Robert Pattinson couldn’t stop Googling himself. In mid-May, the 33-year-old actor found himself obsessively refreshing his phone on a flight from Los Angeles to the south of France. Pattinson was headed to the Cannes Film Festival for the world premiere of his new movie, “The Lighthouse,” just days before he was set to start shooting the next Christopher Nolan film, “Tenet.” But someone had tipped off the press about another top-secret project, one the entire world was now reporting on: Pattinson had been cast as the next Batman.
The stories were premature — Pattinson hadn’t even auditioned yet — and he was horrified that all the chatter would spook Warner Bros. executives into not hiring him. “When that thing leaked, I was f—ing furious,” Pattinson recalls on a recent rainy afternoon in London. “Everyone was so upset. Everyone was panicking from my team. I sort of thought that had blown up the whole thing.”
As he scoured the internet for any clues that he’d been cut from the studio’s wish list, the man next to him leaned over to say hello. “I was sitting next to Christopher McQuarrie,” Pattinson says. “I’d never met him before. Oh, God! He’d seen me Googling myself for the past hour!” Pattinson tried to explain to the director behind the latest “Mission: Impossible” films what had happened. “No worries,” McQuarrie said, nodding. “I’d probably be doing the same thing.”
Robert Pattinson never stopped being an internet phenomenon after playing Edward Cullen in the five-part “Twilight” series, which grossed an extraordinary $3.3 billion worldwide and turned him into the most lusted-after mortal since Leonardo DiCaprio in “Titanic.” But after the franchise ended in 2012, Pattinson took the opposite path from mass blockbusters, working instead with indie auteurs such as David Cronenberg (“Maps to the Stars” and “Cosmopolis”), James Gray (“The Lost City of Z”), the Safdie brothers (“Good Time”), Claire Denis (“High Life”) and David Michôd (“The Rover” and “The King”). Pattinson relished playing character parts, not needing to worry about hype and audience expectations.
“Rob definitely has a darker side and is comfortable working in that space,” says Robert Eggers, the director of A24’s “The Lighthouse,” which screens this week at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival and opens in theaters on Oct. 18. “And he has good taste in cinema. I think a lot of directors he likes are doing stuff that isn’t run-of-the-mill Hollywood.”
But in the past few months, Pattinson’s career has taken another turn as he’s begun gravitating back toward the stormy clouds of movie stardom. He spent most of his summer in Estonia making the Nolan film, which arrives in theaters in July 2020. And of course, despite his concerns, he was cast in “The Batman,” the Warner Bros. tentpole from director Matt Reeves that will start shooting this winter and debuts in June 2021.
Pattinson can’t say exactly what contributed to his process of choosing roles in the past few years. “Big movies, generally the parts aren’t as interesting — at least the stuff that was coming my way,” he says. “I guess there was some fear.” After “Twilight,” he wanted to land on solid ground, not lead a life where he was stalked by the paparazzi on his day-to-day errands. He was drawn to quirky and under-the-radar characters that he could sink his teeth into. “I think I probably would have been a little bit nervous to have gone straight into it immediately afterwards,” he says about “Batman.”
This is Pattinson’s first interview since being formally anointed as the Dark Knight. And he still seems to be pinching himself about being next in line to put on the latex boots after Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale and Ben Affleck. Growing up in England, he watched the Tim Burton “Batman” movies. “When I was a kid, it was the only outfit that I had,” Pattinson says. But he won’t reveal where he used to wear his Batman costume. “If I actually said it in an interview, I would definitely have a lot of abuse afterwards,” he says with an outburst of nervous laughter. “If I successfully play the character, I can say it at the end.”
When Pattinson was named as the front-runner for the role, the backlash on social media was intense — a petition even surfaced on Change.org asking WB to reconsider. “This will ruin my childhood and my dreams,” one commenter posted. But Pattinson is surprisingly upbeat about the mixed reaction. “To be honest, it was less vitriolic than I was expecting,” he says. And he’s not deterred by the doubters: “It’s much more fun when you’re an underdog. There’s no expectation of you.”
Pattinson splits his time between London and Los Angeles, but he prefers to live on a movie set. He’s restless if he’s not working, and he’s not the kind of person who could travel for months for fun. “I think I’d come back and my house would have flown off,” he says. “I would have absolutely nothing. I’m constantly living in terror.” Of what? He searches for an answer. “If you experience a loss of momentum, you don’t want that to happen again,” he says. “And I really enjoy working. There’s no part of me that can go off and disappear.”
