ALEX PETTYFER Alex Pettyfer isn't quite a household name on the level of heartthrobs like Robert Pattinson or Justin Bieber, but don't tell that to the hundreds of screaming teenage girls who showed up to meet him at a New Jersey Hot Topic two weeks ago, as he and his I Am Number Four co-star Dianna Agron signed autographs and posed for photos. When I talked to him a few days later he downplayed the mayhem-- if there were girls crying or passing out, he didn't see them-- but it was clear that 20-year-old Pettyfer knew, with I Am Number Four coming to theaters February 18, that he was on the verge of something huge.

In fact, he's been on that verge for quite a while. He was cast as a 14-year-old to star in 2005's Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, and worked as an actor and model for several years before snagging two big breaks: the lead in I Am Number Four, playing a teenage alien trying to fit in at an average American high school while on the run from evil extra-terrestrials; and a role starring opposite Vanessa Hudgens in Beastly, a modern take on the "Beauty and the Beast" story. Beastly had been set for release in 2010 but was pushed to this spring, meaning that Pettyfer is just now getting a taste of the rabid teen girl audience that, truly, has been ready to greet him for years now.

I talked to Pettyfer about the fact that Number Four is his first big leading man role rather than Beastly, how he took inspiration from James Dean and Batman, whether or not the movie is as similar to Twilight as it seems, and why he now suffers as a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates. You can read my review of I Am Number Four here, and check out the film in theaters starting Friday.

We all thought Beastly was going to come out before this, but now this the first leading role we'll be seeing you in. Is it strange to have it turn out that way?
Yeah, I think it is. It's definitely weirder to have this movie come out before Beastly.

Because it's bigger?
Not bigger, just different. But it's exciting to have this come out. Hopefully it might get more people to go see Beastly.

You made Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker when you were 14 or 15, and it was effects-heavy like I Am Number Four. How was it different coming back to a big movie like this now that you're a little older?
Well I was young and naive. I didn't really appreciate what was going on. I was just excited to run around a movie set and not really act. And now I appreciate a lot more what I do.

Is there more pressure on you being an adult now? Does the director rely on you more?
Yeah obviously there's bigger responsibility. But there's a big responsibility on any actor in a movie to perform to the highest quality. Even when I was 15, I still needed to give my best, my all.

One of John Smith's [alias for Number Four] powers is that his hands light up. How did that hand effect get done? Is there something in your hand?
90% of it is in my hand. There's like a light source that's in the circle, and then it gets taped to my hand and there's a wire underneath my clothes. It gives off a source of light. I'm like Iron Man.

Is there a lot in the book about the character that we don't see in the movie that you had to build off of?
I think the book and the movie are very different. In the movie he's not as aware of where he's from. He's more reluctant to be the hero, whereas in the book he's kind of excited.

Why did that change?
It was something that me and D.J. came up with. We found that he was more interesting and more layered. No one wants to see someone fight until they actually have to and are invested.

I thought of Spider-Man a lot while watching this movie. Were there any movie heroes that you looked to when building this character?
Batman. Self-made hero.

But he doesn't have powers.
But Batman has this vulnerability about him. He's a very strong man and you don't really see that vulnerability, it doesn't really shine through until Christian Bale's Batman.

Did you and D.J. [Caruso, the director] have any conversations about other specific influences?
I watched Starman and Rebel Without A Cause.

What did you take from Rebel WIthout A Cause?
The vulnerability, the loneliness. [Impossible to recreate in print but worth noting: Pettyfer does a pretty credible rendition of Dean's line "You're tearing me apart!"]

Do you see this as having similarities to Twilight, or is it more different than people think?
It's very different from Twilight. We don't take ourselves as seriously as Twilight. But I hope we have a quarter of the success that they do.

You grew up in the English school system, and this is so based in American high school. Did you have an understanding of American high schools from the movies, or did you have to do research into what they're like?
I kind of just went along to the high school [where I Am Number Four was shooting] and just saw there were so many cliques. I just observed for a day or two while we were rehearsing.

What did that give you in terms of your character?
Well I played an outsider, so I'm not involved in any of that. It made feel reluctant to be involved. It made me upset that people were like that.

You were filming in Pittsburgh, right? What's the experience of filming on location there?
It's nice. It changes your life. I'm forever a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. Apparently I've picked the worst baseball team in the world.

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