The megastar laments the passing of '80s porn, reveals a fascination with tropical diseases, and dreams of being groped by a lady elephant—again.
It's the unseasonably cold November of 2008 when I go to New York's Bowery Hotel. There's a young man sitting in the garden, wrapped in about nine black sweaters and wearing a wool hat, smoking cigarettes, sipping a latte the size of his head, and furiously making notes on a script in the bitter cold. I have read about teenage girls lighting themselves on fire in front of his hotel, but at the moment Robert Pattinson is warming his hands on a coffee cup.
Hello, I'm Jenny. I think I'm here so you can check me out.
"Okay. I'm Rob. Um . . . would you like some fries? With gravy?"
Allen Coulter, the director of Hollywoodland and a creative force behind The Sopranos, has sent me. He was thinking about doing this movie—it wasn't quite there yet, but I should "come meet Rob."
Rob. When he came to the United States, he slept on his agent's sofa and then got a small part in a movie called Harry Potter and the Something of Something, which grossed nearly $900 million worldwide. And then he made another one, called Twilight, which grossed $385 million in theaters and almost another $200 million in U.S. DVD sales. Box-office riches, like so much of the female population of this planet, follow him from continent to continent, nursing a raging crush.
Coulter suggested I do some rewrite work on Remember Me (for the record, there is only one credited writer, Will Fetters), the first American release in which Rob will portray a mortal, nonmagical, carbon-based life form of the earthly realm—Salvador Dalí, whom he played in Little Ashes, surely doesn't qualify. As Rob scribbles away on the script's pages, it's clear he is starting his own revision process.
Rob's face is constantly busy—especially his kaleidoscopic eyes, which are continually rolling and dilating, because he is always thinking. Over the course of that latte, he contemplates Jimi Hendrix, French fries, girls, art, beer, his cousin the philosopher, girls, truth, God, his dog, girls, and whether this week's stalker has followed him from L.A. I don't think he could turn his brain off if he wanted to.
Despite the legion of fans trailing him from hotel to hotel, laying siege to each like the Roman army, he is neither fearful nor cocky—he's hungry, curious, forever reaching intellectually. That may not sound like a big deal, but think of the context: Complete strangers want to fuck you, shoot you, be you, buy you, sell you, run their fingers through your hair, watch you have sex, hear you pee, eat chips with you, and kidnap you and stuff you in the trunk of their car. And you? You must know more, more, more about exotic tropical diseases.
Rob and I discover we share a mutual fascination with afflictions that maim and disfigure and disgust: He brings up cancrum oris, in which bacteria eat away at your face until you get kind of a window in the side of your head and the entire world sees your teeth; I mention cyclic vomiting syndrome, a condition in which you puke literally all the goddamn time; he delights in lymphatic filariasis, where parasitic worms burrow into your lymph nodes and can make your balls swell to the size of watermelons, forcing you to tote them around in a wheelbarrow.
We come up with a blockbuster hit movie, entitled Candiru Infestation, about a tiny fish that swims up your urethra and into your urinary tract and lodges in your cock with backward-facing umbrella spikes it shoots from its spine.
"Fucking brilliant! It could be like Finding Nemo!" says Rob. "And the little candiru is lost in the balls! Think of the soundtrack!"
BEER NO. 1
Fourteen months later we're in London. New Moon, the second movie in the Twilight saga, has set box-office records for largest midnight opening and biggest opening-day gross. Remember Me, Rob's young-man-in-crisis drama, has wrapped. He has 24 hours before he has to start rehearsals for Bel Ami, based on the Guy de Maupassant novel, in which he plays a bed-hopping social climber.
He is waiting to pick me up in the bar of my hotel. He has ordered himself a pint of beer and, remembering my beverage of choice, a Diet Coke for me. He has the lovely manners of the good son of a good mum.
