CANNES, France — Robert Pattinson has gone from playing a vampire to depicting another kind of bloodsucker – a billionaire financier whose world crumbles in the course of a nightmarish cross-town drive in “Cosmopolis.”
The “Twilight” heartthrob stars in David Cronenberg’s Cannes Film Festival entry as sleek, self-centered moneyman Eric Packer, who sees his fortune and sense of self evaporate during an eventful day in his stretch limo.
Pattinson’s famously handsome face is on-screen in every scene, but “Twilight”`s young fans may be surprised and confused by a film that explores Cronenberg’s fascination with physical, social and psychic violence.
The 26-year-old actor is not worried.
“If some 12-year-olds went to go and see that, or got the video for their birthday – sitting down and watching that, it’s incredible,” the actor said during an interview on a Cannes hotel rooftop. “I would love that to happen if I was a kid.”
It’s a bit of amiable mischief-making from an actor who wants to be known as more than doe-eyed vampire Edward Cullen, in love with human Bella Swan in the “Twilight” saga.
He said he craves the cinematic understatement that blockbusters don’t always provide.
“I remember when I was in the first `Twilight’ movie, I really wanted to not have Edward touch Bella, apart from when he saves her life and when they kiss the first time,” said Pattinson, lightly rumpled but friendly and poised after a long day of press interviews. “I was thinking of the (Ang Lee) movie `Lust, Caution,’ and thinking there should be this tension there the whole time – just standing near someone there’s electricity.”
“But sometimes it just makes things too hard. You kind of forget that most people want to go to the cinema just to watch a movie rather than watch something really weird.”
“Weird” is par for the course with Cronenberg, and Pattinson gets plenty of scope to stretch himself in “Cosmopolis,” playing a hollow-eyed Master of the Universe forced to confront his mortality.
Events, emotion and violence keep intruding on the hermetically sealed universe of his limo as he tries, futilely, to cross a crisis-wracked Manhattan in search of a haircut.
Packer crosses paths with characters including his aloof wife (Sarah Gadon), his arty lover (Juliette Binoche), a pie-throwing protester (Mathieu Amalric) and a murderously angry former employee (Paul Giamatti).
Packer is not, to put it mildly, a likable character. Some have seen him as an avatar of Wall Street excess, but Pattinson says he watched interviews with serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, rather than real-life financiers, to help him create the character’s voice.
“He’s like an alien,” Pattinson said of the character.
“He’s not part of his body. Everything is an abstraction. The world’s an abstraction. Everything is.”
The film has been widely described as a dystopian reflection of the present crisis of capitalism – but Pattinson sees it in a more cheerful light, as Packer learns to face his humanity.
“I always thought it’s kind of a happy story, up until the right at the very end,” he said.
“He’s suddenly starting to feel and he becomes more physical as the day goes on, more alive. He feels like he’s part of the world.”
Packer is cut off from other humans by wealth and temperament, cocooned in his car and protected by vigilant bodyguards. Pattinson has, to an extent, been cut off by fame. He and his girlfriend and “Twilight” co-star Kristen Stewart are magnets for paparazzi and fans.
Pattinson said the experience had given him insight into some aspects of Packer’s situation.
“Some of the stuff with the bodyguard, because when I’m doing press and stuff and when I’m working I have a bodyguard who I get really close with,” he said. “There’s a very specific relationship and that was one of the things I kind of got.”
Pattinson’s “Twilight” fame has trailed with him around Cannes, but Cronenberg said it had no bearing on his decision to cast the actor.
“You must ignore the baggage,” the director said.
“It is very easy to say that this character, Eric Packer, is vampire or a werewolf of Wall Street, But really that’s rather superficial. He’s a real character and a real person in the movie.”
“This is a real person, with a history and a past. And the history and the past is not `Twilight.’ It’s `Cosmopolis.'”
Pattinson came to Cannes with Stewart, who appears in Jack Kerouac adaptation “On the Road.”
“She found out a lot earlier than I did that it (“On the Road”) was in competition,” Pattinson said – leaving him seething.
He’s happy now, though, and still can’t believe the reaction to the strange and unsettling “Cosmopolis.”
“When there’s people screaming outside, I’m like, `This is incredible,'” he said. “That people are screaming for this, the most bizarre movie – it’s amazing.”
“I wasn’t expecting anyone to get it. Even last night (at the premiere), I was expecting everyone to walk out.”