The Twilight saga made a teen idol of Robert Pattinson, who’s been at pains to prove his indie cred ever since. His latest film Life – the story of a photographer’s friendship with James Dean – is his latest attempt to move on from the vampire franchise. Barry Nicolson meets a man who’s finally found his voice

“I’m the most uncomfortable person in the world,” says Robert Pattinson. He’s talking about what made him right for the part of Dennis Stock, the celebrated American photojournalist he plays in his new movie, Life. In turn, it’s what made him wrong for the part of James Dean, Stock’s friend and most famous subject. Pattinson and Dean might have a sudden, discombobulating rise from obscurity to international teen-idolhood in common, but it says much about where the 29-year-old’s head is at that he saw more of himself in an intense, insecure young photographer struggling for validation and recognition.

In Life, Dean is played by Chronicle star Dane DeHaan as a man with unflappable confidence in himself, his art and his image. Whether he’s smoking a cigarette or slumped drunk on a table, every movement is made with effortless, insouciant control. Stock, by contrast, “was someone who is uncomfortable in every aspect of his life. He always thinks he’s supposed to be doing something else, or he’s doing something wrong. He was a James Dean superfan, but he also wanted to take Dean’s power and own it somehow, and that’s not how you feel when you’re comfortable with yourself and what you do.”

We meet in a five-star hotel on the outskirts of Belfast, where he’s currently shooting The Lost City Of Z, a 1920s-set adventure movie about the search for a mythic Amazonian city. He’s grown an era-appropriate beard for the role and you imagine the dramatic change in appearance comes in handy for civilian life, too. In person, he’s twitchy and self-deprecating, always ready to laugh at himself but never completely at ease, shifting restlessly around in his chair and wiping the foam from his whiskers between slurps of coffee. We talk about the impact Dean had, not only on his craft but on the youth culture of the 1950s and beyond, and I venture that many young actors must secretly dream of achieving something similar. Pattinson seems horrified by the idea.

“It’s taken me a really long time to find out what my voice is,” he admits, “or even if I had the right to say anything at all Even at school, when my drama teacher told me, ‘I don’t think you should do the creative subjects’, that had a massive impact on me, and I had to go to an out-of-school drama club because I didn’t feel like I was worthy of the school play. A lot of people, when they’re really young, tend to be like, ‘I’ve got something to say and I want everyone to hear it!’ But I’ve never wanted anyone to hear what I’m saying, because it’s probably stupid.”

Yet Life is a movie about how icons are made, and Pattinson has some experience in that field. As the star of the £2bn-grossing Twilight franchise, he was rocketed overnight into the thin-aired exospheres of teen stardom. Swarms of paparazzi, the omnipresent screams of teenage girls, an extreme and possessive fandom, and lots of “hungover” appearances at teen-orientated awards ceremonies. Pattinson wasn’t comfortable in the role. When he joked in an early interview that he styled his hair with the saliva of 12-year-old virgins, the studio bosses were aghast: “I thought you could be funny and tell jokes and be yourself, but they were like, ‘No, you can’t do interviews like that.’ I fought really hard to hold on to my identity when all of that started happening.”

Then there was the press intrusion. Pattinson might play a photographer in Life, but seeing his own face plastered everywhere has made him weary of having his picture taken. “You begin to feel like your face is fake, like it doesn’t really represent you any more,” he says. Worse still was the paparazzi, “Which was something I had a massive problem with for ages. I find the most embarrassing photo that can ever be taken of you is when you’re in a bookshop and everyone can see what book you’re buying. They might as well just take a picture of me having a wank…”

He did try to seek out advice from other actors, but sympathy was in short supply – for most people, what Pattinson was going through looked like a kind of wish fulfilment. “If you complain, they’ll say, ‘He doesn’t deserve to work!’ Talk to certain actors about it and they’ll say, ‘Why don’t you just stop acting if you hate it so much?’”

When the franchise ended in 2012, he seemed relieved, even overjoyed, to be done with it. Now, however, he looks back on the whole experience as “something that ended up being quite helpful. Most people, throughout their 20s, really struggle with knowing what they want to do. I was living a massively accelerated life, compacting a billion different experiences, having to comprehend so many different things… there was definitely a bad side, but it was fun. It was an adrenaline rush.”

Pattinson was 22 when the first Twilight movie was released; he’s 29 now, still “too youngish” for conventional leading-man roles, but “too oldish” for (and resolutely done with) the teen scene. Instead, he’s quietly set about building an interesting and diverse body of work, usually playing violently against type, as he was in last year’s The Rover, where director David Michôd cast him as the grubby, slow-witted sidekick to Guy Pearce’s grizzled lead. “I found out that once you do one movie, you get sent similar stuff afterwards,” he laughs. “I did The Rover, so now I get a lot of dystopian desert movies with two characters and lots of shooting and it’s like, ‘I kinda did this one already, guys!’ I’ve actually been thinking about doing a short movie about a narcoleptic bestialist, just to see what kind of weird stuff people would offer me.”

