Less than a year ago, Robert Pattinson, a British actor known only for a small part in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was picked to play Edward, the brooding, beautiful vampire at the center of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling Twilight saga. Fans revolted immediately. They were furious over the surprise casting of a relative unknown who failed to live up to their idea of the immaculate demigod from their book's dog-eared pages. By the time Pattinson's mother told him she'd read online that her only son was wretched and ugly and had the face of a gargoyle, the author found herself awash in guilt. ''I apologized to Rob,'' says Meyer, ''for ruining his life.''
But teenage girls have their mood swings. It wasn't long before the Twilight universe — 17 million worldwide readers addicted to the tortured romance between Edward and a mortal schoolgirl named Bella — embraced the 22-year-old actor. Twilight won't hit theaters until Nov. 21. (The series' debatable reputation as ''the next Harry Potter'' was reinforced when The Half-Blood Prince jumped to next summer and Twilight slid happily into its old release date.) Still, this past July, when the cast participated in a hype-building panel at the Comic-Con festival, all Pattinson had to do was smile or shift in his seat to send the thousands of besotted girls into fits of red-faced screaming. After the panel, the shaken actor bruised some tender hearts when he likened the sound of the collective squeal to something one might hear when entering ''the gates of hell.'' Fame, clearly, would take getting used to. ''There is going to be a group of girls who will follow his actions from now on,'' says Meyer. ''I asked the producer, 'Is Rob ready for this? Have you guys prepped him? Is he ready to be the It Guy?' I don't think he really is. I don't think he sees himself that way. And I think the transition is going to be a little rocky.''
For this story — the first in-depth interview of Pattinson's young career — the actor's manager suggested that Hollywood's next It Guy be interviewed at the Chateau Marmont hotel, in L.A., over a civilized lunch on the chic outdoor patio. So on a recent afternoon, Pattinson, looking slightly befuddled, wearing secondhand black jeans, what he assumes was once a rather large woman's bowling shirt, and old Chinese slippers with his big toes sticking sadly out of large holes, folds his lanky six-foot frame into a tiny chair. He speaks softly, hunched over his water. Tugging at his unkempt hair, he tries to explain why Jack Nicholson is his favorite actor, before admitting that he feels absurd. ''Why are we here?'' he wonders, looking around at the uptight crowd. ''I feel judged!''
After ditching the hotel — ''Okay, let's think, everything is all schmancy and industry around here'' — he suggests a low-rent heavy metal bar in West Hollywood where he's sung and played guitar at a couple of open-mike nights. Pattinson, who owns every album by his favorite musician, Van Morrison, hopes to record an album soon. He laughs at what a cliché he must sound like. ''Every actor I meet here says they're a musician as well,'' he says. On the ride to the bar, he apologizes for the state of his car, a rattling 1989 black convertible BMW that he recently bought for $2,000. The roof is broken, the old dashboard that caught on fire while he was driving on the highway is chucked in the backseat with the rest of his junk, and he insists that the red flashing light on the new dash is nothing to be alarmed by. ''If I crash,'' he pleads with an impish grin, after nearly rear-ending a sleek Mercedes, ''don't mention it in the article, will you?''
At the Rainbow Bar & Grill, where the waitresses look like world-weary biker chicks, with back tattoos and painted nails, Pattinson orders a Pacifico beer and describes his new life in Los Angeles. The studio has him set up in a temporary apartment (outside of which there's always a few eager Twilighters camped) where the only things he keeps in his fridge are peach Snapple and a freezerful of pepperoni Hot Pockets. ''And I wonder why I feel so terrible all the time!'' he says with a laugh. Pattinson has made only a few friends in town, most of them through cheesy industry events. ''So the only people who I hang out with seem to be club promoters and PR people,'' he says. ''I keep getting photographed coming out of these lame clubs. It's so embarrassing. There was a week where every single night I was going out and getting photographed by the paparazzi or TMZ and I realized 'Oh, my God, I look like a complete alcoholic!'''
Pattinson was 17 years old, and attending a prestigious private school in London, when he booked the part of doomed bloke Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter. After the film wrapped in 2005, his English agent pushed him to pursue similarly earnest roles, but they no longer interested him. Instead, he landed a lead as a troubled young man in the London stage production of the German play The Woman Before. ''At the time I really thought, 'Wow, I must be great, I'm like f---ing Brando!''' he says. ''I had this specific idea where 'I'm going to be a weirdo, this is how I'm going to promote myself.' And then of course I ended up getting fired.''
There followed a strange couple of years where Pattinson lived off his Harry Potter paycheck, drifting between obscure parts in small films and TV. In December, during a two-week run of auditions in Hollywood, he tried out for the role of Edward, a teenage vampire who is rich and perfect and princely in the way 17-year-old boys rarely are — and who falls not for the sexy cheerleader but the shy new girl in town. ''I'd read the book and liked the book, but it made me really uncomfortable trying to picture myself in this part,'' he says. ''Here's this guy who seems to be the embodiment of every single perfect guy. Okay, I'm going to look like a complete idiot if I just try to do that — like give a half-Fonz, half-George Clooney impression. I went in thinking I would just break into hysterical laughter. But then I did it with Kristen and it was completely different. We had this chemistry that just worked.''
Meyer, who had a fat book of head shots of the thousands of actors who wanted the role, says the producers needed someone who was both pretty and scary. ''The one guy that kids were always saying they wanted for Edward was Tom Welling from Smallville. He's beautiful! But could you ever imagine being afraid of him? We did not have a good option until Rob came along. And the movie rests entirely on his shoulders.'' (um, isn't he, like, 30?)