He says he wants to take me to a particular restaurant nearby, "just a little out-of-the-way place." So out of the way, it turns out, that after wandering around nearly all of Covent Garden, we can't find it. He doesn't seem too surprised, really. Of late he's been getting lost a lot in his own hometown. But then it's been a couple of years since he's actually lived here, and London is confusing as hell anyway.
Considering alternatives, we peek into a crowded café full of the young and beautiful, but he recoils. A few minutes later, when we come to a tiny Mexican place, his hackles go up a bit. Hmm. I ask him whether, at this point, he's able to sniff out crazed fans lurking under the tables.
"Yes. Sure. But last time I was here, the guacamole was bad."
Rob has made no sartorial concessions to Britain's ugliest winter weather in 30 years. A button-down, light Carhartt-like jacket, no gloves. He does have a hat, perhaps the same one he wore in New York. I'm swaddled like the Michelin Man and I'm fucking freezing. He's cheery, unfazed, giggling away. It occurs to me that London seems to afford him a freedom he doesn't have in New York or Los Angeles. And a London night with deserted, snow-piled streets, after an epic storm that paralyzed Heathrow and shut down the Eurostar trains, is like an unbridled romp while going commando.
Without trying, we arrive back where we started, in front of the Covent Garden Hotel. Across the street there's a high-end sex-toy-and-bondage shop called Coco de Mer. I mention that I popped in there earlier (before the National Gallery, thank you), and I tell him about this insane S&M body-harness contraption they have that allows you to dress up like a horse and have a long tail.
"That's so English. I want to do this entire interview wearing it, from an equine point of view," he says, stomping the sidewalk with make-believe hooves. "Seriously. As an experiment in public perceptions. Is the place still open?"
BEER NO. 2
We're inside, at a warm corner of the hotel's Brasserie Max, and Rob is having another beer. We're talking about how he copes. "When I was 17 until, I don't know, 20, I had this massive, baseless confidence. This very clear idea of myself and how I would achieve success, which involved making decisions. I saw myself picking up the phone and saying 'Absolutely not' or 'Definitely yes.' Having control. Except you have to figure out whether the way you think at 19 or 20 has any value. And eventually I understood, with all that control, which was probably illusory, I wasn't progressing. So now I'm relinquishing a bit. I'll be a tiny bit naked. Except tonight I won't, because it's fucking freezing and my balls will shrivel up."
He may keep his balls covered in winter, but Allen Coulter says that during the shooting of Remember Me, Rob did bare himself: "It was about control, for him, in the beginning. But he wanted forward motion more than he wanted to protect himself. Really brave—especially for a young guy with a big target on his back."
Rob does seem eager to shed some clothing, to give up the reins.
"Shall we go see about that harness? Seriously, you eventually realize you can't make every single decision. I was always building, always protecting something. At the same time, I seemed to be losing the ability to move. I'd protected myself into checkmate. Even mentally." In that moment, he has a realization: "I can barely remember the last two years. Not like a haze of partying or anything like that. Just . . . it's been crazy."
There's been surreal stuff. Like the time at a charity event in Cannes when two attendees bid nearly $60,000 combined to have Rob give their daughters a kiss on the cheek. There's been scary stuff, though the idea he might truly be at risk strikes him as absurd: "I find it really funny—if I got shot, I would literally be in hysterics. I would be like, 'Are you serious? Jesus Christ, get Zac Efron! He's got more social relevance than I do.'" He's pretty sure there was some good stuff, too. "There was this one time with some elephants on a golf course in Barcelona . . ."
He drifts into a reverie. He gets amazed easily, and at the moment he's fixated on the mysterious green bar snacks. They're sort of like wasabi peas, but not. They're covered in chili powder and look like tiny tumors. He's eating every single one.
"Fuck, these are good. What are they? I want to snort them—they'd clear up my sinuses."
