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Robert Pattinson: The Movie Star Who Became a Character Actor

The ‘Twilight’ star started his career as a teen idol, but over the last 10 years he’s strived to work with the best directors he can find, playing challenging roles that consistently subvert his stardom. Here’s the very best character work, including his new film, ‘High Life.’

A24/Ringer illustration

“[Robert] Pattinson is not unaware of how handsome he is,” wrote Roger Ebert when reviewing Twilight in 2008. “I checked [him] out on Google Images and found he almost always glowers at the camera ’neath shadowed brow.” Ebert was kinder to Catherine Hardwicke’s massively successful YA adaptation than many critics were, recognizing both the elemental power in Stephenie Meyers’s contemporary-yet-chaste variation on vampire mythology and the hypnotic thrall of Pattinson’s screen presence (“Twilight will mesmerize its target audience, 16-year-old girls and their grandmothers”), but his review doesn’t contain any thoughts on the actor’s skills or technique. The most that Ebert can muster is that the guy has a pretty face.

The narrative of Pattinson’s rebranding from multiplex sex symbol to art-house axiom is by now well-established: Both he and Kristen Stewart have, largely through their own confident and self-possessed artistic decisions, emerged from the Twilight zone as critically acclaimed actors. Their incredible successes at a young age mean they’ve had the career security to follow their whims. While some might wince at Pattinson’s after-the-fact contempt for his star-making role, the choices he’s made since the franchise came to an end are those of an actor less interested in living something down than measuring up to standard: In his best work, Pattinson stands tall. Here’s a look at some of that work.

Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars

A case can be made that no North American filmmaker has gotten more consistently brilliant performances out of their leading men over the last 40 years than David Cronenberg. Think of James Woods’s scummy, bewildered charisma in Videodrome or Jeff Goldblum’s simultaneously physical and behavioural mutation in The Fly; Peter Weller’s tranced-out deadpan in Naked Lunch or Ralph Fiennes’s intricate web of neuroses in Spider; Viggo Mortensen’s deceptive small-town normality in A History of Violence and his Oscar-nominated, Russian-accented badass in Eastern Promises (a role requiring the greatest full-frontal fight scene of all time).

When Jeremy Irons won Best Actor in 1991 for playing Klaus Von Bulow in Barbet Schroeder’s Reversal of Fortune, his thank-you speech included a shout-out to Cronenberg, who directed him two years earlier in Dead Ringers. “Some of you may understand why” he added semicryptically, perhaps alluding to the fact that his dual role as disturbed twin gynecologists in Cronenberg’s masterpiece was in fact his proudest moment.

It’s in this context of thespian excellence that Cronenberg’s casting of Pattinson in the lead of his 2012 adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis raised eyebrows. The consensus was that the director’s decision was strictly business, attaching an actor with an international box office profile to an independent production to secure financing. One of the biggest skeptics was Pattinson himself, who told Indiewire that he locked himself in a hotel room for a week agonizing over his choice to sign on. “I got to the point where I was going to have to call up and say ‘I’m too scared because I don’t think I’m a good enough actor and I’m a pussy.’ … I didn’t want to have that conversation.”

Whether Pattinson was being authentically humble or had internalized the critical scorn directed at Twilight is impossible to say for sure, but his fine, minimalist performance vindicated Cronenberg’s instincts along with his own skill set. Using a globally famous kid to portray an avatar of above-it-all late capitalism was a good in-joke; Pattison’s millennial billionaire Eric Packer is not a celebrity, but he’s got a limo, an entourage, and the kind of all-access lifestyle that signifies a similar privilege. Between the teeming New York city setting and the sociological satire blended into Eric’s quest for the perfect haircut, DeLillo’s novel has echoes of American Psycho. But in lieu of Christian Bale–style pyrotechnics, Pattinson projects a watchful, contemplative vibe, even in moments of humiliation: How members of Team Edward felt seeing their love object grimace through a rectal exam is one of the great thought experiments of our time.

What’s ingenious about Cronenberg’s adaptation of Cosmopolis is how the extended cameos by a troupe of skilled, eccentric art-house-resident actors—Paul Giamatti, Mathieu Amalric, Samantha Morton, Juliette Binoche—keep bouncing off Pattinson’s stoicism. He gives the film its spine even when he’s the butt of its jokes (again, the rectal examination scene is hilarious, and so is his hooking up with a spastic, intense Binoche in the backseat).

Cosmopolis wasn’t a hit, but it established Pattinson’s eager-and-willing attitude about working with challenging filmmakers. He reunited with Cronenberg in 2014’s grotesque, Hollywood-set ghost story Maps to the Stars, portraying, in a coincidental but still wonderfully ironic reversal of their first collaboration, a limousine driver harboring a set of showbiz ambitions. As in Cosmopolis, Pattinson’s comparatively subtle performance helps to ground the action amid some juicier, showier acting (Julianne Moore won a Best Actress prize at Cannes for playing a fading star who is literally beaten to death with an acting prize), and, for the second film in a row, he aces an explicit, intricately choreographed backseat sex scene—a compulsory item when working the guy who made Crash.

