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Robert Pattinson is on the telephone, calling from a Los Angeles hotel room to talk about his new movie, Water for Elephants. He isn’t calling to talk about the upcoming finale to the lucrative film series, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn.
And he certainly isn’t calling to talk about the scene that’s most obsessing Twilight aficionados, the moment when — spoiler alert! — Edward Cullen (Pattinson) bites his true love, Bella (Kristen Stewart), and makes her into a vampire.
No, that’s not why he’s calling.
But, seriously, could anyone not ask him about it?
“I’m really not supposed to talk about it,” Pattinson says, “but we did shoot what’s called the birth scene a few months ago, and it was really intense. Insane intense.”
As fans of the popular book series know, the scene finds Bella at death’s door while giving birth to their first child. The only way for Edward to save her is by “turning” her, giving her eternal life but also the curse of vampirism.
“It was a pretty traumatic scene for me to do as an actor and, frankly, horrible for me emotionally,” Pattinson says. “Basically, old-time failure was slapping me in the face. Edward has tried for so long not to turn Bella into a vampire, and now … Well, it’s very sad. He feels like he has let her down.”
Like Daniel Radcliffe, Pattinson is in the process of saying good-bye to the character who made him famous. He is, in fact, only two weeks away from his last day playing Edward Cullen, as he puts the finishing touches on Part 2 of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn. The first part is due this November, but fans will have to wait for the second until November, 2012.
So how does it feel to wrap up so storied a saga?
“It’s really exciting to finish,” Pattinson says, “but it’s annoying because I don’t really have any time to reflect. The day after we wrap, I go on a press tour for my new movie and then I’m off to do another movie.”
Those other movies, which are coming fast and furious, are part of Pattinson’s answer to the question eventually faced by all actors who become famous playing a single, high-profile role: Will there be life for him after Twilight?
Pattinson’s answer: Definitely. He’s already laying the groundwork by starring in Water for Elephants, based on Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel, set in the 1930s and due to open Friday.
It’s a romance. Pattinson plays Jacob, a veterinary student who drops out of school after his parents are killed. Instead of resuming his studies, he joins a traveling circus as the vet — and falls in love with the star equestrian (Reese Witherspoon), who happens to be married to the ringmaster (Christoph Waltz).
“I loved joining this dirty world of the circus,” Pattinson says. “You’re allowed to relax, breathe, and sweat in this world. There was something very real about it, and it was quite a freeing experience.”
And, yes, he did get to know some elephants up close and personal, most notably Tai, the lead elephant.
“One of the main reasons I did this movie was to work with animals,” Pattinson says. “In fact, I met Tai a few weeks before I accepted this role, and she is such a phenomenal creature. Hanging out with elephants is such a life-changing experience. I love that my job as an actor allows me to spend three months with elephants.”
As for his human co-star, Pattinson has nothing but good things to say about Witherspoon.
“She’s a very attentive actor,” he says. “I don’t have a huge amount of lines, so we really had to watch what was going on in each other’s faces. She never phoned it in.”
It has to be a relief for the young actor to be dealing with a literal circus in his work, since his offscreen life has been a figurative circus ever since Twilight (2008) made him an overnight teen idol. Pattinson can’t go anywhere without an escort of paparazzi, and the tabloid stories about his reported relationship with Stewart by now number in the thousands.
“It’s hard to walk down the street,” Pattinson says. “You can’t just do it in a regular way. I have to think about my moves. I can’t just casually run out to the store to buy milk. I have to plan ahead and figure out if the paparazzi will be there. My life is premeditated. I can’t just casually observe without being observed.”
Pattinson, who will turn 25 on May 13, isn’t used to such chaos. He spent a quiet childhood in London with his two older sisters, his mother, and his father, a car salesman. A self-described loner, he spent his time learning guitar and piano, then started acting in local plays at the Barnes Theatre Company. He was to make his screen debut in Vanity Fair (2004), but his only scene ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Instead he first appeared as Cedric Diggory, the earnest young Hogwarts student whose death casts a shadow over the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005).
Then Catherine Hardwicke cast him as Edward Cullen in Twilight — she also used some of his original music in the film — and his life changed. Since then he has alternated Twilight movies with emphatically nonvampiric outings, playing a regular guy trying to get the girl in Remember Me (2010) and, now, Jacob in Water for Elephants. Next up: David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, about a multimillionaire on a 24-hour odyssey across Manhattan. The cast also includes Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti.
With Twilight coming to an end, Pattinson has mixed feelings about saying good-bye to Edward Cullen.
“I’ll be very glad not to put those contacts in anymore or have to put on the sparkling makeup,” he says. “But I will really miss the character. It’s been amazing to play the same character through so many adventures."