The beauty of the beast
Robert Pattinson on swapping his vampire fangs for the dark arts of a serial seducer in his new film, Bel Ami.
“The world’s favourite vampire is in Berlin for a whirlwind visit and, true to bloodsucking type, Robert Pattinson isn’t eating. Tonight, he will do the red-carpet thing for the world premiere of his new film, Bel Ami, but in the private hotel lounge allocated for this interview — “This is classy,” he comments as he strolls in — he barely makes a dent in the chicken salad he has ordered, despite his professed hunger.
Pattinson isn’t known for playing characters who do much smiling or laughing, either, so the first thing to notice is how readily he does both in person. Decked out in a black-grey ensemble and sporting a new cropped haircut under his black cap, he has barely sat down, with a pack of Camels by his side, before he’s folded up in mirth, talking about the KitKatClub, a notorious Berlin sex joint, and his desire to patronise it with his family. Is he joking? I hope not. “I was telling my dad about it last night, and he sounded really into it. ‘I’m coming over — let’s go to the orgy club.’ ”
The 25-year-old actor has been to Berlin many times. One of the best holidays he ever had was a stay in the east when he was 17, “before it was so gentrified”, frequenting bars that took up illegal residence in abandoned buildings. Such footloose times are seemingly in the past for the star of Twilight, although his desire to hit the KitKatClub may indicate otherwise. The other observation to make is that Pattinson is a very handsome man, but his face is less wide and flat than the camera makes it appear. And there are enough imperfections to separate him from the standard Hollywood pretty boy.
Nobody wants to see a dickhead succeed — that’s why I wanted to do it.
It is easy to see why he is ideal casting as a heart-throb vampire, but equally why he got the role of Georges Duroy, the insatiable money-and-lust monster at the heart of Bel Ami. This adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s belle époque novel marks the directing debut of two of our most acclaimed theatre practitioners — Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the founders of Cheek by Jowl. Of the projects Pattinson has chosen with the Twilight safety net in place, the first two, Remember Me (2010) and Water for Elephants (2011), were unadventurous romantic excursions, unlikely to perturb even the most rabid Twihard. Bel Ami is where it gets interesting.
Georges Duroy is essentially the anti-Edward Cullen, an opportunistic cad who deploys sex for ruthless gain, screwing people — literally, in the case of the rich society wives played by Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas — on his rise from impoverished soldier to powerful Parisian. Cullen is the charming, soulful vampire who gets the girl; Duroy is the charming, soulless parasite who gets everything but his own comeuppance. Pattinson nails his repellent, empty charm, sneering as he seduces.
Sticking closely to the Maupassant source is one of the many strengths of Donnellan and Ormerod’s gorgeously realised vision, and Pattinson admits that tweaking Twilight-fuelled preconceptions was an original lure. “But my ideas about it changed as I was doing it,” he says. “Georges keeps getting beaten down by the world, but he never learns. He succeeds because of the bad points of his personality. Nobody wants to see a dickhead succeed — that’s why I wanted to do it.”
For their part, Donnellan and Ormerod are predictably effusive about their star: the former praises his “passionate attachment to us” during the film’s difficult financing, and credits him with “edge and intelligence”. “There’s a huge difference between Georges and Rob,” Donnellan says. “Georges rises to the top with no talent. Rob has masses of it.” (Donnellan sees Bel Ami as a parable on modern celebrity culture.) They also attribute the idea for a five-week theatre-style rehearsal process to the actor, a savvy move that allowed him to soak up their reservoir of knowledge about performance and period. He showed up every day for 10 or 11 hours. “I ended up doing mime and crazy improvisations, because you run out of stuff to do,” he says. “One day, Holliday [Grainger, his co-star] and I ran around screaming at each other for four hours.” Pattinson can’t articulate how the process fed into his performance, although when he arrived on set in Budapest in February 2010, he was worried he had overcooked it.
Meanwhile, Ormerod and Donnellan were taking the baby steps that come with being debut film-makers. The former focused on the design tapestry, the latter on the actors. Pattinson recalls them putting a row of audience heads at the bottom of the monitor, but the graceful storytelling they bring to Bel Ami bodes well for their move from stage to cinema. “We’re now rather bitten, I’m afraid,” Donnellan says.
Published in 1885, Maupassant’s masterpiece was shocking in its day. The author knew he was on borrowed time while writing this, his second novel — he eventually succumbed to syphilis — and it is infected by a spirit of nihilistic hedonism, of indulging base instincts while you can because, as the antireligious Duroy puts it: “This is the only life; there’s nothing after.” Pattinson wishes they had kept a shot near the end where Georges turns to a crucifix and thanks God for his good fortune. “It was done in the most blasphemous way,” he says, “thinking of God as Father Christmas, which was funny. There’s a lot of misery in the movie. It’s not as funny as I thought it was going to be.””
