How'd they get 17 Again star Zac Efron to act like a grownup?

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Burr Steers, director of the upcoming fantasy comedy 17 Again, told reporters that he helped acclimate star Zac Efron to the movie's world of grownups by casting him opposite seasoned adult comedians.

"It was just keeping him in the moment, and one of the keys to that was the cast," Steers said in a news conference last week in Beverly Hills, Calif. "Just putting him with great players. You can't do a scene with Leslie Mann and be canned, because she will change it up every time. That was it: [to] put him with really talented people."

In 17 Again, Efron plays Mike O'Donnell, an unhappy thirtysomething businessman who awakens one day to discover he's been transformed back into his teenage self. Steers, who previously directed the independent comedy Igby Goes Down, spoke to journalists about tailoring the film to Efron's burgeoning stardom. The following is an edited version of that news conference, which also featured screenwriter Jason Filardi and producers Adam Shankman and Jenifer Gibgot.

How did this movie come together, and how did Zac get involved?

Gibgot: Really what it started with was Hairspray and us realizing that Zac was a star, and he deserved to be in his own movie, and New Line saying to us, "Find us the right project for him, and we would love to make it." Jason [Filardi], who did Bringing Down the House with us, came up with what we thought was a really fun, clever idea, and then Burr [Steers] just really elevated it. From pitch to being in the can, it was less than a year.

Was the dance scene at the beginning of the film always in the script, or was it added because of Zac's participation?

Gibgot: It was born out of, look, we have Zac, wouldn't it be fun? Initially in the pitch we didn't start with him as a kid, we just started with the Matthew Perry character, but we thought it would be really fun to actually see that moment, and what better way to show it with him in a bad wig doing the cheerleading moves?

Filardi: I literally went, "Don't make me do this. Please don't make me write a dance scene for this kid." I felt bad for him; I thought, do you think he wants to do that again? So then it was "How do I hide it?" and came up with the cheerleading thing. Now I watch it and I think it's great; I actually love it.

Burr, you're very successful at creating teen characters who are precocious without being obnoxious. Can you talk about how you dealt with Zac and directed him successfully?

Steers: It's about making that transition from being a kid actor, and the face acting and the indicating and the line readings: being present, listening and being in the moment and responding to things. It was just keeping him in the moment, and one of the keys to that was the cast, just putting him with great players.