In which Robert Pat tin son anguishes over his great luck, laments the pass ing of ’80s porn, dreams of being groped by a lady ele phant – again – and leaves us to won der how an intensely earnest 23-year-old who’s unable to find his way around his home town can pos si bly nav i gate the maze of megastardom.
It’s the unsea son ably cold Novem ber of 2008 when I go to New York’s Bow ery Hotel. There’s a young man sit ting in the gar den, wrapped in about nine black sweaters and wear ing a wool hat, smok ing cig a rettes, sip ping a latte the size of his head, and furi ously mak ing notes on a script in the bit ter cold. I have read about teenage girls light ing them selves on fire in front of his hotel, but at the moment Robert Pat tin son is warm ing his hands on a cof fee cup.
Hello, I’m Jenny. I think I’m here so yon can check me out.
Okay. I’m Rob. Ummm … would you like some fries? With gravy?“
Allen Coul ter, the direc tor of Hol ly wood land and a cre ative force behind The Sopra nos, has sent me. He was think ing about doing this movie—it wasn’t quite there yet, but I should come meet Rob.“ Rob When he came to the United States, he slept on his agent’s sofa and then got a small part in a movie called Harry Pot ter and the Some thing of Some thing, which grossed nearly $900 mil lion world wide. And then he made another one, called Twi light, which grossed $385 mil lion in the aters and almost another $200 mil lion in U.S. DVD sales. Box-office riches, like so much of the female pop u la tion of this planet, fol low him from con ti nent to con ti nent, nurs ing a rag ing crush.
Coul ter sug gested I do some rewrite work on Remem ber Me (for the record, there is only one credited writer, Will Fet ters), the first Amer i can release in which Rob will por tray a mor tal, nonmag i cal, carbon-based life form of the earthly realm—Salvador Dali, whom he played in Lit tle Ashes, surely doesn’t qual ify. As Rob scrib bles away on the script’s pages, it’s clear he is start ing his own revi sion process.
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Rob’s face is con stantly busy—especially his kalei do scopic eyes, which are con tin u ally rolling and dilat ing, because he is always think ing. Over the course of that latte, he con tem plates Jimi Hendrix, French fries, girls, art, beer, his cousin the philoso pher, girls, truth, God, his dog, girls, and whether this week’s stalker has fol lowed him from L.A. I don’t think he could turn his brain off if he wanted to.
Despite the legion of fans trail ing him from hotel to hotel, lay ing siege to each like the Roman army, he is nei ther fear ful nor cocky—he’s hun gry, curi ous, for ever reach ing intel lec tu ally. That may not sound like a big deal, but think of the con text: Com plete strangers want to fuck you, shoot you, be you, buy you, sell you, run their fin gers through your hair, watch you have sex, hear you pee, eat chips with you, and kid nap you and stuff you in the trunk of their car. And you? You must know more, more, more about exotic trop i cal diseases.
Rob and I dis cover we share a mutual fas ci na tion with afflic tions that maim and dis fig ure and dis gust: He brings up can crum oris, in which bac te ria eat away at your face until you get kind of a win dow in the side of your head and the entire world sees your teeth; I men tion cyclic vom it ing syn drome, a con di tion in which you puke lit er ally all the god damn time; he delights in lymphatic filar i a sis, where par a sitic worms bur row into your lymph nodes and can make your balls swell to the size of water mel ons, forc ing you to tote them around in a wheelbarrow.
We come up with a block buster hit movie, enti tled Can diru Infes ta tion, about a tiny fish that swims up your ure thra and into your uri nary tract and lodges in your cock with backward-facing umbrella spikes it shoots from its spine. “Fuck ing bril liant! It could be like Find ing Nemo!” says Rob. “And the lit tle can diru is lost in the balls! Think of the soundtrack!“
BEER NO. 1
Four teen months later we’re in Lon don. New Moon, the sec ond movie in the Twi light saga, has set box-office records for largest mid night open ing and biggest opening-day gross. Remem ber Me, Rob’s young-man-in-crisis drama, has wrapped. He has 24 hours before he has to start rehearsals for Bel Ami, based on the Guy de Mau pas sant novel, in which he plays a bed-hopping social climber.
He is wait ing to pick me up in the bar of my hotel. He has ordered him self a pint of beer and, remem ber ing my bev er age of choice, a Diet Coke for me. He has the lovely man ners of the good son of a good mum.
