We visit Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling on the set of The Lucky One in New Orleans
Opening in theaters on April 20th is the latest film to be adapted from a novel by author Nicholas Sparks entitled The Lucky One, which stars Zac Efron. Sparks has had six previous books made into films including Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, Nights in Rodanthe, Dear John, and The Last Song.
The novel this film is based on was released in 2008 and revolves around a US Marine (Zac Efron) who finds a photograph of a young woman (Taylor Schilling) half-buried in the sands of Iraq during his third tour of duty, it becomes his lucky charm and he sets out to find the girl in the picture.
The film was directed by Scott Hicks (Shine) and also stars veteran actress Blythe Danner (Meet the Fockers).
In December of 2010, we had a chance to travel to New Orleans to visit the set of The Lucky One. While on set, we had a chance to watch them film, as well as speak to director Scott Hicks and several members of the cast including Zac Efron, Taylor Schilling, and Blythe Danner. The scene they were shooting the day we were visiting was set in the middle of a town fair and featured Zac Efron's character's first introduction to the town since his return from Iraq. Along with Zac Efron in the scene was a canine actor, who plays a pivotal role in the film, as well as Taylor Schilling and Blythe Danner who were also present on the set.
After they were done shooting the scene, director Scott Hicks was kind enough to take a few minutes to speak with us about the film. He began by speaking about what drew him to the film's story. "I thought it was a story with a wonderful premise. The idea that somebody finding something at random in such an unlikely place, that it would end up changing their life and the life of several other people. I thought it was a really strong premise for a story that felt inherently visual as well."
Since the film deals with subjects like fate and destiny, we asked the director if he believes in such topics. "I look at it this way. I remember reading years and years ago David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens talks about imagine one day removed from the daisy chain of your life. You know, where would you be now? I've had many things happen in my life, which have been transformational on a certain day. So what if you took that day out? I'm a filmmaker by accident for example. I mean I didn't set out to become a filmmaker, I didn't dream of being a filmmaker, I stumbled into it. So what if a day was missing? Where would I be?"
The director went on to speak about the young leads of his film and what it has been like working with them. "Zac Efron is a young actor and sort of emerging into I think a new phase in his career," explained the director. "I was very impressed by his seriousness of intent when we met and he set about so solidly doing the work and getting ready to play his part, physically transforming himself. He clearly had a tremendous discipline about him. Then I traveled with him to meet with some Marines at Camp Pendleton because I was thinking about his age. I thought, is he the right age? We met with a group of sergeants who were twenty-three years old, Zac Efron's age, and they'd done two or three tours of Iraq, or Afghanistan, and some were going back. Clearly he was absolutely in the right age range. So all of those things came together."
"I wanted to be a part of that transformation for him because he's clearly somebody who has a colossal future," Scott Hicks continued. "Then Taylor Schilling was just a revelation to me because you start the process of looking at actors and she was the very first person that read for Beth. I just said to the casting director, well that's done. But then you go through a process. You look at a lot of people and listen to a lot of people. I just kept gravitating back to Taylor Schilling. She has an extraordinary immediacy about her as an actress. You just believe what she's saying. It sounds silly, but that's in essence what acting should do; you accept that person in that situation. I thought she was wonderful."
Scott Hicks also talked about the military influence on the film. "For Zac Efron to acquire the kind of physical demeanor of a Marine, he worked closely with a couple of different trainers. Just try to acquire the physicality, and the body language, the way these people present themselves. So it's been an important part of that process for him, finding that sort of game face that he needs for the role. This is a character that's been through a bit of trauma you know. He's traumatized by his experience. This is not just Zac Efron playing himself; he really has undertaken a character unlike anything from his own experience. So it's a big acting step for him. He's been wonderful to work with on that front."
