A few years past his “High School Musical” days, Zac Efron said it still takes a great deal of strategy to move into the mature roles that could sustain his career. In “The Lucky One,” Efron, 23, plays a former Marine, and he knew it was an opportunity to put more space between his current career and his teen-idol past.
“It's kind of a progression I've been working on for a long time,” Efron said during a media day at Los Angeles' Four Seasons Hotel. “This was a part that seemed to fit perfect. I was scared when I read the ‘Lucky One' script, because I really liked the character, but at the same time, I was completely wrong for it.
“So I was like, ‘This is one of those roles that can separate you (from previous roles),'” he said. “It's going to be incredibly challenging and scary.”
Based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, “The Lucky One” stars Efron as Logan, who found a photo of a young woman in the rubble during a combat maneuver in Iraq, and it seemed to serve as a good-luck charm, keeping him out of harm's way during several close scrapes. After his service, Logan returns home and tracks down the woman in the photograph, a Louisiana kennel owner named Beth (Taylor Schilling). He tries to get to know Beth while concealing how he first discovered her, and when a relationship begins to develop, his past and a confrontation with her ex-husband threaten to derail Logan's hopes.
“You couldn't have two more different people than Logan and myself. I didn't know the first thing about being a Marine, but that became palpable when I met some,” Efron said. “They're real-life heroes, and I walked in there slouching, drool on my face from waking up.”
In need of discipline and some posture correction, Efron was matched with a Navy SEAL who put the actor through a rigorous exercise and diet plan. Before he filmed the combat scenes that open “The Lucky One,” Efron packed on 18 pounds of muscle.
“I had a very strict diet — everything was preplanned,” Efron said. “You'd get sick at how much food I ate every day.”
Like the rest of “The Lucky One,” those combat scenes were filmed near New Orleans, but while the humid environment did not feel like Iraq, the real Marines used in those scenes helped Efron get a grip on his character's tensions and responsibilities.
“It was amazing standing at the front with all those Marines behind me,” he said. “They were incredibly nice and helpful — I'd try to use those guys as much as I could, just be aware of what was going on, how they spoke to each other, their mannerisms. Our passion for getting it right came across, because they were so helpful in making it authentic.”
Although Efron recently voiced Ted in “Dr. Seuss' ‘The Lorax,'” the rest of the year is filled with serious, more adult fare. In September, he stars opposite Elizabeth Olsen in Josh Radnor's romantic drama “Liberal Arts,” appears in “Precious” director Lee Daniels' “The Paperboy” in November and will play opposite Dennis Quaid in “Chop Shop” director Ramin Bahrani's still-untitled upcoming drama.
While Efron is working steadily, he said that his progression into serious territory never gets easier.
“Every time, I confront my fears when I go into a movie,” Efron said. “It's a big growing experience for me.”