Pattinson's High Life

Actor on challenges and rewards of Claire Denis' space drama

by Amber Wilkinson

Robert Pattinson on working with baby Scarlett: 'It was absolutely exhausting but it definitely ends up adding to their relationship'
Robert Pattinson on working with baby Scarlett: 'It was absolutely exhausting but it definitely ends up adding to their relationship' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Robert Pattinson was in San Sebastian to attend screenings of Claire Denis' latest film High Life, alongside co-stars Juliette Binoche and Mia Goth. The film tells the story of man who finds himself isolated in deep space with only his baby daughter for company, flashing back to consider what happened on this ship full of ex-convicts, including the feisty Boyse (Goth), overseen by a doctor (Binoche) obsessed with inseminating the female members of the crew and with extracting semen from Pattinson's abstemious Monte.

Catching up with Pattinson in a suite at the city's exclusive Marie Cristina Hotel, I ask him about how challenging building a relationship with the baby (Scarlett Lindsey) was, given that the first act of the film is just the two of them alone in space. It turns out it was just as difficult as you might imagine.

"I always thought the character was supposed to be a lot weirder than it ended up becoming," he says. "We'd already cast these identical twins for the babies. I met them the night before and there were two things. They were constantly with their mum and twins. You might have thought identical twins would be good because if one's not working you get another in to do the same thing. But no one figured out that if you split up twins who are constantly with each other, they go crazy.

"The night before, I was trying to bond with these kids for two-and-a-half hours and the only way I could make them even slightly happy was to pretend to be a monster. They weren't even happy, they would just stop crying for one second and scream instead. I was like, 'This is not going to work, unless you want to have an entire movie with a baby that's looking absolutely terrified.' So we cast Scarlett, who's one of my best friend's kids like the night before we started shooting and, so, I didn't want to be horrible to her because she's my friend's kid."

Pattinson with fans in San Sebastian
Pattinson with fans in San Sebastian Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival/Jorge Fuembuena
He says he had met the tot previously, when she was very young, adding, "Well, she didn't cry", but it was still a full-on job and not just when it came to acting.

"With this, it was kind of in the morning when she first left her parents she kind of cried for about 30 minutes but then she was fine. But if I gave her back to her parents then there would be the same process again. So it ended up being that I would babysit her the entire day - and it's not even normal babysitting because she could never cry ever, so I was with her for hours, so if there was the slightest hesitation or the tiniest bit of a tear coming on, I was like [Pattinson makes playful baby noises]. It was absolutely exhausting but it definitely ends up adding to their relationship. I really didn't want her to be upset, whereas in the script my character was much more indifferent."

The British actor says that he "prioritised" the film, which was in development for five years. "I was initially going to do The Lost City Of Z with James Gray and they almost overlapped and that shows because it was ages ago when I did that," he adds.

"There are certain directors who I would kind of cancel everything else for. James Gray was kind of one of them too. I don't know how ready I was but I just knew that I wanted to do it."

Pattinson, whose career has taken a much more adventurous trajectory since he found fame as vampire Edward Cullen in the Twilight series, says: "I couldn't really have had a more perfect career. To have that crazy explosion which was great fun. I really liked making all the Twilight movies which were great fun. Then to basically transition as soon as it ended to doing exactly what I wanted to do - I couldn't have asked for more."

The 32-year-old reveals that his experience of working with David Cronenberg on Cosmopolis "changed everything about how I go after different filmmakers".

"He randomly came to me," he says. "I'd never met him. I found the initial email exchange with my agents the other day and I was saying, 'I don't think I should do it, I'm going to mess it up.' I was trying to get out of it. I don't remember that at all, and I got really convinced into doing it.

"But with Clare, I said I wanted to work with her years before I even met her and it took ages for a meeting to happen and years after that for the movie to happen."

The list of directors he's also like to work with includes Catherine Breillat, Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Audiard and Leos Carax. Speaking about the way his attitude changed towards the shaping of his career after working with Cronenberg, he adds: "I thought I had to have more control before".

"I would make decisions where I was thinking I had a more direct relationship with the audience rather than the directors. So I did [fiml]Bel Ami[/film]. It was the only time I really thought I'd try to subvert the audience's expectations. Because, at the time I had Twilight which has a very female audience so I thought it would be kind of funny to play a part that was specifically screwing over women and stealing their money. I was thinking I shouldn't rely on myself, I should work with people who are cleverer than me. After working with Cronenberg, I didn't know how to do the movie at all. I was avoiding rbrn talking to him. When I finally talked to him, I said, 'I'm sorry, I've been nervous to talk to you because I don't really know what the movie's about about' and he said, 'Yeah, me neither'. But he said, 'It's kind of juicy, right?' It's a cool thing. As soon as I realised that, whenever I watched a movie that had a big impact on me, I'd immediately go after the person and I still do that now."

Speaking about working with Brady Corbet on Childhood Of A Leader, he adds: "I'm always a little bit wary of working with first-time directors because I don't know how to judge someone at all, I'm really bad. Every director is good in a meeting. But with Brady I'd just know him for such a long time - since I was 14 - and anyone could tell you that he was a savant. I like people who really feel that there's a particular imprint that they put on a movie. With Cronenburg and Clare it just feels like a very specific world they've built - it doesn't just feel like they've recorded some stuff happening and just stuck it together, it feels like a world that's existing and it's contained in the movie."

As for the less mainstream nature of his more recent films, he says: "I don't feel like I'm 'properly' arthouse - these are big names. I don't feel like I'm trying to be super-obscure.

"I think most super-commercial movies, generally the directors have only done TV commercials before or they are random people. With mainstream movies, I feel like I've seen them all before. The amount of scripts you get that are quite formulaic and I don't know what the point is."

Robert Pattinson:  'I had no idea what to expect. I had no expectations in a really good way'
Robert Pattinson: 'I had no idea what to expect. I had no expectations in a really good way' Photo: Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

With High Life, he says: "I had no idea what to expect. I had no expectations in a really good way. If you see a director who has made Beau Travail - I could look at that and feel so much from that movie without really knowing what it is saying at all. But I just know it's great. So I just very much trusted in whatever Claire wanted to do with it. The first time I saw it, I definitely found it funnier than I expected. Nobody is finding it funny but the first two times I watched it I was crying laughing."

And, like many before him who have worked with the French director, he is full of praise for her.

"She's just a unique person," he says "I'd met up with her tons of times over the years before we started doing it. I just loved hanging out with her, she can be so kind of warm but at the same time, just so weird. She'll pick subjects out of nowhere and I've never met anyone like her. On set, she's just very funny. No one quite knew what the story was about but there was so much faith in her. It was an interesting work environment where no one's trying to sabotage it. Normally, if a director couldn't fully explain exactly how they want things to be done, a lot of the time actors will start going, 'You don't know what you're doing, this is going to be shit.' and then they start protecting themselves and their performance. There wasn't a single day, no matter how strange the subject matter got, it seemed that everyone was very supportive of the movie. That's because of Claire, she inspires that a lot. She's a very sweet person."

He says he wishes that the directors he works with had more of an audience but is self-deprecating when I suggest that he brings fans along with him to his films.

"Like 10 people," he says "I think the majority of people who would go and see this are people who like Claire, adding, "I hope that every movie I do that it starts to create a sort of expectation that I only do stuff that's trying to be interesting."

High Life is out in the UK now.

  • Read our interview with Juliette Binoche here

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