Escape from the Twilight Zone

Robert Pattinson has fallen hard for a pachyderm named Tai, one of his co-stars in this month’s Water for Elephants. That movie gave him a professional break from the supernatural stylization of the Twilight saga, but even on a remote Tennessee set he was besieged daily by crowds of his Twihard fans. Nancy Jo Sales finds the 24-year-old actor torn between gratitude for and despair about the fame that has engulfed him.

Robert Pattinson doesn’t like to fly anymore, because flying means airports, and airports mean encountering people who might go bananas when they see him, screaming and crying and trying to touch him and asking him to bite their necks. Shy, for an actor, Pattinson, who turns 25 next month, says he finds the hysteria that has surrounded him ever since he first appeared as the gallant teenage vampire Edward Cullen in the first Twilight movie, in 2008, “quite strange.”

“This thing with everyone knowing you,” he says one day in Baton Rouge, where he’s filming Breaking Dawn: Part I and Part II, “it’s weird, because people have this one-sided relationship where they look at your picture and feel they know you more than someone they actually know.” And, Pattinson adds, “I don’t really know myself that well.”

And so—given his aversion to air travel, and his feeling that he could use some time to get to know himself—Pattinson decided that, when he had to get from Los Angeles to New Orleans to join the Twilight cast in November, he would drive. “It was awesome,” he says of the trip, which he made with two friends from London. “I went on service roads the whole time. I navigated it on an iPhone.” This adventure took them through Arizona and New Mexico, where they came upon the tiny Native American town of Zuni. “It didn’t seem like America at all,” Pattinson says nostalgically. “Me and my friends were the only white people.”

They stopped in a bar in Lubbock, Texas, where, for the first time in as long as Pattinson can remember, he sat and had a beer, undisturbed by paparazzi or fans. “No one recognized me or anything,” he says. “And I was like, Ah, this is really cool, sitting there eating chicken wings and stuff.” He’d been searching for a place where he could feel what it’s like to just be himself, and thought he had finally found it.

Robert Pattinson Vanity Fair April 2011 01
Robert Pattinson by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair

But then word got out. “They always find out somehow,” he says resignedly. Suddenly there were a thousand people in the street, and the police had to come and control the crowd. A bouncer asked him, “You want us to go and knock someone out?,” and Pattinson says, “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? You don’t need to hit anybody.’ ” Now he and his friends were trapped in the same bar that had been an oasis of anonymity. A police escort had to take them back to their hotel.

A few months later in Baton Rouge, Pattinson says he doesn’t feel like going out, as there’s no telling when a simple trip to a restaurant might ignite another riot. “And I’ll just be like this,” he says, putting his head down on the table, hiding in the crook of his arm. He picks his head up again and—oh, wow. He can’t escape his looks any more than he can escape the attention of his fans. His face has a kind of gorgeousness, with its perfect pale skin, red lips, large eyes. It’s hard to say it any other way: he’s beautiful.

But such superlatives are probably just the kind of thing that would make him cringe and sweat even more profusely than he’s doing now, through his light-blue cotton button-down. He seems nervous; he says he’s nervous. This interview thing isn’t his thing. “I’m just so boring,” he says, running his hands repeatedly through his thick brown hair until it stands on end. “I’m just so dried up.” He’s chain-smoking American Spirits, drinking coffee and water and Snapple iced tea, nibbling at chocolate-covered pretzels left in a bowl for him by his assistant.

The assistants for Pattinson and Kristen Stewart are sharing this cozy rental house in a quiet residential section of Baton Rouge. They’ve lit a crackling fire and scented candles to keep Pattinson comfortable while he does his interview.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Pattinson says. Ever since he came back to the Twilight set, he says, he doesn’t feel—well, quite himself. “My brain doesn’t work anymore. I haven’t any memory. I can’t write. All I can do is sign my name. I tried to write the other day—it looked like I was writing in Braille.” I ask him to write something on my notepad; he does, and it’s illegible. “See?” he says. “It looks like spiders have written it.”

There’s a joking element to his bleak description of his state of mind, but he’s being serious as well. It seems the restrictions of living in the bubble of his immense fame are starting to get to him. “I’ve just kind of stopped doing everything,” he says. “I never change the channel in my trailer. I just watch reruns of House of Payne and Two and a Half Men. I love Cops—I think it’s my favorite TV show.

He laughs, “I sound like such a loser.”

Wake Me When It’s Over

“Kristen is very focused on being an actress,” Pattinson says, later, of Stewart. “I mean, that’s what she is—she’s an actress. Whereas I—I just don’t really know.”

Among the many things that now dog Pattinson wherever he goes are questions about the nature of his relationship with Stewart, 21. They are widely rumored to be having a torrid romance, something they refuse to confirm (even Oprah couldn’t get it out of them). Other rumors maintain that talk of a romance is just publicity for the Twilight movies.

“Are you asking me if I’m really a vampire?,” Pattinson says, laughing, when I join the nosy chorus, asking if his on-screen love mirrors his relationship in real life. As I wait for an answer, Pattinson literally starts squirming. “Yes. Um. No, not really,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to … It’s just very traumatic,” he says cryptically.

