For Jackson Rathbone, this could be heartthrob breakout week

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Actor Jackson Rathbone, poised to enter the celebrity galaxy, at Hotel Sofitel in Center City Saturday.

Jackson Rathbone is a celestial event waiting to happen and this might be his week. The Texan, 25, a vest-pocket Johnny Depp, stands tall astride two potential summer blockbusters. The Twilight Saga: Eclipse opened at midnight; The Last Airbender opens Thursday.

Two years ago, this Singapore-born son of an oil executive stashed his belongings with pals in L.A., and made nine feature films (one of which, Girlfriend, he also produced) back to back.

So far, Twilight and its sequel, New Moon - in which Rathbone plays humane vampire Jasper Hale (choosing animal over human blood) - have grossed more than a billion dollars.

To Generation Y, Twilight's leads are the Beatles, and Rathbone is Ringo, puckish and down to earth. With his deadpan performance in Eclipse, Rathbone's Jasper moves from the background to foreground, and the actor is poised to seize the day.

Last year the descendant of Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson spent nearly four months in Philadelphia filming M. Night Shyamalan's The Last Airbender. In this martial-arts fantasy based on the Nickelodeon cartoon, he plays Sokka, warrior of the South Water tribe, trying to neutralize Fire Lord Dev Patel. If Airbender strikes box office gold, then Rathbone will be a player in two profitable franchises - which would be comparable to Will Smith having both a Bad Boys and a Men in Black picture released the same week.

The throng of 750 at the Piazza at Schmidts on Saturday, where Rathbone introduced a twi-night doubleheader of the first two Twilight pictures, suggests his base is female. Not so, as he was cheered by 44,000 fans earlier in the day when he hurled the first pitch before the Phillies-Blue Jays game.

Listen to the clutch of teens who came to the Piazza at 5 a.m. to secure seats for the 8 p.m. Rathbone show.

"Jackson Rathbone is hot," said Nora Wilson, 12, a student at Collingswood Middle School.

"He's amazing!" cooed Kim Alfonso, 14, an incoming freshman at Bishop Shanahan in Downingtown. "I love his serious face as Jasper, calming down people with his special powers."

"He's really hot and makes really good music," chimed in Morgan Socorso, 14, an incoming freshman at Downingtown East, referring to Rathbone's sideline as a singer in the alt-rock band 100 Monkeys. (Fans identify as "Monkeyjunkies.")

Along with sisters Ashley and Christy Schneyer, the early birds won a private meet-and-greet with Rathbone. The wattage of their smiles could light Center City for a week.

Monroe Jackson Rathbone V - call him Jackson - knows that as clothes make the man, fans make the star. He is the Johnny Appleseed of male ingenues, sowing seeds by graciously signing hundreds of autographs at Penn's Landing, Citizens Bank Park, and the Piazza.

While not yet a star of the magnitude of castmate Robert Pattinson, the John Lennon of the Twilight quartet (outgoing Taylor Lautner would be Paul, and moody Kristen Stewart would be George), Rathbone is no stranger to Twi-hard fanaticism.

In a sit-down with a pair of teenage Twilight authorities, Maddie Addis, 14, and Cora Levy, 13, Rathbone regales them with his "craziest fan experience." Returning to his Vancouver hotel room last year while shooting Eclipse, Rathbone noted a knot of stalkerazzi. He started signing autographs.

"When a woman smiles at me and hands me her baby, I thought she was going to give me the baby and just walk away, and I was like, 'No, lady, no!' Then she snaps a photo, takes the kid back, and walks away - without saying anything."

Rathbone talked about how he, the only son of "conservative parents" with three daughters, went from a household where he didn't watch Airbender "because we weren't allowed to watch TV," to being the star of a big-budget movie based on a Nickelodeon television series.

Despite the black leather jacket (in 90-degree heat!), he came across less the rebel than the team player, a human spark plug who ignites his four clans.

"In my Twilight family, I'm the cutup. In my Airbender family, which is younger, I'm the big brother and role model," he reflected. "With my band, I'm the peacemaker, and in the Rathbone family, I'm the joker."

And also the gallant who, when his older sisters beat him up (and he asked, "Dad, what do I do?"), followed his dad's advice: "Just take it." Credit Dad for Rathbone's ladies-first manners.

"I'm from Texas and really am a Southern gentleman," he said. His heritage helped inform his interpretation of Jasper, whose Eclipse flashbacks reveal that his vampire conversion came while in the Texas cavalry during the Civil War. "I channeled my ancestor a bit," he said.

Commonalities between Jasper and Sokka? "Both are warriors at heart and each sticks up for those he loves." Differences? "Jasper is a 200-year-old vampire and Sokka is a 17-year-old boy."

Rathbone loved his martial-arts training for Airbender: "I got to wield double swords! And got to have that Keanu Matrix moment: 'Hey, I know kung fu!' "

While shooting Airbender, Rathbone imported his bandmates and rented a townhouse in Fairmount where they recorded. "We ate three meals a day at Fairmount Pizza," he said, and "played gigs at Kung Fu Necktie and the Khyber."

He regrets not having much time for sightseeing. Shooting hours precluded visiting the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Eastern State Penitentiary. One night he and a date jokingly "tried to break into the museum by pounding on the doors." But when a guard came out, Rathbone and his date slipped away.

Though the actor observed his parents' rules about not watching TV, "I was always a cinephile. The first movie I snuck off to see was Terminator 2."

For his last two years of high school, Rathbone attended the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, alma mater of Norah Jones, where he studied acting and music.

"Then I was accepted at the Royal Scottish Academy to study classical theater," he recalled. "But the summer before I was to start, on a lark I moved to L.A. and then decided to take a gap year." He got small gigs (a one-shot as an interviewer on television's Disney 411) which led to bigger gigs (TV's Beautiful People) which led to here.

"The point of going to college was to learn what I wanted to do and start working, and there I was, knowing what I wanted to do and already working."

He does not regret his decison to bypass higher education. "Once you find your passion, life is great."


A Vampire on a Desert Isle

What would Twilight and The Last Airbender star Jackson Rathbone bring to a desert island? Here are a few of his favorite things:

Book: The Brothers Karamazov

CD: The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll Circus

DVD: Casablanca


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/flickgrrl. "Twilight" authority Cora Levy is her daughter.