When asked about the pressures of fame, Emma Watson (Hermione in the Harry Potter series) said she was thankful she wasn't Robert Pattinson. "I can't even imagine what that kind of fame must be like," she said. "So many people must wish they were in his position and think he has the best life, but actually there are prices you pay. Don't interpret that from my perspective. It's not so bad for me. I'm not in Rob's position: I don't have people screaming and crying and clawing at me. I'm so grateful for that."
It says something when the star of Harry Potter thinks that you're the one who's too famous. But Pattinson – aka R Patz – seems to have taken it in his stride. He greets the screaming hordes with humour and charm and a willingness to pose for pictures. There have been no drugs or fights with paparazzi. Even the romance he struck up with Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart two years ago has survived breathless coverage in the gossip magazines, a testament to the 25-year-old's sangfroid.
So today ought to be a breeze. He's at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to talk about Breaking Dawn – Part 1, the fourth instalment of the Twilight franchise that has been his life for the past four years. When he shows up, however, he's a mess. His famous hair is ungroomed and his T-shirt has a gaping hole all down one side. It's not even a fashionable tear – the stitching has just gone. He looks as though he's just been mobbed by a gang of rabid Twihards.
Happily, Pattinson doesn't seem to care. In the twilight years of the Twilight juggernaut, his thoughts have turned to what life might be like afterwards. "It's like being compared to people who've been in massive movies who just sort of disappear afterwards, even though they probably had incredibly fulfilling and successful lives," he says, nibbling on a fingernail. "Like Luke Skywalker." He scratches his head. "What the fuck's his name?"
"Yes! People are like: 'Oh, the Mark Hamill curse.' And poor Mark Hamill. Jesus Christ." He tilts back in the chair and laughs, apparently oblivious to the state of his T-shirt. "I mean, I'm sure he did fine."
It's easy to forget that this charming shambles of a man commands at least $12m a movie. The cheekbones are a clue, but his eyes seem further apart than you expect – it's a model's face, more attractive in 2D. And Pattinson doesn't have any swagger or strut about him. As tall as he is, he doesn't impose. His body language is loose, approachable, self-effacing. He's not at the summit admiring the view so much as peering down and hoping he doesn't fall off. "I think of impending doom all the time," he says with a shrug.
This apocalyptic fear stems from the way his career started. One minute he was a complete unknown. And then, out of a clear blue sky, Twilight happened, and he turned into Elvis. Girls on every continent went bananas, as did their mothers. In 2010 Time magazine declared Pattinson one of the World's Most Influential People. And now the end is nigh.
Breaking Dawn is the last book of the series, but Summit Entertainment, determined to milk the fans down to their last shrieking dollar, has pulled the Harry Potter trick and split it into two parts (the second instalment comes out next year). How they manage to get two movies out of the final book will be interesting to see. The plot of Breaking Dawn, in which the vampire-human romance between Edward [Pattinson] and Bella [Stewart] finally reaches the marriage altar, doesn't offer quite the all-out action climax of, say, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
"In career terms Twilight was like a security blanket," Pattinson continues. Then he furrows his brow for a moment and corrects himself. "Not a blanket – a safety net. I had a three- or four-month window between each one during which I could do another job. But whatever I did I knew that I'd have another Twilight movie on the way, which is theoretically guaranteed to make a lot of money. So I could always afford to fail."
Now the net is gone. The stakes have been raised. He once described choosing roles as "crippling".
"After the last one comes out, you can kind of have two failures – and they'd better be low-budget failures. Because if you have one big-budget failure you're pretty much done in this environment."
It's an odd thing to say, given the circumstances. After all, he's the second-richest actor in Britain behind Daniel Radcliffe, with a fortune of some £32m. He's an international sex symbol who need never work again, yet he's leading the charge of a young Hollywood Brit pack that includes Andrew Garfield, Tom Sturridge, Henry Cavill and Alex Pettyfer. If there's anyone who should not be nervous about the future, it's Robert Pattinson. And yet he is.
"It's different for Kristen, for example," he continues, warming to his theme. "She doesn't think about it like that at all, because she grew up gradually, doing independent movies and stepping up the ladder, whereas I was doing progressively smaller movies in England, after Harry Potter… to the point where I was doing nine-day shoots for, like, 20p and a packet of Space Invaders. And then this happened. So I'm not just another actor who's around and jobbing. When you hire me for a job, you're hiring…"
"Yeah. I'm now this 'thing' that's supposed to be something. And if you then don't fulfil that expectation, what the fuck are you?"
It's a fair QUESTION. In some respects, he's just a nice middle-class boy from a vaguely bohemian household in Barnes, west London. His father imported vintage cars from America and his mother was a booker at a model agency. He had two older sisters, who would dress him up as a doll and call him Claudia (Pattinson has always been subject to the madness of young girls). He started modelling at the age of 12, putting those cheekbones to use – shortly after he was expelled from school for being a bit of a truant. But Pattinson never thought of acting back then. His passion was music, and still is. Those scenes in Twilight where he's playing the piano? They're actually Pattinson's hands.
Then his father persuaded him to join the local amateur dramatic society. A casting agent happened to see him in a production of Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and before long he was screen testing as Reese Witherspoon's son in Vanity Fair (the scenes never made it into the movie). Pattinson, however, wanted to finish school and go to university to do a degree in international relations – he'd toyed with the idea of becoming a political speechwriter – until he landed the part of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which came out in 2005.
