Actor Jackson Rathbone has spent the better part of two blockbuster films looking like he's in pain. Terrible pain.
He is about to be rewarded for all of that grimacing.
In "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse," opening Wednesday, Rathbone finally steps out of the background and into the spotlight as vampire Jasper Cullen.
Audiences will learn about Jasper's pre-vampire life as a Civil War soldier, as the quiet Cullen becomes central to the story. Jasper is key in defeating a growing threat to the lives of characters fans have grown to love at a feverish pitch, including vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and his human love Bella (Kristen Stewart).
"I'm really excited about delving into Jasper's back story," Rathbone says, calling from the West Coast on a recent Saturday night to discuss "Eclipse," the third movie based on the best-selling novels by Stephenie Meyer. "I won't spoil it too much for you, but we definitely do see Jasper as a human and get to see Jasper turned into a vampire and living the vampire life before he met Alice [Cullen]."
Do we see Jasper in the Civil War?
"You bet. He was the youngest major in the Texas Calvary," Rathbone laughs, turning up his Southern accent and charm to match. "I got to get back on the horse, get back on the saddle. It had been about three years since I had been riding. So I tricked the producers into getting me riding lessons to get me back up to snuff."
With the opening of "Eclipse" just days away, the film is being met by the same high ticket demand as the first two films, "Twilight" and "New Moon." There are at least 25 midnight screenings of "Eclipse" scheduled at Buffalo-area theaters alone, most of them sold out. This excitement surrounding the movies goes back to the early days of filming "Twilight," even though the movie had a then-relatively unknown cast.
"We started having people knocking on our hotel doors and leaving us gift baskets -- people who we had never met," recalls Rathbone. "Fans had found where we were. They hadn't even seen the film but were already supporting characters from the books. That was incredible."
Incredible, yes, but only a sampling of what was to come. The frenzy that follows the cast speaks for itself, especially when it comes to the mob scenes that have surrounded the movie's main trio -- Pattinson, Stewart and Taylor Lautner. The numbers, well they're simply staggering: 100 million books sold in 50 countries; more than $1.1 billion at the box office for the first two movies ("Twilight" and "New Moon"); combined DVD sales at around 15 million; and equally impressive sales of soundtracks that have jettisoned the careers of such bands as Muse and Paramore.
Rathbone, who is also starring in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender," says he doesn't take any of this for granted.
"As an actor you want to entertain as wide, as broad an audience as possible, and 'Twilight' has brought all of us such a wide fan base that is so supportive of what we do," Rathbone says. "Without them [the fans], we couldn't do it. I'm lucky, I'm blessed and I'm privileged."
At its essence, "Twilight" is the age-old story about the powerful love between two people from different cultures or classes. Here, it happens to be handsome young vampire Edward and shy human teen Bella. Rathbone plays the newest member of the Cullen family -- a clan of nonviolent vampires who adhere to a nonhuman diet. Forced to repress his natural vampire tendency toward humans (feeding on human blood), Jasper has his problems around Bella. In fact, Jasper's extreme reaction to a paper cut suffered by Bella sets the entire emotionally draining story of "New Moon" into action.
Surprisingly, despite the danger he presents to the much-loved Bella, audiences were having an interesting reaction to Jasper: they were loving him. That stiff posture and ever-present grimace gave the films some much-needed comic relief, something Rathbone says was by design from the first rehearsals.
"I was playing with it and trying to get everyone else to laugh. I found a certain sensibility to Jasper's awkwardness. I equate it to being introduced to a piece of steak," he says about meeting Bella. " 'Hello this is my girlfriend, filet mignon. Nice to meet you filet mignon,' " he laughs. "To me, there was a certain level of comedy in it."
Behind it all, though, Rathbone believes Jasper is a decent guy. "He has to go to high school over and over and over again, just so he can be with the love of his life, Alice."
Love has drawn many to Meyer's books and the movies, especially, of course, the romance between Edward and Bella and the complex relationship of Bella and her best friend, Jacob Black (Lautner). But the "Twilight" saga has many positive loving relationships, including that of Bella and her father (Billy Burke); Carlisle and Esme (Peter Facinelli and Elizabeth Reaser), the devoted heads of the Cullen family; and Jasper and Alice (Ashley Greene), the pixieish vampire with the power to see different versions of the future.
"The Jasper and Alice bond is extremely powerful," Rathbone says. "I think she saved him. There is a level of commitment and dedication, because he was living a life he didn't believe in and she gave him a way out. He's still adjusting to it, and messes up, as you can see in 'New Moon.' But at the end of the day he's trying -- he's trying for her. There's a beauty in that. It's one of those things that we try to find in life and we cherish it in films -- finding the love that binds us together."
Rathbone tried not to stray from how Jasper was presented in Meyer's novels. "I really wanted to bring everything out of the books," he says, adding the cast had "the honor" of being given a look at what Meyer had done in "Midnight Sun," the unpublished work that is "Twilight" written from Edward's perspective. "There was a lot of interesting back-story she revealed to us. It was nice to hear from her about those finer points, because it really does inform your performance."
When we talked, Rathbone had yet to see the finalized version of "Eclipse," but he was still brimming with excitement -- especially over the choice of director David Slade, the visionary filmmaker behind such films as "Hard Candy" and the terrifying vampire flick "30 Days of Night."
"I was a huge fan of 'Hard Candy.' I loved the visual dynamics and the tension he builds in the entire film. I loved '30 Days of Night.' He had a couple of shots in there ... I was pretty excited to meet him and ask him how he got these shots," Rathbone says. "He's got such a great technical eye and sense of art. The hardest part of a director's job is find the mix between commercial and art. David has done a beautiful job and though I haven't seen the film, but just from my experience filming it, I think this is going to be the best 'Twilight' film yet."