After enduring more than six years of female hysteria, it's little wonder that Robert Pattinson is a bit jumpy. Meeting with the teen icon in a Beverly Hills hotel room, he's amped up on copious amounts of coke (the soda variety); his body is in constant motion – he runs his fingers through his floppy hair or stretches his arms around the back of his chair.
His edginess isn't of a "Leave me alone, I'm very important" bent, but more of a puzzled "I don't understand all the fuss but I'd prefer to avoid it" stance, which results in a state of constant vigilance.
If his Twilight co-stars Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner have grown weary of their own celebrity, then consider Pattinson, who has held swoon status since 2005, when he made his debut in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire as Cedric Diggory, the hottest boy in Hogwarts.
Six years as a heartthrob is a long sentence by any calculation. Few boy bands have even survived that long. Pattinson, of course, was given a second term as a pin-up boy. Cast as brooding bloodsucker Edward Cullen in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, he's evolved into a vampire-of-sorts in his personal life, holed up in hotel rooms by day, slipping out at night when those dreamy blue-grey eyes and thick eyebrows are less visible.
Thus it was with great joy he emerged into the bright lights of Francis Lawrence's Water for Elephants, adapted from Sara Gruen's novel about forbidden love set against the backdrop of a travelling circus during America's Great Depression of the 1930s.
In accepting the role of veterinary student Jacob to Reese Witherspoon's circus performer Marlena and Christoph Waltz's brutal big-top boss, Pattinson placed a fairly safe bet on starring in his first hit film outside of the Harry Potter and Twilight series; his other films, Remember Me, How to Be and Little Ashes produced disappointing box-office results.
"I liked the idea of this film but I also thought it was a fairly good career step. It doesn't alienate the audience or image that I sort of have. Also it's not like it's an ultra-violent or ultra-depressing movie, which is demanding to be taken profoundly. It's a simple, old-fashioned story, which isn't asking too much from the audience. I'm doing a [David] Cronenberg movie next, Cosmopolis, with Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti, which I think is a pretty big step for me. After that I'm hoping to be producing something. I'm not entirely sure yet," says the actor, who will next be seen as womanising Georges Duroy in Bel Ami, an adaptation of the second novel by 19th-century French writer Guy de Maupassant.
In Water for Elephants it was his four-legged co-stars who first won him over. "I really felt a special bond with the elephant Tai," he says. "She really had this aura. There was something incredibly peaceful about being around this huge creature who is incredibly gentle. She could lay down on top of me without squashing me; she carried me around in her mouth and played catch with her trunk. I cried on the day she finished shooting.
"I also had a neat experience with a baby giraffe who wouldn't respond to anyone but me. There's one scene where it's tied up to a pole, and there's cages with tigers on one side and lions on the other. All the animals moved forward to the front of their cages, staring at the little giraffe, which freaked out so much that no one could calm it down for the shot. And I went up, gave her a little twig and the giraffe, for some reason, calmed down and started licking my head. I thought, 'Wow, I'm like Mr. Animal Man in this thing!' I didn't understand what was going on and it just happened so many times throughout the shoot. It was very magical. Just to be going around and petting a fully grown lion on the head and have it behave like a domesticated dog. I wish every job was like that.
"In a lot of ways, I prefer working with animals and kids more than grown-up actors," ventures Pattinson who turns 25 on 13 May. "If someone else isn't acting in the scene, it's easier to not act. It seems like actors become almost competitive, which works sometimes, but a lot of times my brain doesn't want to do that. If I feel like I can't beat the other actor, I just don't do anything."
Pattinson was born in the affluent London suburb of Barnes to vintage car dealer Richard and model agent Clare, who helped launch his modelling career when he was 12. Thereafter he joined the local amateur theatre company, featuring in local productions of Macbeth, Anything Goes and Our Town.
Together with his two older sisters he enjoyed a life of gentle privilege, attending the exclusive private preparatory school Tower House and the Harrodian School.
"I wanted to go to university and study international relations because I wanted to be in politics. I'd still love to, but I wouldn't want to be held accountable by anybody. I'd be a dictator! I'd quite like to be in politics in some barely established democracy, it's always much more exciting," he grins. "But it sounds so ridiculous for me to say today that I'm curious about politics and I might be a politician one day."
Despite his obvious good looks and talent, acting is a curious career path for someone who admittedly struggles with shyness. And despite all his success, he's still not entirely sure what drew him to drama in the first place. "I suppose it was a variety of things... The pretty girls?" he suggests. "There was a theatre company around the corner from my house. I guess it was something I always wanted to do, but I thought it was also kind of pretentious; I didn't mind the kids that were acting at school but I wanted to do it secretly outside the school. I just liked the environment; I worked backstage for about three years and just watched everything and then I did a couple of plays and I got an agent from one of the plays, totally randomly.
"My first film audition was for Troy – I was auditioning to play Brad Pitt's cousin. I was like, 'What? I'm gonna play Brad Pitt's cousin!' Then I did Vanity Fair with Reese," says the actor, who strangely made his film debut with Witherspoon playing her son – a scene which was later deleted – and is reunited with her eight years later as her lover.
"After Vanity Fair I went to South Africa for three months which, for a 17 year old, was pretty great: you get an apartment, you get paid, it's fun. I thought 'OK, I'm an actor now!'" he laughs, referring to the little-seen TV fantasy movie Curse of the Ring.
If the perks seemed cool at the time, today he's more pragmatic. "I enjoyed them then, but I don't now," says Pattinson. "If anything, I kind of wish I could stay in a shitty hotel and be a part of everything. You're always separated from the crew; you have to be in some secure place; you're not able to hang out with anyone. And that's the best part of doing movies, where everyone is so tight for three months that when you leave, you've actually created relationships. But right now, I'm doing things where I don't even know people's names. It's frustrating, but you just have to figure out ways to live your life the way you want to live it. It just takes a while and it's not like there's any sort of map or guide for this life of mine."
If it seems like a better idea to embrace his fame rather than run fearfully away, Pattinson has firm views on the topic. "Most actors try to encourage it [a fan base] because they think that's what's going to give them a long-lasting career. I just don't think that's the case; the more you reveal of yourself, the more you over-saturate your image, the less interesting people find you. There's only so long hysteria can last. Mystery lasts a lot longer. Yet the entire industry is devoted to tearing every shred of mystery away, so you have to work to maintain anything. In my case, I just .
"If I'm not working I kind of just sit around," Pattinson continues. "I try to watch a film but my concentration is so short, I'm bored after 20 minutes. I used to play this game on the iPhone called Fall Down. It's the most ridiculous thing which involves absolutely no brain effort whatsoever and I'd sometimes sit and play it for 16 hours.
"I get obsessed with things in short bursts. Like at the beginning of the last Twilight movie, I was working out a lot, because I had to take my shirt off all the time. So I was obsessed with going to the gym all the time and cycling everywhere but, as soon as I finished, I just stopped dead. And I haven't gone to the gym since," says Pattinson, who revisits the frenzy of the Twilight Saga in November with the release of Breaking Dawn – Part I.
Having contributed music on both Twilight and How to Be, he claims his musical career is temporarily on hold. "I've got to be incredibly depressed to write music. I have to make myself wake up crying and then I'll write a song," he says. "But it doesn't take much to make me cry; even when I was watching March of the Penguins the other day, Jesus that was horrible."
Ask him what he's learned over the past six years, he smiles. "That there's no point trying to please everybody."
'Water for Elephants' is on general release