In the film, Efron plays Mike, a popular student and star athlete headed for a college scholarship who decides to give it all up to marry his high-school sweetheart. But 20 years later, the adult Mike (played by Matthew Perry) finds his life in turmoil. Separating from his wife (played by Leslie Mann), living with his best friend, working in a mundane job, and the non-existent relationships with his teenage children leave Mike dissatisfied. But through a magical twist of fate, he's sent back to high school as a 17-year-old -- but in 2009, which presents unusual challenges like dressing cool, dealing with new gadgets, and taking classes with his own kids, not to mention the discovery that he's not been a very good father or husband.
Playing a grown man trapped in a teenaged boy's body was a particular delight for Efron. For the scenes where his character has some very adult conversations with his kids, he called upon memories of his own childhood for inspiration. "I thought about how my dad tried to have those talks with me and my little brother," he says. "He was always passionate and energetic and he delivered it like a champ."
The film's serious subjects aside, slapstick took on a whole new meaning for the actor when a scene called for several actresses to take a whack at him. "It was amazing watching everybody have so much fun that night," recalls Efron. "They had a stunt coordinator there that day and he was instructing everyone how to slap, and he goes 'you really have to sell it! You really have to slap him!' And I'm sitting there like 'they're slapping me!'"
Playing a more complicated character, albeit one who is on familiar turf, was a smart career move for Efron, since it allows his ardent fan base a chance to grow with him as he moves on to playing more mature characters. (His 2008 film, Me and Orson Welles, in which he plays a teenager cast in the legendary director's production of Julius Caesar is still awaiting a U.S. theatrical release.) "It does take place in a high school, but it's not a high school character, and that's what I want to do more of now," says Efron, who made recent headlines by pulling out of a scheduled remake of the classic set-in-high-school film Footloose.
Although he's got an eye on the future, and his new movie is about correcting past mistakes, Efron's focus is firmly on the present. "This is the best job in the world. I'm having the time of my life," he says. "I wake up every day with a new challenge, whether it's acting, learning a new skill set, or doing press. It's always fun."