BEER NO. 3
Rob's hunger is more than merely metaphorical. He orders two entrees—the mini beef burgers with tomato-and-onion relish and the mini chicken burgers with mango chutney—along with another pint. "I eat so much, I'm like a compulsive eater. I've been eating room service, and I'm always really worried about it, so I choose like six things on the menu and eat them all."
He doesn't want to miss anything, which implies a hint of regret. He didn't always want to be an actor. He modeled. He's a talented guitarist and keyboard player who has toyed with following his older sister Lizzy into pop music. But he's a serious type, and his most serious aspirations involved political speech writing. "It's fascinating. You'd have two or three minutes to affect someone. Make them hear you. Get the message out and maybe it will echo. I quite enjoyed doing press for the first Twilight, because there was a similarity. But after a bit I was ladling it out. If you want people to listen to you, you'd better have something to say. I felt a responsibility to be fascinating. You're bargaining with the audience. Is this enough for them? And that affects the way you look at art."
Art. It's illogical to think he's not allowed to have ideas about it merely because he has helped a lot of people make a lot of money.
"Before, I felt like I couldn't break through anything, including myself. And now it feels a bit as though I've climbed along the side of my brain and am at least looking in. But I know it will take me at least another 10 years before I'm remotely satisfied with anything I do. But with acting you keep trying in the hopes you might be . . . great. But then I think, does wanting to be good or even great, or even just wanting to make art, cheapen the experience?"
I worry his head is going to explode. He answers questions with questions. Doors open onto more doors. This sometimes leads to trouble with scripts: Since he sees every character's point of view, he often needs some sort of distillation. The catch is that unless the distillation somehow encompasses every character's essence, it only causes his imagination to fire more wildly. It's the kaleidoscope-vision thing.
Some people can have the ocean in front of them and just put their big toe in. Rob wants to swim until he drowns, and he's going to try to drink it all up before he goes under. His striving is a source of worry because he can't really tell anybody he wants more: "Please don't make this about me complaining. Please. I'm the luckiest bastard on the planet." He worries he might be selfish. He worries maybe he's a nonhumanist-separatist-weirdo because his most profound moments have been with his dog. And he worries about whether he can be an actor who can reach the masses and still ask for anything.
"If it exists out there—this invisible-creative-spirit-idea thing—then you're the medium through which it travels so everybody can touch it. But . . . what gives you the right to be the medium? What gives you the right to claim it? And then get an agent and say I want $20 million and a fruit basket to be the medium, thank you very much.
"As an actor, you can elevate the human condition or cheapen it. I would assume it's the same with anything you do—you try to elevate and maybe someday you will." An actor may indeed have the ability to raise us, but Rob unconsciously starts speaking sotto voce each time he utters the word actor or any variation of it.
Rob, did you know that every time you say actor or acting you lower your voice to a whisper?
He's genuinely startled. "I do?"
Yes, so quietly it's like you're saying Negro.
He laughs, lightens up. "What if we were 'acting' like 'Negroes'? Then we'd be fucked—we couldn't hear anything. . . ."
BEER NO. 4
Rob asks the waiter for another beer. He's talking about an uncle who worked in a steel mill in the Yorkshire town his dad grew up in. Rob's father and his other uncles moved away as soon as they were old enough, but the eldest brother stayed there his whole life.
"They're bulldozing houses, whole streets of houses. And my dad asked him, 'Why stay?' He said, 'Who's going to look after our mom?' And I was just thinking, Jesus fucking Christ, there might be something wrong with my emotional sight, because I'm not sure if I could make that kind of sacrifice. The only emotional connection of relevance is with my dog. My relationship with my dog, it's ridiculous.
"I think you need to be able to break through what you think about yourself to try to make any sort of art. I used to play music all the time, and the most amazing part was the freedom that came with kicking myself in the ass, letting go, and surprising myself."
He tried to let go a little bit with the photo shoot accompanying this interview—it wasn't easy.
