jacqueline West, the costume [designer], it’s unbelievable, some of this stuff. Almost everything was real. I mean, every pair of jeans, it was all from the ‘20s and ‘30s. It was crazy.”
For Witherspoon, the hair was the thing that really did it.
“I debated about whether or not I was gonna wear a wig, and ultimately, after a lot of discussion, and screen testing, and that kind of thing I was like, ‘I’m just gonna cut my hair! I’m just gonna dye it white! I’m just gonna do it!’” she recounted. “It was really transforming for me. I didn’t even recognize myself, you know? It’s a real gift as an actress to have people around you, artisans, who are the best at what they do, creating period costumes for you, and set design. it’s a very collaborative medium. And you know, you’re only as good as the people that you collaborate with.”
Nevertheless, perhaps the only thing more frightening to Witherspoon than encountering a four-and-a-half ton creature is the idea of exposing cellulite, though given that her character is the rather scantily-clad star attraction at a circus it was a fear she was forced to face to take on the role.
“I’ve sort of made a conscious effort all my career to not end up in a bathing suit in a movie. And here I was in this movie wearing a leotard the majority of it, it was horrifying!” she exclaimed. “But it was inspiring to have Jacqueline West designing them, and they’re beautiful, you know? It was a different time, when women loved their curves and enjoyed being voluptuous and all that sort of thing.”
Immersing themselves in this Hollywood-created period world also allowed the actors to reflect on what perhaps they would’ve enjoyed about living in the era in which the film takes place…you know, minus all the poverty and stuff.
“[There was a] wildness to [it]”, said Pattinson. “I think that’s why I like that period. Because it’s kind of…after that, then it’s white picket fences, and it just gets progressively more boring I think. [Laughs] But yeah, it’s the end of the Wild West. It’s why kids still want to be cowboys, even in England.”
Admittedly, one thing you don’t see too much of anymore is good old-fashioned moonshine, and given that the film takes place during Prohibition, Pattinson had the opportunity to take a more, shall we say, “Method” approach to the era while filming for two scorching summer days on location in Tennessee.
“There was an amazing moonshine day [on set]”, he giggled sleepily. “That was one of the best days of the shoot! 120 degrees, drinking moonshine, and like half the crew’s passed out after one sip!" [Laughs.]
Given Jacob’s desperate plight in this pre-New Deal America, once the character falls in with the rough-and-tumble world of the circus – a world made even more menacing by August’s constant threat of “red-lining” (i.e. being thrown from the moving train that transports the circus from one place to the next) – in order to prove his value to Waltz’s character he’s forced to lie about having completed his degree in veterinary medicine. This plot point was brought up in an interesting parallel by one of my fellow journos at the press conference: Have you, Rob or Reese, ever lied in an audition to score a part?
“Of course you lie, I mean that’s the whole point!” chuckled Witherspoon with a twinkle in her eye. “They want you to lie. They want you tell them that they can trust you, and you’re gonna take some of the responsibility away that’s what they buy!”
“Oh yeah, all the time”, echoed Pattinson. “I don’t know if there’s the same thing in America, but there’s a thing called a spotlight form in England, where you have all these things, like your talents and your accents and everything, and you just tick these boxes saying like what you’re capable of as an actor…I just tick everything, I can do any accent in the world, I can do literally any technical skill, I can do it!”
In a sense, this is what the actor is attempting with the critical establishment (not to mention with the non-‘tween contingent of the general public) at this very moment in his career. He’s ticked off the box next to “teenage dreamboat” about a thousand times over, but the one beside “serious actor” still remains unmarked.
“Water for Elephants” opens nationwide on April 22.