Finally, the director also spoke about author Nicholas Sparks involvement in the film. "He hasn't been involved closely in the writing," explained Scott Hicks. "But in terms of direct involvement, he dropped in to see us the first day when we were filming, but that's about it." Scott Hicks continued by discussing changing the film's location from North Carolina to Louisiana. "He seemed very warm about the idea. It was a very interesting exercise to sort of mentally transform the story into a Louisiana setting and embracing being in Louisiana, instead of trying to pretend we're in North Carolina. It'll have a very different feel and texture too."
"It all starts with story," continued the director. "For me that premise was the trigger. It begins with story and that's the powerful factor. Then the next thing for me is the cast, and the choice of actors is paramount because they will express everything that you want. So I was very excited about Zac Efron, but I also wanted to surround him with a powerful cast, an ensemble that he could work with and feed off of. So that's been really exciting. Then it's about putting together a visual team. Those are the elements I like to put together. Then you pray for magic dust. You set out to make the best movie you can and keep your fingers crossed."
After the director finished speaking with us and went back to set to establish the next shot, we had a chance to talk with actress Taylor Schilling, who plays Beth in the film. The actress began by talking about her expectations going into this project and working with Hollywood heartthrob Zac Efron.
"Honestly, I didn't know much of anything about Zac Efron before I got this because I had never seen those High School Musical movies," Taylor Schilling admitted. "At this point, I can't wait to see them when we're done because I want to see what he did before."
"But I didn't have much of an expectation about him," she continued. "I knew he was incredibly famous, but as far as his work as an actor, I didn't really know. I really got to know Zac Efron when I tested with him for this film. He was just such an incredibly charming, down-to-Earth guy. He made me comfortable at that test and was so generous, so wonderful, and was also so interested in the work. He was engaged in the scene and was so good. It's just been so wonderful to work with someone that I feel really has my back as a scene partner. There's some really vulnerable stuff in this movie and I feel like I can trust Zac Efron with anything I've got. He's a special guy."
The actress also discussed her character in the film. "Beth is really going through an intense transition. At this moment in time, she has just experienced a great deal of loss. She's in the process of integrating that into the rest of her life and, whether she wants to or not, is being hit in the face with this opportunity to love again," Taylor Schilling explained. "Those are two incredibly huge life events, I think, on their own. But to have that happen all at once is a lot to reconcile. I think that comes out in so many different ways in the movie. Eventually there's her deciding to step forward and participate in her own life, even though she's scared to move forward with a vulnerable relationship."
Asked if she herself believes in love at first sight, Taylor Schilling had this to say. "You know, I think I do. I think I believe that sometimes you do just get that imprint of someone. A reading. I don't know if I've ever experienced it my lifetime. But I do believe that there are people where it's less intellectual and they just sort of know. Even if it's a just a whisper when you first meet someone that says, I want to know them more. I don't think that that's a fantasy, I think that's real."
We then asked Taylor Schilling if she could talk about the scene that we had just witnessed them shooting and what was happening in that moment. "Today we're shooting a scene that takes place on a day that is a big anniversary for Ellie (Blythe Danner) and Beth. It's the day that, for my brother and her grandson, is the year anniversary of his death. They've been dealing with it because he was one of the biggest supports in their life. They're sort of going their separate ways, trying to deal with the feelings that are coming up today. Beth is trying to deal with it on her own, and she doesn't quite make it through the end of the day. But in this scene, she's saying, 'I've got it. I'm fine. You do your thing and I'll do mine.'"
The actress also discussed the challenges of portraying a character that is hiding their true emotions from themselves. "She's so fascinating because she's such an incredibly strong character. She's a wonderful mother and a really wonderful granddaughter," explained Taylor Schilling. "She's making it through her life. She hasn't given up, and she hasn't folded inward. She's set these boundaries because of the death and a couple of relationships that haven't worked. She's set some boundaries and she's not really participating in the world. She has a seven year-old son. She has him and her work and that's going to be her life. It's only through this shakeup and change up of events that she's really able to step back and really change her life. But we meet her and she's moving along in a very noble way. She also knows what she needs."