“I mean, are you very intense about each other?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he says finally. “She’s cool. Even before I knew her I thought she was a really good actress. I still think there are very few girls in her class that are as good as she is. It’s funny that she’s the one doing this huge—thing.” That is, Twilight.

“When this is over,” says Pattinson, meaning the seemingly unstoppable Twilight entertainment machine, “the media will lose interest” in their alleged affair. He hopes. “There’ll be nothing to say. It won’t fit into a headline anymore. It won’t fit into a template.”

But the big question for Pattinson—and one he seems painfully aware of—is whether the Twilight craze will ever really be over, if he can ever go back to just being Rob.

A role as iconic as Edward Cullen could prove as lethal as a vampire’s bite to a young actor’s career, despite the movie immortality and fame and fortune it brings. (This year, Pattinson was No. 15 on Vanity Fair’s “Hollywood Top 40,” which cited earnings of $27.5 million in 2010 alone.)

“There’s a massive reward,” Pattinson concedes, but “being in such a specific pigeonhole right now, it’s very strange. Having a persona people recognize, it’s the thing that probably gets you paid the most—but it’s also the thing that virtually every actor in the world doesn’t want. ‘Cause, like, no one would believe me if I wanted to play something ultra-realistic, like a gangster or something.”

I ask him whether he could break out and do something completely different—like Shakespeare. “If I did that now I’d get assassinated,” he says with a rueful laugh. “Everyone would just be like, What the f**?”

“I’ve always said to my agents and stuff, like, it’s going to be 10 years” before people forget about Twilight, he says. “And that’s totally understandable. Normally people keep working and working until their big break. You just keep trying to make the best of your decisions. Like I try to think how I used to think before all the Twilight movies.”

And that’s how he decided to make a movie about an elephant.

Trunk Show

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Rob says the reason he took the movie was because of the elephant,” says director Francis Lawrence. “He really fell in love with the elephant.”

“She was the best actor I ever worked with in my life,” Pattinson says of Tai, his Indian-elephant co-star, who lives in Southern California, where the movie was mostly shot. (Tai appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair in 1992, posing with Goldie Hawn.) “I cried when the elephant was wrapped,” says Pattinson. “I never cried when anyone else was wrapped.”

But one of the main reasons he chose to do the film was that Jack Fisk, the Oscar-nominated production designer, told him it was going to look like Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, for which Fisk did the art direction in 1978. “I had an image of what it would look like,” Pattinson says. “I kind of pick things in a weird way.”

“He’s a cinephile,” says Reese Witherspoon. (In 2004, when Witherspoon was 28, Pattinson, then 18, played her son in Vanity Fair, but the footage wound up on the cutting-room floor, so, he says, “it doesn’t count.”)

“For a young guy to have seen so many movies is really amazing,” Witherspoon says.

“He’s a bit like a film student,” says Lawrence. “He watches a lot of stuff and can talk about movies very intelligently.”

Still, Lawrence admits having been “worried,” before meeting Pattinson, about casting him in Water for Elephants. Pattinson’s movies, apart from the billion-dollar Twilight series, have so far not been tearing up the box office.

“The Twilight films are so stylized,” Lawrence says, “you wonder what the actor can do. But then after meeting Rob I really calmed down. He has that thing; he’s magnetic. He’s a real movie star. He reminds me of James Dean. And he seemed a lot like [his Water for Elephants character] Jacob, someone who was just becoming a man, strong but uncomfortable in his own skin. People are going to be surprised. His performance was very nuanced and naturalistic.”

‘He’s exploring who he is as an artist,” says Witherspoon. “He was always asking me and Christoph [Waltz] to work on dialogue and character with him. He’s very committed to the work. I hear so many horror stories about young actors with attitude showing up late or hung over, and there wasn’t any of that. He worked so hard.”

Somehow Pattinson maintained his concentration in the face of the hordes of Twihards who plagued the Water for Elephants set on a daily basis. “I’d never seen anything like that, ever,” Witherspoon says. “They were waiting at five o’clock in the morning to see him. Young girls. Where are their mothers?” she asks.

“We shot for a week in Tennessee, and news got out, and riding down the road to the set it was like Woodstock. Cars for two miles. People camped in the grass. We were having dinner at the hotel in a private room, and they were clamoring up to the windows, so the waiters shut the blinds. So they just start screaming and banging on the windows, clawing at the windows. And then you hear this desperate voice: ‘Rob! I just want to touch your hair!’

“I’ve worked with Will Smith,” Lawrence continues, “and he’ll sign autographs, and everybody’s happy. But this is a whole different thing. Rob could get ripped to shreds. They will rip the clothes off his body and pull his hair out.”

Entourage of None

You have to wonder how Pattinson deals with it all. He’s not Leo of the Titanic years, running around to nightclubs with an entourage, blowing off steam. He’s not Keith Richards, numbing himself with substances. Pattinson says he is “allergic to pot,” and, now that he has to be in shape for the Breaking Dawn films, he doesn’t even drink. (He’ll appear with his shirt off in Breaking Dawn: Part I, which he says he dreaded: “I never understood the nudity thing. I’m so envious of people who can walk around naked.”)

