Sorry, ladies. In the daylight, Robert Pattinson’s skin does not sparkle like diamonds. He’s not even unusually pale. The closest he gets to his dreamy-vampire persona is when, during the course of conversation, he absently tousles his hair into something like his undead do. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mr. Hunky Bloodsucker in person is how soft-spoken he is.
That is, until an unwanted visitor appears on the balcony.
“Jesus, I thought that crow was going to come in the room,” he says. “That would be a bad omen!”
The large black bird has settled menacingly on the railing, facing outward but occasionally glancing over its shoulder as if to say, “I see you.”
“Weird,” Pattinson says, laughing. “I’ve been having bad experiences with birds. I just got a dog and I was trying to make him pee out on the balcony and there were these enormous seagulls who have absolutely no fear of people. I genuinely thought a seagull was going to grab my dog. Terrifying.”
Animals and animus are primary components in Pattinson’s new film, the Depression-era romance “Water for Elephants.” Pattinson plays Jacob, an erstwhile veterinary student who, after a personal tragedy, essentially runs away with the circus. There he meets performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who is as enchanting as her husband, charming but imbalanced circus owner August (Christoph Waltz), is discomfiting. The web becomes more tangled when August’s big new acquisition – a bull elephant – steps into it.
“I don’t think there was one thing with the elephants I didn’t do,” Pattinson says, though not impressed with that fact. “They were pretty nice animals. Everything was pretty easy. The first time I met Tai, she was with, like, five or six other fully grown Indian elephants. They came wandering around, but they would never, ever tread on you. Even their back feet, they’re so sensitive to what’s going on around them. Gary, their trainer, said, ‘Sit,’ and all of them sat down, like how a dog sits. I just thought, however this movie comes out, I want to work with this elephant.”
Even in Pattinson’s rapidly growing gallery of lovely leading ladies, Tai ranks up there for beauty and soulfulness of eye. And she was apparently considerably easier a co-star than, say, the horses with which Witherspoon was matched.
“Reese got thrown off once. She got stepped on a bunch of times,” Pattinson says. “I saw it happen during scenes, and she didn’t say anything, continued on the scene.”
He gives a close-mouthed, wide-eyed look of shock, and laughs again. “But yeah, she’s pretty tough. (In one scene) the horses were running within a foot of her, and the horses do tread on you; it’s nothing like the elephant. And if something goes wrong, they freak out. But she was so easy with them. The horses behaved slightly differently with her than with me. She has a thing. I have an elephant thing, she has a horse thing.”
Pattinson is comfortable enough with his animal magnetism to make much of his humor self-deprecating. He acknowledges that having worked with Witherspoon previously – albeit briefly, and for naught, as his scenes were ultimately trimmed from “Vanity Fair” (2005) – was a source of comfort.
” ‘Vanity Fair‘ was my first job and I was completely freaking out about it,” he says. “She came to my trailer and said she wanted to run lines or something. She’s just really sweet and easygoing. I mean, we didn’t hang out or anything, but we sort of felt we knew each other when I met her again.”
Odd one out
Still, he was in awe of his co-stars. “When you see Christoph and Reese and they’re both Oscar winners and they’re big movie stars – also, they have the big parts, they have the kind of loud parts – I’m coming into that thinking, ‘I’m kind of the odd one out here, and I’m also in every single scene.’ You’re a little bit worried.
“She has such an amazing aura on a set. The days she was there were so different from days when she wasn’t. She definitely creates a really nice vibe, and everyone’s happier when she’s around. They’re almost depressed when it’s just me,” he says, laughing.
It was hard to be depressed around Waltz, however.
“He’s extremely funny. He had just done that skit on Jimmy Kimmel, ‘Der Humpink.’ It’s one of the funniest skits I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says of meeting Waltz. For the record, “Der Humpink” is an utterly insane sketch one can find online – but afterward one might never be able to look at Col. Hans Landa of “Inglourious Basterds” the same way again … or feel at ease about his inquiries into life on that French farm.
“He’s very, very good at making anything seem sympathetic. He is kind of, in the book and in the script, just a nutcase. But I think Christoph didn’t want to play that straight up,” Pattinson says. “But Jacob keeps trying to steal his wife, so where’s the happy ending? He’s destroyed this hardworking man’s business, steals his wife.”
British Pattinson confesses a foreigner’s fondness for the American 1930s, Depression and all, for how iconically American they seem to him. He referenced Gary Cooper films to help create his “Water for Elephants” character. But it was another American star, playing the older version of Jacob, who connected surprisingly with the young actor.
“The first thing Hal Holbrook said to me was” – Pattinson takes on a pretty good Hal Holbrook croak – ” ‘You look exactly like me!’ He came in a couple of days to watch the way I walk and stuff. ‘You walk exactly the same as me. And you look like me and you sound like me.’ I was looking at the pictures of him when he was younger, and he really does … we’re really similar body shapes. It’s really odd. I wouldn’t mind ending up like Hal Holbrook.”
Born: May 13, 1986, in London
Don’t call him “Spunk Ransom”: Despite persistent reports, a confounded-sounding Pattinson asserts that is not one of his nicknames. “That was like a joke I said in some interview years ago, and for some reason it just didn’t go away. So many things I’ve said, they just never disappear.”
Resume builders: Made his debut – sort of – in “Vanity Fair” (see main article). First set hearts aflutter in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” (2005) as the noble Cedric Diggory. Apart from those vampire movies and “Remember Me,” was also in the smaller films “How to Be” (2008), in which he plays guitar as the doll-faced Art and “Little Ashes” (2008), in which he plays the artist Salvador Dali. Seriously.
And he’s a musician too: He appears on the soundtracks for “Twilight” and “How to Be.” “Three of my best friends are musicians, really good ones,” he says. “They’re always playing gigs all the time; that’s what got me into it. We all used to compete with each other at open-mike nights. Try to sing the highest notes, look the most impassioned, give the most Van Morrisony performance.”
Why we care: The “Twilight” movies have been sort of popular (nearly $800 million in domestic box office, about $1.8 billion worldwide), making the 24-year-old the highest-paid British actor in 2010, according to Vanity Fair. That’s the magazine, not the movie that dissed him in his screen almost-debut. The two-part sexy-vampire finale kicks off with “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part One)” in November. Says Pattinson, “It’s a horror movie. (laughs) Incredibly strange, it’s a totally different genre. The first part of it is really a straight-up horror movie. The second one is more similar – well, there are a couple of weird bits in the second. The first one is like, ‘Huh?’ (laughs) It’s really left the box behind. But it’s fine – it’s such a long shoot, there’s no consistency to which movie we’re shooting at any time. I just know there’s no way to avoid the freakishness of the story. The key story points are the weirdest parts of the story. It might end up being a cult movie.”
Quotable: Pattinson admits that fame has gotten into his head a little bit, but what he misses are normal things for a guy his age. “I wish I weren’t so paranoid about things. I’m always certain that the main thing about young actors’ careers now is being overexposed because people just seem to want to do it so much – [hard American accent] ‘Just stick his face on this piece of crap’ – I wish I could avoid that, get it out of my brain. But when you’re working you can’t do anything anyway; I go straight to bed. I wish I could go to the cinema more often. As soon as people know you’re in the cinema, there’s this horrible energy – no one’s concentrating on the movie. That’s the biggest downside. And not being able to be incredibly drunk in public.”