October 19, 2018
New York Film Festival

Robert Pattinson on Using 'High Life' and Claire Denis as Therapeutic Bodywork

Pattinson and Denis are a match made in heaven...or space...or F***box.

Once you achieve a certain level of success as a filmmaker, actors will come clamoring to you. Or at least that's the case for Claire Denis, whose lead actor in her new film, High Life, had been waiting to work together for several years. That actor was none other than vampire-teen turned acting-chameleon Robert Pattinson, and with meaty roles in Good Time, The Lost City of Z, and Damsel, he has become quite the fixture in independent film over the past few years.

When asked what attracts him to these types of roles, Pattinson answered, "In general, it's pretty simple. I'll have seen a directors work and very few things hit me as hard as Claire's work did, for instance. And I just think if something has a pretty profound effect on you, then just go and try and work with those people. I basically approach people who I really love and just say, 'I don't care what part it is' or anything to do with the specific project. I just said whatever you would like to do with me at any point in the future, I'm available. And it generally seems to kind of work out in the way that I wanted it to work out."

Still, it didn't seem enough for Claire Denis to be completely convinced he was the right man to play her film's protagonist.

You may have heard some strange buzz surrounding High Life, perhaps something about a "fuck box" and prisoners drifting endlessly through time and space. While the film's full plot has little to do with the "fuck box", Denis fans have reason to be excited about the erotic sci-fi meditation. In it, a prisoner named Monte (played by Pattinson) and his fellow cellmates are subject to the fertilization experiments of a traumatized sex doctor (played by Juliette Binoche) as they make their way towards investigating a black hole.

Originally, Denis had envisioned the character of Monte as an older man, more wisened by his life as a convict. Over the long course of the film's development, however, it seems she changed her mind. She believes that being stuck in development hell aided that decision.

"Yeah. I mean, it's horrible to say the delay helped me to think he was right," she admitted in a press conference following the film's screening at the New York Film Festival.

"It's not resisting any direction, no. It's existing, I would say." 

"He was right probably since the very minute I met him," she continued, "but the delay helped me to realize he was even better than that. This dream about having this older man, tired with life, at the end wishing nothing but die was sordid, you know? Robert was bringing something I had not expected, but I was a little bit afraid, to be honest, because I was afraid, not of his youth. I was afraid maybe he was too good looking or maybe too precious to me, in a way, you know? I thought, 'Oh my God, I have to be aware of that,' you know, and not to be afraid by his charisma." 

It's a lesson we can all take to heart. A director shouldn't let their initial picture of what a character should look like can get in our way. Later on in the conference, Denis asked, "Can I say something about Robert? There is always something that is hidden. He does not give everything, as people say, 'I will give everything.' No, something stayed behind his face, behind his skin, inside. A sort of, it's not resisting any direction, no. It's existing, I would say. Which is probably what David Cronenberg liked also, you know.  For me, it was so easy. I was completely amazed at how easy. Because I'm shy and the first day of shooting, approaching an actor or actress with a camera, it's not an easy thing at all. I knew this mystery in him would help me to get close."

"High Life" Credit: A24

Pattinson's own desire to work with Denis stems from a larger desire for taking on roles where he can focus on strengthening a certain aspect of his instrument as a performer. "With this, I looked at all of Claire's movies and it seems like all of her actors have total unselfconsciousness and they really seem to inhabit their physicality a lot and it was just one of those things that I was sort of obsessed with thinking as a person, I don't fully inhabit my body and stuff and so, I thought, you use these movies as sort of a therapeutic exercise in a way. Where you kinda think, If it's happened to other people, maybe it will happen to me if I do it."

He developed this approach shortly after working with David Cronenberg. "I really loved the script," he remembered, "but I was so afraid of talking to him because I didn't know how to talk about the part in an academic and cerebral way, but I knew I really liked it. And I found the emails where I was talking to my agent trying to figure out how to get out of even a phone conversation with David because I was terrified of being humiliated on the phone."

"I have to say to the director at the beginning, 'I have no idea what I'm doing, I have no idea how to act, I don't know what the part is, I'm literally just rolling the dice on a take to take basis. And I've got about a 1 in 6 hit rate.'"

"And then I finally got tricked into talking to him about it," Pattinson continued, "and I was just like, 'I'm so sorry David, I really like it, but I literally don't know what it's about. I don't know how to do anything.' And David said to me, 'Yeah me neither. I have no idea what it's about, but it seems juicy, right?' And I'm like, 'Yeah, it does seem juicy.'"

"Now every single job I've ever done from that point on, I have to say to the director at the beginning, 'I have no idea what I'm doing, I have no idea how to act, I don't know what the part is, I'm literally just rolling the dice on a take to take basis. And I've got about a 1 in 6 hit rate.'  That's probably why I don't do that many commercial movies because you can't really do that to a corporate machine, if you go up and say, 'I have no idea what I'm doing, sorry.'  If you approach things which you are afraid of, that's the way to find parts," he concluded.

"High Life" Credit: A24

Pattinson seems to have had a similar struggle with how he would play Monte in High Life, but Denis had a remedy. "We went to a modern art museum and there was this sculpture, and for some reason, I was just looking at this slightly abstract sculpture, and I was like...this feels like something. It was a sculpture of a woman breastfeeding, but just the shape of it, that was something I always loved about Claire's work. Using your body as architecture, I had never done that. That's what I always really loved in her work and so I was trying to figure out how I could kind of insert myself into that world and figure out how to use my body like that," he recalled.

The important thing was that, even though neither had worked with the other before, Claire and Robert were speaking the same language. "I remember showing this photograph of the sculpture to her and she was like, 'Yes. That's it.' It's almost ridiculous that you can show an abstract sculpture about nothing to do with the movie and show it to the director and no questions asked," he told the audience.

"Like, yes, you're right to make that a part of the character, and to try and, most directors could be like, what are you talking about? You need to explain this to me, and just to kind of have a shorthand of being able to think slightly abstractly. I guess it's not really preparation, but it's kind of getting yourself in a mindset that was kind of different to anything I'd done before. Yeah, and just kind of allowing yourself to be there, if that makes any sense."     

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