'The Paperboy': Lee Daniels on Doubting 'Disney Boy' Zac Efron, Why He Can't Read Reviews

Zac Efron Lee Daniels - P 2012
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Zac Efron Lee Daniels - P 2012

The filmmaker also tells THR that his mother hopes he’ll one day follow in Tyler Perry's footsteps.

High School Musical fans, be warned. The Paperboy is not your typical Zac Efron fare.

The former Disney actor, who has branched out into the world of drama with roles in Charlie St. Cloud, The Lucky One, Liberal Arts and At Any Price, grows up in Lee Daniels' Cannes hit as a wayward young man who becomes entangled in a deadly game of love, lust and finding the truth. It's a far cry from his teen-friendly beginnings, to say the least.

PHOTOS: 'The Paperboy' Premiere

When Daniels is asked whether there was any part of him that doubted Efron's ability to pull off the part, the filmmaker is quick to reply: "Well, yeah. Every part of me."

"I was so scared for Zac because he came from another world. Zac's a Disney boy," Daniels tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It wasn't really about the acting, as I thought I could get the actor out of him, but whether he had it in him to work in the environment that I create that ultimately makes the magic on the screen."

Daniels recalls putting his actors to work off camera during the shoot, with Nicole Kidman doing her own makeup, Macy Gray lending a hand in the costume department and Efron helping with catering. "He was a trooper, man," Daniels says. "First day, he was ready to go to combat."

That's exactly the spirit Daniels says he looks for when casting any actor. With nearly nonexistent character requirements ("I flip characters from male to female, from white to black," says Daniels), the director is primarily concerned with chemistry and a willingness to "work through your fears to find the truth."

"I look at a sense of camaraderie," Daniels says of his actors. "Whether they can play ball with the team and humility, to really be able to deal with my insanity."

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Those qualities can undoubtedly be found in his frequent collaborators, including Macy Gray, Mo'Nique, Cuba Gooding Jr., Nealla Gordon, David Oyelowo, John Cusack and Lenny Kravitz, all of whom have starred in multiple Daniels-directed films.

"When you get me, it's magic," says Daniels. "We don't rehearse. It's really about talking to each other."

The tactic appears to work for film festival audiences, with Precious and Paperboy both receiving lengthy standing ovations at Cannes (15 and 16 minutes, respectively). But this year, Daniels nearly missed out on his moment -- all due to just one unkind review.

“I don't read reviews. I just can't, because it's too painful … It's like someone stabbing you in the gut,” Daniels says. But, after a little encouragement from his publicist, Daniels read THR’s (positive) review just before the film's Cannes premiere. “Oh, that’s nice,” he recalls thinking.

“Then, we're in the elevator, and she sees that Variety is in. ‘Do you want to read it?’ [she asks.] And I go, ‘Sure.’ Literally, I spit in my hand, like I was pretending to roll the dice,” he continues. “By the time I got to the third floor of the mezzanine, I was in the fetal position in the elevator. I call Nicole: ‘Nicole, they hate us, they hate us, they hate us. The world hates us. I can't walk this. I can't do this.’”

After Kidman informed Daniels that, “They boo you at Cannes,” Daniels then braved the “terrifying” and “frightening” red carpet before the screening.

“When we got the 16-minute standing ovation, and the people spoke there, I didn't embrace it because I was too wrapped up in that review,” he remembers. “It wrecked me.”

FILM REVIEW: 'The Paperboy'

But there's one critic that Daniels will listen to: his mom.

“My mother doesn’t even like half my movies,” he laughs. “She’ll fall asleep in the theater.”

For Daniels’ mother, who snoozed through both Precious and Paperboy, she hopes her son will one day go the Tyler Perry route.

“I think Tyler Perry is an interesting filmmaker,” Daniels concedes. “He hits home to an audience, you know. I think everybody has a voice … He has his own way of telling a story.”

Daniels will move into slightly lighter territory with The Butler, a PG-13 drama about one White House butler who served over three decades. "I just wrapped yesterday [and] I feel like I am coming out of a straightjacket," Daniels jokes. "It was duct tape over my mouth."

The Paperboy, rated R, opens in select theaters Oct. 5.

Email: Sophie.Schillaci@thr.com; Twitter: @SophieSchillaci