Robert Pattinson and Director David Cronenberg on Cars, Cosmopolis and Fans Who Care

"I guess if people think they’re worried about you, it’s sweet. It’s kind of odd"

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"Cosmopolis" actor Robert Pattinson and director David Cronenberg pose at France's Cannes Film Festival on May 25, 2012

Eric Packer, the icily charismatic asset manager played by Robert Pattinson in Cosmopolis, does a great many interesting things in a single, fateful day. In his white stretch limousine, he attempts to traverse Manhattan in gridlock traffic amid violent Occupy-like protests, and all in search of a haircut. He forfeits hundreds of millions of dollars in a suicidal currency-speculation bid. He enjoys afternoon sex with a comely security specialist wearing a body-armor vest with a stun gun on hand. He also has sex with Juliette Binoche. He also endures a weirdly erotic prostate exam while staring into the eyes of a sweaty associate. He gets a pie in the face from a “pastry assassin” who travels with a crew of paparazzi. He is stalked by an actual would-be assassin as well.

So much to talk about! But overshadowing Pattinson’s press tour for Cosmopolis — directed by the great David Cronenberg and adapted from Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel — is the recent tabloid frenzy surrounding his breakup with Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart. (The final film in the Twilight franchise is out in November.) TIME sat down with Cronenberg and Pattinson — fresh-faced, sweet, totally affable, smoking an electronic cigarette — in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood the day after the New York City premiere of Cosmopolis. We mostly stayed on topic, if occasionally tiptoeing awkwardly around the heartbroken vampire-elephant in the room.

TIME: Cosmopolis was published in the first year of the war in Iraq, and in a wave of novels that were all described as being “post–Sept. 11” in one way or other, but now the story maps on remarkably well to Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements around the world in 2011. David, at what point did you encounter the book, and when did you know it was a movie?

David Cronenberg: It was about three years ago, and the attraction wasn’t that the novel was prescient or because of its historical place. It was the characters, the dialogue, the intensity, the humor — it’s constantly funny. I wasn’t looking to make any kind of statement. Inevitably, though, if you’re making something with integrity, it will say something about the time it’s being made in. When the novel came out, people were saying, “All this demonstrating-on-Wall-Street stuff isn’t very convincing.” Now it’s obvious.

Robert, DeLillo’s dialogue is hyperstylized, very formal and often steeped in theory. How did you approach it?

Robert Pattinson: The first thing I connected to was the humor. Everything else seemed kind of arbitrary. I liked that it was absurd and unrelatable in a lot of ways. I thought that Eric doesn’t understand himself, so that was my angle — play the part as if you don’t understand the part. [Cronenberg laughs merrily.] Try to remain lost. I noticed that every single time I came into a scene with an idea or an angle about how to do it, it would feel wrong, and David would know it was wrong. When I was kind of somewhere else, not thinking at all — that was when it felt right.

(MORE: Edward Cullen Sr.? Robert Pattinson Related to Actual Vampire)

What’s relatable about Eric might be that his world is so mediated by technology — he experiences the world at a remove, through screens, and so he’s struggling to feel something, whether it’s through sex or shooting a gun or gambling away his fortune. Do you think people can relate to that kind of alienation and wanting something real?

DC: One of the investors in the movie is a genuine French billionaire named Édouard Carmignac. He’s known as the French Warren Buffett. He wanted to be involved with this movie because he said it was absolutely accurate. He knows many people who are like this character, who have created this strange bubble that they live in. Within that bubble, they’re very alive and in control, and yet they’re completely disconnected from normal humanity, normal relationships. So Eric Packer says things to his wife like, “This is how people talk, right?” He’s trying it out, because he really doesn’t know. He’s dealing with billions of dollars, but he’s never actually touching real money, and he doesn’t know how to actually pay for things. Of course, Carmignac doesn’t think of himself as that person, but he recognizes it completely. So I take him at his word that it’s not such a stretch. People create a limo for themselves, a little spaceship, a little bell jar in which they insulate themselves from things that hurt.

RP: I think Eric is confused between genuine power and ego. He’s mixing the two up. I think a lot of people in that job find that empathy is a weakness, so he realizes that it’s a strength. I’ve read things that describe Eric as a monster, but I always thought the story was a hopeful progression. His biggest problem is that he’s totally self-obsessed. But he’s taking baby steps toward coming to terms with it. He’s had an extended adolescence in a lot of ways, and he’s really smart — he’s a savant. Some people are so entrenched in what they think they are, and he realizes that the only shock that can snap him out of himself is that someone is going to kill him.

Do you also see Cosmopolis as a story about fame? Eric is in a bubble, people he doesn’t know know him, they spin narratives in their head about him, and —

DC: No, I don’t think so. It’s like the London whale — nobody knows what that guy looks like, nobody knows where he lives. That’s his strength as a trader: nobody can predict him, nobody understands him. I think Eric is like that. On the outside, his limo looks like everyone else’s. He just got this one guy who wants to “pie” him, who’s got the paparazzi with him. But Eric can have dinner and no one’s around, he can go to the diner with his wife and nobody bothers him. He’s got the one security guy, but that’s it. He doesn’t have fans.

RP: The world would be a much better place, I think, if all these bankers and billionaires were followed by paparazzi and studied as carefully. As soon as people look at something very closely, the whole thing just crumbles.

(MORE: TIME’s Cosmopolis Movie Review)

I might be thinking about Cosmopolis as a parable of fame in part because Robert is cast in the role, and Robert has a very intense and specific kind of global celebrity.

