THERE was a time, before a set of paparazzi pics of the highest-paid woman in Hollywood – Kristen Stewart, aged all of 22 years – canoodling with a man who was not her boyfriend nearly melted the internet such was the feeding frenzy that ensued, that I used to feel a bit sorry for Taylor Lautner.
It seemed that in the Twilight universe – and love or loathe the movies, there’s no denying they are a cinematic phenomenon, grossing more than $2billion worldwide and engrossing even more fans – Lautner and his alter ego Jacob Black were always to be overshadowed by the on and off-screen chemistry of his co-stars. On screen, Bella (Stewart) wanted gloomy old Edward (Robert Pattinson) with his icy skin and permanently pouting lips. Off screen Stewart and Pattinson rocked a kind of boho chic that saw them hunted by packs of rabid paps wherever they went. And Lautner? Lautner just sort of got on with it. He appeared on red carpets and at Comic Con, dutifully answering questions and signing autographs. He hosted Saturday Night Live and picked up a slew of gongs at every teen-focused award ceremony going. Good on him. But where ‘KStew’ and ‘RPatz’ were at the centre of a tabloid frenzy, Lautner was like an eager to please puppy.
But things have started to look a little different in recent months. As the publicity machine rolls into action for the final instalment – The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn 2 – I can’t help but feel that the person who’s going to have the easiest and most enjoyable time trotting along red carpets lined with screaming fans is Lautner. As the other two, and especially Stewart, struggle with the kind of scrutiny that has prompted former child-star Jodie Foster to write public letters of support, Lautner is the one who might genuinely just be able to enjoy the last hurrah of the film phenomenon that has occupied the last five years of his life.
And, really, who could grudge him that?
In the first Twilight film, Lautner’s character hardly spoke and he nearly didn’t make it into the second. It was only a high protein diet, a daily workout regime of suitable intensity that Men’s Health ran a feature on it, and the resulting 30lbs of muscle, most of which seemed to be located between his pecs and the waistband of his jeans, that secured Lautner’s place. From then, though, he held his own and was credited with bringing in a very respectable slice of the hundreds of millions of dollars that were pulled in at box offices around the globe as Team Jacob, swooning at the sight of his shirtless torso, really hit their stride. In the Twilight world, Lautner had found his niche. Outside, though, things have been a little different.
Lautner’s non-Twilight projects have been less successful than they might’ve been. His highest profile release, Abduction, was panned. Whereas Pattinson can do broody and arty (and be the face of Dior fragrances) with his stubble and languid-lidded eyes and Stewart already had a track record as a fine actor before the Twilight hoopla kicked in, things are a little different for Lautner. He’s only 20. He hasn’t really had a chance to do much else and now whatever he does, he has to carry the weight of Team Jacob on his shoulders. I worry that in his next movie (Grown-Ups 2 with Adam Sandler) his character is called ‘Frat Boy Andy’, but if it’s good enough for Steve Buscemi, who is also in it, why shouldn’t it be good enough for Lautner?
If any of this stuff is actually praying on Lautner’s mind as he sits with me in a coolly air-conditioned hotel room, then I get absolutely no inkling of it. Lautner’s default mode is a state which combines wide-eyed enthusiasm and heartfelt gratitude. If he wasn’t the poster boy for perfect abs, he definitely could be the poster boy for positive thinking (and media training). Every question absorbs him, every joke tickles his funny bone. Sometimes it sounds as though he’s memorised Platitudes for Hollywood Newbies (“Hey, you learn from your mistakes and you do it because you love it.”) But even when he delivers clunkers like that, he does so with total – and surprisingly likeable – sincerity.
Ask him now that Twilight is so nearly all over whether he’s feeling sadness or relief, don’t expect him to reveal that it’s been the worst five years of his life.
“It is a mix of both but I would say being sad and bummed that it’s over is definitely the stronger feeling. It was such an amazing experience. We had so much fun filming the movies, promoting them, spending time together with each other that now that that’s over – well, not quite over, but it’s coming very close – that’s definitely a big bummer.”
The physical changes in Lautner since the first Twilight movie haven’t been difficult to spot – not least on the covers of GQ and Rolling Stone. But he must’ve changed in other ways too. From 15 to 20 are tricky years, not least when lived in the brightest of spotlights.
“I think the biggest way I’ve changed is just learning so much as an actor,” he says. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better than to play the same character for five different movies. Usually you play a character for one movie and then you say goodbye to him and then you watch the movie and you think I wish I could’ve gone back and have done something differently. But with this, if I didn’t like what I did in the first movie I could change it for the second and if I wanted to do something different in the third then I’d do that.
“We learned a ton, especially working with four different directors throughout the process. Some people have asked if that was a hindrance but I loved it. I thought it was amazing. I was playing the same character but I was experiencing a different point of view every single time because we got to see different sides of him and get different opinions from great, amazingly talented directors. I can’t be more thankful for this whole experience as an actor.”
Ask him about his character, Jacob Black, and he can wax lyrical. But surely he’s looking forward to leaving him behind?
“This movie was exciting for me because Jacob has always been really emotional and uptight. He’s been a stress to play. But this one was fun because Jacob finally realises ‘oh I’m not supposed to be with that girl’. He’s much more light hearted and happier. And because of that he got to be more comedic which means I got to play a more comedic role. I cracked a lot of jokes which is different but was a lot of fun. I think the fans will enjoy seeing Jacob this way after feeling bad for him over the past four movies.”