It was a huge break in a global movie franchise, but even though he shone in the role, it didn't pave the way for better things: the parts he was offered afterwards were smaller; his career went into reverse. There were a few minor indies and made-for-TV features – a shell-shocked war pilot in The Haunted Airman and a depressed musician in How To Be, not to mention an abysmal Catherine Tate vehicle, The Bad Mother's Handbook, in which the future Sexiest Man in the Cosmos tried to pass himself off as a nerd in bottle glasses and tank tops.
By now Pattinson was living with a friend in Soho, and a career in music had started to seem more likely. He had a rock band called Bad Girls, then started playing solo acoustic guitar gigs under the stage name Bobby Dupea. When he did fly out to LA, to give Hollywood a shot, he spent his days playing music in bars or going to the movies; his agent, Stephanie Ritz, let him sleep on her couch. He felt bad that Ritz had represented him for three years but he'd never nailed an audition. Then the part of Edward Cullen came up. Director Catherine Hardwicke was having a hard time filling the role. She'd tried Orlando Bloom and Hayden Christiansen. She liked Henry Cavill for the role, but he looked too old. She'd auditioned 5,000 boys for the part before Pattinson.
"The audition was at Catherine's house in Venice," he recalls of the moment that was to change his life, and his lifestyle, forever – which involved messing about on Catherine's bed with Kristen, to see if they had any chemistry. "It was me, her and Kristen, and her assistant videotaping it. I was the last one of the day and I was in there for four hours, which was longer than anyone else before me. So I kind of knew. I was like: 'Hmmm, something's happened.'
"And it was the first time I'd ever sent an email afterwards, as well. Like: 'I had a really great experience in the audition.' You know, kissing the director's arse. I always thought that was, like, the cheesiest, most pathetic thing to do. But it worked!"
Apparently he had the X-factor Hardwicke was looking for: as far as Pattinson was concerned, that X stood for Xanax. "I'd never had a Xanax before," he says, looking guilty for a moment. "But I'd started getting so paranoid about messing up auditions all the time that I would actually mess them up. So I took like half a Xanax. And it went really well, so when I had to go and meet the producers I thought: I'm just going to take another Xanax!" He laughs and rocks his chair. "And then I went in and almost fell asleep."
The producers were not impressed. They thought Pattinson looked scruffy and too old for the part. But Hardwicke pleaded and got him another meeting – this time minus the pharmaceuticals.
"I shaved, like, 50 times before I showed up," says Pattinson. "I made myself look all neat and tidy, wearing a white crew-neck T-shirt. It was almost not to be. Not a single person wanted me at that thing, only Catherine and Kristen."
He's said that he expected Twilight to be a "really serious" indie film – "I had no idea it was going to be this big thing you'd get on Burger King hats" – and as well as mass acclaim, it has, of course, had its critics. (A quote attributed to Stephen King says it best: "Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.") But you suspect that Pattinson recognised the limits of Twilight long ago. The director of Breaking Dawn, Bill Condon, describes him as supersmart: "That's the first thing you notice. He's very thoughtful and analytical. And he's a cineaste, you know? He loves a lot of genres and actors, so he seems like someone who can't wait to go explore."
His choice of roles in the past year bears this out. In May he starred in the Depression-era romance Water for Elephants, as a dashing vet who joins a circus after his parents die. Next year he'll appear in an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's Bel Ami, which will involve him being a thoroughly bad egg and sleeping with Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas. And then there's David Cronenberg's adaptation of the Don Delillo novel Cosmopolis, a Joycean story about a cheating Manhattan billionaire who loses his fortune in a single day. He has described the script as "insane and difficult"; the cast includes Samantha Morton, Paul Giamatti and Juliette Binoche. It's the big league, by any standard. More the choice of an actor seeking a challenge than a pretty boy looking for safe harbour.
"I think he's made really smart choices," says Twilight producer Wyck Godfrey. "He has a deep desire to earn the status he has, and those films both have hardcore directors and quality material. I think it speaks more to who Rob is than the Twilight series, because he comes from a literary background. He shows up to set reading Molière."
Godfrey has also seen Pattinson's "crafty and determined" side. During one typically crazed week he had to shoot two days on Water for Elephants prior to the Golden Globes and then return to shooting Twilight. The trouble was, his hair needed to be a lot shorter for Water for Elephants. "I said, you're going to need a hairpiece [for the 1930s film]," says Godfrey. "You can't come back with completely different hair. And both he and his agent said: 'OK, I get it.' But then he had it cut short anyway. And when he saw me, he said: 'Oh my gosh, I don't know what happened!' It was pretty infuriating, but it tells you about the kind of dedication he brings to the movies he works on."
He inspires affection and admiration among co-stars, who marvel at the way he has handled his sudden superstardom. "He comes to set with no expectations or attitude," Ricci said after shooting Bel Ami, "none of those things you worry someone of his level of fame is going to have." Michael Sheen, who stars with him in the Twilight movies, has offered the avuncular verdict that he "seems to have a good head on his shoulders".
Pattinson has always said he admires Leonardo DiCaprio's career – he's even asked DiCaprio for advice on career longevity. At the Four Seasons, his eyes remain fixed on that horizon. "If I do decide one day to stop acting, I just hate the idea of people going: 'Oh, did you ever do anything else besides that Twilight thing?'"