Not too much seems to stun Zac Efron these days. Having made a film as talked about as The Paperboy and the public lifestyle that he leads, the young actor answers his questions effortlessly and with charm, but he also cops to the fact that everyone has really asked him the same several questions over and over again, and seated next to his co-star in the latest film from Lee Daniels, David Oyelowo, one gets the sense that the same several questions get asked about the film constantly to every member of the cast. Efron speaks with the natural movie star charm and endearingly awkward shyness that has served him incredibly well thus far, while Oyelowo speaks with the cadence of a seasoned veteran.
Still, it’s one of those films where people just have to ask the sources themselves exactly what it was like to be on set making Daniel’s ode to 60s sex and sleaze in the deep south. Efron, in one of his most startling breaks from his normally squeaky clean image to date, plays an assistant and gofer to his reporter brother (Matthew McConaughey) and his co-writer (Oyelowo) as they investigate the murder of a local sheriff from a deranged prisoner (John Cusack). The budding hormones of the young man causes him to become hopelessly smitten with the prisoner’s sexpot penpal (Nicole Kidman), leading to some extremely thorny and potentially deadly issues for all involved where all their secrets will come into the ugly light of day.
The British born Oyelowo and Efron sat down with Dork Shelf on a particularly rainy day during the Toronto International Film Festival last month to talk about the film, acting period appropriate, working with the controversial Daniels, and, of course, that whole “getting peed on” thing.
The reaction to this movie coming out of Cannes has been very strong in both directions. A lot of people love it and just as many have been vocally deriding it. Now that several months have gone by since the premiers, how have those feelings been sitting with you guys in that time since the much talked about premiere?
Zac Efron: The movie is polarizing. Some people really get it and love it and some people just don’t, and I can’t comprehend why some people can and some can’t. To me, it’s a fantastic movie to have a discussion about. At Cannes after the premiere there was this 10 or 15 second silence where none of us knew what was going to happen. None of us had any answers and none of us knew what was going to go on. After that everyone started to clap and there was a pretty big standing ovation for it. And that was a remarkable moment for us. Honestly, in that moment I didn’t know what to expect and I love that I was a part of a movie like that.
David Oyelowo: What we experienced in Cannes I think is indicative of what the movie is. I think that in the screening there was kind of a lot of negativity coming out of the press screening…
ZE: There was some positive…
DO: Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I guess my point is that the negatives ring the loudest because it’s a place where everyone’s sort of gauging what sort of movie it’s going to be. But you can’t deny a movie theatre with 2,500 people standing for 16 minutes clapping. I read that someone somewhere said that if this film had been made by Werner Herzog it would be deemed a masterpiece, and I think that’s exactly true. I think because people are not quite yet able to “pin down” Lee Daniels, and because he is shamelessly cinematic and shamelessly big with some of his choices and the way he pushes actors. I mean, how dare he have the princess Nicole Kidman peeing on someone? He pushes these boundaries that I think for cinema intelligentsia can be, like, “Oh, how dare he do that?!?” while regular audiences can say that they’ve never seen anything like that before.
If you’re a part of an audience that’s coming largely off a summer of blockbusters that just wash over you and are forgotten in two minutes, and you see something that will spark conversation, will stay with you, and may induce you to have a shower afterwards, it’s still provoking a reaction. I think that’s a great thing.
Zac, I think we have to ask you about the jellyfish sting-slash-peeing scene everyone talks about. How do you approach a scene like that when you haven’t really had to do something that cinematically transgressive before?
ZE: We did it sort of in order, and luckily I didn’t have to actually get stung by jellyfish. (laughs) The rest of it was pretty real. I didn’t really have to take a step back and remove myself from the scene to grasp it and to make it true.
Did it take any convincing from Lee to make you want to do that scene?
ZE: No, not really. I gravitate towards things that I don’t fully understand, and that was one. I think he actually did expect some backlash from me and me asking why it was necessary, but I was like, (really eager, slapping hands together) “No man! Let’s do that! I’m ready!” I don’t think he was really expecting that.
Your scenes with Nicole are pretty much across the board sexualized. There’s rarely even a quiet moment between the two of you even when you’re dancing with her in your underwear…
ZE: That was actually improvisational. I didn’t know that was going to happen. Nicole kind of started that and I just took her lead. That was just a part of the moment that just felt right. I don’t normally ask questions. I usually just go for it.
You two have a heck of a fight scene in this film. How much preparation went into that?
