Robert Pattinson is bewildered by just how famous he is. As the Twilight saga draws to a close, the actor, a curious mix of charm and awkwardness, offers a glimpse into his surreal world
“I was on the 209 bus last week,” I blurt to Robert Pattinson by way of an introduction. He looks wary. It’s fair enough. We’re in Los Angeles, in a room on the 10th floor of the Four Seasons hotel and the 209 is a bus that trundles through south west London. The reason I mention it is because it stops in Barnes, the leafy suburb where Pattinson grew up and where his parents still live. It’s a village, really, quaint and terribly English, peppered with ye olde pubs patronised by older gents in red socks and corduroys, the casual attire of the retired banker. It’s most definitely not Beverly Hills.
“That’s the bus that goes to where my parents live,” he says, looking confused. “And it’s the bus I took to my prep school in Sheen.”
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I didn’t mention the 209 to freak Pattinson out, although I’m quickly learning how skittish he is. I wasn’t trying to be quirky, or to ingratiate myself; I was aiming to just say something ordinary, something simple and real, because it’s not difficult to work out that simple and real are not major features of Pattinson’s life. After all, he’s Edward Cullen, brooding vampire hero of the Twilight Saga, the cinematic juggernaut that started in 2008 and, with a release each year since, draws to a close with Breaking Dawn, the first part of which is out this month, followed by the second and final part, already shot but to be released in November 2012.
Before Twilight, Pattinson, 25, was anonymous. Now, there isn’t really anywhere he can go without being recognised. Pie shops in Yorkshire, karaoke bars in Texas – there’s no escape from Edward Cullen and the millions of fans who want their necks nibbled, mothers who’d like their daughters signed (really) or at the very least a photograph to put on Facebook.
It’s the reason Pattinson lives in hotels, to stay one step ahead.
“It’s good to be able to escape,” he says. “But I’ve started to feel recently that having a home would be good. You do kind of lose yourself when you’re living out of bags the whole time. But if I had a home I’d worry about it too much. And I hate spending money. If I could find a house for free that’d be amazing.”
He laughs and then looks serious again. It’s typical Pattinson delivery, a kind of subdued stream of consciousness in which he talks himself in and out of things, then relies on humour to lighten things up, not always convincingly.
“I rented a house in LA last year,” he says. “It was great for ages and then people found out about it and so there were people outside all the time. I had to go away for work and people were going up to it and taking pictures of themselves beside the house. People are crazy.”
You don’t really have to have seen any of the Twilight movies to know what they’re about. Based on Stephenie Meyer’s blockbuster novels, the movies tell the tale of the fated romance between Edward, a 110-year-old vampire who looks forever 17, and Bella (Kristen Stewart) who is human. The first three parts that have been released since 2008 have made nearly $2billion. They’ve also made Pattinson into a global star.
The hotel corridor is dotted with more women with clipboards than I can count. They stand in pairs, marking things down (what I wonder?). Outside the room in which I find Pattinson, sitting in a corner, looking as inconspicuous as a six foot movie star can possibly look, dressed down in jeans and Converse, with a scuzzy looking T-shirt underneath a canvas jacket, there are two burly security guards with inscrutable facial expressions and jackets that are slightly straining at the button.
“There are more organisers here than we have on the set,” Pattinson says. “Having security walking up and down the corridor as if something’s going to happen is freaking me out.”
It’s no wonder he’s nervous. He’s had some dicey experiences. The last time he was in London (promoting Water for Elephants, in which he starred with Reese Witherspoon) he was followed by one particular photographer for the whole week. It was odd, he says, and it got dangerous.
“In America there are loads of people who follow me around at the same time but this was just one guy who was just on me the whole time I was there. He was obsessed. I got in a taxi and he jumped off his motorbike and got in. He just opened the door and jumped in but he had a motorbike helmet on and I literally thought I was going to be assassinated.”
I check to see if he’s joking. He kind of is, but not entirely.
“It was the craziest thing, the weirdest thing that’s ever happened. And the cab driver just drove off because he was so freaked out as well. The guy fell out. It was like an action movie.”