Besides, he’s come to appreciate the camaraderie of the movie-making business. “There’s something about people who work in the film industry — they very much wear their heart and dreams on their sleeve,” Pattinson says. “There’s so much desire falling out of them. I think people in other jobs, their dreams aren’t valued as highly. Also, there’s nowhere to put them.” He says that if he’s in an Uber and a driver starts to pitch him a movie idea, he doesn’t shudder like other actors would. “I’m so, so into it,” Pattinson says. “I don’t want to be in L.A. to talk about f—ing restaurant reservations. I want to be in L.A. because I love movies.”
“It’s much more fun when you’re an underdog. There’s no expectation of you.”
Yet times have changed. Many movie stars have been crafting career trajectories similar to Pattinson’s, swinging from independent films to blockbusters and back. And indie directors such as Ryan Coogler have infiltrated the superhero world. Pattinson reveals he had an informational meeting with Marvel around the time of “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but nothing came of it. “I don’t know what I would really be chasing,” Pattinson says. “The idea of trying that transition after ‘Twilight,’ I never saw a road in that direction.” Batman was different because he was the only comic book character Pattinson always loved. “It’s actually an interesting part,” he says. “I think it’s because he doesn’t have any superpowers.”
He’s noticed how much the entertainment industry has transformed since the first “Twilight” hit screens a decade ago. “It felt like the mid-budget movie completely disappeared, but then it kind of came back with Netflix and the streaming services,” he says, adding that he wishes Netflix offered a better way to navigate all its titles. “Hardly anyone sees independent movies at the cinema anyway. It would be amazing if people did.”
At least he still does. Pattinson says he can sneak into a multiplex, and nobody will bother him. He tried to do that the other day for Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” but all the shows were sold out. “It’s literally impossible to get a ticket anywhere in London,” Pattinson says with a sigh. Couldn’t he have called in a favor? “I used to have a tiny bit of power. And the power is completely gone. I can’t do anything anymore. I actually just called my publicist: ‘Can I get some free stuff? Just anything!’” he says in a mock-pleading voice. “‘I just want a package.’”
Before he takes on Gotham City, Pattinson will first tend to “The Lighthouse.” The black-and-white drama is his first performance that’s generating serious awards buzz, although it’s not your typical Oscar movie. True to its title, “The Lighthouse” is set in a watchtower in the middle of nowhere, as tension builds between a pair of watchmen. (Willem Dafoe plays the other role.) Slowly, things start to happen as the men succumb to their isolation, booze and hallucinations involving a mermaid who lives off the coast. “I remember doing it thinking I don’t know how I’m going to promote it,” Pattinson says. “Every single scene is just sprinting up to a cliff.”
Pattinson had seen Eggers’ 2015 Sundance horror film, “The Witch,” and he reached out to him about working on something down the line. The first idea that Eggers suggested wasn’t weird enough for Pattinson, so Eggers offered him an alternative script called “The Lighthouse.” He threw himself into preparing for the role, poring through historical studies about men in lighthouses, reading macabre stories and listening to audio tapes of dialects of New England, where the story is set. And Pattinson moved three months early to Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, where Eggers had constructed a 70-foot wooden lighthouse, to acclimate to the location. To settle into the character, Pattinson grew a mustache, which he’d been trying to persuade directors to let him do for other parts. He’s not offended when a reporter asks if it was a prosthetic. “It’s actually real,” he says. “I thought it looked a bit fake as well.”
Dafoe says that Pattinson will sometimes use humor to disarm others. “He’s wildly self-effacing,” Dafoe says. “If you ever talk to him about performing, he acts like he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s a little bit of a device to allow him more freedom. And I might add that Rob really wants to jump into things, sometimes with his eyes closed.”
On “The Lighthouse,” he had trouble seeing anything due to the stylized cinematography. “We realized, because of the combination of shooting on black-and-white negative and the 1920s lenses, you need so much light just to get anything,” Pattinson says. “We were doing one scene which was talking to each other over a table. The light is so bright, you couldn’t see the other actor. OK, this is an unexpected turn of events.” Since his character is inebriated for most of the film, Pattinson had to double down on throwing his equilibrium off-balance. But he didn’t attempt a Method approach like on 2011’s “Water for Elephants,” where he actually got plastered. “All you’re doing is trying to stay sober afterwards and hoping that no one will find out you’re drunk for a drunk scene,” he says.
“The light is so bright, you couldn’t see the other actor. OK, this is an unexpected turn of events.”
