Source: Sunday Times
- August 14, 2016
Robert Pattinson and Brady Corbet: Brothers in arms
The Twilight star and his director, an old pal, on their challenging new film —
an intelligent movie that goes against the grain in modern Hollywood
The oddest thing about Robert Pattinson’s new film is, well, it’s all odd. From a tilt of the camera that barely shows the actors,
to a story about fascism that you need to work really hard at even to know it’s about fascism, it is an understatement to say that
The Childhood of a Leader is so far removed from its star’s huge vampire breakthrough, Twilight, that it will share absolutely none
of the same fans.
It’s like Justin Bieber giving up chart-friendly pop hits to record an album of Indonesian electro. So, in a members’ club in London,
over morning coffee, I ask the actor, why — why do something this peculiar?
“Because nothing else exists any more!” he says, laughing. He laughs a lot, a little nerdy, like a teenager at home watching a
particularly good episode of South Park. The larger films, he explains, just aren’t that interesting. In the 1990s, there were the
options of mainstream dramas or adult action films, but now… “Your only option is to do a superhero movie,” he says, referring to
the 71 comic-book adaptations currently in the works. “You can do a superhero, or you can do indies. That’s it!” He sounds exasperated.
“You cannot even do Nicolas Cage movies,” he says. “You can’t even do Con Air. I would love to do Con Air.”
As he says, though, films like Con Air don’t exist now. So instead, in this summer of loud fluff, he has a part in The Childhood of
a Leader, made by his old friend — and first-time director — Brady Corbet. He’s also here. Both men are in dark blue: the film-maker
in a scarf, despite its being summer; the star in jeans and a T-shirt that looks as if it was bought at Gap eight years ago.
Pattinson is low-key like that. In fact, I’m sure he’s in the same clothes he was wearing when we met in 2014 at the Cannes film
festival. I say I thought he was incredibly hungover that day. “Wouldn’t be surprised,” he admits, smiling. He had plenty to
celebrate that year, since he was promoting two films at the world’s largest auteur event: one by the cult Aussie David Michôd (The
Rover), the other his second film with David Cronenberg (the great Maps to the Stars). Some credibility leap for a young man then
only known for playing undead in a teen series and breaking up with his co-lead, Kristen Stewart.
“That Cannes you saw me at, though,” says Pattinson as we discuss his dramatic career change, “Brady was in, like, eight films. It
was unbelievable. I was so proud of myself that I had two, and then, every 10 seconds, he was in a different movie.”
Corbet (it rhymes with “sorbet”) fidgets awkwardly. Neither man is remotely arrogant, so, faced by a puff from Pattinson, the
director recoils. The actor has a point, though. If you know Corbet at all, it is most likely because you have been watching the best
Euro arthouse of the past five years. He was in Melancholia (Lars von Trier), Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) and Force
Majeure (black comic Swedish essential).
“I mean, I never showed up anywhere with a notepad,” he says, when I ask if he was using these roles to learn how to direct. “I was
curious to see how those I really admired worked. Who wouldn’t be? It wasn’t my intention to look like I’d got lost in a European
backlot, going ‘Hey!’ for five minutes in everyone’s movie.”
You can do a superhero or an indie. That’s it!
They’re an entertaining pair, all dry wit and occasional raucous corpsing. They’ve been friends for 10 years, meeting when Pattinson
moved to LA. Corbet leapt to tabloid fame in the teenage button-pusher Thirteen (2003), before very different parts in a Thunderbirds
remake (“I met him at a fan signing,” Pattinson jokes), then as one of the killers in Michael Haneke’s US rehash of Funny Games. He’s
27 now and has a toddler with his Norwegian partner (and Childhood of a Leader co-writer), Mona Fastvold. Pattinson is 30 and may be
engaged to the experimental pop star FKA Twigs, depending on which day you check it out on the internet.
Their film is as inscrutable as they come; so cult, its soundtrack is by Scott Walker. The lead is The Boy (Tom Sweet), and what
happens is that, in 1918, he moves to France because The Father (Liam Cunningham) is a diplomat on the Treaty of Versailles.
Everything that happens will lead to his becoming a fascist leader decades on. The star of Twilight plays an influential journalist
and a surprise role best kept mum.
Shot eerily, like a horror film, it makes viewers witnesses to a future catastrophe, but without giving them many clues. It really
does make you think. “The film’s allegorical, not a literal breakdown of how two plus two equals four,” Corbet explains. “The most
absurd thing with documentaries about origin stories of 20th-century villains is there is always a turning point that defined them.
