F.A.Q.: Can vampires transform themselves into serious actors?
A conversation with Entertainment Weekly senior writer Sara Vilkomerson about Twilight, Robert Pattinson, and the plight of the pigeonholed celebrity.
Josh Benson: Can you explain Robert Pattinson to me, please?
Sara Vilkomerson: Oh well gee, where to begin! I guess we should start with Twilight. Are you familiar with it?
Josh: How about let's assume I'm not totally up to speed on it. Just for the sake of this exercise, you understand.
Sara: Mmmhmmm, sure.
In my humble opinion there is an essential part of Twilight that girls go nuts for that has got a lot to do with the whole vampire, undying-love (literally!) stuff. Which is that the main character, Bella, considers herself clumsy and awkward and not particularly beautiful, which I think speaks to at least 90 percent of how girls felt in high school. And then the coolest, hottest, most unattainable boy in school picks her out as the object of his affection. This is heady heady crack-for-girls stuff already. So then they cast Robert Pattinson in the role.
Oh look, I wrote about this in the Observer when the first one came out!
Josh: I remember that place! That piece, too.
Sara: Anyway, Robert Pattinson had the tough job of filling the shoes of a character that is described at length as being preternaturally good-looking, and he succeeded because, among other things, he happens to be preternaturally good looking. He just is.
And Twilight became a huge success. And now he can't walk down the street without people asking him to bite them, which means he did a very, very good job. And now, three films later and with two more on the way, he has a tough road ahead getting people to forget about him as Edward Cullen but to see him as Robert Pattinson, the actor.
Josh: Given the fact that he is at this point kind of the embodiment of vampiretainment, is it not slightly unrealistic to expect that people are going to stop asking him to bite them anytime soon?
Sara: If this is a delicate way of asking me if I asked him to bite me during our interview, let me state clearly for the record that I did not.
Josh: Phew. What about people who are less professional than you are, though?
Sara: I think he must get it a lot. Which must be one of those things that is hilarious the first three times but not at all the next 3,000 or so. The next two Twilight movies, Breaking Dawn 1 and 2, come out this November and next November. So he'll be living with the Edward Cullen stuff till after that. And then ... who knows? I hope for his sake it stops!
Josh: He described that enduring recognition for a certain thing as the "horrible" aspect of being part of a franchise.
What's the textbook career-management example for an actor who goes on to become much more Serious than his breakout role? Can Twilight end up being Pattinson's "21 Jump Street"?
Sara: Clooney did it! But I think you raise an interesting point about actors who happen to be blessed/cursed with extraordinary good looks, like Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt, which is that they have to work harder, I think, to make you stop thinking about them that way.
Josh: Did it help those other guys, in a way it wouldn't necessarily help Pattinson, that their breakout roles were somewhat less massive, culturally? (I’m going to go ahead and guess, without referring to the internet, that “21 Jump Street” was never quite the prevasive franchise that Twilight has become.)
Sara: Maybe. But look at Harrison Ford. He was Han Solo AND Indiana Jones—that's two massive mainstream franchises—and he still went on to play all sorts of other roles successfully. So I think it's going to be really interesting to see what all these Twilight actors, not just Pattinson, end up doing in the future.
Josh: May I ask you another question about vampires?
Sara: You may.
Josh: I'm aware this has already been hotly debated (I refer you to my earlier statement about my level of attention), but can you please explain how much the Pattinson phenomenon has to do with the vampire-affected sexual politics of Twilight?
In the movies (and in the books they're based on) the whole point is that actually he won't ever defile the girl he loves by biting her, if I understand right. So ... has Pattinson, by virtue of playing a very handsome, very devoted vampire, become a sex symbol for chastity? Is there such a thing?
Sara: I don't know I can explain the sexual politics of Twilight. But! I do think in the first few books there is something remarkably chaste and appealing on a YA level about two characters who want to have sex with each other but cannot for life-and-death reasons. And that while he is inexplicably drawn to the scent of her blood, he restrains himself from doing anything that would harm her, and in fact, goes out of his way to make sure no harm comes to her any other way, either.