The Rover

The same year as Maps to the Stars, Pattinson appeared in Australian director David Michôd’s dusty, violent thriller The Rover—a postapocalyptic story with inescapable echoes of the Mad Max franchise. As with his appearances for Cronenberg, Pattinson was added to the largely homegrown cast partially for star power, but even more than in Cosmopolis or Maps, he submerges that persona beneath rotten teeth, a nearly shaved head, and hollow, uncomprehending eyes. His character, Rey, is a slow-witted, impulsive drifter who spends the film searching for his brother, Henry (Scoot McNairy), with the help of Guy Pearce’s lethal loner Eric.

Not only does Pattinson hold his own opposite Pearce, he imbues Michôd’s derivatively dystopian fable with some soul, singing along to Keri Hilson (“don’t hate me cause I’m beautiful” he warbles in a tender falsetto) and then again final scene with McNairy that evokes the ending of Of Mice and Men with more arterial spray. Michôd’s stab at an elevated genre piece is erratic, but Pattinson’s emotionally unguarded acting is terrific, suggesting a range that his narrower, more controlled performances in Cronenberg’s films never tested.

The Lost City of Z

The Ringer went all in on James Gray’s historical epic The Lost City of Z in 2016. I prefer the director in contemporary crime-drama mode, but the scale and ambition of Gray’s period piece, which re-creates the turn-of-the-century quest by English explorer Percy Fawcett to locate an ancient tribe living deep inside the Amazon, is undeniable. For me, The Lost City of Z is hobbled somewhat by Charlie Hunnam, who is meant to embody the searching, yearning spirit of a man driven to lose himself in the jungle but never kicks into the right obsessive gear. Pattinson, though, is superb—and barely recognizable underneath a massive beard—as Fawcett’s aide-de-camp Henry Costin, a military man whose motives have more to do with flouting the English aristocracy than serving his country. The rumor was that Hunnam and Pattinson didn’t get along on set, but Costin’s loyalty, which endures even as the character grows skeletal and skeptical on repeated visits to South America, provides the film with some stings of authentic emotion. At times, Pattinson’s mix of frailty and feeling recalls the great John Hurt.

Good Time

Josh and Benny Safdie’s neon-streaked New York picaresque is one of the most propulsive American thrillers of the decade, and Pattinson, who emailed the brothers after seeing a still image from their punishing, vicious drug-addiction drama Heaven Knows What asking whether they’d like to work with him, is its humming, sputtering, unstoppable engine. His Connie, a low-level hood who plans to rob a bank in broad daylight with his developmentally disabled brother, Nick (played by Benny Safdie), is less a character than the shambolic embodiment of chaotic evil, ricocheting from one bad idea to the next in a swirl of selfishness and collateral damage. Pattinson’s achievement is to tether us completely to the erratic physical movements and psychological gymnastics of a guy who’s impossible to like and yet easy to empathize with. The gaps between his intentions, his actions, and their consequences seem scarily true to life. It’s a performance given largely in close-up, sometimes with the camera so close to Connie’s face that it’s as if it’s trying to penetrate his consciousness, and Pattinson’s acting is wonderfully transparent; we see through the character even when he fools the people around him. There can be a danger in making antiheroes too appealing, and the highest compliment I can pay to Pattinson in Good Time is that the charisma Connie uses to hook and exploit the people around him is only as potent as it is toxic; he’s poisonous and phenomenal.

High Life

In a recent essay for The Ringer, Manuela Lazic wrote about how the films of Claire Denis play as dances, sometimes between the filmmaker and the audience, sometimes between her and her characters. In Pattinson, Denis has hit upon an ideal partner: Not only is he willing to be led, but after a half-decade of working with world-class auteurs, he’s got the agility to keep up with the greatest of them all. The modest but encouraging box office success of High Life, which earned just under $25,000 per screen in limited release last weekend, is an example of what happens when you yoke star power to a movie that might otherwise disappear down a commercial black hole, and yet the best way to describe Pattinson’s acting here is self-effacing.

As in Cosmopolis (itself a kind of science-fiction movie even as it remains earthbound), he’s able to make a cipherlike character compelling through a gradual accumulation of physical and behavioral details. Pattinson’s Monte is an ex-con exiled to a spaceship as part of a mysterious government initiative. While other members of the crew outwardly betray their violent or troubled pasts, Monte has the gentle, halting air of somebody holding impulses at bay. His unexpected responsibilities as a father—which are conjured into being by the vessel’s resident mad scientist, played by Binoche in an incidental callback to Cosmopolis—unlock Monte’s stoicism until it resembles tenderness. Between its sky-high existential anxieties and unsparing depictions of sexual violence, High Life is a supremely unsettling viewing experience, and yet, in the middle of it all, Pattinson achieves a kind of grace: He becomes the vessel for his director’s grim, unsentimental, and yet strangely humane vision.