Can Disney pretty-boy teenybopper Zac Efron, the Ken doll from Hairspray, the crooning, high-stepping big-man-on-campus in the High School Musical movies pull off a leading role as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant?

Former Marines just home from Iraq don’t comb Justin Bieber-style bangs. 

A few weeks ago, my son, a U.S. Marines sergeant, came home from Afghanistan and spent the weekend with me, bringing along two buddies from Camp Lejeune. All were serious and respectful – intense to the point that I worried about them.

Teenage heart-throb Zac Efron

We drove all over Norfolk, Virginia, visiting every gun store and pawn shop in search of a Russian AK-47 assault rifle. They rattled off details about its modifications, advantages and shortcomings. When we finally found one, they examined it with half-interest and didn’t buy it – although each had ample cash from a year-long deployment.

Then we went to a violent action movie, which they didn’t enjoy, and wandered around a mall, ending up in an upscale department store where Hugh Hefner-style bathrobes were on sale at 75-percent off. Each Marine bought one and spent the evening lounging around in their fancy robes wishing they had meerschaum pipes and brandy snifters.

By the time they had to head back to the base, we’d had a great time, including buying full fishing gear, although we never got around to fishing – but they didn’t care and left it all with me. All three had

loosened up. One particularly intense weapons specialist was even cracking jokes.

And so, days later as I sat in a Beverly Hills screening of Nicholas Sparks’ The Lucky One, I had sincere doubts about Zac Efron, the letterman basketball heart-throb from 17 Again, playing  this new film’s intense Marine, Sgt. Logan Thibault, home from his third tour of duty.

The movie, based on the Sparks novel, opens in a Iraqi firefight where Efron’s character reaches down to pick up a flash of color that catches his eye – a snapshot of an American woman standing in front of a water tower. The act saves his life and the photo becomes a lucky talisman.

Efron as Sgt. Logan Thibbaud

But when he comes home, he just doesn’t fit in anymore. He reacts like a Marine to the sound of gunfire – but is embarrassed when it’s just a young nephew on a video game. He gets on his sister’s computer and finds the Louisiana water tower in the lucky photo. Then he sets out on foot with his German Shepherd and walks more than 1,000 miles to Cajun country in hope of finding the girl in the picture.

Would Efron rise to the occasion? Gone was his trademark hair – instead he had a jarhead buzz cut that gradually grows out during the film. And in his eyes was that distant, almost-dangerous, tightly controlled, often wistful intensity that I’d worried about as three Marines and a Marine dad searched Norfolk for a Kalishnikov.

“Initially I wasn’t convinced I could pull this off,” Efron admitted after the screening, “but the more I thought about it, and the more I talked to Scott, 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.”

Scott is Scott Hicks, the director of The Lucky One.

Director Scott Hicks

Efron and Hicks shared how the young actor worked to transform himself physically and emotionally to look, move and react like a Marine who had served in a tense war zone and had seen far more violence and loss than his family or peers at home could ever imagine.

 “When we first see Logan,” explained Hicks, “we need to know what he’s gone through and understand some of the sense of trauma that he carries with him out of this conflict. I was very impressed by Zac’s commitment to not only change his physique, but also to get into the mindset of a Marine. He created the slightly stony exterior of someone a little mysterious – a character we don’t know a great deal about at first.”