If you’re feeling a little giddy from the relentless positivity then I suggest you brace yourself because this is Lautner. It might be an act put on for my benefit but I don’t think so. Lautner really is living his dream.
Lautner was born and grew up in Michigan. Before the idea of acting popped up, karate did. He took lessons from the age of six and ended up winning the world junior championship. He also met a karate coach, Michael Chat, who had some experience of acting (he was the blue power ranger no less). Chat invited Lautner to come to Los Angeles for a martial arts summer camp where he introduced him to an agent. Small roles on TV followed. Then in 2002, when Lautner was 11, his parents decided to move to Los Angeles so that he could really concentrate on his career.
It’s not an uncommon story in Hollywood that families move in order to give their kids more access to the industry, but outside of that bubble, the notion that a family moves in order to further the ambitions of an 11-year-old would be more than a little unusual.
“I didn’t feel any pressure when I was 11 or 12,” he says. “It was just like I want to act and my parents want to move to LA – woohoo. I think a little bit of pressure maybe hit when I started being able to fully understand it, when I was maybe 16 or 17. I realised what my family had sacrificed for me. It was a big deal and I felt I owed them for it. I don’t know if that’s pressure though or just thankfulness.”
Lautner’s father has been credited with guiding his son’s career choices, but when I ask him about that, he doesn’t so much disagree – he just wouldn’t do that – but he does offer some qualification.
“My whole family is actually,” he says. “My family has done so much for me, they’ve sacrificed so much for me and I know they have my best interests at heart. My whole family is involved even down to my 14-year-old sister. I share everything with them and get their opinions on everything. They are extremely important in my life.”
If plenty of young men his age might be keen to break free from their parents and family life, and plenty of others who can command multi-million dollar fees for their work would’ve high-tailed it away from the family home and set up residence in Chateau Marmont, Lautner just isn’t interested. “It’s my family and my friends who’ve been there from the beginning, before any of this happened, who have kept me grounded. They are just as involved, if not more involved, now than they were before. That’s what keeps me grounded. When you become not grounded is when this happens to you and you change everything in your life – ‘forget about those friends, look at these new, shiny toys’. When that happens it’s pretty hard to stay true to yourself.”
Grounded or not, it can’t be easy to deal with thousands of screaming fans trailing your every move. Not that you’ll hear Lautner say that. Let’s not underestimate how “passionate” (one of Lautner’s favourite words) Twi-hards can be. In Brazil a few years ago, Lautner and Stewart were stuck in a hotel room awaiting the National Guard after 2,000 fans broke in and were rampaging around trying to find them. He says there have always been lulls before a movie is released, but once the promotion begins, the fans gear up too.
“We’ve been in a kind of a low – and when I say that, the fans are still there, trust me. But when the movies are ready to come out it goes to crazy status, but I’m excited because we haven’t had that since last November.”
Do you get used to it?
“Yes and no. You get used to it in that you expect it and you know it’s going to happen. But still, five movies later, every time it happens you’re blown away and it’s like this is not possible.”
Rob Pattinson says he feels much less pressure now that Twilight is finished. It’s easier to do other things because there’s no need to return to the franchise. And he has done it in some style with Bel Ami and Cosmopolis. Kristen Stewart too pulled off the now unfairly overshadowed Snow White and the Huntsman (the canoodling man was the married-with-two-children director Rupert Sanders) and On the Road, in which she got to remind people of her acting chops. So what about Lautner – does he, like Pattinson, feel liberated?
“It’s definitely a new chapter,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s more nerve-wracking or not.” He pauses. “I think I’m going to have to disagree with Rob there,” he says as though he’s delivering a bombshell. “When we were filming the Twilight franchise and we got to go and do other things, it was kind of like a security blanket. It’s pretty easy to come back to Twilight. But now it’s done and it’s time to make a name for myself and do something different. It’s new territories now. Is that a little nerve-wracking? Yes. But it’s also very exciting.”
Ask him how Hollywood sees him now, in the post-Twilight world and he’s diplomatic. If the scripts sent to him are not what he’s after, he’ll get on and find his own projects. “A lot of the stuff I get offered is either romantic or fantasy or action,” he says. “That’s why it’s been important to develop my own stuff. If I want to challenge myself, I need to take it into my own hands and develop material and attach talented directors that I want to work with.”
This isn’t Hollywood hyperbole either. He really is doing this. He explains how he found an article about a year ago in New York Magazine and optioned it immediately. Then he didn’t really know what to do, but decided to call up director Gus Van Sant to see if he’d agree to work with him on it.
“It was probably stupid but it worked out,” he says, smiling. “I was like ‘hey Gus, I have this really cool piece of material would you be interested in it?’ I sat down and had a couple of lunches with him and he was like I don’t develop things, I never have but I want to do this with you. I was like what?!”
Lautner is clear that no matter about Team Jacob and endless ranks of adoring fans, the biggest thing the Twilight franchise has given him (and the others) is the clout to get behind and start their own movie projects.
“It’s a dream come true to be able to find an article in a magazine and say I want to bring this article to life, I want to play this character. Gus Van Sant you’re my dream director do you want to do this? That’s the biggest thing any actor could ask for so I couldn’t thank this franchise enough for that opportunity.”
Will he pull it off? It’s impossible to say, of course. But if impeccable manners and positivity count for anything, not to mention those dazzling pearly whites, he’s got as good a chance as anyone.
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (12A) is on general release from Friday.