"I really hate vaginas. I'm allergic to vagina. But I can't say I had no idea, because it was a 12-hour shoot, so you kind of get the picture that these women are going to stay naked after, like, five or six hours. But I wasn't exactly prepared. I had no idea what to say to these girls. Thank God I was hungover."
Is your mom going to have something to say about it?
"Oh, God." He puts his head in his hands, shrugs. "Well, she quite enjoyed when I got her cable." It's not that Rob's mother now spends all night watching Skinemax in her London home. "No, no! God, no! It's just that there's nakedness all over the place now. But this shoot, it's kind of eighties nakedness, you know? If you look at porn in, like, the eighties, there was something kind of quaint about it, quite sweet—like this little naked community. The people who made it liked it, they had respect for it. Not remotely like the porn that's available now. No community in it at all. It's just everything, everywhere."
In the U.K., Smarties are made of chocolate and are kind of like M&M's in weird colors like mauve and teal but somehow more delicious. Rob's not really a dessert guy, yet he's rapidly hoovering my last packet of Smarties. "Amazing. I've eaten like 5,000 of these already. See what you have to deal with?"
In Remember Me he plays a guy whose issues are eerily like his own. Tyler is a young man who has retreated into himself, but then he meets a woman, becomes conflicted, and has to choose whether to remain in lockdown or step into life and the world.
"Tyler is so aware of his actions. But he has no idea whether they're of any value at all. Can you be a person if you live in the bubble? He's stuck in the middle. At the same time, he's lucky to have the choice. Conflict is innate in a lucky person."
What attracted you to the role?
"I'm a lucky person. Thank God. And I'm conflicted. Thank God."
He tells me about a book he read called Eat the Rich, by P.J. O'Rourke (full disclosure: P.J. was married briefly to my sister, though Rob had no idea). He was drawn to a part that says something like: One man's wealth does not mean another man's poverty—and vice versa. Rob's slightly embarrassed to voice this idea.
He is unsure whether to feel guilty, to bask in it all, or both. Thing is, there aren't any rules for a life as extraordinary as his is right now. He tells me an elephant story. Not the one about Barcelona elephants—one about some he'd met recently in California.
"Did you know elephants purr? It's completely scary if you don't know what it is. They purr like cats, but their heads are so deep they sound like velociraptors. You feel it in the ground under your feet. So this big female started sniffing my foot—big female elephant, that is. She sniffed it so hard it came up off the pavement like her trunk was a vacuum cleaner. Then she took my entire body in her mouth. I was holding on to her head, and as I slowly let go she tightened her grip really carefully until I'm just upside down in her mouth and she's going through my pockets with her trunk, looking for peppermints. It was the best day of my life."
So you gave up control to an elephant, got groped, mugged, had your candy tugged at—and it was glorious?
"Yeah. So beautiful you can't imagine. And the baby elephant was so excited that it sprinted out and did its routine in five seconds and then curtsied to everybody. It was actually laughing. Brilliant. Did you know they can also do imitations of other animals? A horse, a chicken, a monkey—these elephants could, anyway. They were movie elephants. One had written a screenplay, and one really wants to direct."
He laughs. He was in Los Angeles, in discussions to star with Sean Penn in Water for Elephants, an adaptation of Sara Gruen's novel. The elephants are actors like him, and he wonders if he might, on some cosmic level, be a bit like them.
"Do you know how they die? The elephant guy told me their molars get ground down from eating wood but regenerate like six times. And after that they slowly starve to death. Which is poignant, but that must also be what gives them time to get to the elephant graveyard. They're incredibly designed creatures. I mean, people hang on way too fucking long. If I knew that when my teeth fell out, that was it . . . Wow. The best day of my life. Beautiful, beautiful day."
A few moments later, Rob announces he's going to get a cab home and excuses himself.
Can I walk you? I don't like you going out there all by yourself.
"I'll be okay."
Photos by Norman Jean Roy | Details
HQ pictures thanks to Delaneyg84