On the list of life's great pleasures, walking down a grim street in a one-horse Australian town probably doesn’t rank very high.
Yet if you're one of the world most recognized -- and harangued -- faces, it can have a remarkable effect on your psyche and work.
So it went, at least, for former “Twilight” star Robert Pattinson. The actor made the new post-apocalyptic Western “The Rover” in the otherworldly solitude of remotest Australia -- veritable ghost towns with names such as Leigh Creek and Quorn -- allowing him to escape the maddening swarms and focus on his acting as never before.
"It was great, just being able to be out there with no one around,” the British heartthrob recalled of making David Michod’s Aussie indie, which opens Friday, before giving his trademark laugh: a nervous chuckle that can seem to go on a half-beat too long and is decidedly at odds with the suave sullenness of the vampire role that made him famous.
Added Michod: "I don’t think I ever saw an actor so happy as when I saw Rob coming down the street toward me all by himself. He was practically bouncing."
Maybe big stars should shoot in a down-under desert more often. In the waning years of his "Twilight" period and in the two years since, Pattinson, now 28, tried to redefine himself several times. He made a romantic melodrama, a period circus piece and a tale of the French nobility adapted from a Guy de Maupassant novel.
Yet though there have been shards of promise -- his oddly introspective Wall Street tycoon in David Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis" in 2012 -- Pattinson has never shown the range he does here.
The tabloid fixture plays a vulnerable-yet-resolute man left for dead by a cruel older brother (Scoot McNairy) in a post-apocalyptic wasteland (10 years after “the revolution,” in the movie’s cryptic title card). He’s able to tap into new acting depths opposite Guy Pearce, the veteran Aussie actor who also does some of his most notable work in years.
Set in a futuristic world that resembles the violent desolation of the Old West as much as anything in “Blade Runner” (though “Mad Max” comparisons are inevitable), “The Rover” centers on Eric (Pearce), a stoic survivor type who seems to have lost any ability for human connection. When his car is stolen by a gang led by McNairy's Henry, Eric sets out on an unexpectedly zealous quest to find them, and it.
Soon he comes across the apparently slow-witted Ray (Pattinson), left for dead by the side of the road after an altercation with Henry. Eric and Ray then become an unlikely pair, each haunted by their particular circumstances but united in their desire to track down the man who wronged them.
Though some viewers have objected to Michod's deliberative narrative pacing, the director is after something different than a conventional road movie, an exploration of theme and character as much as where its heroes are literally going. Pearce and Pattinson exchange few words in the film, but "The Rover's" ultimate takeaway is of the bonds of human connection that persist (sometimes) despite the lack of civil society.
These relationships, the actors say, came naturally to them.
“We didn’t have to go out of our way to connect," Pearce said. "When you’re living like that in a small town and doing nothing else besides the movie, a relationship can’t help but develop.”
As he speaks, he and Pattinson find themselves in the opposite of an apocalypse, hanging on a couch together on the rooftop deck of a Cannes Film Festival hotel, the Riviera coastline stretching out glitteringly below them. "This isn't terrible," Pearce said, grinning. Pattinson is wearing the kind of moth-eaten clothes that look trendy only on famous people.
But the actors went the extra mile for the movie, shooting in southern Australian towns that time forgot to serve the vision of Michod, the indie darling who returned to difficult terrain after his debut crime drama “Animal Kingdom,” also starring Pearce, garnered him Hollywood attention.
Pearce bicycled and jogged early in the morning before shooting, or late in the evening after hours of takes, trying to keep focus in the sweltering heat for a role that often required him to convey complicated emotions without speaking a word.
Pattinson too spent long hours hammering out an accent -- it’s somewhere between an exaggerated Southern drawl, an Australian outback dialect and Lennie Small -- that even he assumes (not incorrectly) can’t always be understood. He also arrived in Australia two weeks early to work on the character and, while shooting, demonstrated a curiosity about the role that his colleagues describe as surprisingly diligent.
“I think Rob was really inspired that people were so into it,” said the Australian actress Susan Prior, who has a key scene opposite the film’s two stars. “In a way, maybe he hadn’t experienced that before because on the bigger ones an actor isn’t really part of that process of exploring.”
She cited one scene in which Pattinson gamely agreed to lie motionless on a tabletop while Prior’s character, a doctor, sutured him up, even though he had a body double and could have left at any point. (The film's producer, David Linde, called Pattinson "really intellectually curious.")
Still, working on an indie requires a certain adjustment for a star such as Pattinson. When his agent first called with news of a conversation with Michod, Pattinson believed he had been offered the part. "’No, no,’ he said,” Pattinson recalled, quoting his agent, “‘it's just an audition.’ I had to stop celebrating."
The actor wound up going for an audition at Michod's house in which he became so hesitant to do a scene he hadn't prepared that he nearly walked out. "Rob said he hadn't prepared it but I think he just didn't want to do it," Michod said. "But we started working on the scene in the audition, and then it became play, he swam to it like a little fish."
Pattinson said that despite having to audition, he was grateful for the shot at the "Rover" role. “I was quite conscious that I was not part of a group that gets roles like this,” he said. “In my experience, a part like this goes to the skinny little weirdo.”
He added, “The one for us and one for them doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no guarantee of getting a cool indie after a big studio movie.”
For all the perceptions that he can write his own ticket, Pattinson said that assumptions about his career -- including the one that he’s routinely offered big studio parts -- are mistaken too. “I've never really been part of that group either,” he said. “Maybe because I don't work out enough," he added, giving the nervous laugh again.
Pearce said he didn’t give Pattinson acting or career advice but did find himself wondering about aspects of the actor's fame. “There was this curiosity about how Rob does his job with all the attention he’s gotten, just how he copes with it.”
He said he did tell Pattinson to avoid the kind of movies, especially bigger ones, that he might cringe at later, no matter the money or advice of his representatives. The "humiliation," as Pearce called it, isn't worth it, and if you don't feel it, chances are the audience won't either. (The veteran added that this philosophy has motivated him to work more with directors such as Michod, or a then-green Christopher Nolan in “Memento,” rather than take the mostly villainous supporting parts in studio blockbusters. Incidentally, and perhaps tellingly of this post-"Twilight" moment, as this story went to bed, Pearce was being cast in another indie, the sci-fi love story "Equals" -- opposite Kristen Stewart.)
Not that Pattinson entirely has a problem with embarrassment.
He was so taken with the solitude of the "Rover" set and the absence of paparazzi that came with it that one day before shooting he decided to shock the crew -- a Pattinson specialty -- by relieving himself on the set just outside of camera range.
“’Rob, we’re ready,’” he said, mimicking the voice of an assistant director. "And I walked onto set and I could almost hear them saying, 'This guy is weird.'"
Pattinson said he believes that some of the real value of doing an indie like this is on the marketing side, because it will help new audiences discover the movie.
“That would be amazing," he said, when asked if some of his teenage-girl devotees might now see a violent Western they never would otherwise come out to. Then he gave the nervous laugh again. “I don't know. I might end up losing a bunch of fans.”