DESPITE the best efforts of Summit Entertainment’s publicity team, which has a third “Twilight” movie to promote, it took more than a month to corral the heartthrob star of the franchise for an interview. Robert Pattinson, various handlers explained, was at the mercy of a chaotic shooting schedule for “Water for Elephants,” his biggest non-“Twilight” picture to date.
Fair enough. A guy’s got to work. But Mr. Pattinson was also not particularly eager to chat for the quadrillionth time about Edward Cullen, the tenderhearted vampire he will reprise on June 30 in “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.” When he was finally able to break away from the circus (the setting of “Water for Elephants,” not the throng of paparazzi and hyperventilating girls who trail him around), Mr. Pattinson seemed to have a bit of “Twilight” burnout.
“It can get a little boring,” he said softly over coffee at the Four Seasons hotel here, referring both to playing an unchanging vampire and to chewing over the Cultural Importance of It All. “The good news is that the whole thing is done in seven months.”
Not that he’s counting the days or anything.
Fortunately for fans (and Summit) and unfortunately, it seems, for Mr. Pattinson, the tally is short by about a year. Filming may wrap up on the “Twilight” series in seven months, but Summit has decided to split the fourth (and final) “Twilight” novel by Stephenie Meyer, “Breaking Dawn,” into two parts. So Mr. Pattinson will probably be out hawking the final installment in the summer of 2012.
Please don’t misunderstand him. Mr. Pattinson, 24, is fully aware that he probably would not have much of a career without the “Twi-hards,” as the mostly female following of the movies are known. His only role of note prior to Edward Cullen was a bit part in “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” as Cedric Diggory, the doomed love interest of Hermione. To achieve this level of success so soon after coming to Hollywood — “Twilight” and “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” took in a cumulative $1.1 billion at the global box office — is the rarely achieved dream of young actors everywhere.
But the searing, worldwide fame that has come with the franchise has left him emotionally raw. Hunted by the tabloid media (“R-Patz Cuts His Hair!”), Mr. Pattinson changed hotels six times in the month and a half he has spent in Los Angeles filming “Water for Elephants.” He arrived for coffee wearing both a baseball cap and sunglasses to cover his floppy locks and haunting good looks, and he immediately vetoed a booth hand picked by a publicist for its privacy as too public. “Kris is better about dealing with photographers than I am,” he said, referring to his equally sought after co-star, Kristen Stewart, after finally settling on an outdoor nook surrounded by tall hedges.
“I’ve learned to let it go a bit, but I’m still really bothered by it,” he said. “The more you are exposed, the more people irrationally hate you, I think we reached a point, a peak, with ‘New Moon’ where the stories became so saturated into the culture that it started to feel normal. It’s like the tabloids don’t know what to write anymore because they’ve used up all their scandals.”
He also worries about getting pigeonholed as nothing more than a teen idol. Sure, he excels as a pale brooder in the gooey “Twilight” movies, as evidenced by how fully Ms. Meyer’s legions — the books have sold about 100 million copies worldwide since 2005 — have embraced him. But Mr. Pattinson talks about a desire to play “characters that are not parodies,” and he would love to do a comedy with Todd Solondz (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”). He would like to have a career like Joaquin Phoenix, somebody who makes unorthodox roles pop. (That’s when Mr. Phoenix is working in front of the camera at all and not pursuing other interests, like music or showing up all bearded and bizarre on the “Late Show With David Letterman.”)
To this end the London-born Mr. Pattinson has been busy accepting roles that seem linked only by a quirky diversity. In “Water for Elephants,” an adaptation of Sara Gruen’s novel, he plays a veterinarian who joins a Depression-era circus after his parents are killed. The indie “Bel Ami,” from the Maupassant novel, co-starring Uma Thurman and Christina Ricci, has him playing an unscrupulous social climber who rises to power in Paris by manipulating wealthy women. A possible role in a western called “Unbound Captives” calls for him to speak almost entirely in Comanche.
“I do think the teen idol thing is something that Robert Pattinson needs to worry about,” said Jeanine Basinger, the chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University and the author of “The Star Machine.” “The question is whether an actor is so perfect at one thing at a particular point in time that the audience refuses to accept him as anything else.”
