Robert Pattinson has pursued an eclectic career since becoming a pop culture icon as Edward in the Twilight movies. Instead of cashing in on his fame via one blockbuster role after another, he has pursued a largely off-beat path, working with directors outside the Hollywood system such as David Cronenberg on Maps to the Stars and Cosmopolis, David Michod on The Rover and James Gray on The Lost City of Z. So it makes sense that he has now teamed with French filmmaker Claire Denis, the iconoclastic artist behind movies like Beau Travail (1999), Trouble Every Day (2001), and White Material (2009).
In High Life, Denis’ first foray into science fiction–although she hesitates to call it that–Pattinson plays Monte, one of a group of criminals who exchange their sentences for an experimental voyage to a black hole. Overseen by a fellow prisoner and doctor (Juliette Binoche) who uses the crew for her own experiments in human reproduction, the seemingly doomed mission descends into chaos. But Monte finds hope and a reason to live when he unexpectedly becomes a father.
The movie certainly bends toward the more cerebral and esoteric end of the sci-fi spectrum, and fans of classics such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Carpenter’s Dark Star, and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey will find a lot to peruse here. Pattinson manages to be the movie’s humane and moral center without saying a whole lot while Denis deploys her trademark narrative mysteries to create a surreal, occasionally harsh yet ultimately poignant experience.
Pattinson will soon be seen in The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch, but he is also getting back into epic filmmaking, as one of the stars of Christopher Nolan’s new, yet-to-be-named project, but in the meantime Den of Geek spoke with him and Denis recently in Los Angeles about High Life, working with babies, the real-life Messier 57 black hole, and more.
Den of Geek: What was your first conversation with each other like about doing this?
Claire Denis: Yeah. I think it’s the kind of moment where you say things that means so little. You know? Just to meet each other. Me, I would never jump on an actor or an actress and try to tell what is this film about, actually. No. I think it’s so much important to feel it’s possible to stand each other. To have a coffee together. To smoke a cigarette. I don’t even remember.
Robert Pattinson: I think when we first met, I think I’d only seen a 20 page treatment or something, but also I didn’t really understand it at the beginning so I was avoiding talking about it so I didn’t sound like an idiot, so I just talked about anything else. I think it’s nicer to start something when it wasn’t completely set in stone, there was like very, very strong elements to it but I think for something that seemed quite an audacious project it seemed like it’s less daunting to approach if there’s a lot of space for you to kind of develop it.
Do you feel like you put some more pressure on yourself when you’re working with a director like Claire or David Cronenberg?
Pattinson: I think actually it’s like less pressure, because if you decided to work with someone because you like what they do, then you’re not thinking about trying to do their job. So even if there’s something you don’t particularly understand, I would never want to impose on her side of the process at all. Whereas if there’s someone who you don’t have 100% trust then you start talking to producers and stuff, and going, I don’t know I’m kind of losing faith in the director…that’s when it’s pretty stressful.
Denis: Because of this element of going somewhere, but not having a map, in the end more or less means you have to trust each other. I had a feeling really, like I was been working with you already. As if it was normal to see on the set every day.
Pattinson: There was a long time of prep, as well. Before we started shooting we were doing meetings for like two years, at least, every few months. And talking about it, so it wasn’t too much of job.
This is, for both of you, sort of a first foray into science fiction. What do you think works in the genre and appeals to you about it?
Denis: Genres, for me, are great because they were meant, a long time ago in Hollywood, to be inventive, to reuse sets, to make small budget movie with what was left over from other films. I would have loved to be one of those directors: hey we have this bamboo thing, could we do a jungle picture with it? I mean, I love that idea. This is for me, great.
So when I say this is not a science fiction movie, it’s not because I don’t like science fiction. It’s because I feel it’s about things that already…it’s not like creating another colony in another galaxy, and meeting aliens. You know? Let’s say it could be possible. Almost. If we had the capacity to go that fast, for the people not to die during the trip.
What made the character of Monte work for you, Robert?
Pattinson: It’s a strange one because generally I always try and build a character out of the dialogue scenes and there were really only, outside of the voiceover — there wasn’t even that much voiceover until we finished the movie so I’m trying to string it together around four of the longer scenes. The looseness of it really appealed to me. I was in Cologne for quite a few months and kind of just trying to intuit something rather than trying to understand everything about the macro story. I think even Monte doesn’t know how to run the ship. He’s literally just sort of figuring it out. They’re prisoners, they don’t know anything.
But it was an interesting one with this, and really I didn’t know how to do it at all. I didn’t even know what voice or what accent I was going to do until I said the first line. So it’s always really fun doing that. I genuinely didn’t even know.
Everything in this film look low-tech. There’s nothing that’s all futuristic and gleaming.
Denis: The choice was easy, because when we visited the European Space Center and we saw the real space station, we saw so much low tech. It’s important where to put the toothbrush. It’s important to make sure the toilet are functioning. The things like that, you know? So in a way, I was surprised how close we were.
Pattinson: It’s interesting though, that even where they sleep, in the International Space Station, it’s just like a sleeping bag and that’s it. It’s nothing, it’s not like Star Trek at all. And you just have straps everywhere because essentially you’re just holding on to stuff. So I loved the scene when I’m fixing the wall, it was just like, fix it with some tape and that’ll do.
Claire, the structure of the movie is almost a metaphor for the way you tell a lot of stories in your other movies. You go back and forth in time, and this story is about people whose journey is bending time for them.
Denis: Yeah, but the strange thing is that I was not really thinking exactly about the time thing, when I started. I knew exactly the beginning (of the film), but then I had to admit that I needed flashbacks. It was not meant to be playing with time. I did it naturally I guess.
Did you have time to bond with both versions of the daughter character, Willow? The younger and the older?
Pattinson: Well, I knew Scarlett who plays the baby. She is my best friend’s kid. My goddaughter. We had a different baby and it didn’t really work out, so Scarlett flew out the morning of the first day. I’d only met her for like an hour, maybe, when she was a baby, when she was like a few weeks old, but I just had this memory of her parents passing her around and she didn’t mind being held by everyone, and she was just kind of completely fine. So I was literally just trusting that a year later she’d hopefully still be the same. She’s such a kind of curious girl and was just so at ease with everyone. It was a massive gamble. I thought she was just so incredible in it.
Did either of you see the picture of the black hole that came out this week? It looks uncannily similar to your black hole.
Denis: Not uncannily. I knew. I’m sure I was right. I had to fight for that, and so I could not be wrong. I studied and I found the colors to use, and I was certain it was the right thing to do. Of course, it’s ridiculous now to say that but it’s true. I loved it.
Pattinson: I saw the test. I guess when I first saw the test it was probably when Interstellar came out and they’d kind of done the same thing…When I saw the first test, it was literally a yellow line. It all just felt so powerful just seeing that. It was like, wow, that is the singularity. I feel like if anything’s going to be close to what eternity or whatever is going to feel like, it’s going to be incredibly simple more than anything else. I just thought it was such a cool idea. Sort of essentially the opposite of what a lot of your instincts would go to.
Speaking of Interstellar, you’re working with Christopher Nolan next.
Pattinson: Yeah. We start next month. I can’t say anything, (but) it’s really cool. It’s a huge, huge thing. I haven’t done anything like it, ever. It’s going to be very exciting.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
High Life is out now in theaters.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye