July 4, 2009. Independence Day. Robert Pattinson is kicking back in the New York hotel where he’s staying all summer while making “a very, very low-key indie movie” in between filming the next two movies in the Twilight series. Only one of the Twilight films has hit cinemas so far – there’s another in the can and he shoots the third one this winter – but already this handsome, quietly spoken, 23-year-old Londoner is associated the world over with Edward Cullen, the teenage vampire at the heart of American author Stephenie Meyer’s wildly successful fantasy novels. He’s a pretty face at the heart of a phenomenon.
That’s why every time Pattinson steps in front of the camera for director Allen Coulter’s Remember Me, the small film he’s shooting in Manhattan this summer, he can always spot a crowd out of the corner of his eye. A crowd of devotees. It doesn’t help that he’s making most of this film outside on the streets of New York City. “Oh man, it’s completely crazy,” he says, half sighing, half laughing. “It’s strange that you’re doing a little indie movie, a very subtle story, and you’ve got like 5,000 people watching you.”
There’s not even anything for them to see, he says. Nothing spectacular, anyway. “You’re just thinking that the whole crowd must be thinking: he’s doing nothing. It’s not a very operatic performance at all.” Doesn’t the attention send him crazy when he’s trying to work? “It’s incredibly distracting,” he says reasonably. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I don’t even know what I’m thinking half the time. I’m just trying to stay calm.”
If you’ve never read any of the four Twilight novels or seen the film – which, if you’re male and over 25, might not be all that surprising an oversight – you might be wondering what exactly all the fuss is about. But imagine this: Meyer’s books tell of a teenage girl, Bella Swan, played in the films by Kristen Stewart. She’s a sensitive, lonely kid from a broken home in Phoenix, Arizona who moves to Washington State and falls in love with her sullen classmate, Edward Cullen, only to discover shortly into their courtship that he’s from a family of vampires – benign vampires, who drink animal blood rather than human. And so their relationship is immediately dangerous and forbidden. One bite from a rabid Edward, and Bella would become a vampire. One false move and she might be savaged by her boyfriend’s enemies. Romance and chastity collide in a brooding modern gothic story. Teenage passion meets tragic fate, which is an intoxicating recipe for young fans of the books and film, especially those going through similar turmoil in the more pedestrian, less supernatural world of their own classrooms and bedrooms. Remember, too, that Pattinson, with his sunken eyes, sharp cheekbones and wild hair, offers a brooding, doomed presence on screen. His Byronic looks and his character’s strange origins make him a tragic pin-up of the American suburbs. No wonder there are crowds of young women waiting to follow his each and every move.
When he took the role in Twilight, Pattinson had few credits to his name. It was a gamble by the producers to hand a character adored by fans of the books (the first sold 17 million copies) to a pretty but unknown young Brit. Pattinson, who grew up in London and says he “just fell into acting” after a stint as a young model, first caught attention in a small part in two of the Harry Potter films in 2005 and 2007. “I think I was on call on Harry Potter for about 11 months and for those 11 months I worked about 11 days,” he remembers, chuckling. “When I finally got to work, it was more a relief than anything else.” In 2007 he landed the role of a young Salvador Dalí in Little Ashes, a tiny European film that later received a wider release on the back of the success of Twilight. “I would have done it differently if I’d known people were actually going to see it,” he jokes.
Was Pattinson aware of the loyalty of fans of the Twilight books? It looks like the sort of obsessive fandom that can turn into anger and even hatred when an adaptation isn’t to their liking. Did he know what he was letting himself in for? “It’s strange because even though the figures show that the books were successful and sold millions of copies, you couldn’t even buy them in London. I tried a couple of bookshops and they weren’t available. Hardly anyone I knew had read them apart from one girl, a friend of my sister. I had no idea at all. I’d seen Kristen Stewart in Into the Wild and some of the director Catherine Hardwicke’s other films, and that’s all I thought it was, something really small.”
Small, it wasn’t. The first Twilight cost about $37 million to make but took $70 million on its opening weekend in the United States in November 2008. By April 2009, its final US box office gross was more than $191 million. Globally, it has made over $382 million. But the actor reckons he wasn’t the only one in the dark about its appeal. “I don’t think even the production company had any idea the extent of the success they had on their hands until the weekend of its release,” he says.
He sounds amused and a little bemused by the whole thing. He also sounds relieved to be spending his summer playing something other than a vampire, albeit one in attractive human form. In Remember Me he’s playing a regular, if slightly screwed-up, guy – a 21-year-old NYU student looking for some direction in life. “I wanted to do something that wasn’t so stiff as in Twilight,” he explains. “So much of that character is about restraint that it translates into everything else when you’re acting. I just wanted to do something relaxed, which is definitely what this new film is. I’d never done a part that was a normal guy. I’ve always done some kind of period drama or supernatural thing.”
His manner is very laid back. He doesn’t sound thrusting or ambitious, more like he’s just going with the flow and enjoying things. Is he going to harness his newfound fame and box-office appeal to approach the kind of filmmakers he wants to work with in the future? He’s not so sure. “Annoyingly, there are so few parts I feel I can add anything to, or that I want to do.” But he knows what he doesn’t need. “I don’t want to be an actor for the sake of it. I don’t find any particular pleasure in being an attention-seeker.” He sighs and yawns and says he won’t be seeking out any parties or barbecues this July 4. He wants to rest, to savour a rare day off away from the cameras and the crowds. But he’s young, I say. He can deal with it. “Yeah, or I’m just going to burn out,” he sniggers. “I’m getting more and more haggard every single day.”