Zac Efron was guided by a Navy SEAL in his training program to play a U.S. Marine in “The Lucky One.” He put on 17 pounds during the regime of intense workouts and a strict diet.
Updated: May 16, 2012 8:10AM
LOS ANGELES — Zac Efron likes a good scare. “I think each time in life that you confront your fears, you actually grow a little bit,” says the former teen icon. He stars in “The Lucky One” (opening Friday), playing a Marine fighting in the Iraq War.
When you’re the guy who hoofed it through “High School Musical” and then went for laughs in “17 Again,” it was time to feel a little jittery. His character in the movie, inspired by a Nicholas Sparks book, fights during three tours in Iraq.
Could Efron pull that off?
“It was me asking myself, ‘Can I do it? Can I get it right?’ ” he admits.
“My answer was, ‘I think I can.’
“At the end of the day, I was very pleased with the movie, and I’ll never forget the things I learned playing this character.”
Efron had to do his first combat scenes with real Marines in the background. Eye-opening doesn’t even begin to cover it. “I would turn around and see all of these American heroes who had my back,” he says.
Efron got a bit emotional.
“All I could do was try to take it all in: the way they spoke to each other, the way they moved, their mannerisms,” says Efron. “My passion for getting it right had never been stronger.”
At age 24, Efron could develop the guns necessary to get the job done.
“I read that I gained 25 pounds, but that isn’t true. It was really 17 pounds during an intense training program,” Efron says.
“I was guided every step of the way by a real Navy SEAL.”
The strict diet was the worst of it. “Everything was pre-planned,” he says. “I have never eaten that much fruit in my life, plus it was a lot of chicken and vegetables.
“I’d get so sick of the sight of what went down every single day,” he says. “It was actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because the eating and working out was very consuming.”
He doesn’t just make war in “The Lucky One.” He also makes love.
After his service overseas, the Marine travels to North Carolina to find an unknown woman (Taylor Schilling) whose photo he stumbled upon during the war. Before long, the couple is steaming up a shower together.
“Love scenes are always awkward,” he insists. “It’s a lot of breath mints. In this case, the water was cold, too.
“I can’t even describe what it’s like to watch yourself in love scenes. I’m always slinking down in my theater seat thinking, ‘OK, I’m done.’ ”
His teen cred may also be done. The year 2012 marks the moment when Efron grows up on the big screen.
“The Lucky One” is the first of his three big-screen dramas out this year, including a new film by Lee Daniels (“Precious”) called “The Paper Boy,” with Nicole Kidman. Then there is an untitled film by Ramin Bahrani (“Plastic Bag”) about a father and son who must deal with the strife of modern-day farming.
“I want to show audiences a whole other side to me. I can do the musicals and the comedies, but I’m also a dramatic actor,” he says.
“It’s all part of the progression. Ultimately, I don’t care how old a character is anymore. I just want to make cool movies.”
Born in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and raised in Arroyo Grande, he began acting at 11 when his parents took note of their son’s singing voice. After taking lessons, he was cast in a production of “Gypsy” and then later appeared on stage in “Peter Pan,” “Little Shop of Horrors” and “The Music Man.”
He began his small-screen career in 2003 on “ER.” His big break was playing Troy Bolton in “High School Musical” (2006).
He cemented his teen idol status playing Link Larkin in “Hairspray” (2007). He provides the voice of Ted in the spring hit “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax.”
Does he have some lucky charm guiding this career?
“I don’t keep things in my pocket,” he says. “I can barely remember the things I actually do need to keep there, like my wallet.”
He becomes reflective for a moment.
“There is someone guiding me and presenting me with great opportunities,” he says. “I think life gives you amazing choices. Doors are opened. It’s your job to walk through them.”
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