“That’s Robert Pattinson,” I whispered recently to my sister at the movies. “Him?” she said, laughing. She assumed I was kidding.
On the screen above us was the immersive, neon-streaked trailer for the Safdie brothers’ new thriller, Good Time: a bleach-blond man with sunken-in cheeks and a convincing Queens accent racing through the nocturnal streets like a wolf escaped, mumbling to everyone he meets about how he’s trying to break his brother out of Rikers Island. This couldn’t possibly be that sparkly vampire guy from the Twilight movies, right? Near the end of the trailer, though, a quote from one of the early rave reviews appeared: ROBERT PATTINSON BURNS UP THE SCREEN. My sister turned to me in the dark: “Wait, really?!”
Surely this kind of thing has been happening a lot lately, in movie theaters all over the place—and not just during the Good Time trailer. It was the reaction of many who, earlier this year, saw The Lost City of Z, James Gray’s arty period epic about an early-20th-century British explorer searching for a new civilization in the Amazon. That movie’s lead character, played by Charlie Hunnam, was rendered entirely forgettable by dazzling supporting performances: a career-best Sienna Miller as the explorer’s wife and, even more surprising, Robert Pattinson as his eccentric (and occasionally drunk) sidekick Henry Costin. With his recognizable, angular face hidden beneath a bushy beard and tiny wire-rim glasses Pattinson looked—a little eerily—like steampunk John Lennon.
Pattinson performed a similar disappearing act a year prior in an even more challenging film, Brady Corbet’s provocative historical drama The Childhood of a Leader. (He played two different bit parts, one of which required him to look like a fascist dictator.) And then there was The Rover, the hyperviolent 2014 Australian thriller, for which he buzzed his signature locks and played a grimy postapocalyptic outlaw. In a GQ cover story that came out this week, the interviewer told Pattinson that you could easily sit through the whole movie “without realizing until the credits roll that you’ve been watching Rob Pattinson the whole time.” Judging from his reaction—a giddy “Yeah?”—that’s exactly what he’s going for right now.
It wasn’t just that these parts were strange; they were small, too. Coming off a franchise like Twilight, you’d expect Pattinson to go after leading roles. Instead, he seemed more content to move a little left of the spotlight’s center, stealing scenes but not carrying an entire film on his shoulders. Until Good Time, at least: It’s his first leading role in years, and in that sense it’s something of a coming-out party—a culmination of all the unexpected, underrated work he’s been doing in the half-decade since Twilight. If you have any final vampire jokes to make about Pattinson, best get them out now. We’re about to officially enter the Pattinsaince.
Long before he was famous, Robert Pattinson had a funny habit of going into auditions in character. It was a strategy he developed early on to prevent being typecast: The British-born actor wanted to be considered for parts more diverse than stuffy period dramas, so he’d go into auditions pretending to be American. “I’d go in as a character—I’d always say I was from Denver,” he recalled in a recent interview with Howard Stern. “Because otherwise people would say, ‘Oh, I don’t really think his [American] accent is very good.’ So I’d go in doing one American accent, then an American person doing a different American accent. And they’d go, ‘Oh, he can do all these different accents!’”
Pattinson’s face, though, was his currency long before he even learned how to deliver a line. When he was growing up outside of London, his mother worked in a modeling agency; by the time he was 12, he—and that now-infamous buzz-saw jawbone—had his very own modeling contract. Things went well until puberty. “When I first started I was quite tall and looked like a girl, so I got lots of jobs, because it was during that period where the androgynous look was cool,” Pattinson has recalled of his modeling career. “Then, I guess, I became too much of a guy, so I never got any more jobs.”
Still, throughout early adulthood Pattinson retained a certain air of prettiness—a crucial quality for a sexually nonthreatening preteen heartthrob. After a small part in 2004’s Reese Witherspoon–helmed Vanity Fair (exactly the kind of period piece he didn’t want to be seen in, which was convenient, since all of his scenes were cut from the theatrical release), he snagged the role of the amiable Hufflepuff Cedric Diggory in the fourth Harry Potter movie. It was, in retrospect, even more fortuitous than a steady gig in the franchise: Diggory dies before the end of the film, which gave Pattinson the romantic appeal of a young-adult martyr. It was a boon. YouTube is still dotted with “RIP Cedric” tributes, scored to such songs as Nickelback’s “Hero” and Avril Lavigne’s “When You’re Gone.” You could say it set the gently macabre tone for what was to come.