He says he wants to take me to a par tic u lar restau rant nearby, “just a lit tle out-of-the-way place.“ So out of the way, it turns out, that after wan der ing around nearly all of Covent Gar den, we can’t find it. He doesn’t seem too sur prised, really. Of late he’s been get ting lost a lot in his own home town. But then it’s been a cou ple of years since he’s actu ally lived here, and Lon don is confus ing as hell anyway.
Con sid er ing alter na tives, we peek into a crowded cafe full of the young and beau ti ful, but he recoils. A few min utes later, when we come to a tiny Mex i can place, his hack les go up a bit. Hmm. I ask him whether, at this point, he’s able to sniff out crazed fans lurk ing under the tables.
„Yes. Sure. But last time I was here, the gua camole was bad.“
Rob has made no sar to r ial con ces sions to Britain’s ugli est win ter weather in 30 years. A button-down, light Carhartt-like jacket, no gloves. He does have a hat, per haps the same one he wore in New York. I’m swad dled like the Miche lin Man and I’m fuck ing freez ing. He’s cheery, unfazed, giggling away. It occurs to me that Lon don seems to afford him a free dom he doesn’t have in New York or Los Ange les. And a Lon don night with deserted, snow-piled streets, after an epic storm that par a lyzed Heathrow and shut down the Eurostar trains, is like an unbri dled romp while going commando.
With out try ing, we arrive back where we started, in front of the Covent Gar den Hotel. Across the street there’s a high-end sex-toy-and-bondage shop called Coco de Mer. I men tion that I popped in there ear lier (before the National Gallery, thank you), and I tell him about this insane S&M body-harness con trap tion they have that allows you to dress up like a horse and have a long tail.
“That’s so Eng lish. I want to do this entire inter view wear ing it, from an equine point of view,“ he says, stomp ing the side walk with make-believe hooves. “Seri ously. As an exper i ment in pub lic percep¬tions. Is the place still open?“
BEER NO. 2
We’re inside, at a warm cor ner of the hotel’s Brasserie Max, and Rob is hav ing another beer. We’re talk ing about how he copes. “When I was 17 until, I don’t know, 20, I had this mas sive, baseless con fi dence. This very clear idea of myself and how I would achieve suc cess, which involved mak ing deci sions. I saw myself pick ing up the phone and say ing ‘Absolutely not’ or ‘Def i nitely yes’. Hav ing con trol. Except you have to fig ure out whether the way you think at 19 or 20 has any value. And even tu ally I under stood, with all that con trol, which was prob a bly illu sory, I wasn’t pro gress ing. So now I’m relin quish ing a bit. I’ll be a tiny bit naked. Except tonight I won’t, because it’s fuck ing freez ing and my balls will shrivel up.”
He may keep his balls cov ered in win ter, but Allen Coul ter says that dur ing the shoot ing of Remem ber Me, Rob did bare him self: “It was about con trol, for him, in the begin ning. But he wanted for ward motion more than he wanted to pro tect him self. Really brave—especially for a young guy with a big tar get on his back.”
Rob does seem eager to shed some cloth ing, to give up the reins.
“Shall we go see about that har ness? Seri ously, you even tu ally real ize you can’t make every single deci sion. I was always build ing, always pro tect ing some thing. At the same time, I seemed to be los ing the abil ity to move. I’d pro tected myself into check mate. Even mentally.”
In that moment, he has a real iza tion: “I can barely remem ber the last two years. Not like a haze of par ty ing or any thing like that. Just … it’s been crazy.”
There’s been sur real stuff. Like the time at a char ity event in Cannes when two atten dees bid nearly $60,000 com bined to have Rob give their daugh ters a kiss on the cheek.
There’s been scary stuff, though the idea he might truly be at risk strikes him as absurd: “I find it really funny—if I got shot, I would lit er ally be in hys ter ics. I would be like, ‘Are you seri ous? Jesus Christ, get Zac Efron! He’s got more social rel e vance than I do.”
He’s pretty sure there was some good stuff, too. “There was this one time with some ele phants on a golf course in Barcelona …”
He drifts into a reverie. He gets amazed eas ily, and at the moment he’s fix ated on the mys te ri ous green bar snacks. They’re sort of like wasabi peas, but not. They’re cov ered in chili pow der and look like tiny tumors. He’s eat ing every sin gle one.
