Robert Pattinson Entered an "Extreme Surreal Hellscape" in 'The Lighthouse'

Robert Pattinson - Getty - H 2020
Kimberly White/Getty Images

The actor discusses playing a drunken lighthouse keeper, his strange accent and shooting in 'The Lighthouse’s unusual aspect ratio.

Robert Pattinson has had to field plenty of questions about his "ferocious masturbation" scene in Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, the darkly surreal, feverish 19th century tale of two isolated lighthouse keepers spiraling into paranoia. But he took it in stride. "My press technique is basically being a moron and coming out with really reductive, clickbait headlines," the actor, who plays Ephraim Winslow, tells THR with a laugh. "Normally, people would be saying, 'Hey, I got myself taken out of context,' but really, no, that's what I wanted to get across. I feel really embarrassed to be so reductive about a pretty clever script."

What was it about the script that got your attention?

It just felt really, really exciting. There's something about the discordant tones that I couldn't really figure out. It took itself very seriously in the dialect and the structure, but it had this weird slapsticky humor, which felt so odd being in there, and then also, just some extreme surreal hellscape that happens at the end. I couldn't figure out how it was going to be put together.

What was your experience of acting opposite someone as dynamic as Willem, and was there anything about him that surprised you?

He’s so fun! I’ve always been a massive fan. But he likes being surprised; he’ll go anywhere you want to go. No matter what you throw at him, he’s very responsive and always surprising. He’s very, very alive in a scene and just really fun. That part on the page could have been sort of, there was so much of a physical domination that I always imagined this giant obelisk of a man who’s just punishing me all the time. And there’s something about Willem, there’s something about his face that’s so mischievous, there’s always something kind of funny about what he’s doing, no matter how brutal he’s being. It made it a lot more enjoyable. 

It feels like these two characters are in an allegory of purgatory. What were you interested to explore thematically in the script?

I always like movies where you’re not entirely sure who the protagonist is. I always like an unreliable narrator, but this is another level where you’re not even entirely sure who the narrator is — are we inside my mind or are we inside Willem’s mind? There are scenes really addressing it as well, when [my character gets] completely plastered and he gets confused about whether he is himself or whether he’s actually Willem’s character. I guess there is a purgatory thing about it — there’s definitely a lot of Waiting for Godot thing, a lot of the humor is very similar as well. I always look at it as, they have two characters, both looking for something profound, or they’re looking for something from the other man, and you just happen to pick the absolute worst person to get it from! I’m looking to Willem as a confidant, father figure to get some kind of confirmation from, and he’s never going to provide that for me. Willem is looking at me, he wants to try and harden this young novice in his apprenticeship; he wants to induct him into the rituals of his life, and he just picked the wrong guy to be too hard too because he breaks pretty easily.

The film feels like something that might have been made in the earliest days of cinema. Was that something you knew going in or something you discovered along the way?

I think so much of that [is the] aspect ratio — that's the most outlandish part of it. Everyone's trying to think of something new and what we can do with CG and making everything bigger and bigger, but if you just make the screen smaller, everyone's like, wow, there's this weirdness. I didn't really know what it was going to feel like until I saw a couple of the dailies. But I really like what it does with it, especially when you see it on a big screen; it has such a strange effect, and it affects the performances as well. When you do a close-up, it's just so tight on your face, and you can't really do that on a widescreen aspect ratio.

There were so many surreal scenes in this movie, but were there any particular ones during which you felt most challenged?

Some of the drunken stuff. The type of script I always really like has no upper limit to where you can go — you know, drinking kerosene until you have no idea who you are anymore. The page is really blank about how you can do stuff, but I think some of the stuff, that scene with Willem where I’m criticizing his cooking, and Robert loves to shoot these long shots that are almost an entire scene, so the movie seems to have this massive crescendo. It’s fun because you really have no idea where it’s going to go, and also the camera’s locked in so you can use the whole set and go crazy, smash stuff up and everything.

The self-abuse [masturbation] scene has been the headlines so far. What is it like to perform a scene like that?

When somebody asks me what happens in the movie, I love being able to say these things about the most extreme moments that are intense and bizarre. Even that it’s called self-abuse, I think self-abuse should be the norm. (Laughs.) But the crazier something is, I just think it’s really funny. I remember watching it for the first time, and I think that was the first part I had seen of the movie — I had just seen that little sequence, and I just thought it was phenomenal. Each individual piece was shot at totally random points of the movie, so I couldn’t really imagine what it was going to look like all put together: having shit sprayed in your face, the mermaid, there’s all these terrible images and I just thought it was kind of hilarious. And the audacity of, that’s what you’re thinking about when you’re having a wank? It’s pretty amazing.

Where did you draw your Lighthouse accent from?

It's literally — no one believes me — but to my ear, it's a very particular Maine accent, and if you listen to people from these coastal regions of Maine, it's this really weird accent that came from sailors, there's a bit of Liverpudlian in it. It's such a strange amalgam. So when you're doing it, it sounds like a fake accent. People will say "you’re messing up the accent" and I’m like, "Yeah? What accent am I doing?" There was this guy who was a fisherman, and he sounds very strong Bostonian at times, and then at other times it doesn’t sound anything like Boston. We had three people from Maine listening to it and they were like, "yeah," and I was like, "Yes! I didn’t mess it up!"

Your choices are really interesting in that you always veer toward these unconventional roles that require you to be quite fearless — then you sign on to be Batman, which requires you to be fearless in a whole new way. What drew you to the role after you’ve been taking on a lot of smaller and riskier projects?

I had it in my head that there’s something about that part, I had my eye on it — and I don’t know why — for a while. And then there’s something about the part itself which I always kind of liked. There’s one part of me, the competitive part of me, that I really like doing a small movie and helping it find an audience when an audience doesn’t know if they want to watch it or not. But it’s also fun to have that anticipation, and when there’s doubt or whatever from an audience, it triggers that competitive thing in me. But also there’s something, I did want to do a big thing and there’s something about Batman, his motivations in every iteration of the story are always a little shady. He has this centerpiece backstory of his parents being killed, but I think that’s the interesting part of the story, like your parents are killed in a mugging but then … it’s a pretty big leap to become Batman afterward, and it allows for quite a lot of scope in what you can do with the character. And also, the Batman is always really cool.

Have you been working on your gravelly deep voice? How are you hoping to put your specific spin on a character that has been previously played by so many great actors as well?

We’ve got a couple of ideas. I’m still finishing Chris Nolan’s movie, but I’ve been reading a lot of the comics. I didn’t realize there were like, a hundred thousand Batman comics — it’s really astonishing — so I’m reading as many as I can. The line of where the character’s gone in the comics, there’s a kind of strangely, there’s a storyline you can follow the whole way through, a macro storyline from the inception of the character in the comics, which is slightly different from the movie, and I think you can get quite a lot out of it.

What did you think about Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker as that spun a new direction for the DC universe? Will the Batman film be following that tone and feel or going a different direction?

Joaquin is one of the best actors working. He’s always great in everything. I’m always amazed when people are surprised that he’s really great, I’m like, "He’s Joaquin Phoenix, what else did you think he was going to be?" I thought he was great. And about the tone and stuff, those are all [director] Matt Reeves questions — it’s above my pay grade! 

Interview edited for length and clarity.

A version of this story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.