Sipping on coffee with milk on a sunny morning at the Four Seasons, Pattinson describes attempts to housebreak the "German shepherdy-mix" he recently adopted from a shelter in Louisiana. "He's called Bear," Pattinson says matter-of-factly.
"I was trying to potty-train him to go on the balcony of the hotel room," he says. "It was so windy in Vancouver, the door slammed in his face, and I was just like, nooo." He sighs: Before Bear was adopted, the pup was found in a trash can outside a bar and has since almost had a run-in with a wolf and a seagull in Vancouver. "He's got a door phobia anyway."
Clad in a plaid button-down and jeans, and minus screaming fans, paparazzi, managers and studio minders, Pattinson lets go of his shyness in the time it takes to recap an "unbearably irritating" game of Words With Friends. It's only in front of a video camera later that he noticeably shrinks, adopting a hunch that matches his quick-to-draw sheepish grin. But one-on-one, conversation spins like cotton candy as Pattinson, 24, discusses hanging up his trademark vampire fangs for the 1930s-set Big Top world of Water for Elephants, a movie he calls "definitely bigger" than any other he has done outside the Twilight franchise.
In Water for Elephants, which hits theaters Friday and is based on the best-selling book by Sara Gruen, Pattinson plays Jacob, a veterinary student who abandons his studies and jumps aboard a steam train for the Benzini Bros. roughshod circus. Jacob quickly falls for star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who is trapped in a marriage with the circus owner (Christoph Waltz).
Blame it all on the selling power of an gentle giant named Tai.
Cowboys and trains
Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend) banked on Pattinson's love of animals to sell him on the script.
"The first time I met (Lawrence), we went to meet Tai the elephant at her house," says Pattinson of the 42-year-old elephant who plays lumbering Rosie, the Benzini Bros. main act. Tai showed off tricks the studio originally thought could be accomplished only by a computer-generated elephant.
Charmed, Pattinson read the script on the ride back. Plus, "I always wanted to do something in the '30s in America," he says. "It's kind of my idea of what America really is, that period, kind of the best time to be in America. You're still kind of a cowboy, but there's this huge energy. The future was being created then."
The love triangle complete, Pattinson, Witherspoon and Waltz headed for Piru, Calif., where the desert set was bursting with circus tents, steam trains, hundreds of extras, spangled costumes, circus performers and animals. "There was something about the ruggedness of it, which I hadn't really done," Pattinson says.
Lawrence saw immediate chemistry between Pattinson and Witherspoon. "I think he's never been quite as charming as he's been in this," he says. "I think he feels like a real leading man."
The film put a newly clean-cut Pattinson in the center ring with two Academy Award winners (Witherspoon for 2005's Walk the Line and Waltz for 2009's Inglourius Basterds) and a coterie of more than 600 animals. "I'm sure Rob had some insecurities coming up into scenes against Christoph and Reese, but he never showed it," Lawrence says. "I think he watched and learned and listened."
And there were distractions. Witherspoon, who occasionally brought her kids to the zoolike set, laughs as she talks about Tai following Pattinson "sort of like man's best friend — even though she's 9,000 pounds." Pattinson recounts "insane" days, including one when the script finds Waltz taunting Pattinson to hand-feed a hungry lion. Pattinson opens the cage, and the lion pounces.
"We did the first take, and sure enough, the lion just ripped the (prosthetic) arm in and wouldn't give it back," Pattinson says. "He didn't even care about the meat. He just wanted to eat the fake arm. I was absolutely terrified."
"Both Rob and Christoph coined the term 'no acting required' in the lion scenes," Lawrence adds with a chuckle. "You didn't have to pretend to be afraid when you were around the lion."
Scarier still was the scene where Pattinson is knocked down by a stallion. "That was terrifying," says the actor, who admits to a fear of horses.
In Elephants, Pattinson's name receives equal billing with Witherspoon and Waltz, a nod to his international success with filmgoers.
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