How The Lighthouse Changed Robert Pattinson Forever

After starring as teenage vampire heartthrob Edward in the "Twilight" franchise, actor Robert Pattinson did everything he could to distinguish himself as a "serious" performer, taking on every challenging role that came his way. Whether he's running for his life in the Safdies' "Good Time," being sad in space in Claire Denis' "High Life," or practicing his best sassy French accent in "The King," Pattinson has earned a name for himself as a performer willing to go the distance. Few roles challenged Pattinson quite like his role as lighthouse keeper Ephraim Winslow in Robert Eggers' "The Lighthouse," however, and that experience ensured the British actor would never quite be the same. Filming the claustrophobic historical horror pushed Pattinson to his limit physically and mentally, leading the actor to nearly punch Eggers on one particularly tough day. Pattinson and his co-star Willem Dafoe suffered for their art, but the result is as beautiful as it is brutal. 

That's a darn good thing, because Pattinson had a really bad time.

He Was Intimidated by the Role (and His Co-Star)

Pattinson's approach to choosing roles is as careful as it is careless. In an interview with GQ, he joked about agreeing to being in "The Lighthouse," saying:

"I'm constantly doing risk assessments, which drives everybody crazy, trying to predict every single element that could possibly happen. And then, at the end of it, just being like: Ah, f*** it! I'll just play a lighthouse keeper who f*** a mermaid! I think this is the right move!"

With the exception of a mermaid that may or may not be a figment of Winslow's imagination, the only character he interacts with in the whole movie is Dafoe's elder lighthouse keeper, or "wickie," Thomas Wake. Wake and Winslow annoy one another from the very beginning, and by the time they're trapped together with dwindling rations due to a storm, that annoyance has turned into bitter hatred. The characters had multiple sources of inspiration, including the real-life tragedy of Smalls Lighthouse in 1801 and the story of Prometheus stealing fire from Proteus in Ancient Greek Myth, but Dafoe and Pattinson's performances would have to be perfect to make it work. Working with Dafoe was intimidating for Pattinson, and they didn't get much of a chance to discuss his fears before shooting.

Rehearsals went badly for Pattinson, who grew frustrated by trying to take on the character before shooting began. Eggers and Pattinson were furious with one another, and by the end of the week the star was convinced he would be fired before filming even began. At the end of each day, he would slam the door on his way out and felt "quite angry" with Eggers. The fury died down once they were on set and Pattinson was able to embody Winslow, but even then the performer was terrified.

In a discussion with Interview Magazine, Pattinson shared his fears:

"My idea for "The Lighthouse" was that if I don't really understand this script on a cerebral level, then I'll try to understand it on a physical level. But I must say that I've never seen someone with such a supernatural level of energy as you. I remember watching [Dafoe] and being, like, 'How are you doing this?'"

Pattinson later said that he likes to take on roles specifically because he doesn't think he can do them in order to keep challenged. While he may have thought the script was tough, he had no idea just how difficult filming would actually become. 

Brutal Filming Conditions

Filming "The Lighthouse" was a waking nightmare for Pattinson and Dafoe. They filmed on location in Halifax, Nova Scotia, inside of a lighthouse built just for the film. The weather was miserably wet and cold, and both performers were put through the wringer to bring their characters to life. One particular scene pushed Pattinson to his breaking point, and he nearly punched Eggers. He told Interviewer:

"That's the closest I've come to punching a director. However much I love Robert [Eggers], there was a point where I did five takes walking across the beach, and after a while I was like, 'What the f*** is going on? I feel like you're just spraying a fire hose in my face.' And he was like, 'I am spraying a fire hose in your face.' It was like some kind of torture. It definitely creates an interesting energy."

Dafoe has gone on record calling Pattinson "a warrior" for his approach to the challenge, remembering the harsh sting of the water on their faces. Dafoe went through plenty of his own challenges while filming, including delivering lines with big mouthfuls of dirt, but he wasn't tortured quite to the level of Pattinson, whose character is slowly going insane. There wasn't much camaraderie on set, either, which added to the miserable sense of isolation. Dafoe shared his feelings about filming the feature in an interview with Esquire, saying:

"We both were working hard, in really tough conditions. It's not like we hung out in between takes, joking with each other. It was demanding enough, and the weather was s***ty enough that you did your thing, and then you went home. I'm not complaining. It was fun. But when you go home after 12 hours and you're soaking wet and you're cold all day, last thing I wanna do after being with those guys all day was to hang out with them and have some drinks."

Becoming a "Mad Person"

There was more to Pattinson's misery than just physical discomfort. The young actor put himself through intense training to portray Winslow, and arrived in Halifax much earlier than his co-star in order to prepare. He would wander the streets, muttering his lines to himself over and over in order to get the right accent, and that was just the beginning of his efforts. He didn't completely commit to Method acting, which is the tactic of staying in character even after "cut" has been called, but he dedicated himself to the performance a bit more intensely than the average actor. In order to portray a man slowly unraveling due to a combination of going stir-crazy and drinking kerosene, Pattinson would become a little unhinged himself. In scenes where he's supposed to be drunk on kerosene, he said that he was "basically unconscious the whole time." He would make himself vomit, stumble, and even urinate in his trousers. 

In order to make himself move with discomfort, Pattinson put a rock inside one of his shoes. Before his takes, he would spin himself around in circles to simulate being dizzy from drunkenness. During one take where Pattinson was leaning on Dafoe and they're sort of slow-dancing together, he started making himself gag and Eggers had to yell cut. Pattinson recalled the experience to Esquire, saying:

"There's a scene where Willem's kind of sleeping on me and we're really, really drunk and I felt like we're completely lost in the scene and I'm sitting there trying to make myself gag and Robert [Eggers] told me off because Willem's looking at him going: 'If he throws up on me, I'm leaving the set.' I had absolutely no idea this whole drama was unfolding."

For Pattinson, throwing himself entirely into the character was a way to escape his early fame. Instead of hiding from the paparazzi or adoring fans, he's able to be as wild and intense as he wants on set, and that gives him the opportunity to not only escape from the world, but himself. "It's like being an adrenaline junkie," he told Esquire. "When you don't know how to do something, why not just run headfirst into a wall? See what happens. I haven't got any other ideas." 

After his difficult time filming "The Lighthouse," maybe next time he'll make sure the wall he's running into isn't made of crashing water.