Ellen Lister

The reinvention of Robert Pattinson

The reinvention of Robert Pattinson
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Britain is about to have a new leading man.

Robert Pattinson, who made his name more than a decade ago in the UK in the Harry Potter films, and then in the US in the Twilight films, has finally emerged as a bona fide, grown-up film star. Following hot on the heels of his starring role in Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s cinema-saving summer blockbuster, Pattinson will be on our sitting room screens this September alongside Mia Wasikowska in The Devil All the Time on Netflix, a psychological thriller produced by Jake Gyllenhaal. Then, in 2021, he’ll appear in his biggest role to date: The Batman. In donning the iconic superhero’s black Batsuit and cape, Pattinson will join a historic list of actors that includes George Clooney, Michael Keaton and Christian Bale.

Pattinson’s rise from promising 18-year-old heartthrob to 34-year-old Hollywood heavyweight has been a long time coming. Back in 2004, in a vast, dark, and permanently cold studio in Hertfordshire, I found myself working alongside Pattinson on the set of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Teenage “Rob”, as he was known then, was making his feature film debut in the fourth instalment of the franchise, joining an impressive cast of established British A-Listers such as Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman and Maggie Smith. Despite this, Pattinson’s incredible good looks and offbeat sense of humour made a definite impact on set. “He will be Bond one day” a well-connected American assistant director said to me, out of the blue. It struck me clearly then: Pattinson’s star was in the ascendant.

But even with that fortuitous start, how does one actually make the journey from teenage actor in one film to Batman – perhaps even Bond?

The Twilight films, where Pattinson played a hot, sullen vampire, were undoubtedly a shrewd first move out of the Potter gates, allowing Pattinson to relocate to Los Angeles and build a significant fanbase in America. Yet Pattinson hasn’t always been able to see the advantages of this pivotal, early career step – it turned out to be something of a double-edged sword.

“It is weird being part of that – kind of – representing something you don’t particularly like” he said to Vanity Fair, in 2011. He hates his “R-Patz” nickname too, another token of the Twilight era: “I would like to break the hands and mouth of the person who came up with it”. In another interview he was asked if he had taken any mementos from the final Twilight film. “My dignity”, he replied.

It is fair enough. Any professional platform that Pattinson gained from the Twilight films was arguably offset by the intense media scrutiny that followed, as well as that very particular, very uncool brand of fame that clings to an actor when they star in a franchise aimed primarily at tweens. Pattinson also started dating his American co-star and on-screen love interest, Kristen Stewart, which was fuel for the obsessive Twilight fans’ fire. (Pattinson later went on to date – and temporarily became engaged to – British avant garde singer-songwriter “FKA Twigs”, and has recently been seeing the British model, Suki Waterhouse).

Stewart and Pattinson were not to be. Stewart eventually cheated on Pattinson with Rupert Sanders, the married director of her next film. Will Ferrell called Stewart a “trampire”. Stewart issued a public apology. Pattinson, a young man originally raised in Barnes in South West London and former student of The Harrodian School, found himself at the centre of a slightly juvenile Hollywood circus in Los Angeles.

“I had a bit of a struggle at first because my life really contracted and I couldn’t do a lot of the stuff I used to be able to do,” Pattinson told the Telegraph in 2014, reflecting on the Twilight rollercoaster. “But once I got through that a year or two ago I just accepted my life is something else and now I can’t really remember what it was like before, so it’s much easier to deal with.”

Putting the Twilight phase firmly behind him, Pattinson ditched the mainstream audience and went on to live every actor’s dream – playing a variety of utterly cool characters in indie, art-house films by legendary directors, such as David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog and the Safdie Brothers (of Uncut Gems fame). Indeed, between 2012 and 2019 Pattinson amassed quite the acting CV. “I never went to acting school, so this is just me trying to get better”, he told Esquire.

Indeed, Pattinson’s acting has visibly improved over the last decade. In Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (2012), Pattinson plays Eric Packer, a 28-year-old Wall Street billionaire. Almost the entirety of the film is set in Packer’s white stretch limo, and we watch him being driven around the streets of New York as his currency trades collapse and riots mount in the street. It’s a difficult, highly conceptual film, and Pattinson’s depiction of Packer as a cold, blank sociopath is occasionally hard to connect with. In truth, Pattinson is hardly helped by the film’s script, which is unhelpfully faithful to the Don DeLillo novel.

Since Cosmopolis however, Pattinson has gone from strength to strength and is particularly adept at portraying characters with some internal darkness. In the Safdie Brothers Good Time (2017), Pattinson is totally believable as the unkempt, low-life criminal Connie Nikas, who creates havoc around New York whilst trying to get his disabled brother out of jail. More recently, Pattinson stole the show from Timothée Chalamet’s King Henry in David Michod’s The King (2019), as the charismatic but malevolent Dauphin of France.

Robert Pattinson in Good Time (Image: Rex/Shutterstock)

And so we come to Tenet. With more maturity, a string of legitimate acting credits and, of course, those dynamite good looks still in tact, it seems obvious that the time was right for Pattinson to return to blockbusters. It was also something that Pattinson himself had been mulling over. “The problem which I was finding was, however much I loved the movies I was doing, no one sees them. And so it’s kind of this frightening thing, ’cause I don’t know how viable this is for a career.… I don’t know how many people there actually are in the industry who are willing to back you without any commercial viability whatsoever”, he told GQ, earlier this year.

Pattinson’s concerns about job security are endearing, if unnecessary. Christopher Nolan, one of the most revered directors in the world – he of the Dark Knight Trilogy, Inception and Dunkirk – had been watching Pattinson’s career unfold, and was pleased with its direction: “Rob seemed to be in exactly the right place in his career to want to come along and invent with me”, Nolan said recently.

In Tenet, Pattinson plays Neil, a terribly English, “slightly rascally” (to quote Nolan) British intelligence officer who wears silk scarves and double-breasted suits and (spoiler alert) helps John David Washington’s “Protagonist” complete his world saving mission. Despite the limited dialogue and lack of backstory, Pattinson manages to create a believable and entertaining character, whilst his plummy English accent delights. Clearly, this is work with which Pattinson is now comfortable, and his gift for eccentric and dark characters will no doubt make for a fascinating take on Batman, next year.

Pattison’s career so far is nothing short of a masterclass, and I wonder just how closely it has been planned and managed for him, since his Harry Potter days. As for whether it will land him Bond, talented Pattinson has stiff competition, particularly from fellow Brit James Norton (Happy Valley, McMafia and The Trial of Christine Keeler), who as an alumnus of RADA, has had a much more traditional route into the industry.

My own personal memory of Pattinson is of us relaxing after lunch in the Potter “rec room”, playing table tennis with other actors and crew from the films. Pattinson was friendly and funny – even if I never quite did get the punchline of his quirky jokes. He had undeniable presence. Robert Pattinson has always been a star, and if he does end up being the next James Bond, it will come as absolutely no surprise at all.