Madonna recognized Robert Patterson almost the moment she saw him.
Patterson, 43, wore a red and white majorette uniform, in tribute to one of Madonna's own costume changes for her MDNA tour. He held a microphone in his hand, preparing to ask the pop star a question at the New York premiere of her most recent concert film, when her eyes turned to him and a wry smile crossed her face.
“Usually, I'm pretty low key and at ease in talking with celebrities,” Patterson said, recalling the moment he came face-to-face with one of his white whales. “But she just threw me.”
There might not be an ordinary Omahan as comfortable talking with celebrities as Patterson. His photo album includes pictures with well over 100 personalities, from A-listers like James Franco to sub-alphabetical sitcom stars and horror movie heroes. He has more photos with people involved in the “Lord of the Rings” franchise (Peter Jackson, Elijah Wood, Dominic Monaghan) than most people have with celebrities, period.
He might have a rival in Wendy Patterson, if she weren't his younger sister and “partner in crime” in celebrity seeking. For several years now, the siblings, both of whom work for social services nonprofits, have spent their vacation days at film festivals and special events around the country.
They go for the entertainment but leave with dozens of photographed encounters. Jennifer Garner. Daryl Hannah. Don Cheadle. Mario Lopez. Ed Helms. Forest Whitaker. Rachel Dratch. Will Ferrell.
The list goes on.
They have it down to a system. If they're going to a film festival — they've attended Sundance together for the past four years and recently went to Telluride — Wendy tries to research which artists might be there so they can think of things to say. When they met Edie Falco (“The Sopranos,” “Nurse Jackie”), they brought up the 2003 fundraiser she attended for the Blue Barn Theatre. Or they'll bring up not-so-obvious roles on the celeb's résumé. A lot of people would meet Scott Baio and think “Charles in Charge” or even “Happy Days.” Patterson, who ran into the Baio on a tour of Paramount Studios, brought up “Arrested Development.” “I was like, 'Oh, it's Bob Loblaw!' ”
They also observe some ground rules and best practices. No interrupting celebrities while they eat, a dictum that kept them from meeting novelist Salman Rushdie not long ago. If they spot a celebrity, they try to get there first because once the first camera comes out, the siege begins. They don't ask for autographs and try to be engaging without wearing out their welcome. From time to time, it's the celebrity who lingers.
“Sometimes they'll hang around, and you'll be like, 'I was just going to get a picture and move on,' ” Wendy said, recalling an “American Pie” cast member they couldn't shake. “We just had nothing to say. He was really nice, but he just stood there.”
They know to be open-minded, since today's nobodies are tomorrow's celebrities. Robert once met actor Chris Pine not long before he landed the career-changing role of Capt. Kirk in the “Star Trek” reboot. Another time, while posing next to actor Thomas Dekker, Patterson handed his camera off to a young woman who turned out to be actress Juno Temple.
The rough moments come when Robert meets someone and Wendy misses out, like the time he caught up with Michael Chiklis from “The Shield,” or Aaron Paul from “Breaking Bad,” or worst of all, his encounter with Ralph Macchio.
“My sister is still upset,” he said.
“I was just obsessed with 'The Karate Kid,' ” Wendy said.
The Pattersons grew up with Hollywood. In the 1980s, they'd go to the now-shuttered Cinema Center and see three movies in a row. They watched “Entertainment Tonight” religiously. They viewed the Academy Awards red carpet procession as something out of a fairy tale.
Robert in particular fell hard for classic horror films, like “Halloween,” which is still his all-time favorite. He attended the 25th and 30th anniversary festivities in Los Angeles in 2003 and 2008, and plans to go back in November for the 35th anniversary. He's met just about everyone in the cast he would care to — “To me, those are as big of celebrities as Brad Pitt, because you've seen them so many times” — with the exception of Jamie Lee Curtis, who rarely appears at such events. The one time she did, the date conflicted with a Madonna concert. “It was a tough decision,” he said somberly.
The summer after he graduated from high school, Patterson enrolled in a week-long workshop in Los Angeles. He snagged his first celebrity photo with Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters”) and visited the Warner Bros. Studio.
“I think that's when I first fell in love with Los Angeles and confirmed my love of film,” he said.
Fast forward a couple decades, and the Pattersons have collected a stack of Sundance badges and photo after photo with celebrities.
Greg Kinnear. Anthony Michael Hall. Edward James Olmos. Paul Dano. Octavia Spencer. Kevin Smith. Juliette Lewis. Conan O'Brien.
Robert assumed Anne Heche would be crazy, but she turned out to be totally down to earth. “Same for Sean Young,” he said.
When he met Carol Kane, Robert — who also tracks down film locations and posts them on his blog — asked if she knew where he could find the house from “When a Stranger Calls.”
“She had no idea,” he said.
Both Pattersons have their white whales, celebrities they'd love to meet.
Robert names Curtis, Shirley MacLaine and Sigourney Weaver. Wendy lists Joss Whedon, Jason Bateman and — “this is going to sound crazy” — Bess Armstrong, best known for her role as the mom on “My So-Called Life.”
She thinks she'd like to meet “True Blood” heartthrob Alexander Skarsgård but isn't certain she could handle it. Sometimes she'll freeze up.
“Robert usually can talk to anyone,” she said, with one star-shaped caveat. “I know he got real nervous when he got to talk to Madonna.”
Patterson first took a shine to Madonna after seeing her controversial 1991 documentary “Truth or Dare.” A decade later he saw her concert broadcast on HBO and vowed to go the next time she toured. He attended his first concert in 2004 and “realized this is where I want to be.” He's seen her 40 times since, including 19 concerts on her most recent tour.
His tickets often land him close to the stage, where celebrities occasionally lurk. Once he looked over and saw Ashton Kutcher. Another time, Anderson Cooper.
At some point, Madonna started to notice. One night the singer's hairstylist took a photo of his T-shirt, which he designed in the singer's honor, and then returned later to report that Madonna wanted it. He didn't get to meet her, but on the same tour he befriended some of her dancers, who told him their boss had talked about the shirt at dinner.
The closest he got to meeting Madonna came at the movie premiere earlier this year. He sat near the stage, in honorific majorette costume. She was perched on the stage, in a tuxedo and top hat, peering into a mass of faces and flashing cameras.
Then she saw him.
“Of course,” she said, in the wryest of ways.
She asked him to stand up and show everyone his outfit. Then she made him repeat his question, because he said it so fast the first time.
It remains a blur to him, his moment with Madonna, with whom he now has history — but still needs a photo.