DC: The element of that that’s important is, you want to finance the movie. To attract investors, you can’t do that without an actor who is known. Beyond that, we want to disconnect. When we are making the movie, we are in our limo, our little bubble. There’s nobody else around. It’s just us. At that point, Rob’s other movies are nonexistent and my movies are nonexistent. I’m not thinking about the connections between them.

Speaking of your other movies — Cosmopolis has some affinities with David’s film Crash, in that it takes place inside a car, and the car is a very eroticized space. There’s an amazing sex scene with Eric and the security specialist, Kendra. Is a scene like that highly choreographed down to every movement, or is there room for improvisation?

RP: That was probably one of the most difficult scenes in the movie. It wasn’t a sex scene in the script. In the script, we’d finished having sex, and we were getting dressed. [To Cronenberg:] I think you only told me like the day before or something. [Laughter.]

DC: Well, I don’t think it pays to panic my actors. There’s nothing you can do to prepare anyway. It’s not like if I’d told you the week before —

RP: I’d have done some sit-ups.

DC: Yeah, well, that wouldn’t have helped. I said that the scene becomes more interesting and trickier and better if you’re actually having sex. When Kendra says that it’s erotic to be so close to a man somebody wants to kill, it’s obviously better than if they’re on opposite sides of a room getting dressed.

RP: I like the moment of climax — it seems so obvious to have the peak and then his line is, “Do you find this interesting?” I kept laughing.

Tell me about the limo. It’s amazing — like J.G. Ballard designed the Death Star. Robert, was it claustrophobic to spend so much time acting in that space?

RP: The seat was kind of tilted back, so you could never look entirely comfortable and powerful, so from any angle, you were kind of like [slumps and leans back slightly, looking befuddled]. I was constantly trying to present power, but I was always sort of halfway in between positions. I liked that after a while, but I remember the first time I sat down, I thought, [whispers] “S—, I can’t sit in this, it’s like a throne, it doesn’t work.”

DC: It was designed like a throne. I wanted there to be a visual equivalent to his sense of power and the idea that he’s created a bubble in which he is the absolute master, and he forces people to come into that space for sex, for conversation, for business. The car was a set, and it all came apart into about 25 pieces, so you could get angles and lights in there and take it apart. I was shooting with very wide-angle lenses.

RP: Most of the time the camera is on a crane, so it’s remote-controlled. Normally, if there’s a camera there, you’re trying to connect with the eye looking through the lens. But to have that removed, it becomes a strange thing where you have a relationship with a machine, and there’s a dehumanizing — even the sound inside the limo was so dead, it was like being in a recording studio. Everything was like, “I’m numb.” The sound guy was always crawling on the floor and squished into a corner, and that was the only person who was there most of the time. I’m just looking at this little French guy squirming away from me, and that’s my only other major relationship on the set.

DC: I was helping him with the disconnect thing. I like to help my actors.

(MORE: TIME’s 2009 Q&A with Robert Pattinson)

How did you help Robert with the prostate-exam scene? There doesn’t seem to be as much choreography involved with that one.

DC: There was! It was kind of complex. Finding the right angle wasn’t easy.

Robert, do you have any tips for actors who have to play a prostate-exam scene?

RP: I was about three inches from Emily [Hampshire]’s face, which made it easier because if there was any distance she could have judged what I was doing, but the fact that it was so close meant that I had the upper hand —

DC: As it were!

RP: — In a very humiliating situation. That was probably the most powerful I felt during the making of the whole movie. I only found out later that a prostate exam only takes, like, a few seconds.

DC: They literally take 12 seconds. If it goes on longer, then your doctor is trying to seduce you.

What are the next movies you have going into production?

DC: I’d love to work with Rob again, and particularly I think Rob and Viggo Mortensen [star of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method] would be fantastic together. But I’d have to sit down and write my Rob-and-Viggo movie. I don’t have my next movie. At one point Eastern Promises 2 was possible, but that’s fallen apart for various reasons. Bruce Wagner wrote a script called Maps to the Stars; there’s a role for Rob in it, and Viggo too. We’ll see if we can get it financed. It makes Cosmopolis look easy to finance, and it wasn’t.

RP: I’m going to make this movie [Mission: Blacklist] about Eric Maddox, an Army interrogator who was one of the major people responsible for finding Saddam Hussein. He was working with JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command], which isn’t supposed to exist, and they found Saddam Hussein by themselves but they couldn’t say it was them. The story is crazy, absolutely bizarre. It’s a really cool director called Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire. We’re going to shoot in Iraq next summer. In January, I’m doing this other movie [The Rover] with David Michôd, who did the Australian movie Animal Kingdom — a futuristic western with Guy Pearce.

Before we wrap up — forgive me for this, Robert, but I have to ask: What is it like to have millions of people worrying about you and hoping you’re O.K.?

RP: I guess if people think they’re worried about you, it’s sweet. It’s kind of odd.

DC: They’re reacting to what they think they know, but they don’t know. And they have a huge investment in so many lives that they aren’t connected with at all. Talk about a disconnect.

RP: But at the same time, the world is a pretty cruel place, so whatever inspires people to suddenly feel this kindness, hopefully they’ll look at themselves and they’ll look at their own lives and realize, [awestruck, Eureka-moment voice] “I have the ability to — to empathize with people!”

“My ability to empathize with a total stranger has helped me empathize with people I actually know!”

RP: “Hey, I’ve learned something!”