Taylor Lautner: The Next Big Thing

updated 06/23/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/23/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

TAYLOR LAUTNER WOULD LIKE TO make one thing perfectly clear about his Twilight character, teen boy turned extra-warm-blooded werewolf Jacob Black. "There's a reason that he's not wearing clothes all the time," says Lautner. "One, when he transforms, all his clothes get shredded; he can't help it. And he's also hot-he's 108 degrees. So that's another reason."

You can forgive Lautner if he's feeling a bit peevish about being, well, overexposed. The actor-who just turned 18 in February-is still trying to figure out how to handle all the attention that the Twilight saga has brought to both his increasingly buffed-out body ("It's so embarrassing," he said last fall) and the level of heat he can bring to a movie screen.

After almost losing out on reprising Jacob in New Moon because producers feared he couldn't hold his own as a romantic lead against Robert Pattinson, Lautner proved he had the skills (and the eight-pack) to make female fans swoon; and in the process, he won over Hollywood's power players, who are now eager to turn Lautner into the next big action star. The Grand Rapids, Mich., native recently nabbed the leading-man role in three stunt-filled flicks that each come with a blockbuster paycheck: His current asking price is reportedly $7 million a movie.

Of course, as his costars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart also discovered, success has come with a privacy-invading price tag. There's the ubiquitous paparazzi presence (they've taken to boxing Lautner in from the left, right and behind as he drives around L.A.), the incessant dating rumors and the occasional media-induced headache. Take the Rolling Stone cover Lautner landed last December, for example. After being peppered with a series of questions about whether he's ever snorted cocaine, gotten drunk or been arrested, Lautner tried to put an end to the over-the-top grilling by saying, "Can I ask you a question? What did you do with Zac Efron when you interviewed him?"

Unfortunately, Taylor, an actor's life is not always as sweet as High School Musical. But the good news is there are plenty of people out there wildly singing his praises. "He not only has box office draw, he's a good actor," casting director Scout Masterson says of Lautner's appeal. "He's the boy next door-likable, relatable and charming-and yet he can also transform into darker characters."

His costars can't compliment him enough either. Since the franchise's first film, "he's literally become a different person," says Kristen Stewart. "He's just grown up. He's so confident and the nicest guy I ever met." Echoes Ashley Green: "He's the total package: sweet, geniune and talented." Furthermore, says casting agent Masterson, in his short time in the spotlight Lautner has earned a reputation for being "hard-working and serious-he's got a long, successful career ahead of him."

Not surprisingly, Lautner has built some play time into his schedule as well. Along with being linked romantically to some of the hottest teen stars (see box), he was also a red carpet fixture on the awards circuit, presenting at this year's Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Later, he even picked up a trophy of his own: He scored more fan votes than (oh, the irony) Zac Efron and Shia LaBeouf to win Best Male Movie Star at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards. "I have always dreamt of winning one of these orange blimps," Lautner said during his acceptance speech.

Thanks to Twilight, a lot of Lautner's dreams are coming true, and although he didn't realize it would have that power at the beginning ("We didn't expect anything," he says), it has definitely hit home since. "I love this character, and I love this story," says Lautner. "I'm doing what I love and spending time with the people I love. I'm having the time of my life."

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