Josh: Might that help explain the Pattinson craze? The fact that he played a character that tapped into the, how you say, "crack-for-girls stuff"?
Sara: It's a really good question, I don't know if I or anyone can say where the appeal of the character and the appeal of the actor split or begin. But clearly they've become conjoined. (That's a word, right? I'm on Dayquil!)
Josh: Yes! I hadn't even noticed.
Sara: I do what I can.
Josh: So after all that, what was he like in person?
Sara: I was really curious beforehand, because how many people are there that are THAT kind of famous? And I was very pleasantly surprised by how sweet and charming he is. And mostly, how easy it was to talk to him.
Because, as you know, doing any long interview is like having a long conversation with anyone. The real worry is, what if you run out of things to talk about? Or sometimes, when someone is really interviewed a lot, will this person be saying the same thing that he says to everyone? But I found him remarkably sincere.
Josh: It occurs to me that you improved your odds of having him say something new by making the first question about whether the elephant in his new movie, which is actually called Water for Elephants, would remember him the next time he was on set. Was this one of your fancy "journalism" tricks?
Sara: It's more of a Vilkomerson is Interested in the Animals trick. Kidding (sort of). But actually I think when people see the movie, they'll be struck at how much he and that elephant seem to like each other! And I knew we were reuniting them for our photo shoot. So I was genuinely curious.
Josh: Yes, he definitely seemed to like talking about the animals! Even, to his credit, about the zebra who chased him away.
Sara: I loved it when he called the zebras "wily." I never once thought about zebras in that way. I always thought they were like really weird-looking horses.
Josh: Did you not detect something backhanded in his comment about the zebra's wiliness? Maybe his sincerity fails to come through in text.
Sara: Well, it sounded like his colleagues all teased him from running from the zebra. Though if you think about it, zebras are big. I wouldn't want one running at me, either.
I talked to a lot of other people from this movie—including the director and the screenwriter—and it sounds like the animal aspect was really intense. Also, I learned that lions are somewhat harder to work with than tigers. Now you know too!
Josh: Wait, hold on, I'm writing that one down.
Sara: You Never Know.
Josh: Did it strike you that he was happier talking about the circus movie with the elephants than he was about the aforementioned massive Twilight two-parter?
Sara: I think this has been a very long shoot—they are doing both the first and the second movies in one session. So he joked that he feels like they've been shooting it all of his life. But he seemed very enthusiastic about it and about the director, and about how dark and odd these last two chapters are going to be. Cause you know what happens in the last book, right? It's bananas!
Josh: Um, yes. Yes, I know what happens in the last book.
Sara: So ... that is going to be interesting to see how they did that AND kept it PG 13. Because it's pretty dark up in there!
Josh: That's what he said!
Josh: I just mean, he talked to you about how deeply weird it actually is, to the point where he was wondering how they might go about advertising it.
Sara: Right. And of course, it's all very secretive and no one knows anything for sure yet. So I'm sure there were things he could not tell me. But I'm very intrigued about how it's all going to go down.
Josh: I don't suppose weirdness will be at all off-putting for the Twilight fans who are going to see these movies in the zillions. Like, I am presuming that advertising strategy will be the last of their worries.
Sara: Oh, I think if you are a fan you are a fan. And no, I don't think it will put anyone off in the slightest
Josh: I have one more question for you!
Sara: You can ask me a million more!
Josh: Don't tempt me! As you know, I have a proven track record of wasting your time. But my question is this: When a celebrity says to you, as Pattinson did, and I'm sure lots of your other fancy story subjects have, that his life is actually super-boring, what is Inner Vilkomerson's reaction?
Sara: I actually believe him! Which is not to say I'd believe it from anyone, but this guy works ALL the time. And I mean ALL the time.
Josh: That's what--
Sara: Haha. You take the fact that he works all the time and combine it with the fact that he can't walk amongst us in public life without crowds of girls going nutty, and it seems possible that he really doesn't get into any trouble. He buys things on Ebay! He talked to me about various youtube videos.
Josh: You know, when you put it like that, he does sound boring. No wonder he couldn't stop talking about the zebra incident.
Sara: Come now, when was the last time a zebra ran at you?