The cast of That Awkward Moment boasts four of Hollywood’s hottest young actors: Zac Efron, who earned international stardom in Disney’s High School Musical franchise and has gone on to tackle challenging adult fare including The Paper Boy and The Lucky One; Miles Teller, whose recent starring role in The Spectacular Now put him at the top of many filmmakers’ wish lists; Michael B. Jordan, currently amassing awards and nominations for his work in the acclaimed drama Fruitvale Station; and British actress Imogen Poots, who turned in three memorable performances in 2013 in Filth, All is By My Side and The Look of Love.
Efron, who plays Jason, the guys’ unofficial ringleader, initially attracted Gormican’s attention in the 2009 teen comedy, 17 Again. “Zac is a really magnetic performer,” says Gormican. “When he’s on screen, you can’t stop watching him. He’s one of the most charming movie presences I’ve run into. It’s very difficult not to like him.”
In the film, Jason is doing his best to avoid any emotional entanglement with the girls he sleeps with, relying on his connection to his best friends to fill the void. “When you have a character doing some pretty unpleasant things, as Jason does, you need someone who has abundant charm,” Gormican says. “There are only a few actors who can pull that off. Zac is able to put Jason on the fine line between someone you should hate and someone you can’t help but like.”
Like his two male co-stars, Efron is just 26 and finds a great deal to relate to in Jason’s need for freedom. “Jason and Daniel are young and carefree,” says Efron. “This is their chance to do anything without the commitment of a long-term relationship. But that means that when Mikey’s marriage is on the rocks and he comes to his best friends for help, they don’t really know what to do or say. They just figure it’s time to have fun like they used to. It’s a great time until it just gets crazy.”
The craziness starts with the pact, as the three friends pledge to foreswear serious relationships and stay single for as long as possible. But the agreement, which was meant to keep life simple for them, quickly makes things more complicated, as each finds himself at a crossroads in his life that he never saw coming.
Jason’s downfall takes the form of Ellie, a whip-smart blonde with a sardonic sense of humor that matches his own. “She’s very sweet, incredibly intelligent and really driven,” Efron says. “But when they spend the night together, he starts to notice some really odd things about her and he bails in the middle of the night. And then she ends up in Jason’s office for a presentation. He can’t believe it’s her, and after he confesses what he thought and begs for forgiveness, they start to develop a real relationship.”
But Jason feels the need to hide the relationship from Daniel and Mikey, never realizing they are hiding secrets of their own. “And we all handle it in different ways,” says Efron. “Jason is confused and afraid of becoming attached or getting his feelings hurt. And since he was the mastermind behind the pact to begin with, he feels like he needs to live up to it pretty rigorously.”
Efron took his executive producer’s chores as seriously as he did his acting responsibilities. When it came to casting the roles of Jason’s confederates, Daniel and Mikey, he knew that chemistry between the three friends was paramount and lobbied hard for Teller and Jordan, two players he felt would bring a combustible energy to the trio’s often hilarious freestyle exchanges.
Jason’s longtime comrade-in-arms, Daniel, as played by Teller, is an even more extreme commitment-phobe than Jason. Daniel is apt to use his outrageous sense of humor to keep feelings—and women—at a distance. “He’s about maintaining his single status at all costs,” Gormican says. “But once he does get into a relationship, he’s probably the sweetest guy you could imagine.”
Casting Teller in the role was a no-brainer, says the director. “I love his sense of humor, I love his delivery and I love his style. I love the fact that he is absolutely and totally the most prepared person. I tried to keep a pretty firm hand on the script, with some rewriting as I went, but Miles was always able to hammer in a line or two. That’s inevitable—you can’t stop him.
“And I love the fact that he’s comfortable being a jerk. It worked perfectly. But you can also see that Miles is an incredibly sweet guy who understands how to work with women in a romantic role. I think he’s one of the few performers that could actually pull this off.”
The actor describes his character as the kind of guy who signs up for J-Date—even though he’s not Jewish. “Daniel’s in a league of his own,” says Teller. “He’s looking for love, in a very casual, relaxed way, like bumping into it at a bar. He’s not looking for anything too serious and he lets the girls know that. His attitude seems to make women a little uncomfortable at first, but then they start to like it, and the cat gets the mouse.”
Teller is always willing to poke fun at himself in his work. “Vanity is the last thing an actor needs,” he says. “These guys have flaws. Daniel spends a lot of time with his foot in his mouth. Even though we’re telling girls that we’re being very open, maybe that’s not always the case.”
