The Lucky One - Zac Efron
Logan Thibault (Zac Efron) © 2011 Warner Bros

Zac Efron shot to stardom on TV and in films with the High School Musical franchise and went on to play Link Larkin in the smash hit Hairspray. He has also starred in the fantasy romance Charlie St Cloud, the comedy 17 Again, the drama Me and Orson Welles and recently in the ensemble comedy New Year’s Eve.

In his new movie The Lucky One, based on the bestselling novel by Nicholas Sparks, he plays US Marine Sergeant Logan Thibault, who during his third tour of duty in Iraq discovers a photo of a young woman in the rubble of a building. Going over to pick up the picture saves his life, as a bomb explodes near him.

When he returns to the States, he is determined to find the girl, Beth (Taylor Shilling), and takes a job at her family run kennel. A romance develops between them, fueling his hope that she could be more than just a good luck charm.

This role is a real departure for you. How hard was it for you to play a Marine?

The Lucky One - Zac Efron, Blythe Danner and Taylor Schilling
Logan Thibault (Zac Efron), Ellie (Blythe Danner) and Beth Green (Taylor Schilling) © 2011 Warner Bros

Initially I wasn’t convinced I could pull this off, but the more I thought about it, and the more I talked to Scott (Hicks, the movie’s director), I realized if there was ever going to be a chance to play a role so different from what I’ve played before, this was it.

I knew I had to put in the work to be able to play Logan, and I felt capable in Scott’s hands.

What kind of training did you do for this movie?

I did a lot of physical training for the role. I had so many wonderful opportunities to work with Marines who had been in Iraq, who had seen the fight and they shared great stories.

The first time I went to Camp Pendleton I met a few Staff Sergeants that had been on several tours and were going back.

The Lucky One - Zac Efron
Logan Thibault (Zac Efron) © 2011 Warner Bros

When I got there it was like stepping into a different world. I couldn’t have felt more out of place being a musical geek who now wanted to play a Marine. They stood with a purpose. They had laser focus, never broke eye contact. This is my generation, on the front lines.

They’ve experienced some pretty gruesome things. We sat and talked for several hours and they were the most amazing conversations I’ve ever had with anybody.

In terms of research, it was priceless. I can’t thank them enough. It was very helpful. The stories and personal feelings they shared became part of the canvas for Logan.

That’s interesting, because one of the common things with soldiers who have been to war is they don’t like to talk about it.

Yeah, exactly. And that was initially what we faced.

It took about two hours the first time that I met and talked with the Marines for them to open up and realize that we had the most honest intentions, and we wanted the truth as much as we could get, and they were so receptive and responsive to that.

Does it help to create a character when you’ve got a book to reference? You’ve got Nicholas Sparks original novel as well as the screenplay, do you use both or just use the script as your universe?

The Lucky One - Zac Efron and Riley Thomas-Stewart
Logan (Zac Efron) and Ben (Riley Thomas-Stewart) © 2011 Warner Bros

It’s somewhere in between.

I think there are specific moments that come out of the book and out of the writing that are really an examination into a character’s thought process that are very fun to read and offer all kinds of different explanations and things you can think about during a scene.

But also you have to look into the context of the script, you can’t have all kinds of other things coming in.

Scott said that he encouraged you to have fun with your sex scene with Taylor and improvise, did that help?

Yeah. In the scene they are out of practice and they were totally in love and having fun and doing it again for the first time, and that was easy to do.

How easy is it to embrace the romantic genre? There’s a scene that you have where Logan says to Beth, ‘You deserve to be kissed every day.’ Did you feel, ‘How can I make this scene real?’

When I read that line, I was going, ‘Oh, shoot. I’ve got to say that.’ But in the moment I think you’re able to find it.

I’m amazed sometimes at the things that I say in the moment that just sound great, but if you put those on paper they would probably be the cheesiest things in the entire world. In the moment, that’s love. Everything is heightened.

What was your hardest scene to do?

The Lucky One - Taylor Schilling and Zac Efron
Beth Green (Taylor Schilling) and Logan Thibault (Zac Efron) © 2011 Warner Bros

The hardest scenes to film by far were all the scenes in Afghanistan. The gear is 100-plus pounds with the helmet. That along with wielding a machine gun was harder to handle than it looks. We spent weeks doing military drills and weapon practice.

The scene where I clear that room (before a bomb goes off) was challenging. It was the middle of the night. It was three in the morning and it was freezing.

There was rubble everywhere, people were screaming, really talented actors all around us, and I was controlling a whole unit of real Marines. My stress was through the roof.

I really wanted this part to be authentic, so that was the hardest scene for me

You’ve done both TV and films, which do you prefer?

Selfishly, [films] are amazing. Every extra second, extra hour, any time you have to put more thought into an idea is amazing for actors. We cherish those moments.

Zac has stayed away from doing musicals for awhile, and he was asked if he was thinking about doing any musicals in the future? Click below to listen to his answer.

[jwplayer config=”Audio” mediaid=”27575″]

The Lucky One is released on April 20, 2012

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Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.