“There is plenty of sex, though, with Pattinson indulging in numerous clinches, mostly with Ricci’s sweetly amorous Clotilde. What does he think die-hard Twilight fans will make of Georges? “I’m curious to find out,” he says. “He doesn’t come across as [being] as bad as I wanted him to, so I don’t think anyone will be offended.” Pattinson is right about that — Georges is worse in the novel. As for Twihards, he credits them with more complexity than most, explaining that they are a literary-minded bunch who mostly hadn’t seen a film in years before the Twilight series. They are always giving him books, apparently; today, one handed him the works of a 1950s Greek poet. Having witnessed a Twilight premiere in action, I profess amazement that people able to unleash such unearthly shrieks could be that bookish. “Maybe they read a book in the same way,” he grins, as he mimes holding an open paperback. “ ‘He takes his shirt off…’” He widens his mouth into a muffled scream, then creases up with laughter.
Pattinson once claimed he expected Twilight to be a “serious indie” film, rather than a blockbuster franchise with fast-food tie-ins. He has also expressed a sort of benevolent envy at the way his co-star, Kristen Stewart — widely assumed to be his girlfriend, although he won’t discuss it — rose up through the indie ranks before her casting in Stephenie Meyer’s angst-soaked saga, whereas he is having to fit in his indies while already famous. “Nobody ever believes me about it, but I just didn’t see it as being this huge thing,” he insists. It’s the sequels he has found most difficult. “The whole point of the character is that he doesn’t change, but, after a while, you’re, like, ‘I’m running out of ideas here.’ There was one bit in the last film where he and Bella had their first argument, and I almost didn’t know how to play it, because it’s not like they’re going to break up.”
Bizarrely, our conversation is interrupted when the hotel starts pumping a dreadful pop song into the room. “That’s from the Twilight soundtrack,” Pattinson smiles wanly, not that amused. Mercifully, the sulky track is terminated in time for Pattinson to reflect on where he wants his career to go after Breaking Dawn — Part 2 draws the curtains on the series. Last summer, he shot David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, playing an egocentric billionaire who seeks meaning in his wealth (“One of the weirdest scripts I’ve read”), and he is currently weighing up three projects, none of which he will talk about, although the cropped head is for a tryout.
He seems unsure where to go next, explaining that, without a definable screen persona, “Nobody’s going, ‘Get me Pattinson’. I always find the best scripts have been written with people in mind, but I don’t really know who I am yet in terms of cinema, and I haven’t done enough work to have an audience perceive something. “It’s still, ‘Oh, there’s the Twilight guy trying to do something else.’ I’m very conscious of what I think people would believe me as, which drives my management crazy”. Where does he draw the line? “I’ve turned down playing a marine, because I don’t want marines to go, ‘This is a disgrace.’ ” His laughter sounds hollow this time. “I want to do something where I have a gun, get to run around a little bit.”
For the past five months, he has been living in Los Angeles, his longest stretch in the industry town, splitting his time between three houses and the occasional hotel — a nomadic reality forced on him by the rarefied nature of his celebrity. Does one of those houses belong to Stewart? “Ummm…” he hesitates. “I just think it’s best never to talk about that stuff.” When I tell him that George Clooney said recently he longed for the days when he could walk into a park and read a book undisturbed, Pattinson reveals that he was driving through LA a few days ago when someone pointed out the house Clooney lived in “when he had his pet pig and stuff”. He was shocked to see it was right on the street, unshielded.
“It reminded me that, 10 years ago, even being the most famous person in the world, you could still have a house where people wouldn’t go and camp outside. I do everything to hide because, if someone finds out where I am, there are people outside 24 hours a day. And that’s what drives you crazy, because you can’t escape. It makes you not want to go out — then you don’t meet anyone and just get insanely bored.”
He hates complaining, though: “The pros outweigh the cons by a significant margin.” But it’s hard to think of another actor his age in a similar predicament — Zac Efron, maybe. To his credit, Pattinson doesn’t show his frustration in public, and is yet to succumb to Sean Penn-style meltdowns. When the pressure valve needs releasing, as surely it must, he rings up his parents, who still reside in Barnes, the riverside enclave of southwest London where he grew up. “They think I’m insane,” he says. “They are the only people I really let rip on — ‘I’m going to kill myself!’ My family all think I hate my job so much, but it’s just the boredom that gets to you.”
A couple of hours later, in a far smarter black-grey ensemble, Pattinson roams the Bel Ami red carpet. There is squealing, but it doesn’t reach violent levels — Germans are so restrained — although one teenage girl has to be lifted out of the autograph mosh pit to safety. Tears stream down her face, which might simply be anguish at being whisked out of her idol’s orbit. The film plays to a warm reception, but a German hostess abandons all decorum on stage afterwards, ignoring Donnellan, Ormerod and Ricci, and hauling Pattinson out of the line-up to coo: “Ladies, I’m touching him.”
The actor smiles patiently — he can’t escape, even if he’d like nothing more. He does better at the afterparty, hiding away from prying eyes with his parents and two sisters in an inner sanctum. If he didn’t, he’d be facing similar encounters all night. Pattinson was last spotted venturing into the Berlin night with his family, on their way, he said, to the KitKatClub.
Bel Ami opens on March 9.
Pictures of the magazine inside The Sunday Times + Cover (above): Click for bigger.