Less than a year ago, Robert Pattinson, a British actor known only for a small part in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was picked to play Edward, the brooding, beautiful vampire at the center of Stephenie Meyer's best-selling Twilight saga. Fans revolted immediately. They were furious over the surprise casting of a relative unknown who failed to live up to their idea of the immaculate demigod from their book's dog-eared pages. By the time Pattinson's mother told him she'd read online that her only son was wretched and ugly and had the face of a gargoyle, the author found herself awash in guilt. ''I apologized to Rob,'' says Meyer, ''for ruining his life.''
But teenage girls have their mood swings. It wasn't long before the Twilight universe 17 million worldwide readers addicted to the tortured romance between Edward and a mortal schoolgirl named Bella embraced the 22-year-old actor. Twilight won't hit theaters until Nov. 21. (The series' debatable reputation as ''the next Harry Potter'' was reinforced when The Half-Blood Prince jumped to next summer and Twilight slid happily into its old release date.) Still, this past July, when the cast participated in a hype-building panel at the Comic-Con festival, all Pattinson had to do was smile or shift in his seat to send the thousands of besotted girls into fits of red-faced screaming. After the panel, the shaken actor bruised some tender hearts when he likened the sound of the collective squeal to something one might hear when entering ''the gates of hell.'' Fame, clearly, would take getting used to. ''There is going to be a group of girls who will follow his actions from now on,'' says Meyer. ''I asked the producer, 'Is Rob ready for this? Have you guys prepped him? Is he ready to be the It Guy?' I don't think he really is. I don't think he sees himself that way. And I think the transition is going to be a little rocky.''
For this story the first in-depth interview of Pattinson's young career the actor's manager suggested that Hollywood's next It Guy be interviewed at the Chateau Marmont hotel, in L.A., over a civilized lunch on the chic outdoor patio. So on a recent afternoon, Pattinson, looking slightly befuddled, wearing secondhand black jeans, what he assumes was once a rather large woman's bowling shirt, and old Chinese slippers with his big toes sticking sadly out of large holes, folds his lanky six-foot frame into a tiny chair. He speaks softly, hunched over his water. Tugging at his unkempt hair, he tries to explain why Jack Nicholson is his favorite actor, before admitting that he feels absurd. ''Why are we here?'' he wonders, looking around at the uptight crowd. ''I feel judged!''
After ditching the hotel ''Okay, let's think, everything is all schmancy and industry around here'' he suggests a low-rent heavy metal bar in West Hollywood where he's sung and played guitar at a couple of open-mike nights. Pattinson, who owns every album by his favorite musician, Van Morrison, hopes to record an album soon. He laughs at what a cliché he must sound like. ''Every actor I meet here says they're a musician as well,'' he says. On the ride to the bar, he apologizes for the state of his car, a rattling 1989 black convertible BMW that he recently bought for $2,000. The roof is broken, the old dashboard that caught on fire while he was driving on the highway is chucked in the backseat with the rest of his junk, and he insists that the red flashing light on the new dash is nothing to be alarmed by. ''If I crash,'' he pleads with an impish grin, after nearly rear-ending a sleek Mercedes, ''don't mention it in the article, will you?''
NEXT PAGE: ''We did not have a good option [for casting Edward] until Rob came along. And the movie rests entirely on his shoulders.''