Zac Efron takes a chance with ’The Lucky One’
"The Lucky One" is not just Zac Efron's first "adult" role. The Nicholas Sparks based love story takes Efron out of high school and casts him as a U.S. Marine. He plays a soldier who finds a picture of a woman (Taylor Schilling) on the battlefield, and then searches for her when he returns to the States.
"Logan is a character that's a real hero," Efron said. "He's got a lot of integrity and he was a guy that makes choices that I hope I would make if I was put in his circumstances. I said that I was going to do this ages ago when I was just young, I didn't know what I was getting into. I think that it's proven to be everything I dreamed it would be.
"It's been great but it's very different. If you'd have asked me when I was auditioning for 'High School Musical' if I ever thought I was going to play a Marine..."
Getting it right
Doing right by fans of Sparks’ book was important, but even more important was doing right by the military. Efron met real Marines in preparation for his role as Logan, along with director Scott Hicks.
"First and foremost I wanted to spend as much time around Marines and the troops as possible. So I was able to go to Camp Pendleton early on with Scott and sort of just hang out with them, to see what it was like. There were striking differences between them and me. So I was able to look at that early on and see that physically, there was a lot to be done. The hardest part about this was the physical transformation."
But that part -- intense pre-production workouts -- are old hat on Hollywood movies. What inspired Efron was something intangible: identifying the differences between Marines and civilians, which he and Hicks wanted to bring to the film.
"We’ll never truly understand what it is like. I think that everyone in the room is aware of that, but at the same time after a couple hours with them (the Marines), Scott was able to communicate just how much we cared and that we wanted to have the most accurate portrayal. It took a while but finally they opened up and saw that really the more honest they were, is what we cherished. We wanted so hard to give an accurate portrayal. Watching them open up and blossom in front of our eyes and be able to tell these stories and recount, it was a most powerful moment. And it was on the first day. That was the first day me and Scott hung out at all. That was the biggest part."
Romance, Nicholas Spark-style
Many of those differences are physically manifested. "I mean, at first I walked into a room full of Marines and they stand like [super straight], strikingly physical differences. A lot of them were my height and my build but they looked like superheroes. In my eyes at least, I was looking at real-life heroes. I’m a musical theater geek walking in there and I knew there was so much work to be done it was overwhelming at that point. I’m just like, ’how am I going to do this?’ But every time I get really scared was a sign that I was on the right track."
One of the training elements that did make its way into the film involved weapons. Logan dismantles a gun in a tense standoff with a small town sheriff. "I made sure I did that one before. I wasn’t going to let it mess up the scene. So I had that down pretty much by the time we got there but there was a lot of rehearsal beforehand with master sergeant."
When Logan finds Beth (the North Carolina woman whose picture he found in Iraq) at her animal grooming farm, he can’t quite explain what brought him there. She assumes he is looking for work and gives him a job. Of course, their romance blossoms in passionate Nicholas Sparks style.
"I looked forward to those scenes. They’re always looming. Other people don’t want to talk about them because somehow they’ve got this weird awkward perception of them. But once you get there, if it’s with somebody you really trust, it’s easy. That was one of the easiest days on the shoot."
The dialogue can get a bit flowery too. In the film’s trailer you’ve heard Logan tell Beth, "You deserve to be kissed every day, every hour, every minute."
"There’s a cynical part of you that has red flags go off on a couple lines. But then I think back to such moments I’ve been in where I’ve said things way, way crazier than that. So it’s all relative. There was a little bit of shivering when I realized I was going to do that on camera, but I think a bit of pride too."
The love story between Logan and Beth gets complicated when he finds out that the photo he found belonged to her brother, who died in action. How can he explain that to her? However, another love story in the film may be between Logan and Zeus, his canine companion played by Rowdy the dog.
"We went through so much, man, me and that dog, me and Rowdy. It was amazing because the first time I met him, I wasn’t even really allowed to engage him because the dog loses respect for you. So we went this roller coaster relationship from me paying virtually no attention to him and sort of being interested. Finally I was able to sort of engage him, we became like best friends. We had a great working relationship. The best actor on the set. Super, super talented. Yeah, I grew very attached to the dog."
There was a small, small opportunity to pay homage to Efron’s musical side in "The Lucky One." Logan plays the piano, and he dances with Beth’s son.
"Yeah, don’t put music on," Efron joked, because he can’t resist it.
As Efron proceeds into his "grown-up" career, he is open to more genres than romance too. We may see Zac Efron as an action hero, if the right project comes his way.
"I really liked ’Chronicle.’ I thought that was a very, very cool movie. [I would do] something that’s different, something with a cool director. It just comes down to great material and a great director at the helm. Anything with that combo is interesting to me. I’ll take a look."
His next film will be "The Paperboy" with Lee Daniels, in which he plays a reporter. That intimidated him as much as playing a Marine, but Efron embraces those challenges.
"I mean, if it doesn’t scare you... that’s why I love what we do. Everything is heightened and makes your spine tingle. That’s why I was so scared when I read the script for ’The Lucky One’ because I was like, ’Dude, I like this. I like this and it’s going to be real hard and you have a big chance to fail here.’"
That is a quality that attracts Efron to the characters he plays, whether it is ’The Lucky One’ or ’High School Musical.’ "The best part about Logan is he never takes the easy road, never once. Even though it’s going to be harder for him, he makes the right choice always. I think that’s really hard to do. I’d like to have that in every character I play until he’s a bad guy."
"The Lucky One" opens Friday.