“I’m, like, a compulsive eater,” he says, by way of a revelation. “I’m going to be so fat when I’m older, it’s ridiculous.” But this is hard to believe, judging by his narrow frame. He tells a story about wolfing down most of a 40-ounce bag of Pretzel M&M’s while reading a book. “I had a complete breakdown and literally threw them down the toilet,” he says.

What he seems to be is a reluctant star, craving normalcy, and committed to educating himself. “He probably read 20 books while we were shooting,” Lawrence says. “He was always there with his Kindle in between takes.”

He admits he doesn’t “do anything, ever”—meaning anything scandalous—although he confesses a certain admiration for Charlie Sheen and his “little escapades.” “I like crazy people who don’t give a f**,” he says.

He never went to college. He grew up in Barnes, a suburb of London, where his mother, Clare, worked at a modeling agency and his father, Richard, sold vintage cars. (He has two older sisters, Lizzy, a musician, and Victoria, an advertising executive.) “He has a really nice family,” says Witherspoon, “people who love him and support him, and he is equally loving and supportive of them. It all bodes very well for his future.”

Pattinson attended a boys’ school, Harrodian, which he calls “artsy.” He says he wanted to be a political speechwriter and was applying to go to college for a degree in international relations when he landed the role of Cedric Diggory. He’d been dabbling in acting and modeling and, with this modest success, decided he would move to L.A. and try his luck there. He says he spent most of his time going to movies and playing music in bars. He didn’t have a girlfriend: “I’m not one of these guys who’s constantly in a relationship, not at all,” he says. He was thinking of quitting acting and going home when he was cast in Twilight.

Go Team

Knowing he’s a thinking sort of young man, it’s all the more interesting to consider what’s going on in Pattinson’s mind in the middle of this circus of fame. “It is weird,” he says, trying to make sense of it all. “You have to wonder, What do they want?,” meaning the Twilight fans.

They follow him to movie sets around the world, sometimes leaving jobs and families to hike the Twilight trail. When he dyed his hair a shade of red in January of this year, they dyed theirs in solidarity. “A 17-year-old girl in Australia hacked into my e-mail while I was on it,” says Pattinson. “Then a 15-year-old girl in England did the same thing.” He told his lawyers to sue.

“I’m afraid of buying a house or anything,” he says, ” ’cause if there’s one paparazzi outside for one day, then they’ll never leave.” He mostly stays in hotels, he says, because “the best way to deal with it is to move around all the time.”

“I can’t really understand it even now,” Pattinson says of Twilight‘s intense appeal. “It does have an angle which is attached to something quite primal in girls. I guess people want it to define them, like ‘I’m a Twilight fan.’ That’s crazy to me. I think people really just like being part of a crowd. There’s something just tremendously exciting about hyping yourself up to that level.”

He says the experience of becoming a product—with his face on wallets, tote bags, board games, and of course multiple action figures—can get “weird.” “With Twilight,” he says, “you’ve got to please the franchise. Like, when we were doing the poster shoot for Water for Elephants,” he says, “the shoot was like 10 minutes long, whereas the Twilight poster shoot was like two days, in every position. And we were like, ‘Why are we doing this for so long?’ And they were like”—corporate voice—” ‘Oh, it’s for the toys and the Burger King hats.’ And not that I have a problem with it—it’s difficult for movies to make money…

“Whatever,” Pattinson says, drawing on a cigarette. “There’s nothing you can do about it. That’s the way it is. But it is weird being part of that, kind of representing something you don’t particularly like…

“God,” he says, “I just really headbutted it.”

He’s hoping that he can transition into a new persona—Rob Pattinson, serious actor—with increasingly sophisticated roles. “That’s the thing I was worried about,” he says, “that people wouldn’t take me seriously enough to do movies like that, and I just got one.”

Dog Tired

With mega-fame, it seems, a certain amount of alienation has set in. “It’s funny now,” Pattinson says, “like, trying to socialize with people. There’s this cautiousness about people which I just find really weird.

“Or I’ll be walking down the street,” he says, “and people’ll be like, ‘F** you!’ ” He laughs. “And I get a lot of people wanting to beat me up. Men in bars and stuff. I just leave.” He shrugs.

“But you’re not really allowed to complain about any of this,” he says. “You’re just supposed to be grateful. And obviously—I get it. You’re lucky and you should appreciate your luck. But, I mean, it just seems if you even hint that there’s a bad side to any of this people will be like—Liar! I guess it’s because people want to have it as a dream.

“I always talk about fame, and it’s just so boring!,” Pattinson exclaims, sounding disgusted with himself, bolting out of his chair. I tell him it’s perfectly understandable, considering what he’s been going through these last few years. “Yeah, but every time you read about someone famous talking about being famous, you’re like, ‘Shut the f** up,'” he says with a laugh.

This article has been edited for The complete story appeared in Vanity Fair Apr.2011.

April 1, 2011 | Interview | this post contains affiliate links