DO: Not much, which is probably why it hurt so much. (laughs)
ZE: We did a lot of takes of that
DO: There was one take after we had done it so many times we had worked ourselves raw from rolling around on this floor…
ZE: Cuts and bruises everywhere…
DO: …and we thought we had got it and then we heard from behind the monitor “Just one more time guys!” (laughs)
ZE: Well, that was because there was something in the gate that ruined it.
DO: OH! That’s right!
ZE: We thought we were done because he let us go for almost a half hour, and we were just so happy to not be fighting. We actually like each other a lot in real life. (laughs)
DO: Because we went for it full on every single time, to go there again was tough, because with Lee, artifice is just NOT allowed. It has to feel as real as possible…
ZE: Which is why we didn’t choreograph the scene.
DO: A lot of times you don’t know what’s going to happen. A lot of times you’ll whisper to the director, but not let the other actor know it’s about to come so (slaps fist into his palm) it just happens. He doesn’t like rehearsing because he’s terrified that something will happen when the camera’s not turned on that would have been great for the movie. So a lot of those more raw moments that you see in the film have no acting at all.
One of those was the air sex scene in the prison between John and Nicole. Those reactions that you see on our faces as we’re watching this happen are real. That is not acting. (laughs)
ZE: I was shocked it all stayed sitting down!
DO: (laughs) I was just shocked period! That was my first day on the movie!
ZE: It kind of went that way for me, too. My first day was the peeing scene. My second day was that scene.
DO: He likes to do it that way. I think Nicole’s first day was the sex scene with John.
ZE: He lines things up like that so you don’t get too comfortable right away.
You talk about all these scenes and how they can be seen as being potentially negative, was there ever any doubt when it came to signing up for these roles?
DO: For me, initially there was, because the first permutation of the script that I read didn’t yet have Lee’s revisions to it yet, and at that point it was largely just a whodunit about if John Cusack’s character murdered this sheriff or not, and I didn’t think that I was feeling anything for the other characters in it. What you get with Lee if you watch any of his work is that he is a lover of humanity. Even though he chronicles the dark side of humanity he does everything he can to mine from that who we are as human beings, whether it’s the lightness in us or the darkness in us.
As the revisions started coming through, I really started to become engaged by the relationship between the brothers, Zac and Matthew’s characters, and because I was a guy who has two brothers himself, I could identify with that. That was my way into the story. Once it had that human aspect, that started to grow. That became less about if John Cusack did this or not, and more about asking who these damaged people are and why they are doing this to each other. That’s where the rights of passage lines of the film come in, because this is all new skin for us and specifically for Zac’s character. So we go on him and wonder what these people are doing and having to make choices on the basis of that.
It becomes more of a morality tale than a whodunit.
DO: Right. There’s more irony to it.
Now, you are both young guys and this is going back to a period that neither of you really lived through. You both have your own sets of secrets and your own sets of prejudices. What did you guys do to prepare yourselves to be in a film that required you to look and act in a period appropriate manner or was there anything Lee asked you to do?
ZE: Lee was great with that. He was very in tune with the 60s and what was going on. I would try to learn a little bit more about the era and the area. I had sort of like a fact sheet about the time and what big events were going on, and as we all know it was a time of big change and huge uncertainty. There was a lot to learn now that I think of it, but it was neat and it took on a life of its own.
And you also have to play someone who isn’t necessarily a bad person, but as per the time and era he’s also quite casually racist without even really realizing it. Was that hard for you to wrap your head around given that you didn’t really live during that era?
ZE: It was and it wasn’t. Initially when I was reading that scene I think you’re talking about (Ed: A confrontation with Macy Gray’s character) I was just thinking of the end result. I questioned the character’s integrity there, but once I understood why he used that term it ultimately made sense in a dramatic way, and it was definitely dramatic. I just had to wrap my head around it, as with all things with Lee. You tend to realize as you’re doing it why you’re doing it.
DO: And for me, from that point of view, I had already been with Lee for two years in a row before The Paperboy while we were trying to get this film Selma off the ground, which was set in the civil rights movement in 1965 and I was going to play Martin Luther King in that, so we were both steeped in it. That’s partly why we changed this character from what was initially a white character. We were so deep in it that we had to do it. Lee just thought, “I can’t be in Florida in the late 60s and doing a movie and not explore what it was like to be a black person then.” So he made my character a black character and he wanted to explore it, but we also had to find a reason for this character to be in this world without it just being about race relations, so we had to make these choices for the character where he has this imperious attitude and he has to impede what it is this racism thing is all about so that he can be there, and so he could wield and gain power over these white, mildly racist people instead of having them discombobulated by him. It added – pardon the pun – nice colour to the film.