"Media culture is a monstrous thing," Pattinson lamented Wednesday afternoon, jamming fries into his mouth between puffs on his electronic cigarette. "You can't win. The annoying thing is that you can't attack them, but you can't defend yourself. The best thing you could possibly do is punch a paparazzi and give them their big payday."
The 26-year-old actor has run a gantlet of publicity this week that was nominally about promoting his new film, "Cosmopolis,"which opens Friday. But the promotional blitz, which also included a New York premiere and other stops, seemed to be as much about proving his emotional resilience in the wake of the tabloid bonanza that exploded after photos surfaced of Stewart in compromising positions with 41-year-old Rupert Sanders, who directed her in"Snow White and the Huntsman."
Sitting alongside Pattinson for moral support at the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Columbus Circle was "Cosmopolis" director David Cronenberg. The Canadian filmmaker, whose challenging art house films almost never garner such wide attention, was there as a sort of buffer but also appeared to be quietly amused by the media circus. The actor's manager would not allow Pattinson to sit alone for an interview with The Times, and even suggested that reporters not ask him about his personal life, or "Twilight."
But "Twilight,"of course, is how Pattinson has become perhaps the most widely recognized young actor of his generation. In the movie franchise, based on Stephenie Meyer's bestselling young adult novels, he plays a brooding vampire who falls in love with a human girl (Stewart). The film series has grossed over $2.5 billion worldwide since launching in 2008 and will conclude in November with a fifth installment, "Breaking Dawn — Part 2." Pattinson's off-screen romance with Stewart only stoked the popularity of the vampire movies.
When the Stewart-Sanders affair burst onto the cover of Us Weekly in July, it initially seemed like there was little upside for Pattinson. But Stewart's public apology generated not only sympathy for the man wronged but also a fresh wave of interest for "Cosmopolis," which had premiered to mixed response at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
That could help Pattinson as he strives to craft a post-"Twilight" career. While both of his "Twilight" costars, Stewart and Taylor Lautner, have each taken center stage in studio pictures, Pattinson has mostly stayed in the indie world. His biggest non-"Twilight" film to date was last year's "Water for Elephants," a modestly budgeted period romance with Reese Witherspoon that took in a respectable $117 million worldwide. Pattinson's less-commercial projects, however, have tanked at the box office — the Sept. 11 drama "Remember Me" only collected $8 million domestically in 2010, and the 19th century-set drama "Bel Ami" flopped in June, never expanding beyond 15 theaters.
In "Cosmopolis," Pattinson plays a young billionaire on the verge of financial ruin who self-destructs over the course of one day, and he has earned some of the best reviews of his career for his performance as the detached whiz-kid.
Cronenberg, who adapted "Cosmopolis" from Don DeLillo's book of the same name, said he felt Pattinson was right for the part largely because of his good-looking face, which appears in nearly every frame of the movie. Before casting him, the director watched all of the films the London native has appeared in, and viewed a number of interviews with Pattinson on YouTube to get a better sense of his personality.
"The strength of the 'Twilight' movies is not the acting," acknowledged Cronenberg. "But it's not understood that doing 'Twilight' requires presence and professionalism. Are you saying this is an Academy Award performance, or Alec Guinness? That's a whole other discussion. But you throw somebody on a grueling set like that — a normal person would be dead in an hour."
Warming to his own defense, Pattinson interjected: "With this movie people keep saying, 'Is this gonna be the movie where he can prove he can act?' It's like, 'What do you think I have been doing?'"
"By the way," Cronenberg added, "he's a British guy doing an American accent. People don't realize that there are a lot of very good actors who cannot do accents, and they don't give Rob credit for that."
"Oh, give me anything!" Pattinson said with a laugh and taking a drag on his cigarette, which glowed an electronic red with each inhale.
Still, it's clear Pattinson sometimes questions his acting ability. Before production began on "Cosmopolis," he said he was so unsure of his ability to pull off the role that he sat "trembling, absolutely terrified" during the first screen test.
The nerves are somewhat surprising, considering Pattinson's part in "Cosmopolis" doesn't seem all that distant from his own life. Like his character in the film — who remains isolated in a limousine for hours as he slowly traverses Manhattan to get a haircut — Pattinson said that since "Twilight" opened, he has "had four years of gradually being put more and more into smaller and smaller boxes, and you have a desire to break out." He's also a part of the 1% — according to Forbes, he earned $12.5 million for the last two "Twilight" pictures — a number he says is "completely not true."
"Weirdly, I went to the bar the other day and there were a bunch of people protesting some 1% thing," he recalled. "I drive this kind of [junky]-looking truck sometimes because I started surfing — it's this 2001 Silverado I bought off of Craigslist for, like, $2,000 or something. So I was hiding in the back of the truck when I saw the protest thinking, 'I don't want to get involved in this.'"
The demonstrators, Pattinson said, didn't recognize him and a friend. "When the protesters saw us, they were like, 'We're not even shouting at you. You're driving this piece of .... You're not part of the 1%.'"
Pattinson insists he's terrible with his finances: "The only thing I'm good at with money is blowing it. I don't even understand [what I spend it on]. I have the exact same lifestyle as when I was 15."
"Look at the way he dresses," chimed in Cronenberg, alluding to Pattinson's informal, almost frat-boy get-up of a polo shirt, jeans and backward cap.
The actor said he feels a pressure to appear "unbearably conservative" because he senses his every move is being scrutinized. He says he'd like for bankers to be hunted by paparazzi and TMZ instead, but knows that's unrealistic.
"The tabloid industry does terrible, terrible things for the world. It makes people stupid," he said, his cheeks flushing. "People say [tabloids] are about escapism, and people have got to get away from the misery of the world. It's like, 'No, people are lazy, and they don't want to try.' … Every time I've looked at a magazine like that, I've regretted it. I gain absolutely nothing from it. And neither does anyone else."