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Zac Efron and Zendaya bring romance, and a standout duet, to 'The Greatest Showman'

Zac Efron and Zendaya bring romance, and a standout duet, to 'The Greatest Showman'
Zac Efron and Zendaya co-star in "The Greatest Showman," an original musical about the life of P.T. Barnum. (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

"The Greatest Showman" stars Zac Efron and Zendaya are relaxed as can be, chatting on a sofa in a Four Seasons suite, talking over each other and laughing it up.

And why not? These two insanely beautiful young people (Zendaya is 21; it's hard to believe Efron just turned 30), both of whose careers were minted on the Disney Channel and both of whom have graduated to big-screen success, are in an original movie musical with Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum. Their soaring love duet ("Rewrite the Stars"), staged on a flying trapeze, is sure to become a signature scene — and a signature karaoke duet, anywhere your outgoing friends can get their hands on a mic.

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"When I first heard it, I lit up," says the enthusiastic Efron, flashing that million-dollar smile. "I could envision us accomplishing that. And that was just me, driving alone in my car. I fell in love with it immediately."

Zendaya (born Zendaya Maree Stoermer Coleman in Oakland) had a different experience with the song. She and her mother met with director Michael Gracey (they were having a mother-daughter day and Gracey invited her mother to come along, earning points with the actress); he played them some of the project's infectious music composed and written by Oscar-winning "La La Land" lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

Following that, she said she bugged her agents, "trying to get in the room with the director" again. Then she was invited to what she calls a "chemistry read" with Efron.

Philip (Zac Efron) is entranced by Anne's (Zendaya) trapeze artistry in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN.
Philip (Zac Efron) is entranced by Anne's (Zendaya) trapeze artistry in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. (Niko Tavernise / Twentieth Century Fox)

"It wasn't a normal audition; it was more relaxed than that," she says. In advance of that meeting, "I was like, 'Would it be cool if you could send me the song so I could record it?' I have, like, a studio set up in my garage — "

"This is so dope," Efron interjects.

"I wanted to show them what I could do. So I recorded my own version of my half of the song. I was like," she says, pitch rising nervously, " 'You guys like it?' "

"It was funkier, it had heavier bass and drums," says Efron, as Zendaya all-but giggles. "Her range was shown in it. 'This is badass.' Michael was giving me side-eye, every time she looked away. …"

He imitates Gracey nodding politely while Zendaya is watching, then expressing amazement when she turns away.

The singer-dancer-musician-producer (she stars in and produces "K.C. Undercover" for the Disney Channel) made her first big-screen splash this past summer in the massive Marvel hit, "Spider-Man: Homecoming." Perhaps that lack of a track record is what made her unsure she had been selected for "The Greatest Showman" when Gracey invited her to "hang out" with him and Efron.

Efron asks, "You didn't know yet?"

"I didn't know," she affirms. "That's why I recorded the song."

"Oh, that explains a lot," says Efron. "To me, Michael was like, 'Do you want to hang out with Zendaya and see what she's like before you guys start shooting?' "

Both laugh; she says, "Oh no, I was stressed out."

Zendaya was indeed cast, as Anne, a trapeze artist in mid-1800s New York who lands a gig in Barnum's "greatest show." Efron plays buttoned-down heir Phillip, a scion of New York society who partners with Barnum; his parents have other plans for him than to fall in with a lowly circus performer.

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The actor is already a veteran of 20 films, including hits such as "Neighbors" and "Hairspray." Did he try to mentor his costar, one Disney Channel alum to another?

"I think like once, I was trying to be Big Bro, just like, check in. I thought you were bummed out one day. … You were just texting," he says, and both laugh.

"People ask us, 'What was the ice breaker? Did you talk about [Disney],'" says Zendaya. "No, not really — "

"There's no secret handshake or anything — "

"Pretty much the first day, they hooked us up together and we're in harnesses. We're literally holding each other up," she says. "That was the ice breaker."

Gracey approached prep for the project as one might a stage musical, providing ample rehearsal time. Zendaya welcomed the prospect — mostly.

"That was awesome. But then he also said, 'You should start working out. I want to use your stunt double as little as possible. I want you to start trapeze training, I want to see some change in your arms, I want you to look like a trapeze artist.'

"So I was like, 'That's great. I don't work out.' I'm not that girl. Look, I'm lucky, I have a good metabolism. I'm not this guy," the willowy, 5-foot-10 actress nods at Efron, who waves it off, biceps bulging as he does. "It's not my world. But it became my world."

Though Efron made his name in original musicals — the "High School Musicals, to be exact — he was afraid they weren't his world anymore, 10 years later.

"I was nervous: Can I dance, still? Can I keep up with choreography? This was gonna be a level up from anything I'd ever done before. People keep thinking I'm a dancer. I'm not a dancer! I do the same two-step with a little twist," he says, getting a laugh from Zendaya, " 'in da club.' "

So the two were on equally uneven footing when they began training at Circus Warehouse in New York.

Efron says the first day was spent "doing some stretching, learning how to swing with one arm — without harnesses, sans harness. But I walked in and you were already on the trapeze — "

"They had me there early, just learning stuff — " she says.

"Like, legitimate, real trapeze," he says, eyes wide. "Doing the flip, going onto your knees, being caught in the air. She landed one, I was like, 'What the …? What …? Is that you? Oh my God!' I felt so behind."

Zac Efron and Zendaya in Los Angeles
Zac Efron and Zendaya in Los Angeles (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

During the star-crossed lovers' duet, Anne, rehearsing on the weighted ropes that are part of her aerial act, keeps flying away from Phillip. He sings, "It's up to you / it's up to me / No one can say what we get to be," to which she responds, "It feels impossible / Is it impossible?" He tries to catch her in flight, sometimes succeeding. Despite its complexity, the scene proved the exception to the "ample rehearsal" rule.

Zendaya says, "Our number was impossible to rehearse all the way through. With all the rigs and all the setups and relying on weights — there are so many elements, we can't run it from beginning to end.

"It's impossible," she says, echoing the song.

Efron says, "We just showed up and the first day, we grabbed these ropes with one hand, we ran toward each other." Zendaya laughs in recollection.

He continues: "I mean, we had supervision, but we did a lot of it without harnesses. We'd run to Michael with ideas and he'd be like, 'Just go do it, let's shoot it.' He would piece it together. So it was really just us falling in love on camera."

She adds, "So we were all over the place … running into each other and there were uncomfortable harnesses and bruises, but it was totally worth it."

"Our stunt crew was awesome," he says.

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"They had to catch us multiple times, flying through the air. Things were crazy," says Zendaya, both of them smiling at the memory. "We'd sit there and say, 'This is our life right now.' "

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