How '17 Again' Made Zac Efron A True Movie Star & Became A Beloved Comedy, According To Its Cast & Crew
"What on earth makes you think that I'm up for the challenge of playing a 37-year-old?" According to a 2009 Tribute Movies interview, that was Zac Efron’s reaction to 17 Again producer Adam Shankman when the actor first heard the concept of a former high school basketball star reverting to his teenage self in order to re-live his glory days. Yet despite his reservations, Efron took on the role of Mike O'Donnell (Matthew Perry played the adult version), and proved to audiences everywhere that not only was he up for the challenge, he was made for it. 10 years after 17 Again's April 2009 premiere, the movie's cast and crew reflect to Bustle on the beloved movie, and Efron's career-changing role.
Back in 2009, the then 19-year-old star was fresh off finishing the last High School Musical movie, but it was his work in 2006's Hairspray, directed by Shankman, that proved to the producer he was right for 17 Again. "I just saw a lot more in him than he saw in himself, especially as a comedian and just as an actor," Shankman says over the phone. He remembers that he thought while on set of Hairspray, "The kid is a freaking little movie star and we should figure out something to put him in immediately."
Shankman set out to create a project specifically for Efron, and before long, screenwriter Jason Filardi brought him the script for 17 Again. It was intended for Shankman to direct, but he was too busy, so Burr Steers signed on to direct and Shankman decided to produce the movie with his sister Jennifer Gibgot instead. "She goes, 'Oh my god, I have the perfect kid for this,'" Filardi remembers Gibgot saying — she was talking about Efron.
Yet Efron didn't initially jump at the chance to take on the movie. "It was weird. I didn’t enjoy the concept at first," he told Tribute. "Then the script came in and I read it and I was actually impressed... it became serious at that point. Then Tom [Lennon] and Leslie [Mann] got involved with the movie, and it really shaped up."
Eventually, Efron added, he agreed to do the project because of "the challenge of playing a guy that I had virtually nothing in common with... trying to pull that off that was refreshing." The star didn't just "pull off" the role of an adult stuck in a 17-year-old's body – he dove in head first. Shankman recalls that the performance required Efron to "push aside everything that is Zac, [he was] now playing Matt Perry... [so Efron] studied the hell out of him."
That included calling Perry "up in the middle of the night," according to a 2009 GMTV interview with Efron, to get the actor's advice or have him read lines. Efron's close study of the Friends star revealed things about Perry that he didn't even know, such as the fact that Perry often walks and stands with his hands in his pockets, and smiles with a closed mouth, the corners turned slightly downwards. In a 2009 The Inside Film Show interview, Perry said he hadn't noticed the smile quirk until Efron replicated it in the film.
"[Efron] got Matthew Perry's kind of idiosyncrasies and the way he behaves," Filardi recalls. "That was stuff I didn't even think about writing."
But Efron's performance was about more than just copying Perry. In a 2009 video, the actor said that Steers was helpful in pushing his performance to the next level. "I'm learning so much working with Burr, he's got this brilliant obsession with being real in front of the camera," Efron said. "That's where the comedy is generated from, real decisions that you find in the scene." Steers adds now that he and Efron worked hard to help the actor understand the physicality of the role, too. "He's a dancer, so he bounces into a room; he's got so much energy," the director recalls. "He was playing an older man in a teenager's body, so the stiffness... the way you walk [becomes important]."
Steers explains that for Efron, working with veteran scene partners like Leslie Mann (who played Mike's wife Scarlet), Thomas Lennon (Mike's best friend), and Melora Hardin (Mike's high school principal) helped the young actor up his game. "These people are completely in the moment and you can't expect them to do the same thing twice," Steers says. "You have to be on your toes and that makes you be in the moment... so once Zac started getting that, he was eager to learn."
And learn he did. "Zac knows what he doesn't know... and he would watch great actors and really absorb what they were doing," Steers adds. "That was the thing I noticed right off the bat with Zac, that if you put him in a scene with somebody, his game raises."
The actor's co-stars got something from him, too. Mann told Entertainment Tonight in 2009 that she took the role in part because her then-10-year-old daughter Maude would have killed her if she didn't work with the former HSM star. "[Maude's] like, 'You're doing this. I don't want to hear anything else about it,'" Mann said — although her daughter apparently ended up feeling weirded out that her mother had a kissing scene with 20-year-old Efron. Maude eventually came around, though — in a big way. "When I got home, [Maude] came and licked my face because she wanted to taste Zac's spit," Mann said.
Efron's superstar status among young viewers like Maude could have gone to his head, but his co-star Hardin says that was never the case. "You could see that he was really spongeing up our process," the actor recalls. "So much of acting, and good acting, is giving and receiving ... when [Efron] would receive, he would throw the ball back in a way that was really fun. He would try. He would take risks."
Hardin took her own risk on the movie by suggesting the eventual title of 17 Again. "We were batting some things around... [and I said 17 Again, like... you get to be 17 again, and [Gibgot's] like, 'Oh my god, yeah. That's great." Hardin recalls. "That was super fun to come up with something that everyone was like, 'Oh my god, that's perfect.'"