Like Efron, Teller is also enjoying the freedom that comes with being young and unattached, though perhaps not to the extent that Daniel takes it. “When you are in your 20s, that’s the time to be a little selfish,” he says. “You’re not married. You don’t have kids yet. It’s a time of self-discovery. Once you get married, your wife comes before you. Once I have a kid, my kid comes before me. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with taking some time when you’re young to live it up a little bit, because you never get that back.”
And then there’s Mikey. Mikey has the kind of life Daniel and Jason aspire to—just not now. “These guys are all attracted to very smart, confident women with their own things going on,” says Gormican. “That dynamic can drive people apart. Mikey’s story is all about that. He’s a resident at a hospital, working long hours. His wife is on a partner track at a law firm. Those are the things that take people away from each other.”
He’s also a man who loves being in a relationship. “I’ve always had a friend like that,” says Gormican. “He’s the sort of adult in the room. I thought it would be an interesting thing to have him start dating his ex. Once all of the pressures and complications of the marriage disappear, all of a sudden it becomes fun again for them—until reality creeps in.”
Michael B. Jordan, who plays Mikey, has carved out a niche for himself as a talented dramatic actor, but That Awkward Moment is his first foray into big-screen comedy. “Michael B. can break your heart on screen,” says Gormican. “I’ve seen that in everything that he’s done so far. We asked him to be the dramatic anchor of the film, but he also has undiscovered comedic chops. I firmly believe that he can do anything he sets his mind to.”
The character is different from Jason and Daniel in certain essential ways, points out Jordan. “Those guys are great friends to Mikey, but they are not upfront at all with women. They’re not looking for anything too serious. Mikey’s marriage is ending after five years and his friends try to get him back into the dating scene, when really all he wants is to make it work with his wife.”
The actor says his favorite scenes in the film are when the three friends are alone together. “We are just talking and nobody’s listening. There are no girls around. We are free to just be 20-something guys with all that entails. It’s the locker room talk.” And the first woman to crack the locker-room door is Ellie, who is smart, independent and no more interested in a commitment than the boys are.
“I find that most people in their 20s in New York are very career-focused,” Gormican says. “It’s a transitional time and Ellie’s an example of that. She’s fresh off her master’s degree, working at this publishing company and she’s out to prove herself. But at the same time, she’s not afraid of meeting someone and falling for them, the way Jason is.”
Imogen Poots, who began her film career as a teen in the 2004 thriller V for Vendetta, plays Ellie as one of the guys, albeit a bit more levelheaded.
“Ellie is different from anybody Jason has ever met,” says Efron. “She is bright and ambitious, but also easygoing and laid back. She doesn’t seem to have a problem with the way these guys handle themselves with women. She even agrees with it, in a sense. Jason’s taken aback, because she is a curveball that’s he’s not ready for.”
Gormican sees Ellie, as embodied by Poots, as the ideal girl for someone like Jason. “If a guy had a chance with Imogen and screwed that up, I’m pretty sure he would regret it for a very long time,” he says. “The more you spend time with her and the more you talk to her, the more you’re struck by how unusual she is. That’s exactly what happens to Zac’s character. He’s drawn in further and further, until he’s at a point where he can’t deny the fact that he really wants to be with her.
“Imogen’s not a traditional casting choice for this type of movie,” says the director, “but her quirkiness works here. She has really odd timing and an unbelievable comic sensibility, as well as a total connection to her role.”
When Jason rescues Ellie from a well-meaning but extremely boring suitor in a bar, it’s clear that their mutual bent for the absurd has them well-matched. “He’s a breath of fresh air for Ellie,” says Poots. “There’s an instant connection. He is self-deprecating and very witty, without any sort of ulterior motive. She makes a decision to have some fun and they end up spending the night together. And then he flees for the silliest of reasons.”
When they meet again in Jason’s office, Ellie turns up the heat during his presentation, but never loses her cool. “What I like the most about their dynamic in the film is that she never gets angry at him,” says Poots. “She’s just disappointed. He keeps digging himself a deeper and deeper hole. And her attitude is, “Well, what’s the actual big deal here? I thought that was pretty hilarious.”
