These days, Alex Meraz, the 24-year-old actor who plays New Moon‘s Paul — the most explosive member of the wolf pack — is washing his hands. As well he should — following New Moon‘s giant, record-breaking weekend, the actor is getting recognized more than ever. And that’s quite a change for Meraz, considering his previous work includes small indie flicks, and a small role in 2005’s The New World. The actor took time out of shaking hands to talk to EW about Native Americans in film, working out for the role, and why he’ll never be a diva.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s probably been crazy for you lately, running around to premieres everywhere.

ALEX MERAZ: Yeah, it has been actually. Meeting a lot of fans and shaking a lot of different hands. So there’s been a lot of hand sanitizer.

Were you a fan of the books before you got the role?

No. I didn’t really know what it was. I’d go to Borders in Arizona and see it everywhere, because the writer [Stephenie Meyer] is from there. I remember seeing these pasty hands and a red apple. And I didn’t even know what it was until after it came out and it was [successful]. And then thought, I’d like to try out for the next role.

What about the movie made you want to be a part of the franchise?

The fact that it’s the first time you see Natives portrayed in a contemporary setting. It’s not a period piece. I had been doing other independent films and things like that where I’m in a breechcloth running around on horseback hooting and hollering. There was something just really cool to know that it’s a global sensation, and now Natives are going to have the spotlight.

You are Native American, so this is probably refreshing.

It definitely was. I personally was shocked when I heard that the books had a huge Native component in them. It was the whole part of the wolf pack, and I didn’t know how big the wolf pack was until I read about it. I was just shocked that people were interested, you know what I mean? So I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing. I totally want to be part of something like that.”

What did you have to do for your audition? Did you perform a certain scene?

Well, first I went out for Sam Uley, the wolf pack leader. We did this whole scene from the book that they took out, because they weren’t releasing anything from the script. So it was a scene where we’re at Emily’s house and we discover Victoria — who’s a vampire — had been killing on the reservation. So we figure out who’s been killing all these people and hikers and bikers on the reservation, and we figure out it’s a vampire. So it was that scene, and I had to kind of like play a quarterback and tell people what they needed to do. The hard thing about that, in the book, Sam is described as 6’4” and with a deep voice. You know, like a leader. And I’m 5’11″. I don’t have a deep voice. So I was trying to act like something bigger. Then luckily enough, Joseph said, “Let’s try this.” And he gave me one single line. He gave me a [lede-in], “Come in Bella, we won’t bite.” And I had to look at the camera and say, “Speak for yourself.” But the way I did it, it was so naughty. I blew a kiss, gave a little wink. Like, really naughty. And it was based off of that one line that I got the role of Paul.

Just that one line, huh?

Yeah, ’cause, you know, I showed my acting chops, I guess. [Laughs] It was cool. I was really happy. It was a very organic process. And when I read the books, I was ecstatic. That’s the kind of role that I’d rather play. Something more naughty and exciting. A bad boy, you know?

Did you do anything to prepare for the role before auditioning?

I was so invested. I worked really hard working out. I gained 20 pounds just to do the audition.

So all of you bulked up.

I can’t speak for the other guys. I think Chaske [Spencer] bulked up, because he used to be really thin, but he bulked up like an alpha male. But for myself, I totally did just for the audition. Because I saw pictures of Taylor and I thought, holy crap, I’ve got to beef up. He went all out. And you never know, because the camera makes people look big, and I wasn’t sure how big he was, but I didn’t want to take a chance. I wanted to look comparable. That’s what I had in my mind: The way he looks, that’s the way they’re going to cast the rest of the wolf pack.

Going into the film, you knew people were crazy about this franchise, right?

Yeah. I definitely did, for sure. I knew it was a huge phenomenon. And then you worry, “I hope they embrace me.” Because the other downside to that is, the fans, they’ve been reading these books, and they fantasize what the characters look like already. So if you don’t match up to their ideas of who the characters are, they’ll derail you. They’ll bad-mouth you online. It was like that with Rob [Pattinson], too. They didn’t like the way that Rob looked. But I had an understanding, which was, once they see it in context, once the movie comes out, they’ll get it. They won’t be imagining anything else. They’re going to see what is there. Because that’s what happened with Twilight. They hated Rob [before], then they saw the movie, and now Rob’s the biggest heartthrob ever.

Did fans criticize you at first?

I read a couple of things. The first month, you obsessively go online and Google yourself. And [director] Chris Weitz, he gave us a bit of advice. He said, “Alright, I’ve got to say this. I know you’re going to do it: Just go online for the first month and get it out of your system. Google yourself, but then stop. Because then, what’s going to happen is you’re going to be getting really mad about something that a 12-year-old is writing online.” And it’s true. The first month, I did it, and I got a lot of good response. Then I started getting other ones that were just wild. Like, “He totally shouldn’t be Paul. He doesn’t look like Paul. He looks like too much of a nice guy.”

Well, that’s not too bad. You look like a nice guy!

Well, I just thought, “It’s called acting, sweetie.” That’s when you start talking back to your computer, and you’re like, “wait a minute. This is wrong.”

What kind of fan interactions have you had at this point?

It’s been really great. I’m just always grateful when I meet fans. The premiere was Monday, and Friday was the first night people started coming out. So I went out there and met with some of the fans that were camping out. Because it’s always nice to see something like that.

They must have been psyched to see you.

Yeah. It’s funny, because I joked around with a fan who was shocked that I was there. Like, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I don’t know! I went around the corner to get some milk, and I ended up running into this!” But it was cool. I took my time to sign autographs. I’m just very grateful and excited that the fans are there. It’s a built-in fanbase. It’s a hot skillet we’re walking into.

And now that the movie’s set box-office records, even more people are going to start recognizing you.

I’ve already been experiencing it. I go out to get something, and you hear people whispering.

Is that going to get old?

I don’t know. The thing is, me, I’m so paranoid just because when I hear people talking like that, I think something’s going on. I forget that I’m in a big movie. I hope I get used to it in that sense, so I don’t have to feel like I have toilet paper hanging from the back of my shoe.

So you just finished filming Eclipse.

Yeah. We don’t know when Breaking Dawn is going to happen. Especially now. It’s been a crazy month and a half of doing promotion for this movie. And I’m thinking, “well, we still have the next one to do.” I don’t really want to know about Breaking Dawn right now. I’m just taking one movie at a time.

What’s next for you after the saga ends?

Before I got New Moon, I’d fight to get auditions. Now I have so many coming my way. I’m happy about that. I actually want to do an action film. I used to be one of those guys that wanted to do wordy actor-y kind of movies. But now, after seeing New Moon, and realizing that you can be something bigger-than-life, transforming into a massive wolf, I’m like, wow, I want to do an action film. Because my background is in martial arts. So anything that involves me holding a gun and killing a crapload of people sounds like a lot of fun.

So that means you’re going to have to stay bulked up.

I’m sure every film it’s going to be like, “Okay, this is the scene where your shirt gets ripped off.” I’ll never be able to keep my shirt on.

Photo Credit: Kimberley French

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