Watch: Zac Efron talks about learning to wrestle for The Iron Claw
"I remember being frozen in the air, looking down, and just going 'how the heck did I get here?'," Zac Efron admits to Yahoo UK.
It's fair to say the actor never expected to make a movie quite like The Iron Claw. He delivers another of his extreme actor transformations — and this one's a lot better than Baywatch — in order to embody the 1980s wrestling icon Kevin Von Erich.
It's a physical, emotional journey through one of the most tragic stories in the history of the sport. Kevin rose to fame as one of six sons born to wrestling patriarch Fritz Von Erich, who is brilliantly played in the movie as a ruthless entrepreneur by Mindhunter's Holt McCallany.
By the time Fritz died in 1997, Kevin was his last surviving son, following a series of tragedies that led to rumours the family was cursed.
For Efron and his on-screen siblings, including The Bear's Jeremy Allen White and British star Harris Dickinson, the movie required an intense pro wrestling boot camp, presided over by industry legend Chavo Guerrero Jr — who also trained the cast of Netflix series GLOW.
"Man, it was wild. You realise that there's so much to this sport," says Efron. "There's the performance element, then there's the physical element and the action and the characters. It's such a colourful world."
Despite its popularity as an art form — WWE recently signed a deal with Netflix worth an estimated $5bn (£3.98bn) — wrestling has been a tough nut to crack on the big screen. The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke, remains the undisputed heavyweight champion, with only the 2019 movie Fighting With My Family really coming close.
"I can understand why there's not a lot of movies made about it," says Efron. "It's so intricate. Getting a crash course in it was really fun and really eye-opening in all the right ways."
For Efron, it was Von Erich's acrobatic diving crossbody that proved to be the most challenging move to nail, alongside learning to throw a realistic-looking punch and how to deliver the titular submission hold.
He says: "I think jumping off the top rope was probably the hardest thing. The ropes are actually pretty high and the mat's not really soft. It's plywood over steel bars in a cross. If you land in the wrong place, it hurts. It hurts bad.
"We didn't practise [the dive] a whole bunch. We kinda just shot it. We did it two or three times maybe and that was one of those moments, it was like doing a cliff jump into the water. You've just got to get ready, commit, time kinda disappears and slows down. It really is a magical moment."
The Iron Claw director Sean Durkin says it was a "long process" to work out how to balance the predetermined nature of wrestling — don't let anyone hear you call it "fake" — with sports movie stakes. He says: "Even when it is arranged, it doesn't always go as planned because it's live performance. When you're performing, it's about energy, it's about crowd connection, it's about landing your moves.
"It's about so many things and, just because it's planned, it doesn't mean it's going to come off and it doesn't mean people are gonna respond. Wrestling's all about getting a response and I just wanted to get that across."
Durkin says he was keen to emphasise the physicality of that particular period of wrestling, in which the smoke and mirrors of the sport was very much a protected secret by those in the ring.
"Those matches and that time in wrestling was very physical and much more physical than it is now. They would connect," says Durkin. "Coming into their house, they would let you know it was their house, so I wanted to show that as well. I treated it more like a boxing movie, I think. I wanted it to have both — the fight stakes feel like boxing, but also to understand the wrestling."
Efron's hard work and gravity-defying ability to leap off the top rope is testament to how committed everybody behind one of the most exciting movies of 2024 was to making wrestling feel like what it is — arguably the most unique and fascinating performance art in the world.
The Iron Claw will be in UK cinemas from 9 February.
Watch the trailer for The Iron Claw: