Actor Taylor Lautner. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
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."