Robert Pattinson is one of the most recognizable movie stars on earth. But for his most recent film, Good Time, directed by the Safdie brothers, he managed to go undercover in New York. He worked in a car wash. He took the subway. "Basically was just trying to think, okay, how can you change yourself so people never recognize you once the entire time," he explains. Miraculously, he got away with it. Here, the actor explains his method, and path to superstardom.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Uh, no. I was not at all into it. In fact, my drama teacher when I was in school told me not to do it. Actively told me not to pursue it and do geography instead. She just thought I wasn’t cut out for the creative subjects. When I was signing up to choose my subjects, she told me to stay behind and said, “Yeah, I just don’t think it’s right for you.”
What was the first thing you auditioned for?
I was working backstage at this place called Barnes Theater Company which was like a drama club at a church hall. And I auditioned for Guys and Dolls. I auditioned for Nathan Detroit and got the part of a Cuban dancer. With no lines. But that was my first-ever part, dancing with a rose in my teeth.
Is that when you knew what you wanted to do? Did you have fun?
Doing the audition definitely was. It was really a kind of breakthrough. I just thought I could never do anything like that. And once you break through that fear, it was really, you know, popping a cherry. I had never done any public speaking, had never sung in front of people or anything. And did all of it at the same time. It was great.
And then was Harry Potter shortly after that?
No, my first job when I was 15 or 16 is I was Reese Witherspoon’s son in Vanity Fair, which I got cut from. Basically I went to the screening and no one had informed me that I was cut. So I went to it with one of my best friends who was also in the movie, and we had adjacent scenes. We watched his scene and we were like, that’s great, yeah. And they got on to my bit and it was just a totally alternate ending. But they casting director, Mary Selway, who sadly passed away, she felt so guilty that no one had informed me that she basically gave me a first run at the part in Harry Potter. So I was quite glad I got cut in the end.
Wow. Did you become focused on movies at that point?
Yeah, I mean, I was still in school and I really was just sort of stumbling into things. I couldn’t believe I was getting any of the stuff I was getting. I didn’t understand how it was happening. And then I just got an agent from this church hall place, which I only went to because I fancied a girl who went there. And then suddenly this world was opening up to me. But it took me a long time to really feel like I was a part of it or knew how I could add to anything in any way. I thought I was scamming everybody for years.
Well, that’s not true. Definitely not true. So after you were in Harry Potter, obviously there was Twilight. What was the audition like?
I mean, the audition was fun. I flew out to L.A. to actually audition for something else. Which I was told it was mine to take, just on a plate. And I went in and completely ruined the audition. And then the next day it was the Twilight audition. And I think I was at such a kind of nothing-to-lose state, it was quite easy for me to do. But the audition was really fun.
Did you know the books?
I didn’t at all. I think they became bigger and bigger and bigger as the movies were taking off. When I auditioned for it, it was difficult to get the books then. It hadn’t really fully exploded. It was still quite a cult thing. By the time the second movie came out it was kind of fever pitch. But, I still was kind of unrecognized until the second movie, really. So yeah, it wasn’t too much pressure in the introductory part.
Was it fun to be a vampire?
It was really fun, yeah. It was such a wild experience. And what a strange way to spend my early twenties. I never really quite knew how to play a vampire though. I mean, if it hadn’t been so successful, I think people would have thought it was really weird. It’s a really weird story. But I think once it becomes mainstream, it’s difficult for people to see how strange the story is.
The last installment with the sex thing and the –
It’s nuts. And the baby. And I had to give her a caesarian by chewing through a placenta. I don’t know the medical – how it works. But there was definitely chewing through something. No, it’s wild. Once you got it in your head you’re like, oh, this is just the thing for little girls. And then, like, it’s kind of – it’s difficult to get past.
After Twilight, what came next?
When I did Cosmopolis with David Cronenberg. I was a really massive Cronenberg fan before. He's just these are people who I’ve had on my DVD shelf since I was 16. And I just never thought I’d have those opportunities. It was such a satisfying experience that I just kind of wanted to go more down that road.
That was your first movie at the Cannes Film Festival, right? What was that like?
Yeah. Well, it was fun. I mean, I was still very associated with Twilight. Cosmopolis was one of the most bizarre movies ever. And there were like hordes of teenage girls screaming to watch a two-hour-20-minute prostate exam. And I always thought it was really entertaining.
This year, you were back in Cannes with Good Time, which has just been huge. How was that different?
