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Zac Efron on the physical demands of playing a wrestler in Sean Durkin's 'Iron Claw'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For years, the brothers of the Von Erich family were the kings of wrestling. Kevin Von Erich, who has long since retired, recently spoke with a local news station in Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KEVIN VON ERICH: I wrestled all that time ago, and they liked me then. But by now I think it's - they identify with the suffering and the losing of loved ones and that kind of crisis - the failure to a man, you know, but the spirit to keep coming back.

SHAPIRO: Because part of the Von Erich family's story is that almost all of the brothers died at a young age. In the new movie "The Iron Claw," Zac Efron plays Kevin, his body completely transformed for the role with muscles so hyper-inflated he looks like the Incredible Hulk. In this scene, he's speaking to one of his brothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRON CLAW")

ZAC EFRON: (As Kevin Von Erich) I got pretty angry - not at you, just at the whole situation. The thing is I didn't even really want it that bad. I just love being out there with you guys. It's the only thing that matters to me.

SHAPIRO: Sean Durkin wrote and directed the film. When I talked with Sean and Zac, Sean told me he scripted out long wrestling sequences, then worked with real pro wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. to choreograph and bring them to life.

SEAN DURKIN: He would say, oh, it'd be better if you do this. Or, like, you know, Zac is particularly good at this move, so let's throw this in instead of that move, you know?

SHAPIRO: What move is Zac particularly good at, if I may ask?

DURKIN: Well, a lot of them, it turns out, thankfully.

SHAPIRO: OK, but what's your signature move, Zac? I just have to ask.

EFRON: Usually the things that Kevin did a lot were double drop kicks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Huge flying crossbody...

DURKIN: Or the flying crossbody. Flying off the top rope was a big thing.

EFRON: Flying crossbody. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: ...A double drop kick, an incredible double drop kick blowing the roof off of this place.

SHAPIRO: How did it feel to discover that you were good at that?

EFRON: Oh, man. You know what? Honestly, I was kind of nervous about it, you know? The mat's not really a mat. It's plywood with, you know, like, rebar sort of underneath it and just across. And so there's sections that are, you know, like landing on concrete almost.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: That has to do some damage.

DURKIN: It's also about a 15-foot drop or a 12-foot drop to the floor from the top rope, you know, never mind the mat. So it's pretty dangerous.

EFRON: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And you were doing these sequences over and over and over in the course of a day to get, like, multiple shots, multiple angles.

DURKIN: Yeah.

EFRON: Yeah, we were. And that was after doing a 10- or 15-minute wrestling sequence. You know, you're tired the first time, but 20 takes later, it takes it out of you, man.

SHAPIRO: There's a scene where your character, Zac, is on a date with a woman who would become his wife, and they get in a conversation about whether wrestling is real or fake.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRON CLAW")

MAURA TIERNEY: (As Doris Adkisson) All right, not fake - pre-arranged, written.

EFRON: (As Kevin Von Erich) Look. You move up in any industry based on your performances, right? So a belt, like my Texas title - it's really just a job promotion, and the promoters keep you moving up if you do well. And if you reach the top, you become world champ as a reward because you're the best based on your ability and on how the crowd responds to you.

SHAPIRO: I saw that scene and thought, oh, they could be talking about movie-making.

DURKIN: Yeah, it's something that I felt very passionately about portraying - is, you know - this notion that wrestling is dismissed because it's pre-arranged is something I really wanted to dive into because it's, you know, I compare it to a play, right? A play is written. It is decided. It is drama. It's a story. An actor knows their lines. They know their blocking. They go out and do it, but it's not about the execution of the story. It's about - there's something in the performance of an actor that speaks to an audience. That's the thing that makes the actor great or the play great - is how it makes the audience feel. And I think it's very similar in wrestling, where great wrestlers - it's not always about technicality or if you win or if you lose. It's about how you make the audience feel...

EFRON: Yeah.

DURKIN: ...When you win or when you lose. And that's the performance element that sets great wrestlers apart.

SHAPIRO: So if we could talk thematically for a minute, to me, this movie seems partly to be a morality tale about the poison that comes from combining toxic masculinity and show business. And as two men who work in Hollywood...

EFRON: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...How do you identify with that?

EFRON: Being in entertainment as a young man, I think there was a lot that I could relate to with what the brothers go through, you know, in that it's - I definitely wasn't as extreme, but I think it manifested itself in different ways. And...

SHAPIRO: Is there a story from your own life you can tell us that, when you were playing a scene in this film, you thought, oh, that kind of corresponds to or parallels with this thing that I experienced?

EFRON: There are some of the moments in the locker room where the show's over. You know, you've just come out of the crowd and the chaos of a wrestling match, and it's very high energy. And then sort of the solitude and the quiet in the locker room where you're just alone - and I can perhaps compare that to, you know, what it feels like after maybe a movie premiere when I was younger...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

EFRON: ...Or something like that.

SHAPIRO: The highs and the lows.

EFRON: Yeah, yeah.

SHAPIRO: All through this movie, the father, Fritz, played by Holt McCallany, believes he can protect his boys by teaching them to be tougher and stronger than anyone else.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE IRON CLAW")

HOLT MCCALLANY: (As Fritz Von Erich) Now, we all know Carrie's my favorite, then Kev, then David, then Mike, but the rankings can always change. Everyone can work their way up or down.

SHAPIRO: Just brutal and so brutal it's almost funny as he's speaking to his boys there. But over the course of the movie, we learn that toughness is not enough to protect them. So if one lesson of the film is that being strong won't save you, what will?

DURKIN: Being in touch with your emotions and open about them.

EFRON: Yeah.

DURKIN: I think it's a journey of - for Kevin on how he - through finding expression and being in touch with how he was feeling is really a reason he survives. I mean, so much of that old-school mentality of - you know, there's a scene at a funeral. Fritz says, nobody cries. You know, I don't want to see any tears. And...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Take off your sunglasses.

DURKIN: Yeah. And it's that sort of mentality. It's about an absence of grief. And when you don't grieve, you can't truly move past it. And that's the real curse here - that they don't grieve. And so these things hang around, and they eat at them. And I think Kevin goes on a journey to find out how to express and how to do things differently with his own kids and how to find those emotions.

SHAPIRO: Zac, I was watching an interview with the real-life Kevin Von Erich where he said he has learned more in life from losing than from winning. And you, of course, were a teen heartthrob on the Disney Channel. You've grown up in the spotlight and in the tabloids and faced challenges that have played out in the public eye. And also, you just got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Congratulations on that.

EFRON: Thank you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: So how do you relate to the idea that we can learn more from our setbacks than from our triumphs?

EFRON: There's something fascinating and attractive to me about extending and really pushing myself to try new things and never really getting too comfortable with what I'm doing. And I think part of that is undertaking things you're maybe not quite confident you could achieve, trying something, you know, that puts you in a vulnerable position, like wrestling - something like that. It doesn't always work out, man. It doesn't always work out. And that's why this one, "The Iron Claw," is specifically near and dear to me. So it's - I guess it made me really appreciate where I'm at now and extremely grateful, you know, for this experience.

SHAPIRO: Zac Efron and Sean Durkin, star and director of the new movie "The Iron Claw." It's out now in theaters. Thank you both so much.

DURKIN: Thanks for having us.

EFRON: Thank you. Cheers, man.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORDS OF THE RING")

STYX: (Singing) All hail to the lords of the ring. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
William Troop
Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.