17 Again: Interview With Zac Efron

“17 Again,” starring Zac Efron and directed by Burr Steers, is being released by New Lines/Warner on April 17, 2009.

At 17, Mike O’Donnell is young and in love and thinks he has all the answers. The problem is he doesn’t even know the questions. And years later, he finds himself wishing he could retake the test. But as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Zac Efron, who stars as Mike O’Donnell–at age 17 and at 17 again–remarks, “It’s that grand idea of being able to go back and change the whole trajectory of your life. If you went back armed with the knowledge that you have now, what decisions would you alter and what would the outcome be?”

Burr Steers, the director of “17 Again,” offers, “I think anyone can relate to being stuck on that seminal moment when a decision led you down a certain path in life, and always wondering: if you could go back and take the other route, would you?”

The screenplay was written by Jason Filardi, who says that it’s not just a matter of getting a do-over. The key is retaining the memories of the first time around and trying not to follow in your old footsteps. “I have always thought there was a lot of comic potential in the saying ‘If only I knew then what I know now,'” he attests. “As an adult going back to high school, you would assume knowledge is power. I mean, you would know how to work the teachers, the cliques, the sports… It would be a dream come true, right?”

Maybe not.

Producer Adam Shankman notes, “It all goes back to that fundamental idea of appreciating what we have in life and not taking anything for granted, which is a recurring theme for me, both in my personal life and in my work. Our hero, Mike O’Donnell, is at a crossroads and is disappointed in how his life turned out. And, apparently, when a man who is not where he wants to be holds a mirror up, he prefers to see Zac Efron’s face,” he smiles.

That’s understandable, considering “when you look at him through the camera, it’s just extraordinary,” continues Shankman, who had just collaborated with the actor on the hit movie musical “Hairspray.” “Zac just has that indefinable ‘It’ factor. But he is also very talented and works so hard. He’s extremely dedicated; he puts so much into everything he does, and I’ve watched him grow leaps and bounds over the last few years.”

In fact, when Shankman and his producing partner and sister, Jennifer Gibgot, got the “17 Again” script from Filardi, they immediately saw it as a perfect starring vehicle for Efron. Gibgot affirms, “We thought this would be a great opportunity to cast Zac outside of the musical comedy mold. We knew how funny he could be, and how good he is with physical comedy. He has a lot of layers that most people haven’t had the opportunity to see yet.”

Reading the script, the young actor appreciated that the story offered him the chance to take on a role that was literally beyond his years. “That’s what initially drew me to the part,” Efron says. “I’ve played teenagers, but it was intriguing to think about playing a guy in his 30s. That’s an area I have no familiarity with. I can relate to playing a kid–I’ve had a first kiss, I’ve had awkward dates, I’ve had fights with my parents… But one thing I’ve never done is gotten into a fight with my teenage daughter,” he laughs. “So having no personal experience to draw on was a little intimidating, but, at the same time, it seemed like it would be a lot of fun.”

With Efron set to star, the producers chose Burr Steers to direct the film. Steers had made his feature film debut with the acclaimed indie hit “Igby Goes Down,” which Shankman calls “a great character study. Burr is a terrific actors’ director; that was important to us. When we met with him, he had a really interesting take on the script, which was exciting to us.”

Gibgot says, “When Burr talked about what he loved about the story, it was all the same things that I loved about it. We also wanted a director with a bit of a quirky sensibility, who wasn’t going to make a straight-down-the-middle comedy, and I think he really achieved that.”

“The first thing that hooked me about the concept was the combination of heart and humor,” recalls Steers. “And Adam and Jennifer are such fun, creative people. I was already an admirer of Adam’s work–he did such an amazing job on ‘Hairspray’–and Jennifer is an incredibly effective producer. She has only one agenda: to make the movie better. Then I met with Zac and we really hit it off, and that sealed the deal.”

“I learned so much from Burr,” Efron says. “He taught me a lot about being real in front of the camera, even in a story that takes a leap of faith, and that’s where a lot of the comedy is generated from. I loved working with him.”

Efron, who takes over the part after Mike’s reversal to age 17, states, “It was a blast to split the role with Matthew Perry. He has an incredible sense of comedic timing with a kind of dryness in his delivery. He’s so naturally funny. Every once in a while, at odd hours of the morning, he would get a phone call from me saying, ‘Hey Matt…so I have this line and I’m not really feeling it. How would you do it?’ And he’d just pop out a few sarcastic jokes. He’s just brilliant at it. He also has a very distinctive smile–I guess I’d call it more of a smirk–and there were other little things I noticed right off the bat that I tried to put into my performance.”