This time, I think people sort of were expecting something different.
And how did Good Time come to you?
I saw a photo of Arielle Holmes from Heaven Knows What, the Safdie Brothers, Josh and Benny Safdie’s previous movie to this. It was just on the banner of a website. And I was just like, that’s an incredible photo. And I just asked around to see if anybody knew them. And met up with them in L.A. and I just really, really, loved them in the meeting. Basically I hadn’t seen any of their stuff at all. And just from the strength of that meeting we were like, let’s just do something.
So you didn’t even have the script for this.
There was no script. I think it was just the kind of nexus of an idea. The original idea was incredibly different to what it actually ended up being. It kept developing. I mean, even when we did reshoots, we added in new characters. It was very, very a kind of organic process.
How long were you filming?
I think it was five weeks. All in New York, all around Queens and Brooklyn. I knew after I saw Heaven Knows What and lots of the Safdie’s previous stuff, what world I wanted to be in in a movie. I’m getting to know how I perform better. And I just really wanted to be part of their world. So I went a few months early. And luckily pretty much every single person who is working on the movie and who is in the movie, they’re all from the [New York] area. And a lot of non-professional actors and it was just a very different experience. And quite different preparation and stuff.
How did you learn the accent? Did you follow tapes of people speaking?
Yeah, well, me and Benny Safdie, we went out a few times in character. Like we got jobs at a car wash.
You’re kidding. How long did you work there?
Just for a day until Benny started pulling off people’s windscreen wipers and stuff, and we were like, it’s actually committing crimes. But we spent a few days in character and we spent a whole day in Yonkers, just kind of talking to this guy in a, in a mechanic’s [shop]. So that was fun. I’ve never done anything like it, where you just kind of full-on go in character, to spend an entire day in character. We did it a few times.
I was worried because when I shoot in New York, normally there’s people taking cell phone pictures or whatever. And I just thought it’s going to ruin the whole thing if it just feels like a movie, because the Safdie’s style, it’s all really long-lens and really far away. And so I basically was just trying to think, okay, how can you change yourself so people never recognize you once the entire time. And there wasn’t a single cell phone picture the entire shoot, which was crazy.
That’s so great, because you are quite recognizable.
I know, it’s so strange. We were like shooting on the subway. And we were stealing so many shots. Like shooting on a packed subway at rush hour and we’re shooting on 36 millimeter cameras as well with big lenses. And no one really recognized it. No one could really tell. I was just getting directed by text message. It was pretty great, though.
You were filming in New York, but you live in LA, now. Do you like it or do you miss London?
I do. Like, I think everybody from London who comes the first time here it feels like kind of paradise in a lot of ways. Just peaceful. But, I do love L.A. It’s just I’m a bit of a isolated loner in a lot of ways. And it does exacerbate those parts of my character. I think when I went back to London I actually do kind of talk to people a little bit more, which I think I should do a little bit more often.
What else do you have coming up?
The stuff I want to do, it takes such a long time to get together. My career decisions are, like, they’re very long term. They take ages to come to fruition. So nothing ever really changes that quickly. I’m finally doing this movie with Claire Denis in the summer. She is just one of my heroes. It’s taken three years to get together. I met her over three years ago. I just wanted to work with her. And the meeting went surprisingly well. It’s in English. But I think it’s her first fully-English movie. It’s a sci-fi movie, but it’s incredibly strange in lots of ways and difficult and not that cheap.
Now, for a fun question. Do you have a karaoke song?
Um, yes. What was I thinking the other day? It’s the Interlude on the Twelve Play-2 by R. Kelly.
By R. Kelly?
But they don’t really have it on karaoke things. But if anyone listens to it, it’s referencing the name Robert quite a lot. R. Kelly is talking to himself. But his name is also Robert. It’s a very kind of life-affirming tune for Roberts. Basically the whole thing is how everyone used to say, “No, Robert. No, Robert. No Robert.” But at the end it’s like, “Yes, Robert, you go boy.”
Do you have a secret skill, something that you are good at that people would be surprised to know you’re good at?
I can open a beer bottle with pretty much any object. I can open it with a teabag. I can do it with a dollar bill.
How do you do it with a teabag? Is it a friction thing?
Yeah. You have to fold it in the right way. If you fold anything the right way, you can get the right, um, purchase on it. It takes a while. You rip up your hand a bit as well. It sounds way cooler than it looks.