How Robert Pattinson played the Hollywood game and won: From Twilight to The Lighthouse

Getty Images
Getty Images

Ten years ago, Robert Pattinson was still R-Patz, so deep in the grips of Twilight stardom he could barely leave the house, with fans and paparazzi fighting for a glimpse of their favourite bloodthirsty poster boy. This week, he’s starring in the Lighthouse, in which he plays a 19th century watchman who spends one scene violently masturbating over a miniature mermaid figurine.

It’s not as odd as it sounds: The Lighthouse is the most recent in a run of arthouse films Pattinson has starred in since leaving vampires behind in 2012, and the latest development in a career trajectory no-one saw coming. After breaking through as Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and heartthrob Edward Cullen in the Twilight franchise – the latter having made an incredible £2.5 billion ($3.3 billion) worldwide – he’s shunned major studio work almost completely.

The Lighthouse is his most out-there film yet. It’s an intense black-and-white fever dream, co-starring Willem Dafoe and shot using pre-war camera equipment – about as far from the sexy undead as possible.

“Playing characters in a moral grey area is much more exciting and satisfying to do. I've only really been able to find unusual parts in smaller movies,” he told NPR, explaining why he’s largely focused on independent films over the past decade.

He delivered a philosophical turn in Claire Denis’s stark sci-fi High Life with aplomb, and propelled the Safdie brothers’ excellent heist thriller Good Time with an electric central performance. He was compelling as the slick millionaire in David Cronenberg in Cosmopolis, and hugely entertaining as the Dauphin in David Michôd’s The King, in which he donned an outrageous French accent.

None were box office gold, but critical acclaim was near unanimous. Peter Bradshaw at the Guardian singled out Pattinson’s performance for praise in his five-star review of High Life, while both the Standard’s critics David Sexton and Charlotte O’Sullivan lapped up his turn in the King, with the former claiming he was “preposterously fabulously pert and camp, a hoot every moment he’s on screen.”

The decision to shift his focus away from blockbusters certainly paid off for his artistic standing, then, but it was always motivated by more than the films themselves. Pursuing fame alone has rarely seemed to interest Pattinson and the internet is littered with stories about him shying away from the limelight – sometimes he’d change clothes midway through meals to avoid being papped by photographers, while at one point he took to travelling in the boots of cars to escape being spotted.

Though there’s been the odd misstep – the ridiculous, mawkish Remember Me from 2010 comes to mind – by mixing up his projects and picking his roles wisely, he’s made himself one of the most interesting auteurs working in film. And yet now things are going full circle, with Pattinson set to return to major studio work.

Good call: Pattinson has been making all the right decisions (Getty Images)
Good call: Pattinson has been making all the right decisions (Getty Images)

It seems he’s banked enough critical respect through his smaller projects over the years to pique the interest of some of the industry’s biggest names – including one Christopher Nolan, who signed Pattinson up for his time-travel blockbuster Tenet just at the right time.

“I remember my agent saying, ‘You’re not really on anybody’s list. The movies are well reviewed, but they aren’t big hits.’ Pattison told the BBC. “And then a week later I got another call out of the blue: ‘Do you want to be in a Chris Nolan movie?’ I was like: ‘Wait – how did that happen?'”

Perhaps the move should come as no surprise. Pattinson has made it clear he’s only interested in working with interesting directors and playing complex characters – Tenet seems to fit the bill, especially as Nolan has become synonymous with the cerebral blockbuster over the course of his career. More interesting is Pattinson's decision to take on the latest Batman. A cash grab? Perhaps, but perhaps not: it turns out he has grand designs on Bruce Wayne. “It’s actually an interesting part,” he told Variety. “I think it’s because he doesn’t have any superpowers.”

The casting could prove to be a masterstroke for DC, which is in desperate need of a shakeup. It’s certainly a far cry from the Lighthouse and the fact he’ll be starring as the Caped Crusader just months after appearing as an onanistic watchman is testament to his range, if nothing else.

Fittingly, he’ll be shooting Batman in the same studio in which he made Harry Potter all those years ago. Soon, he’ll be back in the biggest spotlight of them all after embarking on the unlikeliest of journeys, shedding his posterboy image, impressing the critics and bagging the respect of his peers. Pattinson might not have entirely shunned the big studios, but it looks like he's played the Hollywood game and won.