The rest of the cast also made important contributions to the film. Shankman remembers the stellar comedic timing of Lennon (Reno 911!, I Love You Man), in particular. "Tom Lennon was so instrumental in selling so much of the humor in that movie, and Tom and Zac were so freaking good together," Shankman says. Steers adds that Lennon's presence helped Efron realize "everything that he could do and how creative he could be."
In a 2009 interview with Manny the Movie Guy, Lennon said that he was initially unsure how Efron would be at improvising, but ended up pleasantly surprised. "It turns out he's amazing at that," Lennon said. Together, the duo even pitched and executed the movie's memorable, sprawling lightsaber fight scene. "I've wanted to do a legit lightsaber fight since I was 10 years old, and finally... we made it happen," Efron told Tribute in 2009.
Efron also worked well with Tiya Sircar, who played one of Mike's daughter's friends who comes to blows with teen Mike. Speaking to Bustle, Sircar recalls how Efron once let her slap him for real when the fake ones didn't pan out. "The stunt coordinator tried to teach us how to 'stage' slap but none of [us] seemed to be getting it right," Sircar says. "So finally [the coordinator] asked Zac if he'd mind if we all actually slapped him to make it look more believable, and he was totally game. Poor guy's face was purple by the time we were done shooting that scene!"
Efron's commitment to making the scene as convincing as possible made a lasting impression on Sircar. "Zac was a total sweetheart on and off set," she says now, adding, "One day when his mom was visiting set, I felt compelled to tell her she had 'raised him right."
17 Again was one of Sircar's first big projects, and she says that getting to act alongside long-established stars like Mann and Perry, was a "major career milestone." Sterling Knight, who played Mike's teen son, adds that he looked up to the "frustratingly cool" Efron in particular. "I definitely took every chance I could to pick his brain in regards to the struggles [of overnight stardom] and his process acting and otherwise," Knight recalls.
Sircar remembers how the cast would bond when not working. "I have really fond memories of all of us 'kids' in the movie hanging out outside of filming and just having the best time on and off set," she says. Hardin also praises the real relationships she gained from the film. "Tom Lennon and I became very good friends. I'm still very good friends with [him] and his wife and their son," she explains. "[That] doesn't happen a lot on movies and TV shows. You work with people, but you don't end up really making sustaining friendships all that often."
With a cast that connected on set and off, it's not surprising that 17 Again became a hit with audiences. According to Variety, it was the number one movie on its opening weekend, earning $24.1 million (with 76 percent of the opening night's viewership coming from young women — thanks, Efron). Some of the film's fans still stop Sircar in the street to talk to her about 17 Again, even though she's been in other recognizable projects like The Good Place and The Internship. "Strangers will sometimes still stop me and quote one of my ridiculous lines like, 'If that boy were an apple, he'd be a delicious', which makes me so happy," Sircar says.
Ten years after the movie's release, its youngest fans are now old enough to appreciate not only its jokes, but its portrayal of adulthood's real struggles. "It's really a mid-life crisis movie," Filardi explains. "It's an adult themed movie wrapped in what appears to be a teen comedy." Adds Shankman, "Burr never treated [the movie] like a comedy, he treated it like a drama. That, I think, is why it holds up."
One of the movie's most emotional moments, Shankman says, is when Efron's character attends Mike and Scarlet's divorce proceedings in court. Young Mike, whom Scarlet thinks is just her husband's nephew, reads a letter from his "Uncle Mike" that tells Scarlet how much Mike loves her. The twist is that the paper just had directions to the courthouse on it, not a letter, proving once and for all that the 17-year-old was telling the truth. He was Scarlet's husband, but he'd just been transformed back into a high schooler.
"When he read that letter, it was as devastating to watch in person as it was to watch in the movie," Shankman recalls. "As that camera just creeps forward and the tears are filling his eyes... I was like, that's acting. That is what this is supposed to look like. That is the heart and soul of this movie."
It was these more serious moments that revealed to those behind the scenes that Efron had chops as a dramatic actor, too. "Everybody knew Zac was handsome and could dance and sing, but in 17 Again I think he really killed it," Filardi says. "People hadn't seen that side of him yet, and he really [nailed] all the tender moments, all the heartfelt moments... all that real, raw, emotional stuff."
When speaking to GMTV in 2009, Efron said he wanted to do deeper projects throughout his career, and the 20+ movies and TV shows he's acted in over the last 10 years — in which he's played everything from a Dr. Seuss character to a serial killer — have fit that bill. To put in in 17 Again terms, Efron's career has turned out to be as vast as the age differences between the young and old versions of Mike O'Donnell.
Shankman, who says Efron is like a little brother to him, believes there are no limits to what he can achieve. "I think that he is underrated as an actor," the producer says. "I think that he has so much more in front of him."
During that Tribute interview back in 2009, Efron was asked what moment in time he'd want to go back and re-do, but unlike his 17 Again character, Efron said he didn't wish that for his own life. Turns out that was for the best, as things ended up working out pretty well for him this first time around.