I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
In 2011, Robert Pattinson starred as a circus worker in the film Water for Elephants. The film was poised to be a massive hit: it was based on a best-selling book, and it boasted as its leads Oscar-winner Reese Witherspoon, a post-Inglourious Basterds Christoph Waltz, and Pattinson smack dab in the middle of the two-part release of the final chapter in the Twilight saga. (In fact, it was the only mid-Twilight project Pattinson would release, with the exception of the baffling romance film with a 9/11 twist ending).
Water for Elephants was, as it turns out, underwhelming and has now been largely forgotten. But the most important legacy of the film doesn’t have to do with the film itself; it’s a single interview that Robert Pattinson did while doing press promoting it.
You see, the Today show decided to interview Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson about his new movie. And Robert Pattinson made the inexplicable decision to handle it like a sociopath.
Matt Lauer opened the interview about the circus-themed movie by asking if Pattinson ever dreamed of running away to the circus. No, Pattinson responded. He did not. “The first time I went to see the circus, somebody died,” Pattinson said. “One of the clowns died.”
Although the rules of morning news shows dictate asking a softball question, ignoring whatever generic response comes out of the attractive person’s mouth, and moving onto the next softball question, Lauer followed up. “How did he die?” Lauer asked, displaying genuine surprise at an answer that wasn’t regurgitated PR pabulum.
Pattinson answered immediately. “His little car exploded. The joke car exploded on him.”
At this point, a clearly flabbergasted Lauer, not expecting to discuss bloody clown death at 7 in the morning, goes, “Are you being serious right now?” And without pausing, Pattinson doubled down, filling in the details of his childhood trauma: “Seriously. Yeah. My parents had to — everybody ran out. It was terrifying. It was the only time I’ve ever been to the circus.” The Today show ran its online rollout of the story with the headline, “For Robert Pattinson, circuses are scarier than vampires.”
That story alone is weird and compelling enough to merit me thinking about it, oh, once a month for the past eight years. But it gets even more crazy. Because a week later, while doing press for Water for Elephants in Germany, a reporter followed up to ask Pattinson about the traumatic clown-car-explosion-death experience, and Pattinson admitted that he made the story up.
“I said those things. But I actually made the whole thing up,” he said. “It’s coming back to haunt me. I said it on some show. It was really early in the morning the day after the New York premiere. Someone asked me what my experience with the circus was and I was like, I have nothing interesting to say. I don’t know why I said that!”
So. Let’s walk through this together. Robert Pattinson was in a movie about a circus. A national morning news show asked him about the circus, and without blinking, Pattinson invented a story where, as a child he watched a clown explode in his toy car and the entire circus had to evacuate. It truly would be red-flag sociopathic behavior if it wasn’t so hilarious. Lying about seeing a clown dying is very weird, but it’s also kind of a victimless crime — no clowns were harmed in the making of that invented morning show anecdote. All Pattinson really did was trivialize being interviewed by Matt Lauer (which is even more satisfying now in 2019 than it was in 2011, when Lauer was just your run-of-the-mill tool).
As someone who has spent most of my adult working life as an entertainment reporter, I admit that all press appearances are inherently ridiculous. We’re asking actors, who have already completed their primary job of performing in a movie or TV show, to do a new, secondary job of delivering fun, quotable anecdotes that need to be A) memorable, B) likable, C) inoffensive and able to be taken out of context, and D) within the strict parameters for what the PR team has mandated. More often than I like to admit, I fantasize about being famous enough to do the late-night TV circuit, where producers would mine my life for 90-second anecdotes that lend themselves to a good headline for a YouTube clip. Never, even in my most depraved fantasies, have I thought, “Hey, if I run out of interesting things to say, I could just make a story up.”
I have to reapply deodorant before making a dentist appointment on the phone. Robert Pattinson lied confidently on live television. How did Robert Pattinson get to that point? I have come up with two possible explanations:
1) Being so handsome and wildly successful gave Robert Pattinson a warped view of the consequences of his own actions, so that he genuinely did not understand that there might be any negative consequences for a lie about watching a clown explode.
2) Being so handsome and wildly successful meant that Robert Pattinson did not care whether or not there were any negative consequences for a lie about watching a clown explode.
Throughout the half-decade during which he was installed in his role as Edward Cullen, Pattinson’s media performances became more and more freewheeling. He openly mocked Twilight (“Why are they still in high school? It doesn’t … They’re a hundred years old.”) and barely contained his contempt at still having to be a part of it. His answers to basic questions were those of a man with nothing to lose but also no possible way to lose it. No matter how outlandish his jokes became (“I don’t smoke crack in public anymore”), Robert Pattinson could not fall from his status as an object of obsessive adoration. The more ridiculous his stories became, the more people loved him, for being real and being random and for trolling the trivial bullshit of the entertainment news factory.
He was like a cursed prince in a fairy-tale who wished on a monkey paw. Here is your charm and your fame, BUT — mwahahaha — nothing you say will ever matter. He is Phil Connors in Groundhog Day trying to kill himself over and over again. Robert Pattinson telling Matt Lauer a fake anecdote was a pointless shout into the void, like eating a tableful of pastries when you know your life will restart the next day. Life is meaningless. Celebrity is false. One day, even Twilight and its hordes of fans will be dust. Like a made-up clown in a made-up clown car, we’re all going to die.