Taylor Lautner thought he was safe.
The 19-year-old actor — best known to millions of moviegoers as heartsick werewolf Jacob Black from the "Twilight" movies — had driven from the home he shares with his parents in Valencia, a tranquil planned community about 30 miles north of Hollywood, to a downtown Los Angeles hotel.
He had arrived for an interview to discuss his new action film, "Abduction," out Friday. The movie, the first directed by John Singleton ("Boyz N the Hood") in six years, is a sort of "Bourne Identity" for the teen set. In it, Lautner stars as a high school student forced to go on the run after he discovers that his parents have been concealing a weighty secret about his background.
The rooftop meeting location had been selected for its privacy, but almost as soon as Lautner ordered an iced tea, he spotted an intruder and tensed noticeably.
"I believe I just saw a paparazzi right there," he said, furrowing his brow. "It definitely was, because I recognized his face. Like, I've seen him before."
Although said photographer never materialized again, Lautner seemed on edge for the remainder of the sitdown — perhaps channeling some of the healthy paranoia "Abduction's" Nathan cultivates over the course of his adventures or possibly just revealing his own internal struggles with the nearly incomprehensible level of fame he's achieved at such a young age.
He has been on high alert, so to speak, for the last three years, since the release of the first "Twilight" film propelled him and costars Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson into the center of a pop culture firestorm. Adapted from the bestselling supernatural teen romance novels by Stephenie Meyer, the first three films in the franchise have grossed more than $1.8-billion worth of tickets worldwide. As a result, Lautner — along with his famously chiseled abdominal muscles — has become a staple on the bedroom wall of teenage girls.
His days as the werewolf are waning, though, with the first of the saga's two-part finale, "Breaking Dawn," opening Nov. 18 and the second installment hitting theaters next year. Now Lautner is looking to life post-"Twilight" and is heading into that future with a specific plan: He wants to be an action star, like Tom Cruise or "Bourne's" Matt Damon. It's a career path that, should he manage it, would unquestionably keep Lautner in the bright eye of the spotlight for years. And the success or failure of "Abduction" will be the first indication of whether he can achieve his goal.
As Singleton put it: "The whole goal of the movie was all about showing that Taylor can actually carry a picture — that he's truly a star."
A karate kid
As a child growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Lautner idolized sports stars, studying karate and traveling the country to compete in martial arts competitions. (He had won three Junior World Championships by age 11.) It was his karate instructor — a onetime actor who appeared in the "Power Rangers" television series — who encouraged him to pursue a career in Hollywood.
"I was like, 'Wow, acting. That's a strange idea,'" he recalled, looking overly polished for a casual interview in perfectly distressed boots, tight jeans and a T-shirt that seemed designed to show off his biceps. "My parents were like, 'OK, well, if you want to do this, we can't do it from Michigan. We have to live in Los Angeles.' I didn't even think that was an option at the time. I still don't know what they saw or why they did it, but today I can't thank them enough for that risk they took."
Lautner's father, Daniel, a former airline pilot, is heavily involved in his son's career. He served as a producer on "Abduction" — the actor said his dad helps "keep things on track when I'm not available for phone calls. He was just definitely a help for me, because when I'm filming, I want to be able to focus on the character as much as possible."
He first heard about "Abduction" right before the second "Twilight" film, "New Moon," was released in 2009 — a period when he was presented with a number of appealing prospects. It was around that time that he also signed on for roles in "Max Steel" and "Stretch Armstrong," movie properties based on popular toys — but later dropped out of the former citing scheduling issues. (He's still attached to "Armstrong," though the Universal project is undergoing script changes.)
"Abduction," Lautner said, piqued his interest because he thought the role would be demanding.
"I don't know why, but I'm always looking to challenge myself as much as possible," he said with an earnest grin. "Plus, I had always been an action fan and been fans of actors like [Matt] Damon and Harrison Ford. What I love about their action movies is that they're not just action movies. They're playing a character that goes through an incredible journey."
Singleton asked the actor to watch Cruise's cinematic oeuvre — from "Born on the Fourth of July" to "Minority Report" — in addition to Ford's performance in "The Fugitive" and Robert De Niro's in "Raging Bull."
"I was like a film school teacher, talking to him about the rules of playing a hero," Singleton said. "A hero walks upright. He walks with his head high. I was like his coach."
To prepare physically for the film — shot in Pittsburgh over 51 days last year — Lautner learned how to ride a motorcycle and engaged in arduous boxing and wrestling training.