“Fuck, these are good. What are they? I want to snort them—they’d clear up my sinuses.”
BEER NO. 3
Rob’s hunger is more than merely metaphor i cal. He orders two entrees—the mini beef burg ers with tomato-and-onion rel ish and the mini chicken burg ers with mango chutney—along with another pint. “I eat so much, I’m like a com pul sive eater. I’ve been eat ing room ser vice, and I’m always really wor ried about it, so I choose like six things on the menu and eat them all.“
He doesn’t want to miss any thing, which implies a hint of regret. He didn’t always want to be an actor. He mod eled. He’s a tal ented gui tarist and key board player who has toyed with fol low ing his older sis ter Lizzy into pop music. But he’s a seri ous type, and his most seri ous aspi ra tions involved polit i cal speech writ ing. “It’s fas ci nat ing. You’d have two or three min utes to affect some one. Make them hear you. Get the mes sage out and maybe it will echo. I quite enjoyed doing press for the first Twi light, because there was a sim i lar ity. But after a bit I was ladling it out. If you want peo ple to lis ten to you, you’d bet ter have some thing to say. I felt a respon si bil ity to be fas ci nat ing. You’re bar gain ing with the audi ence. Is this enough for them? And that affects the way you look at art.”
Art. It’s illog i cal to think he’s not allowed to have ideas about it merely because he has helped a lot of peo ple make a lot of money.
“Before, I felt like I couldn’t break through any thing, includ ing myself. And now it feels a bit as though I’ve climbed along the side of my brain and am at least look ing in. But I know it will take me at least another 10 years before I’m remotely sat is fied with any thing I do. But with act ing you keep try ing in the hopes you might be… great. But then I think, does want ing to be good or even great, or even just want ing to make art, cheapen the experience?”
I worry his head is going to explode. He answers ques tions with ques tions. Doors open onto more doors. This some times leads to trou ble with scripts: Since he sees every character’s point of view, he often needs some sort of dis til la tion. The catch is that unless the dis til la tion some how encompasses every character’s essence, it only causes his imag i na tion to fire more wildly. It’s the kaleidoscope-vision thing.
Some peo ple can have the ocean in front of them and just put their big toe in. Rob wants to swim until he drowns, and he’s going to try to drink it all up before he goes under. His striv ing is a source of worry because he can’t really tell any body he wants more: “Please don’t make this about me com plain ing. Please. I’m the luck i est bas tard on the planet.” He wor ries he might be self ish. He wor ries maybe he’s a nonhumanist-separatist-weirdo because his most pro found moments have been with his dog. And he wor ries about whether he can be an actor who can reach the masses and still ask for anything.
“If it exists out there—this invisible-creative-spirit-idea thing—then you’re the medium through which it trav els so every body can touch it. But… what gives you the right to be the medium? What gives you the right to claim it? And then get an agent and say I want $20 mil lion and a fruit bas ket to be the medium, thank you very much.As an actor, you can ele vate the human con di tion or cheapen it. I would assume it’s the same with any thing you do—you try to ele vate and maybe some day you will.“
An actor may indeed have the abil ity to raise us, but Rob uncon¬sciously starts speak ing sotto voce each time he utters the word actor or any vari a tion of it.
Rob, did you know that every time you say actor or act ing you lower your voice to a whis per?
He’s gen uinely star tled. “I do?“
Yes, so qui etly it’s like you’re say ing Negro.
He laughs, light ens up. “What if we were ‘act ing’ like ‘Negroes?Then we’d be fucked—we couldn’t hear anything…”
BEER NO. 4
Rob asks the waiter for another beer. He’s talk ing about an uncle who worked in a steel mill in the York shire town his dad grew up in. Rob’s father and his other uncles moved away as soon as they were old enough, but the eldest brother stayed there his whole life.
“They’re bull doz ing houses, whole streets of houses. And my dad asked him, ‘Why stay?’ He said, ‘Who’s going to look after our mom?’ And I was just think ing, Jesus fuck ing Christ, there might be some thing wrong with my emo tional sight, because I’m not sure if I could make that kind of sac rifice. The only emo tional con nec tion of rel e vance is with my dog. My rela tion ship with my dog, it’s ridiculous.
“I think you need to be able to break through what you think about your self to try to make any sort of art. I used to play music all the time, and the most amaz ing part was the free dom that came with kick ing myself in the ass, let ting go, and sur pris ing myself.”
