Interview: Actor Robert Pattinson

As I arrive for my interview with Robert Pattinson, the air is awash with hormones. Hordes of autograph book-brandishing adolescents have gathered on the street, desperate to catch a glimpse of the British-born star. We are in Cannes, where Pattinson has jetted in to promote New Moon, the sequel to last year's teen vampire sensation Twilight.

After pushing my way through the crowds, I'm ushered down some steps to a beachside restaurant where Pattinson is just finishing off another interview. The moment he leaves his chair hysteria breaks out as the pubescent pack looking down from street level spy their heartthrob.

Even by the standards of Pattinson's last year, which has seen him go from a relative unknown to a massive star, this is something else. "It's embarrassing, doing interviews," he confides when he sits down in another chair out of view and the cries subside. "I've never really done this before – people screaming in the background. Except at a premiere." You'd think he'd be used to the attention by now. Even before Twilight was released, taking nearly 400 million in cinemas around the world, girls were leaving notes under the windscreen wipers of his car. By the time he toured a series of shopping malls to promote the film, it had morphed into something akin to Beatlemania as girls fainted, screamed and asked him to bite them. Not even Brad Pitt gets that kind of attention.

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Admittedly, this sort of adulation was always on the cards. Stephenie Meyer's quartet of Twilight books has already proved a literary sensation to rival JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise. The most recent book, Breaking Dawn, sold a staggering 1.3 million copies on its first day of publication. And with the novels primarily aimed at teenage girls, it's Pattinson – who plays Edward Cullen, the impossibly handsome vampire from a family of neck-biters – who attracts most of the fans. His co-star Kristen Stewart – who plays Bella Swan, the mortal Edward falls for – must be relieved. "You do tend to start getting a little bit paranoid about stuff," Pattinson confesses, shrinking further into his chair, "looking around when you're walking down the street, in case you get mobbed by teenage girls!"

It explains why this gawky boy from Barnes has been on the move – hanging out in Vancouver, New York and Argentina this year after spending much of 2008 in Los Angeles. "I quite like it," he says of the city. "I like the isolation of it in a way. If you want to be alone, you're really alone in LA – apart from people following you around with cameras." The thing is, Pattinson gets this everywhere he goes now. He tells me that his sister was in the States recently, and noticed just how insane it's got. "She sent me a text saying 'It's just ridiculous how famous you are.' It's not even the same in the UK. It's weird. In magazines in America, I'm in there every week – even if I didn't do anything."

The intrusions on his privacy notwithstanding, it's the most basic life experiences that have changed for him. "Just the most obvious thing, like walking into a room where people know you before you've introduced yourself," he says. "However simple it sounds, it's the most bizarre experience. 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." He can't even go to a sandwich shop in a small town like Guisborough, in Yorkshire, without being accosted by a fan brandishing a camera. "How can you have immediate recognition in Guisborough, coming out of a Benjys!" he says, his head shaking in disbelief. "That was very strange!"

The trouble is, as articulate as Pattinson is (as when he talks enthusiastically about his recent role as surrealist painter Salvador Dal in the low-budget drama Little Ashes), it's hard to talk to him about anything else but fame. It seems so much a part of his life right now, like a huge wild animal that's taken up residence in his garden and refuses to move. While he'll tell you that things haven't "really changed so much in my head" since Twilight came out, he carries the bewildered air of someone who still can't quite believe what's happened to him. "It was driving me a little bit nuts a couple of months ago," he says. "But you just learn to deal with it."

He certainly seems too sensible, too well mannered, to go off the rails like a Lindsay Lohan. "There's no point being negative," he continues. "If you keep going 'I hate this, I hate this', you can't stop it. I was always trying to hide at the beginning of the year, but I have nothing to hide anyway!" He says he just tries to "stay Zen about it", though it's questionable whether he knows what that actually means. "I guess the whole thing is, you don't want to wake up one day and realise you've turned into someone who you weren't before and it wasn't your choice. That's the danger – and you can't get it back again. That's the only scary thing. It's always really up to you. Most of the time, you can control it to a degree."

Wearing black trousers and a T-shirt with black-and-white stripes, for the most part Pattinson comes across as low-key as his dress sense. He's 6ft tall, and handsome in a hairy sort of way, his chin covered in stubble and his brown hair styled in that just-tumbled-out-of-bed look. Even so, as he sips water from a Martini glass like a sort of adolescent James Bond, he looks much more baby-faced than he does playing Edward Cullen. In the first film, pre-shoot gym sessions sculpted his cheekbones so that they were razor-sharp. With the addition of contact lenses and lipstick he looked pallid and ghostly. For New Moon, however, Pattinson altered his appearance slightly. "I haven't plucked my eyebrows so much in this one!" he says, raising them a little.