He’s kidding, but the adventurous nature of Pattinson’s post-Twilight choices means you shouldn’t rule it out entirely. “What I’m looking for is unpredictable elements,” he says; that was presumably the attraction of working with madcap Teutonic auteur Werner Herzog on Queen Of The Desert. He really enjoys making these sort of films, and he’s become more relaxed about the whole process than in the early days, “When I fought with everyone, on almost every job, because I wanted to have more control. But that’s not your role as an actor. As soon as you accept that you’re an employee who’s there to make the director happy, it becomes a lot more enjoyable.”

Arguably the director who’s brought the best out of him is David Cronenberg, and the two films they’ve made together – 2012’s Cosmopolis and last year’s Maps To The Stars – have done much to establish Pattinson’s post-Twilight place in the world. The former, in which he played a venal 28-year-old master of the universe slowly cracking up during a limousine ride across New York, was one of the reasons director Anton Corbijn cast him in Life, but Corbijn tells me he had also been impressed by “how adamant Rob was about choosing roles that are not about the pay-cheque, but about taking risks. Rob has an inner turmoil that translated very well to the one that Dennis Stock had.”

Ah yes, the inner turmoil. Someone as anxious as Robert Pattinson can’t not have worried about whether these guys hired him for commercial rather than artistic reasons, but he didn’t get too hung up about it. “With guys like Cronenberg or Herzog, even if they told me, ‘We only cast you for the money,’ it’s like, ‘Well, I’m only doing this because you’re you,’” he explains. “And even if the movie ends up being rubbish, you know you’re going to learn something from them. If you work with all your favourite directors and completely destroy your career in the process, that’s not a bad way to do it!”

He might even be glad to do it. None of the films he’s made post-Twilight have been commercially successful, but each one has been another step towards discovering his ‘voice’ as an actor. Then there’s the fact that his life since the peak years of global ‘Robsession’ has become far more manageable and much less intense, particularly since he moved back to London from LA, where “I had people sitting outside my house every single day, and it drove me crazy. I didn’t go into a supermarket for about six years. But now I can go in and chat to the guy who’s working there about his kids, or where he’s going on holiday, and not be thinking, ‘Is he gonna sell me out?’ I just don’t have to think about that stuff any more.”

He doesn’t say as much, but you also couldn’t blame him for being weary of giving the tabloid press a fresh angle on his relationship with his fiancée, FKA Twigs. She was introduced to Pattinson last year through mutual friend Florence Welch, and he describes her, after a pause, as “just an amazing, amazing artist”. Their relationship, like the one he had with Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, is rarely out of the news, and on the day of our interview the internet is abuzz with rumours about them: when they’re getting married, when they’re having a baby, whether they’re ‘on the rocks’. None of them are interesting enough, or substantial enough, or even just anybody’s-business enough to bother asking about, but the racial abuse she received last year from the loonier fringes of his fandom is a different matter. Twigs herself said she was “shocked and disgusted” by the messages she received, and while Pattinson hates discussing his personal life, he can’t hide his anger.

“I was talking to my dad about this and I bet him that if he looked up Nelson Mandela’s funeral on YouTube, the first comment would be a racist one. And it was, with like a million upvotes. What I don’t get is why. I think it’s because most normal people are not commenters – I’ve never met anyone who’s left a comment on anything. It’s just demons who live in basements. You have this weird thing where you end up trying to fight against this faceless blob, where the more you hate it, the bigger it gets, because it’s all in your head.”

Even so, he can’t resist feeding the blob by Googling himself, not out of vanity, but out of a “weird compulsion” to “reinforce my negative opinion of myself. I go through periods where I don’t do it at all and feel glorious! Then I’ll fall back into this pit. It really does affect you, and it all comes from some moron sitting on a comment board. It’s always that person who’s needling away at you, who you either want to destroy, or convince them to love you.”

James Dean never had to worry about trolls; he died so young that he never had to live with the full magnitude of his own fame. Pattinson did, and it’s not for him. The sort of career he wants to have, he says, “Is like Viggo Mortensen’s, or Joaquin Phoenix’s – they’re actors who approach things in a very honest and pure way. They’re not just banging out movies.” Playing the sparkle-skinned vampire Edward Cullen for five movies gave him a hunger for roles “where I can look totally different, roughening myself up”, trying to escape from that ubiquitous “fake face” of his. So far, it’s working. For Robert Pattinson, maybe being perpetually uncomfortable is more of a strength than a weakness.

“In some ways, it looks like I’ve had a really lucky career, even though in my own head, whatever I’ve won, I’ve won in a very skewed way,” he says. “But that’s just my own ridiculousness. It’s still just winning.”