SAVANNAH, Georgia—Robert Pattinson has been lying to you for years. No, he’s not secretly balding (though his FernGully-like mane has seen considerable deforestation) or back together with his famous ex. It’s far bigger than that.
The deception began on April 21, 2011. That morning, the actor appeared on the Today show, opposite Matt Lauer. He was promoting his film Water for Elephants, a circus drama featuring Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz, and a majestic Elephas maximus named Tai. Lauer commenced the terribly early interrogation with a silly question about whether, as a child, Pattinson had ever fantasized about running away and joining the circus. “No… the first time I went to a circus, somebody died… one of the clowns died. His little car exploded. The joke car exploded on him, seriously… Everybody ran out, it was terrifying.”
Cut to Aug. 3 of this year. Pattinson is on the couch of Jimmy Kimmel Live! discussing his new film Good Time, a hyperkinetic New York odyssey awash in neon and ominous electronica that earned a six-minute standing ovation at Cannes. “There’s this one scene which we shot, where it’s basically… there’s a drug dealer who busts in to the room and I was sleeping with the dog, and basically giving the dog a handjob,” he tells Kimmel, who cocks his head back in laughter. “The director was like, ‘Just do it for real, man, don’t be a pussy!’ and then the dog’s owner was like, ‘Well, he’s a breeder, I mean, you can. You’ve just got to massage the inside of his thighs…’ But then I didn’t agree to do the real one, so we made a fake red rocket.”
Both of these stories, Pattinson tells me, are total bullshit. There was no burning clown, no simulated canine masturbation, and no fake dog penis. He is, it seems, possessed of a bizarre tendency to spin fantastical yarns on talk shows. It tickles him.
“I got in so much trouble for that,” he tells me, flashing a grin. “There’s something about being on a talk show where you have ten minutes and you think, gosh, I’ve got to say something funny, and…”
He laughs. “No, it’s not true. There was supposed to be this thing where my character has this affinity with dogs, and you know how when dogs get really angry they get a hard-on at the same time? It was supposed to be a scene where I put my hand on the dog’s head and it calms down and actually loses its boner. But the story just sounds more exciting if you say, hey, I was going to jack off a dog!”
As for the dead clown tale, well, “I also got confused if that even happened or not!” he offers, with a chuckle. “I thought for a second that it actually did happen, but then my mum was like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ I was promoting a circus movie—Water for Elephants—and they asked me what my experience with the circus was, and I basically said ‘clown death.’”
I mention that clowns are all the rage right now. “I was clearly ahead of my time,” he says.
This silly habit is part and parcel of Pattinson, who, despite his chiseled face, tabloid headlines, and vampire-phenomenon pedigree, is both playful and unaffected—even while discussing what has to be, in hindsight, one of the most surreal experiences of his life: when, prior to being elected president of the United States, Donald Trump fired off 11 emotional Team Pattinson tweets (spread out over a month) following his breakup from Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart:
“OK. So to be fair, I don’t think Donald Trump hated me. I think he’s in love with my boyfriend,” Stewart remarked on SNL.
Pattinson squirms. “It’s weird. I did notice—I think today or yesterday—in one of his Twitter cleanups that he deleted all those tweets! I was like, hey, are you trying to sweep me under the rug, man? What happened? I’m a part of your life!” he says, laughing hysterically.
I mention that his pal Katy Perry also got the Trump Twitter treatment following her breakup with Russell Brand, with the then real estate baron firing off ten tweets trashing Brand and supporting Perry. “I didn’t even know that! Was he saying for Katy to not stay with Russell? God, that’s really funny. But I just saw the thing and thought, ‘Why did I get cleaned up?’ It’s such a bizarre curiosity.”
The tweets are still up, though. I’ve been conned. The laugh was the giveaway.
We’re seated together on a couch in one of the many rooms of the Savannah College of Art and Design’s library. The 31-year-old actor is here in Savannah, Georgia, for the 20th annual Savannah Film Festival, where his acclaimed film Good Time is playing—and where he’s to be given the fest’s Maverick Award for his “fearless pursuit of challenging roles.”
Receiving an award of this nature was about as likely to happen as one of his infamous fables back in 2012, when Pattinson was coming off the Twilight tetralogy. Since that brooding bloodsucker, however, he’s pursued a diverse array of roles—a voluble billionaire in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, a wasteland simpleton in The Rover, a historical explorer in The Lost City of Z—and blossomed into one of the more compelling young character actors working today.
All of this has led him to Ben and Josh Safdie’s Good Time, which boasts Pattinson’s best acting to date; a live-wire turn in the vein of early Pacino or Oldman.
“My only thought in initially starting the job was, I’d done a lot of jobs that were quite still and deliberately paced and found that was becoming my comfort zone, and wanted something to force me out of that,” he says. “Plus I love the difficult morality of the central storyline where you think, ‘I don’t know who I’m supposed to be rooting for.’”
Pattinson is Connie Nikas, a two-bit New York City criminal who has designs on robbing a bank with his mentally challenged younger brother, Nick (Ben Safdie). They’re after $65,000 to start a new life together in Virginia. Things go well enough until, while speeding off in the getaway vehicle, they realize that a red dye pack has been slipped into the cash bag. It bursts, the car crashes, the two split, and Nick gets pinched—setting Connie on a frantic chase to get the bail money to free his baby bro, even though he’d be far better off without him.
“He believes what he’s doing is the right thing, even though he’s caused a lot of his brother’s problems. And he doesn’t even really know his brother,” says Pattinson. “It’s about faith, in a way. You see it with people who start cults, where they believe nothing that they do is wrong.”
“I find it so interesting when people look at a movie and they try and immediately define it by something with which they can relate to, where people say, oh, I empathize with it because I understand the character’s beliefs and motivation,” he adds. “I find it more interesting when I don’t understand the character’s motivation; when a character has contradictions that are impossible to resolve. And it’s fun to play as well, because you can pull from anywhere, and it feels more realistic to me.”
Good Time exists somewhere between the realms of fantasy and reality, as Connie navigates the neon-hued mean streets in search of $10,000 in bail money, getting in bigger and bigger messes along the way. His obstacles include a heavily fortified hospital, drug dealers, a teenage abduction, and a spooky theme park, in what feels like Grand Theft Auto meets Enter the Void.
And Pattinson’s twitchy, high-octane performance keeps your eyes glued to the nightmarish proceedings.
“These are the movies I grew up with as a teenager. I wasn’t that into Tarkovsky when I was a kid—I like him more now—but was more into Pacino,” says Pattinson. “It’s the stuff where, when you start off and you’re English and you’re kind of lanky, people tell you, ‘These aren’t the parts for you,’ so when you get to the point where you can kind of sneak your way in, it’s pretty damn nice.”
Don’t forget the hair, I say, as Pattinson once served as the de facto capo famiglia of the British hair mafia, a select group that included Andrew Garfield and Eddie Redmayne.
“I run that shit,” he says, chuckling. “I’m breaking out of the hair mold.”