Stephenie Meyer, the stay-at-home-mom who struck it rich when she wrote the Twilight series, didn’t initially have someone like Pattinson in mind to play the eternally teenage vampire Edward Cullen. She was thinking of someone specific: British actor and current Superman Henry Cavill, as she revealed to her legions of fans in a blog post shortly after the book was optioned. But by the time came to cast the movie, even she had to admit Cavill was too old for the role. And so the coveted part went to 22-year-old Pattinson—a decision that sparked a good deal of backlash in the beginning. Catherine Hardwicke, the first Twilight film’s director, admitted that his was a particularly difficult role to cast because “everybody had such an idealized vision of Edward.” The books were already best-sellers, which meant that millions of young readers already had formative crushes on the personalized Edwards in their minds. How could any one human—even one with the tousled hair and chiseled jawline of Robert Pattinson—possibly measure up? “[I] got bags of letters from angry fans,” he said later, “telling me that I can’t possibly play Edward.”
Suffice to say he eventually won them over. Pattinson’s performance as a tortured vampire in love with a girl he couldn’t be with (or, at least, bite) was brooding, melodramatic, and almost cartoonishly morose, so the target audience ate it up. There were some on-set clashes over Pattinson’s performance in the beginning, though. “I remember the producers giving me a copy of the book with every single instance where my character smiled highlighted,” he said on Howard Stern. “I got a different color highlighter and highlighted all the times he frowned.”
You don’t need to have seen more than a single clip of a Twilight movie to know who won.
Something Pattinson still can’t believe about Good Time: Not a single person snapped a cellphone photo of him while he was filming it—even when he was on the New York subway. “Whenever I’ve been in New York,” he told Vulture recently, “it’s been the same thing: You get spotted once, and literally you won’t be left alone afterward. … I thought that would not only ruin my performance in this movie, it would ruin the whole movie.”
He wasn’t just talking about amateur cellphone photographers, but also a more nefarious presence in his life: the paparazzi. Pattinson now claims—a little unbelievably—that when he initially signed on for the first Twilight movie, he didn’t quite realize the kind of attention that would be on him. (“The director of the first one was a kind of indie director,” he told Stern this year. “I just kind of thought, I thought it was going to be a little, cool movie. It wasn’t a big budget or anything.”) Instead, of course, Twilight made $192 million on a $37 million budget, Pattinson became one of the most famous people on the planet almost overnight, and the scrutiny only multiplied when he started dating his costar Kristen Stewart. (The paparazzi, in some sense, had a role in their eventual messy breakup, too: In June 2012, Us Weekly published the now-infamous photos of Stewart cheating on Pattinson with the director, Rupert Sanders.)
Few people would have predicted it a decade ago, upon seeing the first Twilight movie, but Stewart and Pattinson have both, separately, become two of the most interesting actors of their generation. And though they’ve taken some similar risks—like Pattinson, Stewart’s best performances have been the result of collaboration with artsy auteurs, like Olivier Assayas—their post-Twilight screen presences are quite different. Whether she’s in a stoner action movie or an understated French drama, Kristen Stewart is always quintessentially Kristen Stewart, a halo of charged nervous energy hanging above each character she plays. Pattinson is more of a chameleon: Sometimes he plays against type, but just as often he loses himself so completely in the particular world of a movie that you forget what type he ever had to play against.
It’s an unusual career arc to move from superstar to character actor, especially in a cultural moment in which every celebrity is constantly trying to establish their own cohesive, recognizable personal brand. It’s probably in part a way to take back a bit of the anonymity Pattinson’s been denied since becoming ultrafamous. But maybe it’s also not quite so conscious—fueled by that same slyly self-abnegating impulse to introduce himself to a room of strangers as Robert Pattinson from Denver, Colorado.
Please enjoy the following anecdote recounted in the breathlessly exclamation-mark-studded, unauthorized 2008 biography Robert Pattinson: Eternally Yours. When Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was released, the teenage Pattinson read the trade reviews, scanning for his name. “I read the Variety review, and their only comment was ‘rangy,’” he said. “I thought it meant from the range, like a cowboy. But it just means tall and lanky.”
This is perhaps the only existing adjective that could be used to describe both Cedric Diggory and Constantine Nikas, Pattinson’s character in Good Time. He’s a louse you can’t take your eyes off—like if De Niro's Johnny Boy in Mean Streets was less charming and a dash more fucked up, but still every bit as watchable. Connie is constantly in motion, his taut limbs enlivened with nervous energy. Depending on how you look at it, a hapless criminal on the run is either the polar opposite of Robert Pattinson the artful paparazzi dodger, or essentially the same person. Says Benny Safdie, his costar and director, “The energy of Rob—he’s almost on the run all the time. He’s constantly trying to avoid … being seen.”
It’s the kind of performance to make you wonder what Robert Pattinson will get up to next, and the answers are promising: a sci-fi movie with the wonderful French director Claire Denis, the Scorsese-produced drama The Souvenir, and, slated for later this year, David Zellner’s offbeat Western Damsel. Maybe that last one is an attempt to finally live up to the word “rangy.” But to look at the body of work he’s amassed in the past decade is to see that, in an even more impressive sense, he already has. Robert Pattinson has the range.