Pattinson's eyebrows are not the only change in New Moon. With director Chris Weitz (who made the 2007 Philip Pullman adaptation The Golden Compass) taking over from Catherine Hardwicke, the sequel sees a shift in the dynamic between Edward and Bella. For the uninitiated, Bella is attacked by Jasper, the newest member of the Cullen clan, after she accidentally cuts herself on her birthday, a sequence of events that causes Edward to leave her. "He completely believes it's for her own good. But in his heart, he obviously realises it's completely wrong. And it takes him the whole movie to realise the profundity of his mistake," explains Pattinson. "The world forces him to realise he needs to be with Bella, and there's no way around it."

Secretly Pattinson must be relieved that some of the female adulation will now be focused on the film's other male star, Taylor Lautner, who plays Bella's childhood friend and confidante, Jacob Black. It might also stop tittle-tattle linking him to just about every eligible girl in Hollywood – from co-star Kristen Stewart to 10,000 BC's Camilla Belle. "It's all bulls***," he sighs. Noting his favourite Hollywood female star is Patricia Arquette, he even goes so far as to claim he finds it hard to get a date. So what qualities would a girl need to attract him? "They'd need an unbelievable amount of patience," he says, in a manner that suggests his current lifestyle doesn't lend itself to a long-term relationship.

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He's certainly comfortable around women. He was raised with two older sisters, who – he previously admitted – used to dress him up as a girl and call him Claudia in his pre-teen years. "That was a joke!" he says, backtracking hurriedly. "I think they'd like to have done that. I think I just made it up." His upbringing sounds comfortable, rather than extravagant. His father, Richard, is a former car dealer and his mother, Clare, used to work in a model agency. It was his father who first suggested he try acting, urging him to 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!"

When he was 17 he decided against going to university – although he wasn't accepted by any – 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. He got his big break in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, in which he played the martyred Hogwarts pupil Cedric Diggory, though he seems pleased he only ever did one of the series. "The Harry Potter I worked on took 11 months," he says. "I couldn't be doing that. I don't know how those guys (his Potter co-stars] stayed sane – they've been doing it for ten years. I would go completely crazy."

He tells me he has "exactly the same relationship with my family" as before he was famous, claiming his parents are "really, really proud" of what he's achieved so far. "My dad is always talking about the reflected glory! They live vicariously through it. They're both retired so they think it's fun to see stuff. I think they expect me to be reacting to it differently to how I am, which is funny. They think it's more impressive than I think it is. It's just luck for me. It's totally random. I never set out to achieve anything – not like fame or anything. It's strange. But there are things I want to do with it. I still have to learn how to make my life work." As yet, this does not include buying his own property. "It's so complicated buying a house. I looked at it and thought, 'Jesus Christ!'"

For the past year, Pattinson has been working almost solidly. After finishing New Moon, he went on to Remember Me. Co-starring Pierce Brosnan and Chris Cooper and co-written by Jenny Lumet (who penned the Jonathan Demme film Rachel Getting Married), it's a melodrama about family tragedy which Pattinson claims to have a "lot of personal investment in". It's one of the few times during our interview that he struggles for words. "It's so personal to me," he says. "I don't know how to talk about it. I'm really just playing myself. I think you can only play yourself once every 15 years, and when you do, it has to be perfect, otherwise people will think you're an idiot."

Having shot that over the summer, he's currently finishing up Eclipse, the third Twilight film, before he moves on to actress Madeleine Stowe's directorial debut, Unbound Captives. A Western also featuring Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman, Pattinson plays a young man who was kidnapped as a boy and raised by Comanche Indians. He has two months to prepare, primarily to learn how to ride a horse bareback and how to speak Comanche (his character uses no English at all). By anyone's standards, this looks like a gruelling workload, though he seems not to mind. "I don't want to do the same part," he shrugs. "And this is just the way the schedule worked out. I can't dictate when things are made."

In some respects, you can't blame him for making hay while the Hollywood sun is shining. He even admits that he's given thought to the inevitable media backlash – when he's no longer flavour of the month and his performances come in for some flak. "I don't care. That's how all people should be judged. If someone's bad, they're bad. If I think I am bad, I'm not going to keep doing movies! If you think you're bad, and everyone else thinks you're bad, I'm not going to keep doing sh***y stuff just for the sake of doing it."

A sobering thought, it proves that Pattinson has some dignity. Which is not an easy thing to hang on to when there are hundreds of teenage girls waiting outside to tear you limb from limb.

Twilight Saga: New Moon opens on 20 November.

• This article was first published in The Scotsman Magazine on 07/11/2009