Pattinson relishes all the peculiarities of “The Lighthouse.” He reveals that the crew had to move a sex scene from the frigid waters of the ocean to the shore. “We were just sitting there convulsively shivering,” he says. “It’s not very sexy at all.” And he’s eager to discuss the moment when his character pleasures himself while thinking about a figurine of a mermaid that he’s just found. “I keep masturbating,” Pattinson says of a theme that runs through his recent work. “In the last three or four movies, I’ve got a masturbation scene. I did it in ‘High Life.’ I did it in ‘Damsel.’ And ‘The Devil All the Time.’ I only realized when I did it the fourth time. But when I saw the clay figure of the mermaid, if you’re getting turned on by that, you’re in a very strange place in your life.”
Pattinson began the year as an unemployed actor, feeling fidgety about his empty schedule. But his concerns were put to rest when his agents phoned him in January to say that Nolan wanted to meet with him. “I couldn’t believe it,” Pattinson says. “He’s one of those people who seem quite out of reach.”
He’d been chasing Batman for much longer than anyone knew. Pattinson had heard that Reeves was working on a script that reimagines Bruce Wayne in the younger years of his life. “I’d had Batman in my mind for a while,” Pattinson says. “It’s such an absurd thing to say. I sort of had an idea to do it, and I’d been prodding Matt. He didn’t accept any prods. I kept asking to meet him.”
When Reeves finally finished a script, he relented and agreed to a meeting in Los Angeles. “And then I had to kind of try to imagine what he’d written, and I hadn’t even read the script,” Pattinson says. “I’d come with this pad full of notes.” As discussions continued, Pattinson arrived in Cannes in May, and all hell broke loose in the press. “It was terrifying,” he says. “I was like, ‘Oh f—! Does that screw me because they are so intent on secrecy?’” He found himself attending the “Lighthouse” premiere in the middle of reading the script pages that he’d just been sent. “I’m literally in Cannes in my hotel room [rehearsing],” Pattinson says. “The whole thing was a lot.”
After “The Lighthouse” screened to a rapturous standing ovation, Pattinson promptly flew back to L.A. to try on the Batsuit for the final phase of the high-stakes audition. “It’s maybe the craziest thing I’ve ever done in terms of movie stuff,” Pattinson says.
“I put it on. I remember saying to Matt, ‘It does feel quite transformative!’ He was like, ‘I would hope it does! You’re literally in the Batsuit.’” Pattinson describes what the moment was like: “You do feel very powerful immediately. And it’s pretty astonishing, something that is incredibly difficult to get into, so the ritual of getting into it is pretty humiliating. You’ve got five people trying to shove you into something. Once you’ve got it on, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I feel strong, I feel tough, even though I had to have someone squeezing my butt cheeks into the legs.’”
Although he had a clear take on how he’d play Batman, he had to adjust his movements to his new latex body. “You’re trying to think of the way to balance, how to bring something new to it and not want to scare people off,” Pattinson says. “And work in the confines of the costume.”
Five days later, he officially became the Dark Knight. “I was absolutely relieved when Matt called,” says Pattinson, who got the role over actor Nicholas Hoult. In fact, Pattinson received the career-changing news on his first day on the set of Nolan’s film. “It’s so bizarre,” he says. “I was like, ‘What a coincidence this is happening. It’s absolutely crazy.” A surprise benefit was that he was able to pepper Nolan, who made the “Dark Knight” trilogy, with questions. “I was talking about things to do with the Batsuit,” Pattinson recalls. “How to get more movements in it.”
Pattinson won’t say whether he’s committed to additional “Batman” movies. “I don’t know anything,” he says. “I’ve got an idea how to do about four scenes, and then I’m working on the rest gradually.” At one point in our conversation, he offers a mundane comment about Joaquin Phoenix, who stars in “Joker” (a movie he hasn’t seen yet), before asking to retract it. “Oh s—,” he says, adding that he’s not accustomed to thinking about spoilers. “I definitely should not say that. I’m so used to pretty art-house movies, where you can watch the movie three times and still not know what it’s about.”
It’s likely that playing Batman will invite the paparazzi back into his life, but he’s not concerned. He says that Instagram has taken the pressure off movie stars, because there’s so much free photo content of celebrities (and wannabe celebrities) on the web. “There’s no money in it for people to follow you around,” Pattinson says. “There are just so many photos of me you can get in a black baseball cap getting a diet peach Snapple. Or on Friday night, getting a Kit Kat.”
Like Bruce Wayne, Pattinson has taken shelter in his own Batcave. “I made it impossible for people to follow me,” he says. “I’d be completely hermetic. It wouldn’t be worth it to wait outside my house, because I wouldn’t come out.”