She rattled off a list. Christopher Atkins, who shot to fame (with Brooke Shields) in “The Blue Lagoon” but was soon forgotten when he tried other roles. Corey Feldman, along with most of his “Lost Boys” castmates. The verdict is out on Zac Efron, who next appears in the drama “Charlie St. Cloud.” Worrying that “Footloose” was too similar to “High School Musical,” Mr. Efron bailed on the remake and has been absent from the big screen for over a year.
“Usually the guys who have the looks to be teen idols don’t grow up to look like what we think of as rugged leading men,” Ms. Basinger said.
There is hope. Leonardo DiCaprio, whose post-“Titantic” adoration is probably the closest thing to what Mr. Pattinson has experienced, struggled to move beyond Jack Dawson (remember “The Beach”?) but successfully evolved by picking gritty roles and teaming with Martin Scorsese in movies like “The Aviator,” “The Departed” and “Shutter Island.”
“Water for Elephants,” which also stars Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz, is awaiting a release date from 20th Century Fox. It’s the kind of serious literary role that could bring critical attention and stretch minds about Mr. Pattinson’s range. “There is a profound vulnerability about Rob and his mannerisms, and that makes him supremely accessible,” said Elizabeth Gabler, president of Fox 2000, the studio unit making the film. “He also has an innate kindness about him that is wonderful in this role.”
Mr. Pattinson has clearly enjoyed working on something else. He lit up when talking about the shoot, mentioning a scene in which a lion had to bite his arm and another where he had to spend hours shoveling horse manure — an unsettling detail given the grimy condition of his fingernails. “It feels like everyone is an Oscar winner except me,” he said of the cast and crew.
Much is riding on “Water for Elephants” because his leading roles outside of “Twilight” have disappointed or failed at the box office. The inexpensive romantic drama “Remember Me,” released in March, grossed only $19 million in North America. About $35 million in overseas ticket sales eased the pain a little, but the upshot was that Mr. Pattinson appeared unable to anchor a movie despite the “Twilight” nuttiness. “Little Ashes,” a foreign film in which Mr. Pattinson played a randy Salvador Dalí (and filmed before “Twilight”), barely registered a blip in limited release last year.
The only career advice Hollywood veterans have for Mr. Pattinson is to keep doing what he is doing. “Continuing to take different kinds of roles and continuing to take chances will ultimately work,” said Allen Coulter, who directed “Remember Me.” “People unwilling to see him as anything but Edward Cullen will eventually be worn down.”
Part of Mr. Pattinson’s challenge is undoubtedly the vampire. The only movie franchise that remotely compares to “Twilight” in terms of popularity and the number of films starring the same cast is “Harry Potter.” But as the “Harry Potter” stories have progressed, Daniel Radcliffe has been allowed to grow up. By his “Twilight” character’s very nature — a vampire who doesn’t age — Mr. Pattinson is largely stuck.
“I hope it doesn’t start looking ridiculous,” Mr. Pattinson said, referring to himself growing older but playing the same character.
Audiences can judge for themselves at the end of this month when “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse” arrives at the multiplex. The second movie was more about the chemistry between Bella, the sullen high school student (Ms. Stewart), and Jacob, the werewolf (an often shirtless Taylor Lautner). The third movie, filmed at a cost of $68 million and directed by David Slade (“Hard Candy”), is about the triangle: the push and pull of Ms. Stewart’s character between her vampire boyfriend and werewolf admirer.
“As Rob has acted more, he has become less conscious of the camera and more connected to the character,” said Wyck Godfrey, a producer of the first three films. Mr. Pattinson’s confidence is growing, he said, but the actor can still be self-deprecating to a fault. “Rob comes out of every scene thinking, ‘Oh God, that was a disaster.’ ”
“Twilight” fever shows few signs of letting up. Advance sales are on a par with “New Moon,” and the number of licensing deals (Burger King, Vitamin Water, Volvo) is enormous. “Eclipse” may open on a similar scale as “New Moon”; the franchise has probably matured, analysts say. But the last two movies opened during the school year, and the hope is that a marquee summer slot — the Fourth of July weekend — will generate repeat business that dwarfs the other films.
Mr. Pattinson won’t have much time to parse the results, much less take a six-month vacation, which is what Mr. Godfrey said the young actor needs. Production for “Breaking Dawn” starts as soon as October.