Circus maximus

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the real Robert Pattinson

Get Adobe Flash player
By Hayley Kaufman
Globe Staff / April 17, 2011

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

LOS ANGELES — The pert blonde in the headset peeks into the airless basement conference room. “Rob will be here in five minutes,’’ she says, flashing a smile.

The Rob to whom she refers is Robert Pattinson, the 24-year-old British actor whose penetrating gaze and masterfully moussed hair have helped propel the “Twilight’’ films into a $1.8 billion franchise — with two installments still to be released. Teenage girls around the globe fill Tumblr pages with testimonies to his hotness. Paparazzi stalk him tirelessly, mouths watering. Perimenopausal women, old enough to be his mother, dare to dream.

The blonde in the headset returns. “Rob will be here in one minute.’’

It’s clear now this is no mere estimation. Watches have been synchronized. Spreadsheets distributed. Clipboards clipped.

For two days, Pattinson has been holed up at this luxury beachfront hotel, talking to swarms of reporters, bloggers, and television crews about his latest film, the Depression-era drama “Water for Elephants’’ that opens Friday. Based on the romantic bestseller by Sara Gruen, it’s the story of a young veterinary student (played by Pattinson) who, after losing his parents in a tragic accident, jumps a circus train and falls in with the crew, including the show’s brutal and ambitious owner and his beautiful wife.

Costarring Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz, the film marks Pattinson’s first big-budget role since “Twilight’’ turned him into a pop-culture sensation. If the young actor hopes to have a broad career beyond the B-movie (some would say C-movie) realm of angsty teen vampires, “Water for Elephants’’ could smooth the way.

When the conference room door finally swings open and the superstar lopes in — shuttled apparently through some sort of underground utility tunnel — he is flanked by his manager and a massive bodyguard. The blonde waits nearby, not smiling now, but looking at her phone, her schedule, listening to the voice on the headset.

In the windowless hallway beyond, a cluster of studio types mill about, texting, talking about what’s next, who’s next. Off to one side is another man, eyes like black ice, who looks as if he would happily sink a steel throwing star in your left temple if you made one wrong move.

The main attraction has arrived.

Investing in earnestness For a guy on the twisty tightrope of mega-stardom, Pattinson is surprisingly candid, less cagey than you would expect. When the situation calls for it, he can be jokey, such as when he quips to reporters that he took the role of Jacob Jankowski so he could work with an elephant. Or that wearing authentic 1930s underpants helped him get into character.

But ask him serious questions and Pattinson gets thoughtful, reflective, invested.

Sitting in this nondescript basement, door closed, bodyguard gone, the blue-eyed Brit muses about the difficulties of playing Jacob, whose life has been marred by tragedy, but who holds on to an essential goodness. He gets theater geeky about character and motivation. At one point, he goes so far as to toss out a line about “moral transience.’’ Suffice it to say, this is not the kind of stuff that gets the readers of Us magazine all tingly.

“Sorry,’’ he says, taking a swig of coffee and grinning sheepishly. “I’m just, like, rambling.’’

And there it is. That strange alchemy that’s made Pattinson one of the biggest stars on the planet, that’s earning him an estimated $25 million combined for the last two “Twilight’’ films. One part self-deprecating charm, one part smoldering sincerity, one part unbelievably effective hair products.

Impressing the director There are plenty of people who would take issue with such a reductive view of Pattinson’s gifts, and not just the fan girls who trawl YouTube and websites that keep tabs on his every move. Waltz, who plays the vicious circus boss, doesn’t understand why anyone might question whether his young costar can hold his own in the sweeping period romance.

“I take offense, in a way, on Rob’s behalf at the interest in his ability as an actor,’’ said Waltz, who won an Oscar last year for his brilliantly creepy portrayal of Nazi Hans Landa in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.’’ “He’s an actor. He’s a grown-up. He is not some silly kid. Why does everybody expect something else? It’s unfair.’’