Finally, we asked Taylor Schilling if she was a fan of Nicholas Sparks' work before signing on to the project. "I actually haven't read any Nicholas Sparks books," she admitted. "I saw The Notebook but clearly I didn't do my research. I've seen a bunch of the films, and I've read The Lucky One. I do appreciate that there's something really satisfying and comforting about his stories. They're so lush and you can kind of fall into them. I really love that."
Next up, we had the pleasure of speaking with acting veteran Blythe Danner. We continued our line of questioning by asking the iconic actress if she was a fan of Nicholas Sparks work before agreeing to appear in the film. "I'm ashamed to say that the only thing I had known before this was The Notebook, which I liked very much. That's one of the good things about being around as long as I have ... there's always something more to learn and so many things to discover."
We followed up by asking Blythe Danner if she has had a chance to meet Nicholas Sparks yet. "Yes, he was here," she replied. "I met him briefly. He was lovely. He came with his family. They were very sweet. It was a short time. They weren't here very long, but I liked them."
Blythe Danner went on to talk about her character and her role in the plot of the film. "I just focus on her lines throughout and the things that are spoken lightly. I think she's a strong person who has a lot of character, faith and destiny. She's tried very steadily to make that something important to her daughter. I think two women living together in a household all their lives tend to step lightly. But she does have faith and immediately sees a good character in this young man when he comes into their lives."
We followed up by asking the actress if she believes that a person can impact his or her own destiny. "I think just by the way one lives one's life," she answered. "I don't really personally believe in destiny, but I'm not sure I understand the question. I think that the fact that, through the picture, she keeps her faith is something to hold onto."
Blythe Danner also discussed working with Taylor Schilling and the first time she became aware of the young actress. "It's funny. I saw Taylor on her TV show, Mercy and I immediately said, that girl has got something," explained Blythe Danner. "I asked my agent, is there any opportunity to get me on that show? I just thought she was so good. Even in this I found myself just getting lost, she was so good. I did a film with my daughter Gwyneth Paltrow early on, a TV miniseries, and there was one moment where I looked at her and said, who is this girl? Then I realized, oh my god, that's my daughter. She had internalized that character so well that I had just lost track of who she was. With Taylor Schilling, she has a real magic on camera and a wonderful sense of what's real."
The veteran actress also talked about her first meeting with director Scott Hicks. "Well, initially as the grandmother was written, I felt there were things in the script that were a bit stereotypical," she said. "I wanted her to be a bit more homespun and we decided to make her a bit more edgy. The woman in the book is very funny, but I didn't understand her sense of humor. She has quite an enigmatic sense of humor. We just explored things that might take her away from what a traditional grandmother might be. We always tried to go back to the script of what was intended. We sort of played with what was there to make it clearer to play."
"I've admired his films in the past, which is another reason I wanted to work on this," the actress continued discussing working with Scott Hicks. "His aesthetics are absolutely wonderful. I'm happy that he saw the character as I did, so we were both working towards a slightly more offbeat version of her."
We asked Blythe Danner if she was aware of the media frenzy that follows her co-star Zac Efron wherever he goes. "No, I felt so stupid," she admitted. "I knew he was lovely and that he was a very big star, but I didn't realize how much. That he'd have to have guards but he's a lovely guy. I worked with a few people who had just worked with him and they said, oh, you're in for such a treat. He's such a down-to-Earth guy. And he is. He's very dear and fun."
Finally, the time had come for us to meet the man-of-the-hour, international superstar Zac Efron. The actor began by telling us how he prepared himself to play a Marine in the film. "Man, I found this channel on TV called the military channel," Zac Efron explained. "That's probably one of the coolest things that I stumbled upon. It was a total accident. I turned it on and it was a Navy Seal, it was their boot camp that they were going through. It was really in depth watching them go through the most basic training. There was always a part of me deep down where I thought that if it came to it, I could pass (as a Marine). With training, I thought could make it through basic training, that I could do it. After watching these things I realized there's no way that I could do it, or subject myself to that. They're of a different caliber of man."
