Young-adult blockbusters deal in uncomplicated emotions that make them a poor actors’ showcase. Robert Pattinson’s career-launching five-year tour on the “Twilight” series gave him worldwide stardom and wealth, but not the thing he wanted most: respectability.
Even before the “Twilight” series concluded, Pattinson was stretching his range in smaller films. He played the 18-year-old but fully eccentric Salvador Dali in the Spanish-British gay love drama “Little Ashes,” and a scandal-mongering Parisian journalist in “Bel Ami.” He also took romantic leading roles in Hollywood’s “Think of Me” and “Water for Elephants,” but his mind was on more ambitious fare.
Which is why he’s starring as a grubby, violent, mental defective in the Australian suspense thriller “The Rover.” It’s an in-your-face change of pace that puts the British-born actor alongside the intense Guy Pearce. The pair play reluctant allies chasing cutthroats across the desolate Outback. Pattinson has won the best reviews of his career as a fidgeting misfit with a stuttering Florida twang.
The film was shot literally at the end of the road, he explained in a recent phone conversation. “It was where the tarmac ended. Then it was dirt road for another 2,000 miles to the other end of Australia.” The main location, a squalid village, has a population of “40 or 50, in the middle of nowhere.”
Though the conditions were rough, “there’s something really fun about having everyone together,” he said. “There’s a holiday element of it, as well. I enjoyed it.” But it wasn’t the stripped-down production that appealed as much as the lightly written role, offering wide latitude for a performer to make it his own. The screenplay is by director David Michôd and Joel Edgerton, both of whom are also actors.
“There’s something so special in the dialogue,” so terse it makes David Mamet sound gabby. “There’s just these two dialogue scenes that reveal things in an obtuse way about the character in the midst of these massive silences. I knew I’d have to bring tons to the table.”
“I thought it was funny when I first read it,” Pattinson said. Still, his audition meeting with the filmmakers was an endurance test. “I’m not the kind of actor who can just walk in and hang it out immediately. There’s just like a whole bunch of different neuroses I have to deal with first,” he said with a laugh. “The audition was like four hours long. The first 30 minutes I was in total panic mode, not able to really do anything. As soon as we got through that initial barrier, it was a lot easier. David definitely understands that.”
Pattinson had lots of leeway in creating his character’s stumbling speech patterns and desert derelict look. His hair is buzzed short and cropped high in the back, revealing a length of neck that looks vulnerable and ax-ready. “I liked the idea of seeing that bone at the bottom of your skull,” he said. I realized that when you’ve just got a fuzzy hairball, like a Q-Tip head, and you’re doing an over-the-shoulder shot, you can see the tendons in the back of your neck and stuff. You can still kind of do things, even when the camera’s not on your face. You’re still part of the scene.”
Alongside “The Rover’s” premiere at Cannes, Pattinson also presented his second collaboration with David Cronenberg, the blistering film-industry satire “Maps to the Stars.” If that nose-thumbing bruises any egos in the movie establishment, it won’t slow Pattinson’s indie-oriented momentum a bit. He has projects lined up with Harmony Korine (“Spring Breakers”), James Gray (“The Immigrant”) and Werner Herzog, whose “Rescue Dawn” gave Christian Bale a change of pace from his run as Batman.