The Artistic Chemistry of Robert Pattinson and Claire Denis

The teen idol turned critical favorite and the French director discuss their new film and their creative symbiosis.

Nicholas Hunt / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

The first image of Claire Denis’s new film, High Life, is an arresting one: a baby, seemingly abandoned on a spaceship. Eventually, her cries are soothed over a loudspeaker by the only other living being on board, a wiry convict named Monte (Robert Pattinson). Together, Monte and the baby make for an unusual pair, and their dynamic throughout the movie is loaded with a sense of danger that gives way to a touching, if strange, emotional intimacy.

Tension mixed with pathos—there might be no better way to describe the films of Denis, and her relationship with Pattinson, one of the biggest stars the legendary French director has ever worked with.

High Life feels like a remarkable step forward for both of them. Denis is a brilliant but unsparing artist whose greatest works (including Beau Travail, 35 Shots of Rum, and White Material) have wrestled with colonialism, fraught romances, and male cruelty. High Life is a significant departure for her in terms of its scope: It’s the first project she’s filmed on soundstages, rather than in real locations. It’s also her first sci-fi film and her first that’s entirely in English. Meanwhile, Pattinson has moved on from his time as a tabloid-dominating teen idol best known for the Twilight franchise. He has since sought out roles in art films and collaborated with exciting directors such as James Gray (The Lost City of Z), the Safdie brothers (Good Time), and David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars). Some of Pattinson’s upcoming projects include films with Robert Eggers, Ciro Guerra, and Christopher Nolan.

The actor’s obvious preference for artistry over guaranteed commercial bankability post-Twilight explains his pairing with Denis, but the two are still an endearingly odd couple. Last week, they sat at the offices of A24 (the indie studio distributing High Life) and chatted about the creative genesis of the film, how they began collaborating, and the kinds of qualities they admire in movie stars and directors. I was there to occasionally interject or steer them back on topic, but most of the conversation was between them, illustrating their peculiar creative bond (which might explain why they’re already planning to work together again). This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: How did you two meet? What’s the Robert and Claire story?

Robert Pattinson: We met in L.A. five or six years ago. I had seen a bunch of her movies, and I’d been trying to meet her for years. With High Life, I was stunned to hear that she was doing an English-language thing. I knew [her casting director] Des Hamilton and forced him to get me a meeting.

Claire Denis: It’s very funny to think that. If I do casting for a film, I’m longing for someone; I want someone to say yes. But when someone is asking “Can we meet?,” it’s frightening because suddenly I don’t know what to say. I think maybe he will be disappointed. Maybe I’m not going to be the person he wants me to be. Maybe what he sees in my film, it’s wrong.

Pattinson: I’ve noticed that with a few other directors. There was another writer-director in England whom I was trying to meet. And I was really aware of her trying to avoid it. I guess because as an actor you’re so used to people telling you no all the time, you assume [she doesn’t want to see you], but I found out she’s just really shy and nervous about meeting you. And it’s like, Why? When you come from an actor’s standpoint, you have no power most of the time. Whenever you meet someone, you’re just like, “Please,” cap in hand, begging.

Denis: I think this power of [directors] choosing someone and the actor or the actress begging—I’ve always felt this [notion] is fake. I am also begging when I’m thinking of a film. I’m not like a god. My fear is so big that I’ll betray someone or that I’ll ask someone to be in a film and then betray the desire of that person. I have no power.

The relationship between Monte (played by Robert Pattinson) and the baby, Willow, in High Life is the crux of the film. As the details of the child’s birth unravel, it becomes clear that Denis is telling a story about love being stretched to its absolute limits. (A24)

Pattinson: I never understand when people have a really hard time [working] with a director. If you know you wanna work with someone, you kind of have to accept that that is how they work.

Sims: You mean that if they have a worthwhile body of work, however they’re behaving must be how they accomplish it.

Pattinson: That’s how it is. If someone’s really crazy or whatever, it’s kind of up to you to figure out what your own boundary is. I’ve worked with some quite bullying directors. When I was younger, it was a lot harder to do. But now I could work with a total psychopath, and it would be totally fine.

Denis: I understand what you mean … It’s a chemical thing, you know?

Pattinson: Claire, the one thing I was thinking of—what was the process of designing High Life? Because I remember it was really complicated.

Denis: When I started writing the script, I wanted a garden, and the first [scene] was always in a garden. And then you could hear a baby crying, and then only by going toward the baby do you realize this garden is in a strange place … Maybe not on a spaceship, but somewhere strange.

Then I learned by working with this astrophysicist, Aurélien Barrau, that the shape of the ship in space doesn’t need to be aerodynamic, because there is no air. I was so stunned. I said,“So it could be anything?” And he said, “A box, anything. A shoebox.” And I said, “Oh, let’s have a shoebox.” The ship itself has to be very simple. Has to be like a jail. Banal. Those guys [on board] are prisoners. They’re not even allowed to fly in a sophisticated, elegant spaceship.

Pattinson: I’m trying to think where the original idea comes from. Do you start by going, “Oh, I’d like to make a movie about space,” or is it random things that arrive?

Denis: I never thought I was going to do a movie in space. I thought I was going to do [a story about] a man alone with a baby. The link for me is that emotional thing when two people meet, like when Monte [Pattinson’s character] opens the incubator and looks at the baby. It’s something he has not expected to feel in his life. That sort of love.