Which is absurd — as seemingly inconsequential moments shape us as much as traumas. I relate more deeply at times to the scent of my
mother’s perfume when I was five than I do to grieving for a friend who passed away.” Clearly not a man for a quick pitch.
I ask Pattinson how Corbet sold him his film. “Growing up in England,” he explains, “you have a natural aversion to period pieces,
especially if you’ve gone to private school. As soon as you have a period script, you’re like, ‘Ugh’. But I read this and it felt
weirdly contemporary. It was just really unusual.” Corbet agrees that as a film about extremism, it has modern-day resonance.
“Unfortunately,” he sighs, “I could make the movie in 100 years and it would never not be relevant.”
If the British pin-up, called R-Patz by fans, who found fame through pouting, seems an odd match for this thoughtful American who
decided Hollywood was insufficient for his brain, such notions vanish fast. Corbet has a sarcastic sort of intellect, and is quick
to deride certain film funds for only backing social dramas about “a depressed taxi driver and his adopted son,who’s a former
refugee … They find redemption together.” Pattinson may say less, but what he does say matters, and, in a stretched metaphor, such
efficiency also sums up what he brings to his new film.
Bluntly, without him, The Childhood of a Leader may never have been made. Corbet tried to get financing for years, yet lots of actors
— especially young ones — seek out any old role, thinking that will do: money over method. But Pattinson, he insists, isn’t like that.
“It’s the smartest way to use success,” Corbet says. “Because the way sales works is that actors become objects with a certain value,
and you effectively become a performer and a producer, because you can call up an auteur having a hard time getting their film made
and, well, suddenly… Rob’s involvement means [a director] can be on the path to getting it made.”
I ask Pattinson if he thinks his fanbase from his early twenties have followed his weird path. “Sometimes,” he says, unsure. “But a
lot of the stuff is very obscure. I think there is no way if you saw The Rover, you wouldn’t think, ‘He’s trying to find things
completely new.’ The entire point is to be disoriented, as I am trying to do that for myself.”
The Twilight films were a mixed bag, but its leads, as Daniel Radcliffe did by moving on from Harry Potter, used the window well.
Kristen Stewart is perhaps the best film actress under 30; while Radcliffe took his momentum and money from playing the boy wizard
to spend time in plays and make his new film about a farting corpse. These actors were extremely famous extremely early, then fled
the mainstream. While many (Ruffalo, Johansson, Cumberbatch, Adams, Leto) whom people consider as superior waste mid-careers in
superhero movies, these three have looked for challenges. Pattinson tells of Cronenberg being asked if the talent in comic-book films
elevated its material, to which the director said, no, “they’re still just the stupid guy in a cape”.
Corbet interjects. It is, he says, “a weird moment” in culture. “There is so much content, and it is unbelievable how bad so much of
it is,” he says, shaking his head and smiling at the same time. “Maybe it’s just because I’m a curmudgeon, but I think it is possible
everything is pretty shitty. There’s this weird thing now when you go to dinner with friends, and [everybody’s talking] about guilty
“But you can’t just have guilty pleasures,” says Pattinson. “Because then it’s just your pleasures!”
Corbet is a concerned thinker, typical of a young, indie, angsty set with a lot of time to read. Pattinson, though, is the surprise.
Nobody thought him dim, but rather that hugely famous young actors playing the publicity game rarely find the nerve for an opinion.
But take his views on TV. He says people are more sympathetic to performances on the small screen, as it is like having someone visit
you in your house. It’s easy. “But the act of going to the cinema,” he continues, “people think, ‘I’ve paid money. I had to travel.
Now I want to be entertained. Entertain me.’ With TV, if you commit to watching anything for 30 hours, you no longer have to figure
how to present subtext, like in a movie. The subtext is on the surface. Stretch out any performance and you’ll create subtext in your
own head as a viewer. They seem like much more nuanced performances, as plot points are much more stretched.”
Maybe he’s always been an outsider. Maybe that’s why he was good as the societal outcast vampire Edward Cullen. I wonder if a reason
to move on, though, was to avoid mammoth global press tours. He shrugs. He enjoyed them, he says. “I just got wasted the whole time.”
There’s more. He admits the first publicity trot was 80 interviews a day — for weeks on end. “You feel insane, but I think the studio
cut my days because I started speaking total gibberish.” His tip to any actors on a similar treadmill? “Be a total liability.”
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