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Our bloody Valentine

He may have only just turned 24, but it's hard to see what Robert Pattinson has left to achieve.

The British-born actor already has his own waxwork at Madame Tussauds in London and New York, his own action figure, and a seemingly permanent spot on People magazine's annual ranking of the Sexiest Men Alive.

He's the subject of at least five unauthorised biographies, was recently included in Time magazine's list of the world's 100 most influential people, and has the cleverly abbreviated moniker that's de rigueur for any self-respecting 21st century superstar: R-Pattz. Some of his adoring fans also call him "The Pattz," but most of the time they're too busy screaming to call him anything at all.

And don't expect the frenzy to die down any time soon. Hard on the heels of Twilight and New Moon in which Pattinson plays (do we really need to tell you?) moviedom's dreamiest vampire, Edward Cullen, comes the next big-screen instalment of Stephenie Meyer's bestselling series, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

It's the most eagerly anticipated movie of the summer and the only question mark hanging over it is exactly how many zillion dollars it will take. By the time Eclipse is out of theatres and heading for DVD, Pattinson will also be back on set filming the final film in the series, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, which may be split into two parts and shot in 3D.

Expect fan hysteria whenever Pattinson and his superstar castmates Kristen Stewart and Taylor Lautner show their impossibly beautiful faces in public.

"It's hard to reflect on the whole experience with any perspective," says the man at the centre of the pop-culture storm during an interview in Los Angeles. "Everything has exploded in such a short space of time," Pattinson explains. "It's just this sort of supernova. I think it will be 10 years' time before I can process it."

Of course, 10 years is a mighty long time in Hollywood and with the end of The Twilight Saga in sight, Pattinson's team has rather more pressing concerns, such as negotiating his smooth transition from teen idol to fully fledged movie star. As for Pattinson himself, he can't get his mind off a missing pair of white gym socks.

"I was coming back from the gym this morning," he affably explains, "and I realised that not only was I wearing my second-hand gym clothes and chewed up trainers, but the sort of black socks that you'd usually wear with a suit to an office."

This is the kind of self-mocking story Pattinson likes to tell about himself, its wry tones drawing a clear line between his bumbling, dishevelled self and his status as reigning champ of all those best-dressed and sexiest men of the year lists. As Pattinson triumphantly notes of the black socks, "I think they sort of cancel out sexy and well-dressed at the same time."

In truth, Pattinson protests too much, though his modesty is undeniably winning. Any way you cut it, he is traffic-stoppingly good-looking, his tall frame, chiselled features and romantically floppy hair an impeccable blueprint for the modern movie idol. Still, there has to be some pressure in playing a character whose creator, Stephenie Meyer, imagined as "the most beautiful creature who has ever been born", let alone being mobbed and twittered about every time he pops into Starbucks for a latte. After all, it's just a few years ago that Pattinson "couldn't get arrested", as he puts it, and he admits he's still coming to terms with his loss of anonymity.

"I spend a lot of time hiding," he says. "I wish I didn't get so panicky about things. But I think I have managed to keep the job separate from my life and it hasn't really affected my ego that much."

Apart from not taking his fame too seriously, Pattinson's strategy for handling superstardom involves working almost non-stop. He was recently in cinemas in the romantic drama Remember Me and he has just finished shooting Bel Ami with Kristin Scott Thomas, which he describes as a cheeky romp. "I play this character in Paris who's totally impossible to empathise with and continuously screws over anyone who does him any favours, but ends up with a lot of money, which I think is very realistic!"

After that he's starring alongside Reese Witherspoon in Water for Elephants, a Depression-era drama in which he plays a veterinary student who joins a circus. "It's a great story, an amazing cast, a great director, and it's a spectacular film without any CGI, but what appealed to me most about the film was the elephants," Pattinson explains. "I just met the elephants I am going to be working with and they're amazing," he adds. "Did you know that elephants could purr? I just found that out."

It is typical of Pattinson's quirky style that he should cite a love of elephants as a reason for choosing a role in a film. Equally significant, when asked which character he has preferred playing, he chooses the surrealist painter Salvador Dali in the not much seen but effective Little Ashes. And how about the actors he most admires? Jack Nicholson for one. And the certifiably eccentric Joaquin Phoenix for another.

"Joaquin Phoenix is one of the only actors who is really trying to break boundaries and doesn't come at things from the point of view of what's good for his career necessarily," says Pattinson. "I think that's really brave."

If Little Ashes is anything to go by, it's an approach that Pattinson is trying to emulate. It's also a world away from his Twilight co-star Taylor Lautner's breezy embrace of a career plan that envisages a future of back-to-back Hollywood blockbusters. Pattinson looks more likely to stick to the sort of strategy that took Leonardo DiCaprio from Titanic-era teen idol to being Martin Scorsese's full-time muse.

Of course, after the Twilight films Pattinson will not have to worry about where his next pay cheque is coming from. "I want to go on working," he says, "because, to me, this job is like going on vacation. It's exciting to go to work every day. But I definitely want to do roles that inspire me, not things that are just good for my career. I think every part I have done has defined my personality for that period."

And how about Edward Cullen? How does the mind-reading, super-fast and super-strong vampire with the sparkling skin define Pattinson's personality? "One of the things that most interested me about Eclipse," the actor says, "is that Edward goes through a much wider range of emotions. In the first two films he was detached from everybody, but now he has to engage and be part of the world and can't be so aloof if he wants to hold on to his relationships."

How that defines Pattinson's personality for this period, we'll let fans read into it what they will, but Pattinson's pick for the standout scene in the film will give them something else to chew on. "I like the scene where Bella thinks she has betrayed me with Jacob, and Edward has to deal with that and forgive her. It's one of the most interesting scenes in the whole series."

After three films Pattinson might be keen to move on from playing a vampire, but he insists that the role fascinates him still. "I always forget between films how much I like the character," he says. "It's very comfortable and satisfying for me to be able to come back and play Edward."

Is there anything he doesn't like about playing Edward? "It makes me feel like I am getting older way quicker than I really am," he says. "Every six months I arrive back on set and everyone says, 'You look a year older'. So it was my 24th birthday the other day and I felt like I was turning 35."

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse opens on July 9. Paid previews are on this Saturday and Sunday. See tomorrow's Herald for the first reviews of the new movie