It’s not hard to understand then why Pattinson is circumspect. You would be if you were the subject of an app called “Where’s Robert?”, which details your every move for fans to follow. But there’s something else too. In every interview Pattinson’s ever given, at least as much attention is focused on his meteoric rise to fame and all its trappings as the acting that actually got him there. It’s impossible not to dwell on it, partly because it’s so extreme and partly because he seems so bewildered by it, so genuinely uncomfortable and ill-suited to the whole thing.
The question is: how someone as self-conscious, awkward and self-deprecating has ended up starting his movie career in one massive movie franchise (Pattinson was Cedric Diggory in two Harry Potter films) and the leading man in another?
The way Pattinson tells it, it’s all been a bit of an accident. He started going along to Barnes Theatre Club because his dad told him he’d meet girls there. Then there was a stint as a model (his mum worked for a modelling agency) but he was “rubbish” and didn’t get any jobs. He was 17 when he landed the role of Diggory in The Goblet of Fire after having fallen asleep in the queue outside the audition room. (Being very relaxed seems to work for Pattinson. He took half a Valium before his audition for the first Twilight movie.) There was a slight blip after the Potter films when he landed a role in a play at the Royal Court but was fired before the opening night, but not long after Twilight came along and that was that.
There’s no doubt he feels lucky, if slightly incredulous, that things have worked out the way they have, but he reckons that having “fallen into” his career makes it harder for him to cope with all the scrutiny and attention that goes with his level of fame.
“At least if you’ve been striving for it your whole life then you’ve got that justification – this is what it is and this is what I’ve wanted. Maybe then you wouldn’t feel disillusioned with it. I guess the people who really work for it have this part of their persona which is just ready to go when they become famous. When they walk into a room and everyone turns round they’re like ‘yeah, they should be looking at me’. When I walk into a room and everyone turns round I feel exactly as I did before Twilight, which is like ‘what’s happening? This is weird.’ ”
But surely he must’ve wanted it a bit?
“I wanted something,” he says with a shrug.
Pattinson may be unsuited to being a heartthrob temperamentally, but when it comes to how he looks, it’s a different story. His cheekbones jut from his face in an almost unseemly way. Heavy brows give him a brooding intensity (his looks were described as Byronic by a producer of the first Twilight movie) and his mouth sits in a permanent, natural pout. Vanity Fair dubbed him the most handsome man in the world. How funny then that when Pattinson was announced as Edward Cullen, there was outrage. Fans of the books went crazy – they thought he was too ugly, “repulsive” they shrieked on internet fansites. Then he appeared, all pale and intense and they melted. Actually, that makes them sound a bit too passive. They didn’t melt as much as coalesce into a baying mob who couldn’t get enough of tragic, tortured Edward.
“I guess I got accepted, sort of,” he says squirming. “The reason people like it is because it’s in their imaginations. It means that the performances don’t really matter, it’s more about whether the face looks right. That warrants a certain degree of acceptance, even reluctant acceptance. It’s just a kind of brainwashing.” He laughs nervously.
Pattinson always has an explanation that deflects attention away from him. He takes modesty, ramps it up with inconsistent eye contact, an endless supply of self-effacing anecdotes and an air of utter bafflement that creates a genuine awkwardness. I don’t care about the £12million pay cheque (the amount he’s reportedly earned for the Twilight movies) it’s hard not to sympathise.
But not everyone does. Some people find the awkwardness off-putting. In a group or being interviewed on camera his body language is a study in self-consciousness, he folds himself up as if he’s trying to disappear. His chat can be similarly tricky. He sometimes laughs a little longer than he should and his stories have a tendency to peter out. One to one, he’s more relaxed, but it’s not easy.
And, of course, there’s also resentment. Either people are angered by the popularity of Twilight or they’re annoyed that someone could just stumble into a career like Pattinson’s. Earlier in the day, before I meet him one on one, I overhear a plump Italian journalist with Kevin Keegan curls demand of him, “What happened to your hair?”
It’s true, Pattinson’s hair was looking a bit odd, shaved on one side with long strands on the other. It looked homemade. But, still, the question was rude. And yet Pattinson’s reaction couldn’t have been more meek.
