BEVERLY HILLS, California — As every Twilighter now knows, there was once a time when "New Moon" star Taylor Lautner didn't have his muscles. Rather than being a Charles Atlas-like beefcake, he was the proverbial 97-pound-weakling on the beach at La Push.

But even in those days, before he committed himself to an extreme workout plan that allowed him to continue playing Jacob Black, his co-stars believed that Taylor could do it.

"I've always been a huge supporter of Taylor from 'Twilight,' " said Nikki Reed, who plays Rosalie in the series and insisted that she was keeping her fingers crossed during those dark days last winter when press releases were being issued that conspicuously omitted the actor. "I was rooting for him [to keep his job], and he steals the show. I mean, 'New Moon' is all about Taylor, and he's phenomenal. He has such honesty, like, a raw honesty about him."

"He brings a different energy to the movie," agreed Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Cullen matriarch Esme. "He's great, and he and Kristen have great chemistry. The relationship between Jacob and Bella and Bella and Edward is very, very different. It's cool, and it's different."

On that fateful night in December when a noticeably larger Lautner emerged from a period of hiding to tell us that he was "ready if my number is called," the 17-year-old was accompanied by arguably his biggest supporter: co-star Ashley Greene. Eleven months later, she still swells with pride over Taylor's dedication.

"The surprising thing in the second one is just how much Jacob transforms from this boy to this man," she marveled, saying no one else could ever play Bella's other man. "He's extremely charismatic. And he had his work cut out for him, because at first, everyone was crazed over Edward.

"I was so mad," Greene told us about those weeks when word on the street was that Lautner was not going to return. "There was something in me just going the whole time, 'They're not going to replace this guy! They can't replace this guy!'

"I was ecstatic — I think the whole cast was," she said of the news that Lautner would be back. "Because everyone literally wanted [him back]. When we heard [he might be replaced], we went, 'What are they thinking? This has to be a publicity stunt or something!' Because he did a fantastic job in the first one, and he worked so hard to get to where he is in the second one.

"I was jumping up and down," she remembered of learning she'd work with Taylor again, setting the duo up for a standout moment in "New Moon" when Jacob and Alice exchange some harsh words in Bella's house. "I was really excited to hear that he was staying. And he did a fantastic job. I mean, you can't stop looking at him when he's onscreen."

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