He appears in nearly every frame of the picture, and the largely physical role allows him to showcase his propensity for stunt work. It is without question his bid to abandon his status as a teen heartthrob, a prospect that's proved tricky for his "Twilight" colleagues.
Stewart will star in an adaptation of "Snow White" due out next year, but she's mostly opted to act in independent films that have been little seen by the fans of the franchise. Pattinson too has followed a similar trajectory. His biggest non-"Twilight" success came with "Water for Elephants," a romantic period drama in which he starred opposite Reese Witherspoon that grossed a decent $117 million worldwide this year.
But Singleton believes that the powers that be are invested in the young man's success. "The industry wants new blood," he said. "They want someone else they can build movies around. So basically, Hollywood is kind of rooting for Taylor."
Lionsgate needs a hit
"Abduction" is important not only for Lautner but also for the studio that made the film, Lionsgate, which has struggled to produce a hit in recent months. A costly remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger '80s flick "Conan the Barbarian" flopped in August, and this month's mixed-martial arts drama "Warrior" opened to a disappointing $5.2 million despite strong reviews.
Lionsgate spent roughly $35 million to produce "Abduction" and paid Lautner around $5 million to star in it — a bet that he can open a movie that doesn't have the built-in fan base of "Twilight." Though audience surveys indicate the film is generating solid interest, most of it is coming from teenage girls. After the influx of "Twi-hards" on opening night, it remains to be seen who else — if anyone — will buy tickets.
"This movie is absolutely important for him — and for us, which is why we were so calculating," said Joe Drake, president of the studio's motion picture group. "We were very thoughtful about how we put it together. We found a director who had a track record of coaxing lead performances out of young actors. And then we surrounded him with some veteran actors, like Sigourney Weaver and Alfred Molina, so everything wasn't hanging on him."
But during the production, recalled costar Weaver, who plays Nathan's psychiatrist in the film, Lautner rarely appeared to be suffering under the weight of all that pressure.
"We would just kind of goof around on the set — taking shots of ourselves that would make us look like Martians or fat on that photo booth program on the computer," said the veteran actress. "We certainly weren't talking about Chekhov or anything. I'm sorry to say there weren't any weighty conversations about the Method. I thought he was pretty normal, actually. And I'm sure that's difficult with all these fans who might be stalking him or something."
Retaining a sense of normality, Lautner says, has been a challenge. Last year, he spent only five weeks at home — one reason he's yet to consider getting a place of his own. He completed about 12 credits at his local community college via online correspondence but found himself unable to finish the course load required to attain a degree while balancing his acting career.
He's also learning how to deal with the attention he receives from fans and from gossip sites. In addition to covering his romantic comings and goings — Lautner has been linked to Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift and most recently his "Abduction" costar Lily Collins — TMZ made public Lautner's summer purchase of a 2012 SLS AMG Mercedes-Benz, a flashy ride equipped with gullwings and worth more than $200,000.
"It took me a long time to decide to get it, but it's an amazing car. I definitely don't drive it much. It's kind of, like, stored away," he said. "My parents definitely always taught me to save and be smart financially. I hope I'm doing that — and I believe I am."
Bill Condon, who directed the final two installments of the "Twilight" series, said he's noticed that Lautner has a heightened awareness of his public persona.
"I recently invited him over to see a cut of the new movie at the place where we were editing, and suddenly it was all, 'Well, who's going to be around?'" Condon recounted. "So he gets there, and … out of nowhere, on this studio back lot, there are suddenly, like, six girls. I got a taste of what he was on about. But it does feel like he's very aware of that all the time — always thinking about how to avoid being mobbed."
Lautner has yet to announce what his next project will be, though he said he's eager to work with a handful of filmmakers, including Hollywood heavyweight Steven Spielberg and critics' darling Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed the violent, moody genre piece "Drive." Lautner is optimistic that his "Twilight" audience will follow him as he embarks on this new path.
"I'm just hoping that the fans can support me doing completely different things outside of the franchise," he said. "And yeah, I mean, there probably is a lot at stake. It definitely crosses my mind, and I would be lying if I said I feel no pressure. But whenever that thought does come in my mind, I try to push it out as quickly as possible. I try and just stay focused on things that I can control."
Moments later he got ready to leave, posing for photos with a few fans who had been waiting nearby and then asking a reporter to make sure that the elusive paparazzo wasn't still hanging around. Even a budding action star, it seems, can never be too careful.