Pattinson: You can have incredibly dark subject matter [in your films], but they always seem quite kind. Even if the characters aren’t being kind to each other, there’s a kind tone. When you look at, say, [the Argentine and French director] Gaspar Noé’s films, there’s a playfulness to them, but you almost feel the director wanting to throw shit on the characters, but liking throwing shit on them. There’s a different way in how you present your characters, even when they’re doing something bad.

Denis: I cannot imagine filming someone I would not want to come to my place. I remember when I was young, when I was watching [the American director] Sam Peckinpah’s movies, with all those terrible bad guys. [The actor and regular Peckinpah collaborator] Warren Oates, for example—I love, I adore him. When he died, it was as if I lost someone from my family. He has this quality of being that lovable person, even when he’s doing terrible things.

Pattinson: There’s probably not a law that works across the board, but I find that actors who always get to play the hero in reality are total crazy people. And if they’re very comfortable playing bad guys, they’re generally really nice.

Denis: Also with Warren Oates and with you, when I saw you in films, I felt that there is the character and someone else who is inside. And that someone else inside, you know you’re gonna like that person.

In High Life, Pattinson’s character is one of several prisoners huddled aboard a spaceship, zooming toward a black hole to carry out an energy experiment that will result in their certain death. (A24)

Sims: What had you seen of Robert before working with him? What was your impression of him?

Denis: Watching his films, I never saw only the character. I always saw someone else, someone [to whom] I wanted to say, “Hey, hello! Who are you?” I care about whether someone is carrying a soul inside that is still visible in the film. [The American actor] Robert Mitchum, for instance. Whatever he’s doing, you like him! You want to hug him! You say, “Yes, I’m here! I’m hiding by the river, come fetch me!”

Sims: You’re less responsive to the actors who kind of transform themselves into another person.

Denis: It’s also someone you would like to shake hands with. That’s why I say Robert Mitchum and Warren Oates—they are great examples of people [like] that.

Pattinson: Who’s the guy—I read something the other day—who directed Dead Poets Society?

Sims: Peter Weir.

Pattinson: Peter Weir had a thing about casting: that you cast the person so the character they’re playing is the opposite [of] themselves. So you’re disguising the real self in the performance, and then you can have the reveal of the true self be the “climax” of a character.

Sims: Because Ethan Hawke wanted to play the extrovert [in Dead Poets Society], right? And Robert Sean Leonard wanted to play the introvert …

Pattinson: I thought that was really interesting.

Denis: If you’re mentioning Peter Weir [who is Australian], I would mention [the director] Jane Campion, because she’s also from the Southern Hemisphere. I always believe people from the Southern Hemisphere are different, are better than we [from the Northern Hemisphere] are. I remember [the film] An Angel at My Table, by Jane Campion—I remember when the main character, this writer, when she is no longer a little girl, when she’s in London and her first novel is going to be published. Suddenly, she knows she has to win this terrible fight against fate. And there is a single shot of her swimming in the sea in Spain. I thought, Aha, now this is someone who believes, as an audience, we are happy to see her swimming in a warm sea because the book is going to be published. And I thought, That director, Jane Campion … she is someone. I can meet her. And we met!

Pattinson: I remember when we were first doing High Life, I always liked that [my character] Monte feels dangerous. I was thinking the audience is going to be watching this story with a sense of dread. Here’s this unstable guy, everyone’s dead, and he’s with his daughter. I really thought that was gonna be the crux of the movie.

Denis: When she’s sleeping and you look down at her, and you say, “I could have killed you, or killed myself.”

Pattinson: And then when she grows to age 14, and she’s suddenly kind of an adult, as soon as she’s at the stage when she knows exactly what she wants, and it’s suddenly a very different thing to deal with. And you can’t handle that at all.

Denis: “I’ve got everything I need here.” When she says that, I am afraid.

Pattinson: And that makes Monte afraid as well, a little bit.

Denis: I’m sure, because if I’m afraid, then he is afraid. Because I’m him, a little bit. You have to be like Monte in a way, when you’re making a film. Otherwise it’s boring to do a movie.

Pattinson: I never really understand people who make movies because they just wanna make a movie. The only directors I understand, it’s basically fantasy fulfillment for them. They create a world so they can live something that they want to feel, rather than having to have this boundary. [The director] Robert Eggers, who did The Witch and [the upcoming film] The Lighthouse, he comes from production design. His absolute joy in finding authentic lighthouse things. It’s like having a dollhouse for him.

Denis: [Alfred] Hitchcock was probably a little like that.

Pattinson: And it’s strange, too, that [The Lighthouse] is in black-and-white, and he’s getting the exact tone of these costumes. It’s like Quentin Tarantino filming feet all the time. You kind of use the excuse of making a film to have a certain control.

Denis: But Quentin Tarantino—I like him because sometimes I share some moments of feeling completely joyful. Maybe not everywhere in his films, but …

Pattinson: I think that’s lost a little bit in cinema now. Like you don’t see as many characters where a director is really elevating them and saying, “These people are cool! They’re, like, really cool!” It’s just not a thing anymore.

Denis: Yes, like how Tarantino feels about the stunt girl in—what is the name of this film?

Sims: Death Proof?

Denis: Yes, yeah. And they are driving, those five girls, and this killer is behind them. Oh! It could last forever for me. I was almost shouting in the theater.