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December in Louisiana is quite a bit chillier than one might expect and, as press gather behind director Scott Hicks as he sets up an outdoor scene for “The Lucky One,” everyone is thankful for the portable heaters that line the perimeter of the frame.

Although Nicholas Sparks’ 2008 novel takes place primarily in North Carolina, the film has shifted the focus to Louisiana and is currently shooting in and around a welcome center in Covington. The outside serves as a farmer’s market visited by Taylor Schilling’s Beth Clayton and Blythe Danner’s Nana. Covered in pumpkins, colored leaves and other signs of suburban fall, the area also features a Marine recruitment table that connects the peaceful scene to Iraq, where the story begins for Zac Efron’s US Marine Sergeant Logan Thibault. Returning to Colorado after a third tour of duty, Logan sets out on a walk across America to find the woman pictured on his lucky charm, a photograph he found in the middle eastern desert.

“I think there’s nothing as extreme as being out there in a war,” Efron says of his character. “Coming home, he’s forced to sort of rediscover his life or whatever. What’s next? He’s on his own to find out what ultimately makes him happy and what he wants to do. I think it’s very different from taking orders and being with your brothers constantly and fighting a war and then trying to live your life after and find love.”

“I thought it was a story with a wonderful premise,” adds Hicks. “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.”

Efron’s approach to taking on the role of a marine may surprise fans that know him best from projects like “High School Musical.” To realistically capture his character’s physical look, Efron packed on quite a bit of muscle and underwent actual military training.

“Physically I started eating a lot,” he explains. “Eating through walls. Just eating and eating. That’s all I’d do and I put on some weight that way. As far as the training goes, just trying different techniques and methods and working with a guy who I met who trained Vanessa [Hudgens] during ‘Sucker Punch’… It’s one of the only concrete things that you can do to feel differently about a character. I didn’t feel like a Marine. I didn’t have the posture. I didn’t feel like I had the presence and that was just one thing for me that I could do to really up that change.”

“It’s been an important part of that process for him,” says Hicks, “finding that sort of game face that he has for the role. This is a character that’s been through a bit of trauma. He’s traumatized by his experience. This is not just Zac playing himself. He really has undertaken a character unlike anything of his own experience, so it’s a big acting step for him.”

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