Working with three such talented and diverse actors was rewarding, says Poots. “Zac and Miles and Mike are so terrific. They give wonderful performances. And the characters really provide a cross section. Jason is able to be sensitive to other people’s opinions, whereas Daniel is quite self-centered. He has some wonderful one-liners and Miles has the ability to say the weirdest, strangest things that leave everybody crippled with laughter. Then, Mikey is just a wonderful character. He has his life more together and is often baffled by the behavior of Daniel and Jason. I think that mirrors Michael B.’s personality. He’s so well-mannered and sophisticated at all times, which shines through his character as well.”
The fact that the young actors all became close prior to filming helped their onscreen chemistry, according to Gormican. “We didn’t have a ton of rehearsal time,” he says, “but we were able to take the cast away for a long weekend in the Adirondacks, where they became friends, whether they meant to or not. We read through the script once or twice, but it wasn’t about rehearsing. After four days, we came back with a lot of stories to tell and a shared experience, which was really helpful.”
For Poots, the weekend included a life-changing discovery. “It was full of hanging out and drinking hot chocolate and having s’mores,” she recalls. “S’mores are something that I find extremely exciting, given my lack of an American upbringing. It was really lovely.”
When they returned to New York, the bonding continued, with Efron, Teller and Jordan conducting extensive “research” in the New York environs that the film was set in. “The guys were all living together and hanging out together,” says Gormican. “They were going everywhere, and the girls would come along, the entire cast gathering for nightly dinners.
“This was the most fun I’ve ever had filming a movie,” says Teller. “We’re hot dudes. We’re filming in New York. How could it not be fun? “
The one word that can instantly stop an amorous young man in his tracks, says Gormican, is word is “so,” because it’s often the immediate precursor to the awkward moment of the movie’s title.
“The ‘so’ question usually comes at a crossroads in a relationship,” says Gormican. “In the beginning, there’s some ambiguity. People are hooking up, seeing people, dating people. At some point, the conversation happens. In the movie, as the guys say, nothing good ever follows the word ‘so.’”
Or as Efron puts it: “It’s at the beginning of every uncomfortable question that implies that commitment is imminent: ‘So, where is this going? So, what are we doing? So, is this a relationship? So, are we dating?’ It’s the first step down that road.”
Poots will debate whether or not the fear only applies to men. “The movie explores that idea in a lovely way,” says Poots. “It is funny, but it’s also important. To me, it’s really brave for a guy or a girl to decide to find out what they’re getting into in an open and forthright way. One half of a couple wants to know if this is going to get more serious or not.”
And Jordan agrees that it goes both ways in real life. “We’ve all had ‘so’ moments,” he says. “Both guys and girls will see this movie and say, I’ve been there.”
For Teller, once you start to talk about feelings, everything changes. Suddenly, nothing is laidback or casual. “The more you want to see a person, the more you’re going to see a person. Then, it gets to the point where they’re the only person that you want to see. Maybe you start to feel like you’re in a little too deep and you’re not looking to be. Someone’s feelings are going to get hurt. Somebody always cares more about the other person. For Jason and Daniel, that’s normally time to phase her out.”
With a few years distance, Gormican blames what he calls “the tyranny of choice,” after a book by the same name. “The idea behind the book is that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with the choices we make,” he says. “If you apply that to the dating world, you see that with Facebook and other kinds of social media, the choices seem endless. Everything is available to you. New York can be like the live version of that. Everyone you know lives within two or three square miles of you. How do you settle down? Why would you want to when there are always ten other options on your phone?”
Efron hopes many people will find the situation relatable, especially the friendship between Mikey, Daniel and Jason. “There’s a lot of humor in this, even though the situations are absolutely real. I think this movie is a chance for girls to see a whole different side to guys like this. They have good hearts and the best intentions, but it’s sometimes hard for them to handle. I don’t really know if we’ve ever seen it before in a film.”
“I think guys will it find very relatable,” says Gormican. “It’s been a long time since I’ve really seen a movie where male friendships are depicted in a close and sincere way Hopefully they’ll see it because they find the idea of guys avoiding relationships funny, but there’s so much more going on.”
Poots agrees the appeal will be universal. “The film balances humor with heartfelt emotion,” she says. “Girls will also recognize things in the film that they’ve experienced themselves. I can relate to the storyline, not just as a girl, but also in terms of what all of the characters are going through. The idea of post-college life and your first job, your first relationship, and the ways your friendships are changing is universal. The geography of your life is shifting. All of those elements are in the film.”