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.”

Producer Denise Di Novi marveled at Efron’s transformation: “One of my favorite things about being a producer is watching actors reinvent themselves and that’s what Zac did. He just looks like a different

person in this film. How he walks, how he stands, how he holds himself. It was a thrill to see him become Logan.”

Efron in the opening scene

Co-Producer Kevin McCormick concurred: “Even though he’d never done anything like it before, Zac was really able to bring a very specific and unique take on Logan. We literally saw somebody who’s been so youthful in every other movie legitimately turn into a man in front of our very eyes. That really helped make Nicholas Spark’s character come to life. Apart from looking like a Marine, Zac brought a reservoir of pain and strength in equal measure.”

So, how did he do it? Fortunately, they pulled in some Marines.

“We got lucky in New Orleans,” said Di Novi, “where I met a trainer at the gym I was going to who was an ex-Marine named Aaron. I invited him to the set and he and Zac just clicked immediately. He was the most amazing young man. Zac had done a lot of research before the movie started but it was almost like this guy was sent to us.

“He just sat on the set and had this quiet dignity. Whenever Zac had a question about emotion or how a Marine would handle a situation, he was so helpful and so happy that we were showing what it was really like – what the experience is like for somebody who is quietly struggling internally.

Efron's character struggles to return to everyday life

Efron’s preparation to play a seasoned Marine also included the physical rigors of training several months prior to production with James Dever – a retired sergeant major and 25-year Marine Corps veteran. During filming, Devers and Efron rose every morning at 3:30 to keep Efron in physical shape for the role.

Efron also travelled to Camp Pendleton to talk to active Marines and hear them describe combat.

“It was like stepping into a different world,” he recalled. “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. The stories and personal feelings they shared became part of the canvas for Logan.”

“The disconnect these veterans feel when they come home is so immense,” said screenwriter Will Fetters. “It takes a while to get back into the rhythm of life. Their once usual surroundings feel alien. Nothing will ever be the same.”

Efron as an intense ex-Marine who falls in love

“We took very seriously what these young guys go through,” said Di Novi. “Zac respected it, absorbed it, really internalized it, and I think you see that on film. He does a great job in honoring those guys’ experiences.”

Rather than scoffing at the idea of a Marine hanging onto a lucky talisman, several Marines pulled out real-life good-luck charms they’d carried into battle. “One sergeant took out the remnants of what was barely recognizable as a playing card,” recalled Hicks, “which he’d taken with him on multiple tours. Once he lost it, which disturbed him deeply, but in the most extraordinary circumstances he found it again, quite by chance. The way he felt about it was very moving.”

“Recently I was coming home on a flight,” recalled Di Novi, “and I was sitting next to a guy who was coming home on leave from Afghanistan and I guess because I was a stranger on a plane, he just started just sharing things that, well, I was shocked at what he was telling me. I think that’s one reason we wanted this film to be real – to show how it really is.”

“I live in New Bern, North Carolina,” said Sparks, “15 minutes from Cherry Point which is the big East Coast Marine base and naval air station. Then 30 minutes to the south is Camp Lejeune. An hour to the west is Fort Bragg, home to the 50,000 guys of the 82nd Army Airborne. Then an hour to the northeast is the Fourth Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

“So, our area is very much surrounded by the military. They are my

neighbors, they go to my church, they send their kids to local schools. I had this really great neighbor, he was a naval chaplain, but he primarily served with the Marines.

“He went to Afghanistan and because he was a chaplain, he was the one who rushed to these kids’ side when they were dying.

Efron's character walks to Louisiana in search of a girl in a photo

“He never carried a rifle, but over and over again, he literally held them as they died. He came back a second time and then went a third time. As he would tell me about what it had been like, his hands wouldn’t stop shaking.

As a community volunteer, said Sparks, “I coach track and field at a local high school and a number of my former athletes are in Iraq and Afghanistan now. When they come back, they are different.

“I have kids that I’ve coached who’ve been there and back and going again, they’re 20. I mean they are just kids — not 38-year-old veterans. They are kids. They told me how your squad goes on patrol with the squad you’re replacing.  The first week, you walk with them out front. The next week, you walk up front and the old patrol is in the back.

“The following week, old patrol is gone. You’ve got three weeks to figure it all out. One of the kids that I coached got into a firefight in Afghanistan. I think he was 19 and was there with his best friend. They got pinned down and his friend took a bullet through the head and died in his arms.

“This former high school track runner comes back and doesn’t understand how everybody just expects him to just go to the grocery store and fill up his tank at the self-service pump like anybody else.

Efron with actress Taylor Schilling, who plays the girl in the snapshot

“He’s seen his friends die. He has killed people in anger. The differences manifest themselves in a lot of different ways. You have some who might toy with suicide or drink too much or they’re unemployed. Most do just fine – they adjust and resume their lives. But some of them have trouble readjusting to society.

“Logan is one of them. He is a guy who says, ‘I lost all my friends,’” said Sparks, “and people don’t understand that he watched them die.

“His solution is to walk across the country and find the girl in the photo. This was the equivalent of my friend’s hands shaking and he didn’t know what to do to stop it.”

And so, Zac Efron as Logan just sets off walking with his dog – in search of a girl in a photo.

And what he lives is a Nicholas Sparks love story.

In it, he grows up – as an actor as well as a Marine.

The Lucky One opens in theaters nationwide April 20.

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