He tried to let go a lit tle bit with the photo shoot accom pa ny ing this interview—it wasn’t easy.
“I really hate vagi nas. I’m aller gic to vagina. But I can’t say I had no idea, because it was a 12-hour shoot, so you kind of get the pic ture that these women are going to stay naked after, like, five or six hours. But I wasn’t exactly pre pared. I had no idea what to say to these girls. Thank God I was hungover.”
Is your mom going to have some thing to say about it?
“Oh, God.“ He puts his head in his hands, shrugs. „Well, she quite enjoyed when I got her cable.” It’s not that Rob’s mother now spends all night watch ing Skine max in her Lon don home. “No, no! God, no! It’s just that there’s naked ness all over the place now. But this shoot, it’s kind of eight ies naked ness, you know? If you look at porn in, like, the eight ies, there was some thing kind of quaint about it, quite sweet—like this lit tle naked com mu nity. The peo ple who made it liked it, they had respect for it. Not remotely like the porn that’s avail able now. No com mu nity in it at all. It’s just every thing, everywhere.”
In the U.K., Smar ties are made of choco late and are kind of like M&M’s in weird col ors like mauve and teal but some how more deli cious. Rob’s not really a dessert guy, yet he’s rapidly hoover ing my last packet of Smar ties. “Amaz ing. I’ve eaten like 5,000 of these already. See what you have to deal with?“
In Remem ber Me he plays a guy whose issues are eerily like his own. Tyler is a young man who has retreated into him self, but then he meets a woman, becomes con flicted, and has to choose whether to remain in lock down or step into life and the world.
“Tyler is so aware of his actions. But he has no idea whether they’re of any value at all. Can you be a per son if you live in the bub ble? He’s stuck in the mid dle. At the same time, he’s lucky to have the choice. Con flict is innate in a lucky person.“
What attracted you to the role?
“I’m ? lucky per son. Thank God. And I’m con flicted. Thank God.“
He tells me about a book he read called Eat the Rich, by P.J. O’Rourke (full dis clo sure: P.J. was mar ried briefly to my sis ter, though Rob had no idea). He was drawn to a part that says something like: One man’s wealth does not mean another man’s poverty—and vice versa. Rob’s slightly embar rassed to voice this idea.
He is unsure whether to feel guilty, to bask in it all, or both. Thing is, there aren’t any rules for a life as extra or di nary as his is right now.
He tells me an ele phant story. Not the one about Barcelona elephants—one about some he’d met recently in Cal i for nia.
“Did you know ele phants purr? It’s com pletely scary if you don’t know what it is. They purr like cats, but their heads are so deep they sound like veloci rap tors. You feel it in the ground under your feet. So this big female started sniff ing my foot—big female ele phant, that is. She sniffed it so hard it came up off the pave ment like her trunk was a vac uum cleaner. Then she took my entire body in her mouth. I was hold ing on to her head, and as I slowly let go she tight ened her grip really care fully until I’m just upside down in her mouth and she’s going through my pock ets with her trunk, look ing for pep per mints. It was the best day of my life.“
So you gave up con trol to an ele phant, got groped, mugged, had your candy tugged at—and it was glo ri ous?
“Yeah. So beau ti ful you can’t imag ine. And the baby ele phant was so excited that it sprinted out and did its rou tine in five sec onds and then curt sied to every body. It was actu ally laugh ing. Brilliant. Did you know they can also do imi ta tions of other ani mals? A horse, a chicken, a monkey—these ele phants could, any way. They were movie ele phants. One had writ ten a screen play, and one really wants to direct.“
He laughs. He was in Los Ange les, in dis cus sions to star with Sean Penn in Water for Ele phants, an adap ta tion of Sara Gruen’s novel. The ele phants are actors like him, and he won ders if he might, on some cos mic level, be a bit like them.
“Do you know how they die? The ele phant guy told me their molars get ground down from eat ing wood but regen er ate like six times. And after that they slowly starve to death. Which is poignant, but that must also be what gives them time to get to the ele phant grave yard. They’re incred i bly designed creatures.
“I mean, peo ple hang on way too fuck ing long. If I knew that when my teeth fell out, that was it… Wow.
The best day of my life. Beau ti ful, beau ti ful day.“
A few moments later, Rob announces he’s going to get a cab home and excuses himself.
Can I walk you? I don’t like you going out there all by yourself!
“I’ll be okay.”