It must be terrifying to know that fame, like a giant, all-consuming tidal wave, is about to break over you at any moment. But if Taylor Lautner’s scared, he’s not showing it. In fact, the 17-year-old star of “The Twilight Saga: New Moon,” which opens in theaters at midnight Thursday, seems a little too calm. When talking about his starring role as Jacob Black in the follow-up to last year’s box office breakout “Twilight,” he exudes an effortless boy-next-door charm. His demeanor, though somewhat guarded, is more small-town high school football star than newly minted teen heartthrob.
It’s a little eerie, really.
Maybe that sense of calm is because the frenzy around Lautner’s rising star has only just begun, or perhaps he’s well suited to life at the center of the pop culture maelstrom sparked by Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling young-adult novels about high school student Bella Swan and the two supernatural suitors vying for her affections.
Jacob, unfortunately, is the underdog in that particular battle, although “New Moon” centers largely on his relationship with Bella (Kristen Stewart). Heartbroken after the abrupt departure of her brooding vampire beau Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), she finds solace in Jacob, but he has problems of his own -- namely, a massive crush on Bella and a just-discovered genetic mutation that causes him to turn into a werewolf with little provocation. No full moon required.
“When I was reading the books, I felt so bad for Jacob’s character,” Lautner said earlier this year on the Vancouver set of the film.
“I was, like, ‘Wow, he can’t get the girl he wants and he’s being shut down and used.’ But now that I’m actually filming it and living this character, I feel so much worse.”
Lautner had to actively lobby to ensure that he would be the one to feel so bad. Although he appeared in “Twilight,” Jacob has a much smaller part in that story. He not only moves to the forefront of the narrative in Meyer’s “New Moon,” but the character also morphs from an average teen to an imposing 16-year-old standing roughly 6 feet, 5 inches. Lautner, however, didn’t experience the same sort of growth spurt, leading to talk of recasting the role for the movie.
But the actor fought to convince the producers and director Chris Weitz that, although he might not be able to will himself to be taller, he could still appear physically imposing. He worked out for roughly 90 minutes every day for nearly a year, ultimately gaining about 30 pounds of lean muscle. In the film, he looks as though he might be able to take down a young Bruce Lee without much effort.
“He’s ripped,” said producer Wyck Godfrey, “like Marky Mark in 1991.”
“It was always the right call to keep him -- from a character standpoint -- because people connected to Taylor as Jacob in the first movie,” Godfrey added. “The only thing that ever stood in our way was the physical description of Jacob in the second and third book. But Taylor when we were making ‘Twilight’ wasn’t the same Taylor that showed up when we were ready to start making ‘New Moon.’ ”
Almost any up-and-coming actor would go to great lengths to protect a coveted lead role in a major movie franchise, but Lautner’s determination to continue on as Jacob might have grown out of a sense of obligation to his family rather than just a desire to further his career.
As a child, he enjoyed football and martial arts and would often travel around the country to attend various competitions. At an event in Louisville, Ky., he met up with a North Hollywood-based karate instructor who believed that Lautner had the chops to pursue acting. After some deliberation, Lautner’s parents moved with Taylor and his younger sister from their home in Grand Rapids, Mich., to Southern California for one month to see if he could break into the business. Taylor got his first callback near the end of that trial period, and they decided to make the relocation permanent.
“My parents said to me, ‘Look, if you want to continue doing this, we can’t do it from Michigan -- we have to live in L.A.,’ ” Lautner said by phone last week. “I think it was when I was, like, 10 years old. It was a really difficult decision for me and obviously an extremely difficult and risky decision for my parents but, luckily, I have a very supportive family behind me. Thank goodness it worked.”
He made his first feature, 2005’s “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D,” with director Robert Rodriguez, and also appeared in that year’s “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” in addition to some television work before “Twilight.” He met with the approval of members of “Team Jacob,” the faction of Meyer’s fans who believe that Bella belongs with her good friend, not Edward.
That lobby is likely to be very excited about Lautner’s work in “New Moon” -- given that throughout a considerable percentage of the movie he’s dressed in little more than denim cutoffs. (Werewolves have higher than average body temperatures and their propensity to burst out of their garments when they shift into animal form makes it more convenient to wear less.)
“The werewolves in this movie are really creatures of rage and quick anger, and that’s not him,” Weitz said of his young star, whom he describes as “a sunny guy.” “What you see on the screen when he’s very upset is acting -- and good acting at that. He’s got extraordinary potential.”
He’ll have an opportunity to explore some of that potential with his role in director Garry Marshall’s Los Angeles-set romantic comedy “Valentine’s Day,” due out, appropriately, in February, and then in “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” the third installment in the franchise, which is set for release in June.
By that time, some of his newfound celebrity surely will have caught up to him. Following the release of “Twilight,” Stewart and Pattinson became favorite targets of the tabloid press and paparazzi; whether Lautner, who reportedly began dating country crossover superstar Taylor Swift -- a “Valentine’s” costar -- will receive the same sort of undesired attention remains to be seen.
But he already understands that the “Twi-hards,” as Meyer’s devotees are called, can be rather, well, enthusiastic in their reactions to the film’s stars.
“I don’t think I’ve become accustomed to it,” he said about the deafening screams that have met him and his cast mates at various public appearances, including Monday’s “New Moon” premiere in Westwood.
“It’s more that we know to expect anything -- but we continue to find ourselves surprised over and over again.”