Two months before filming began, Pattinson went alone to Oregon, where the cast and crew would eventually join him. He pored over both the script and Midnight Sun, Meyer's unfinished version of Twilight that is narrated from Edward's perspective, determined to mine the deepest meaning from every line. In the book Edward is described as being all sinew and six-pack, so he spent long hours at the gym, shedding pounds at an alarming rate. ''Then three weeks before shooting the producers were like, 'What're you doing? You look like an alien!''' he laughs. ''Oh, well, I thought it was a cool idea.''
Pattinson's idea to play Edward as a manic depressive also made people nervous. The producers took to trailing after him on the set with highlighted passages from the book of all the times Edward smiled. ''It was like, 'Argh! I was going to smile at some point.' Or everyone would be like, 'Well, let's try to make this bit funnier!' But it wasn't funny. I tried to play it, as much as possible, like a 17-year-old boy who had this purgatory inflicted on him. I just thought, 'How would you play this part if it wasn't a teen-book adaptation?'''
Director Catherine Hardwicke could see that her star was torturing himself. ''So I had a little thing — 'Rob, let's just rehearse the scene all the way through without tearing it down and criticizing it.' We'd get two lines out, and then he would say, 'No, no, no, it's not working!''' Stewart laughs when reminded of Pattinson's inner turmoil. ''Rob made himself crazy the whole movie, and I just stopped and patted him on the back through his neuroses,'' she says affectionately, then pauses. ''He would punch me in the face if he heard me right now.''
Pattinson and Stewart's onscreen chemistry is crucial to the movie's success, so the actor can be forgiven if he acted smitten with his costar when the cameras weren't rolling. ''In the beginning I thought to myself, 'Because she's so serious, I've got to be really serious,''' he says. ''I didn't speak for about two months so I would seem really intense. I would only ever talk about the movie. And I kept recommending all these books. It didn't really work, though. Then I started falling apart and my character started breaking down. I felt like an idiot just following her around, saying, 'You really should read some Zola — and there's this amazing Truffaut movie.' And she started calling me on things: 'Have you actually watched this movie? Yeah? What's it about?' 'It's about a guy on a train.' 'Did you just look at the photo on the cover of the DVD?!''' On more than one occasion, Pattinson was overheard asking Stewart to marry him — proposals that the actress, who's had the same boyfriend since she was 16, got used to shrugging off.
If the shoot had him in knots, Pattinson is determined not to be psyched out by the rigors of promoting a possible franchise. ''I got sent to media training and my agent got back messages like, 'He's resisting the media training,''' he says with an amused shrug. Before the Comic-Con panel, the cast was given prepared answers, but Pattinson refused to stick to the script. ''Even little kids don't want to hear you say the same pat stuff,'' he insists. ''It's boring! I'm thinking about my career in long terms, rather than just trying to milk one thing for whatever it's worth. You either have to be off book from the beginning or be on book forever. And I've never really seen the point of being on book.'' He laughs and signals the waitress for another round of beers. ''Watch, though. I'm going to be completely destroyed.''
While Pattinson is on deck for any Twilight sequels, he's also trying to take advantage of Hollywood's new interest in his career. ''It's funny how quick everything changes,'' says Pattinson. ''Literally, the trailer came out and people who've met me, like, six times are suddenly like, 'Hey! It's really nice to meet you.' After having a big period of unemployment, you think, 'Okay, I'm not going to mess this up again.' So no matter what the meeting is now, even if it's for some dumb movie, even if I don't want to do it, I'm going to go to the meeting and give the most complicated character breakdown I can think of.''
Pattinson stars as Salvador Dalí in 2009's independent film Little Ashes, and is set to play Dennis Hopper's grandson in writer-director Brian Horiuchi's still-unscheduled indie drama Parts Per Billion. He's sifting through higher-profile scripts, amused to find himself in the same conversation as stars like Shia LaBeouf for a role in a Gladiator-style period movie. And he's been pining for the chance to play Jeff Buckley in the biopic, though he imagines if the long-gestating movie ever gets made the role will go to the singer's look-alike James Franco.
It's hard for a boy on the brink of stardom to answer just what he wants out of sudden fame. Despite his appearances now in two wildly popular franchises, Pattinson says he's not interested in grabbing at big-money roles. As soon as he comes into cash, he has a tendency to blow it all anyway. ''Not on cars, obviously,'' he laughs. ''I have very, very low expenditures, but still I manage to spend it all. I guess Hot Pockets are more expensive than I thought.'' He orders another beer and grimaces at his ringing cell phone before putting it back unanswered in his pocket. (It was his agent, reminding Pattinson to read the script for the Sarajevo drama and not to be late to their meeting with a casting director. Which he was.) ''My only real answer, to be completely honest, is I don't want to be completely f---ed after this,'' he says. ''I don't want to be an idiot, and that's always a distinct possibility.''
When Pattinson was on the set of Harry Potter, he wrote obsessively in a journal that he carried around with him everywhere. ''It was my diary, but it became more and more and more about requests to the Fates: 'I will do this if you provide me with this.' It sounds absolutely ridiculous, but I had so much faith in this little book. I remember one time I wrote, 'Please don't give me all my luck now. Make it all stretch. I don't mind waiting. Make it stretch for 70 years.' And now with Twilight — it was pretty lucky getting it, and I've been pretty lucky so far with all the attention, and if it's successful, then that will be a lot of luck used up. Maybe I'm just waiting for the point where I realize the luck has ended.'' He smiles ruefully, and rakes a hand through his messy shock of bronze-highlighted hair that the studio has forbidden him to cut. It's Edward's trademark, and he's stuck with it now.