Robert Pattinson - a Hogwarts wizard in vampire heaven

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Robert Pattinson's death in 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' was only the beginning. James Mottram meets the heart-throb blood-sucker who has now found the essence of Salvador Dali

It's funny how fame can strike those least likely. The last time I met Robert Pattinson was in late 2004. It was on the set of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which he played the murdered Hogwarts pupil Cedric Diggory. A shy, gawky 18-year-old, this boy from Barnes did not seem a star in the making. Nor did he look "exotically beautiful", as The New York Times dubbed him upon viewing his career-making performance as the lovelorn vampire Edward Cullen in the recent teen sensation Twilight.

For his brooding portrayal of Cullen, Pattinson was suddenly hailed as the new James Dean, a risky mantle for any young male actor to inherit (particularly if they're from England). Not that he's done little to dispel this after admitting that he aped the Giant star's vocal patterns to play the part. "Everyone loves a bit of James Dean," he told one reporter, explaining he used the same trick for "chatting up girls". This month's US edition of GQ magazine even has him channelling his inner Dean in a photo shoot that highlights just how gym sessions for Twilight helped sculpt his stubble-clad face.

When we meet again, his bush of brown hair looking more Dean-like than ever, I remind him of our previous encounter. "That was depressingly long ago," he groans, too young still to be aware that, in the grand scheme of things, four years is not so much. Still, it's not hard to see why he feels this way, given what a blur the last 12 months have been for him. Even before Twilight, Pattinson was finding love notes from female admirers left under the windscreen wiper of his car. "That was months before the movie came out," he acknowledges. "Now, it's really bizarre."

In the run up to the release of the film, adapted from the first of Stephenie Meyer's quartet of bestselling books, Pattinson toured a series of shopping malls in America to promote the film. The hysteria was like Beatle-mania revisited as girls fainted, screamed and asked him to bite them. You can bet Bela Lugosi never had to deal with this. "It's a weird experience," he concedes, "and you do tend to start getting a little bit paranoid about stuff. Looking around when you're walking down the street, in case you get mobbed by teenage girls!"

Rubbing his sleepy eyes, he admits he's still trying to get his head round it all. "So many people have watched Twilight or heard about it, you can be sitting anywhere and the chances are someone will come up and recognise you." This, he adds, included coming out of a sandwich shop in Yorkshire, and being accosted by the only person on an otherwise empty street and being asked for a photo. "How can you have immediate recognition in Guisborough coming out of Benjis?" he giggles. "That was very strange!"

Still, there must be a part of him that's secretly relieved that his new film, Little Ashes, is light years from Twilight. It is set in Spain when the country was in the grip of fascism. Pattinson plays surrealist painter Salvador Dali, when, as an 18-year-old, he moved to the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid to study art. As a role, it couldn't be juicier. In a portrait of an artist as a young man, Pattinson gets to show us the "self-conscious and hyper-sensitive" creature cowering beneath a persona that, even at that age, was outlandishly flamboyant.

According to Pattinson, Dali's whole character is sleight of hand. "I guess in a lot of ways, it's the story about him putting a mask on," he says. "In the rest of his life, a lot of the time he forgets he's wearing the mask. Or he's aware he's wearing the mask but he can't get it off. I found that the most interesting part of him. Someone who's wearing this mask, which is destroying everything in their life... they can't get it off and they can't remember how to get it off. They can't remember who they were before. And if they go back to who they were before, it'll probably destroy them too."

It is directed by Paul Morrison. As the film suggests, it was Dali's intense, formative relationship with playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca (played by Javier Beltran) that shaped him in this way.

"Whenever he does touch reality, which he does when he's younger, in brief little moments when he gets through his shyness to actually connect with someone, it causes mayhem in his life," says Pattinson. "I think he was like that the rest of his life. And his relationship with Lorca scared him from having any kind of reality in his life at any point afterwards."

I wonder if Pattinson relates to Dali on a personal level, given that he has suddenly experienced the whirlwind of fame that the painter so readily sought out in his later years.

"Just hyper-consciousness and stuff... I guess I do relate to that quite a lot," he mumbles. "What I really related to is this idea of ambition. Just being so concerned about being the best and being known for being someone important... he keeps continually forgetting that it doesn't really mean anything at all. And I always found that idea interesting. But I think Dali has a lot of shame – and I don't really have that!"

Pattinson admits there is some comparison between Dali and Twilight's Cullen, who endures a similarly fraught affair with a teenage girl. "I think both of them were terrified. Especially Dali. He had so many sexual hang-ups. He was crippled by so many different things.

"If you read some of his early-life autobiography, it's horrible... the amount of mental anguish he has to go through, just to have any kind of even vaguely sexual relationship. It's really depressing what he's going through in his head. Dali had a massive fear of penetration – penetrating someone or being penetrated."

According to Pattinson, he sees playing Dali as a turning point in his career. "To not betray or insult someone's memory, it seemed a lot more important than other jobs I've done before," he says. "I definitely felt I had a lot of freedom when I was doing for various reasons." Still, how does he think the Twilight fans will react to his love scenes with Beltran? "I think girls" – at this point he can't stop himself from a smutty chortle – "almost really like watching something like that. From what I've read, people really get excited about that – it sounds really sexy!"

Inevitably, since Twilight came out, speculation has surrounded Pattinson's own love-life, linking him with numerous starlets, including 10,000 BC's Camilla Belle. "I don't really care about it," he shrugs. "I have the same little set of friends and I don't have anyone who would really get affected adversely [by false rumours]. Every single person who they sort of romantically link me to... I just don't even really know anyone. So it doesn't really affect me that much." Is there any truth to the persistent rumour hooking him up with Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart? "Er, no," he states. "I don't understand where that even comes from."

Certainly, when Pattinson tells you that things haven't "really changed so much in my head" since Twilight came out, you can believe him. Willing to please, he carries the bewildered air of someone who still can't quite believe what has happened to him. Yet it'd be unfair to dub him "lucky", for his is not simply a case of 'right place, right time'. When he was 17, he decided against going to university – not that he got accepted to any, mind – to carry on with his acting. He immediately won a bit part in Mira Nair's Vanity Fair, followed by a more substantial role in Ring of the Nibelungs, a TV film inspired by Wagner's Ring cycle.

Raised with two older sisters, who, he has previously admitted, used to dress him up as a girl and call him Claudia up until he was 12, Pattinson's upbringing sounds comfortable. His father, Richard, deals cars and his mother, Clare, used to work in a model agency. It was his father who suggested Pattinson get involved with amateur productions at Barnes Theatre Company. "That was only because he saw a bunch of pretty girls who were going to it, and said: 'Hey Rob, you've got to go to that.' That's the reason I still do it!"

Pattinson knows that the female attention will not diminish with the Christmas 2009 release of Twilight sequel New Moon. He's pleased it doesn't feel like a mere money-spinner. "It feels like we're making a stand-alone movie." He's even at ease that his life is going to be turned upside down once again, having accepted how impossible it is to control his public image. "You can never be known for what you want to be known for," he notes. "People will know you for whatever they want to know you for." For a 22-year-old, that's surprisingly perceptive.

'Little Ashes' opens on 8 May

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