"The first thing I did was go to Camp Pendleton with Scott," Zac Efron continued. "When I went in to meet some of these guys, the sergeants, I was blown away. I was taller than most of the guys, but they were just thick like there was something about them. They had a definite presence. I'm like slouched over and I just smile a lot, I'm always smiling. These guys had stern faces. Honestly, it was one of the most awkward moments in my entire life. Essentially they know you're there to observe them. It's sort of just an awkward position to be in. But after about two hours, the guys really opened up and just started to talk more freely about what it's like. I definitely felt like I was seeing the side of these guys that normal people really don't get to see."
Zac Efron also talked about what he learned from his research that he was able to instill in his character and how important meeting actual Marines was. "It was everything. I just realized in my life that I never spent anytime at all with a Marine. Any time that I had knowing somebody that was ex-military, I found it difficult to just say, so what's it like? It's hard. What do they want to talk about? What do they not want to talk about again? What's going through their mind is what I was concerned about, so I would just sort of pretend it never happened. This was my first real time to sit down and face the issue. It was really great just watching them go through it, and every guy was different."
"There were four or five guys at Pendleton this time and some were very open, straightforward about it and talked about it with an heir of invincibility," Zac Efron continued. "Other guys you would see them sort of have to go back there mentally, a lot of them. Some of them you know it looked rather painful. It was brushing everything else aside and just focusing on what the hell it's like out there. What is it like to be a Marine? What is it like to serve?"
When we noticed that Zac Efron was sporting a tattoo, we asked the actor if it was his idea to get that for the role, or if the character had one in the original book and script. "Pretty much all the Marines you see have tattoos," he explained. "When we talked to the guys at Pendleton, it was hilarious, but all of them were like, what's your mistake tattoo? They all had various ones and one of the guys was just showing his tattoos. One guy had a sick scorpion up his arm. They all had cool tattoos on their arms and forearms. One of the guys had a barbed wire around his arm and I was like, what's that one for? He said, oh, this one? This one's real special. That's my mistake tattoo. That's the one that you get when you get out of basic training and you're real gung-ho. I was like, dude, we've got to have a mistake tattoo."
Zac Efron also talked about his leading lady Taylor Schilling and how impressed he was when he first read with her. "She came in and was so professional and just so good. I remember reading opposite her, I had read the lines once or twice and we came in and of course it was her test but she was much more honed and focused than I was. I just remembered she was doing so many cool things that I was just fascinated with her when I was reading the lines. So I was like I already love her, I don't know how, I don't know how anybody else couldn't. It made sense. She totally deserved it at this point. So I was blown away with her audition."
Seeing that Nicolas Sparks' fan-base, and Zac Efron's fan-base are probably one in the same, the combination of the two seems like the perfect marriage of actor and source material, so we asked Zac Efron if being in a Nicholas Sparks film was something he had been wanting to do for a while. "Yeah. I mean I really liked The Notebook and I really like The Last Song. He's a phenomenal writer. I read the book and I really liked it. I think he's both perceived to be kind of one thing and I wasn't necessarily drawn to that genre," the actor explained. "I felt that I didn't want to be in it for some reason. When I read The Lucky One I was just blown away. I couldn't put it down. He's a great writer. He goes into everybody's heads and it was a bit scary meeting him because I wondered what he was thinking about the whole time. He's so in tune with the smallest things and I really enjoy his style. I think he writes great characters."
Finally, the actor discussed the difficulties he's had picking strong projects to be in post-High School Musical. "I'm still learning as I go. Every project's different and it's kind of just where you are mentally at any given moment," said Zac Efron. "I think lately I've been looking to be challenged. I feel like, because I'm not in college and I sort of jumped into the big leagues, I really wanted to learn as much as I can from the directors. So that's what I've been focusing on lately is working with you guys and it's worked. I feel a lot more aware so I'm learning a lot, but then there's a side of you that just wants to do things that are fun. That's where I was in High School Musical 3: Senior Year and 17 Again, and you just have to do one of those every once in a while as well. But it doesn't get any easier," the young actor said in closing.