Of course, Hollywood is littered with promising castoffs. Kids who couldn’t make the jump to adult roles. One-hit wonders. Actors who got typecast and never escaped the strictures of the role that made them a star. For all his success, Pattinson comes with baggage, a corona of fame that can make it difficult to see the actor behind the celebrity. It’s the kind of baggage that can pique a director’s interest, or make him run for cover. “Water for Elephants’’ director Francis Lawrence fell into the first category, with a few qualifiers.

“I was wary about him,’’ Lawrence says. “All I knew was ‘Twilight,’ and it’s such a stylized piece, and it’s hard to see who the guy really is with the makeup and the contacts and the hair.’’

In truth, when it comes to Pattinson’s resume, there’s not that much else to know. Born and raised in London, he made his first splash in 2005’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’’ as the doomed Cedric Diggory. TV roles and a couple of minuscule art-house films followed, but Hollywood was not clamoring. Pattinson has famously said he had almost given up on acting when he landed the role of Edward Cullen in “Twilight’’ opposite Kristen Stewart (now rumored to be his girlfriend). Besides starring in last year’s tepidly received “Remember Me,’’ the vampire franchise remains the actor’s calling card.

So Lawrence, who directed Will Smith in the 2007 apocalyptic thriller, “I Am Legend,’’ sat down with Pattinson to kick around ideas about the “Elephants’’ role and get to know him a little. Lawrence came away impressed. Then the director got him in front of a camera and came away, in a word, stunned.

“I thought he was right once I met with him for the role,’’ Lawrence recalls. “But then you suddenly see him onscreen that first day, and you kind of realize, holy [expletive], I think we’ve really found something here that’s pretty amazing.’’

Pattinson felt the same way.

“I like to think that I have quite good taste in movies, and I want to make the kind of movies that I’d like to see,’’ says the actor, who has previously named “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’’ “The Exorcist,’’ and Godard’s “Prenom Carmen’’ among his favorites. “Water for Elephants’’ “is definitely in a direction of things I want to make,’’ he says. “I think it fills a need. I haven’t seen something like it for a while in the cinema, just the level of detail that people put into it, and artistry.’’

As evidence, he launches into stories about legendary production designer Jack Fisk, best known for his work with Terrence Malick; costume designer Jacqueline West; and the joy of working on a set that felt as if it had been created in the 1930s.

“I really felt like it was only about making a movie with this film, which was one of the big reliefs,’’ Pattinson says. “There’s going to be no sequels. And you just get people who are the best at their jobs and you tell them, ‘I just want you to do your best work in a creative way.’ ’’

Minding the juggernaut That, of course, is not always the way it works on a franchise, especially a multi-billion-dollar juggernaut such as “The Twilight Saga.’’ Department after department has a say, and a vested interest, in how “Breaking Dawn,’’ the two-part finale of the series, looks and feels when it finally hits theaters — the first part this November, the second part next year.

Pattinson is both frustrated by and fiercely protective of the franchise that has made him a superstar. On the one hand, he grouses that after doing three of the films, “you’d think you’d get more power as an actor, but you get less and less and less.’’ On the other, he is obviously excited by the work he has done on “Breaking Dawn,’’ which is being helmed by Bill Condon.

Which is why today, amid the reporters and the film crews and the cold coffee, Pattinson is furious. Just a couple of days earlier, top-secret pictures from the “Breaking Dawn’’ film set had been leaked online. At this point, these movies are like his children. His costars, like family. For someone to hack in and spoil the surprise, to ruin it for the multitude of fans out there, well, Pattinson won’t have it.

“I’ve been sending out messages to all the good ‘Twilight’ fans to find out who [the hackers] are and kill them,’’ he says. He is joking mostly. But not completely. Pattinson’s got a lot riding on all these movies. He knows this time in the spotlight is precious. Because sooner or later, the circus packs up and moves on.

Hayley Kaufman can be reached at

Movie listings search

Movie times  Globe review archive