“It was for the last movie [Cosmopolis] I did,” he explained. “I had to have loads of bits randomly cut into so then I was going to shave my head and then I just shaved that bit and decided I kind of liked it.” He shrugged and laughed awkwardly. “I decided to just leave it.”
You’d think at some level Pattinson’s success might have made him a little big headed. In a way, it’s hard not to wish it had. Isn’t that at least part of what being a movie star is about – ego?
Pattinson says he was cockier before Twilight, when he could be who he wanted, say whatever he wanted because no one knew who he was.
“When no one knows who you are you can walk into a room and say anything. You can say you’re the greatest person in the world and no one can say you’re not because they don’t know you. But now they can say ‘I know you, why are you trying to be this? Why are you trying to be that?’ The best thing you can do is stay hidden.”
But how do you stay hidden from 30,000 fans who turn up to hear a 10-minute Q&A as they did at the Olympic Stadium in Munich? Or when you have to appear at Comic-Con and the queues are round the block? I wonder if he feels that people come to see him, or whether they want to see Edward?
“In some ways it helps to think that they’re coming to see Edward. But in other ways it’s saddening. It depends what mood I’m in. It’s a funny thing to see a crowd of people looking at you and knowing that they’re not actually seeing you at all, they’re just seeing whatever it is they imagine you to be.
“You can’t change. You can’t just suddenly decide to be different. I remember coming to LA before and I’d be a totally different person to who I was in London. I always used to look forward to coming over for three months of castings because I could just bullshit the whole time and feel really great about myself even though I wasn’t getting any jobs.” He laughs at the absurdity. “I got to meet all these really interesting people. But now, people have immediate preconceptions about me. I end up having the same conversation a lot. People assume there’s only one talking point.”
Suddenly you start to understand at least a part of the bond between Pattinson and his co-star Stewart: they’re Twilight survivors. Pattinson speaks about Stewart affectionately and he’s clearly full of admiration for her as an actor. Neither of them has ever said a word publicly about whether they are in a relationship despite endless speculation and photographs of them together all over the world. But why would they? Why would they give up something which, so far, they’ve managed to keep for themselves?
It’s a similar story with music. Pattinson is a talented musician and for a while he thought that music might be his career. He had a track on the first Twilight soundtrack. But ask him how it’s going now and he looks like he’d rather pull out his own teeth than talk about it.
“Erm, I’m just writing stuff. I don’t really know. It’s very easy to get labelled. I don’t really know how to go about the music stuff just now.”
Maybe his success as an actor has got in the way?
“Completely,” he says, looking sheepish. “For some reason everyone wants to shit on actors more than anyone else.”
To be fair, there can’t be much time for music. Since Pattinson finished shooting Breaking Dawn, he’s made Cosmopolis with David Cronenberg and Bel Ami, an adaptation of a Guy de Maupassant story of the same name, with Uma Thurman. Didn’t he want to have a break?
“The world moves so quickly now,” he says. “You’ve always got to have stuff lined up. Especially me. Anyone who got big in the last few years, the Twitter age, your shelf life is so short because people’s opinions change so quickly. You’ve got to give constant updates or announcements, even if the movie doesn’t exist, just to have something to announce.
“You’ve got to constantly change people’s perceptions. It’s like, ‘yeah, I’m playing a lesbian robot’ so that people don’t know what to think. If you leave it then it’s like ‘oh, it’s just that guy from Twilight’; it fossilises.”
But the problem for Pattinson is that with the work comes the promotion and even more attention and that’s when things get tricky. There’s no point fighting it, it’s just not his thing.
“The thing I’m most afraid of, because everything is pushing in that direction, is literally just making myself a product. As soon as you start doing Twitter and adverts and straying away what you started out doing and just being a personality, that’s when you get huge money but it’s also when you go crazy.”
Time’s up and to be honest, I almost feel relieved on Pattinson’s behalf. He’s survived another interview and now he can get on with trying to be invisible.
“I’ll think of you the next time I’m on the 209,” I tell him.
“You’ll probably see my mum,” he says. And laughs.