CANNES, France – Zac Efron felt uncomfortable filming his revealing role "The Paperboy" — and he says that's the way he wanted it.
The "High School Musical" actor has moved into decidedly grown-up territory with the film by "Precious" director Lee Daniels, which screened Thursday at the Cannes Film Festival.
It's a swampy slice of Southern gothic set in the 1960s, with Efron as an aspiring writer helping his journalist brother (Matthew McConaughey) investigate a possible miscarriage of justice. Efron's Jack falls for Nicole Kidman's sparky but sultry femme fatale, who is in turn obsessed with a death row inmate (a supremely creepy John Cusack).
The cast also includes singer Macy Gray as Jack's family maid and surrogate mother, and British actor David Oyelowo as an ambitious big-city journalist.
Efron spends much of the film in his underpants, but says he didn't mind the scrutiny.
"I don't think I was supposed to feel comfortable," the 24-year-old actor told reporters in Cannes. "It's like life. This character is supposed to be learning the ways of the world, and that can be very uncomfortable. But it's also exciting."
Daniels had a shallower explanation for all the Efron flesh on display.
"He's a good-looking guy," the director said. "And I'm gay. What do you want?"
Efron is not the only actor asked to bare his soul in the movie, which combines a crime thriller plot with a swampy landscape and undercurrents of racism and sexuality into a pungent gumbo.
Cusack sheds a lifetime of good guy roles to play the sweaty, sinister inmate, and loved every minute of it.
"I felt like I'd been let out of some cage," Cusack said.
Kidman also stretches herself, playing a sexually adventurous woman drawn to danger. In one memorable scene she administers to Efron the traditional treatment for jellyfish sting — urine.
"I'd been looking as an actor for something raw and something dangerous," Kidman said.
"I may be uncomfortable watching the movie. But that's my job — it's my job to give over to something, not to censor it, not to put my own judgments of how I feel as Nicole playing the character. I am there to portray a truth.
"I don't want to be pigeonholed," she added. "I'm willing to fail because of that. I just want to try."
Kidman worked hard to create Charlotte Bless, interviewing women who were in love with convicts and putting together the character's bold look.
"Lee said to me, 'Look, we've got no money, you're going to have to do your own hair and makeup,'" Kidman said — so she sat down and experimented with fake tan, fake eyelashes and a platinum hairpiece, then photographed the results.
"I texted it to Lee, all different provocative positions, and that was how it all started to come together," Kidman said. "What he sent back I can't say — but it was like, 'Thumbs up.'"
"The Paperboy" is adapted from a novel by Pete Dexter, with an expanded role for Gray's character, Anita, who becomes the film's narrator. Yardley, the reporter played by Oyelowo, is white in the book but black in the film.
"What I could give in this world was my truth, my understanding," said Daniels. "Every single character in this movie is someone I know personally, someone I have interacted with personally.
"I saw a movie called 'The Help,' and though I liked it, most of my family was 'help.' They came back and told me stories about working with white people.
"There was a truth in Anita that I wanted to bring out, and that's why I expanded that role. And also because there aren't enough roles for African Americans in the world today."
Daniels' last film, "Precious," was a surprise hit that won two Academy Awards in 2010. His next will be "The Butler," the story of a long-serving White House staffer in which McConaughey plays John F. Kennedy and Cusack is Richard Nixon
"The Paperboy" has drawn mixed response in Cannes, where it is one of 22 films up for the Palme d'Or, to be awarded Sunday.
But the actors seem to have adored the experience. Efron said working with Kidman had been a dream.
"I've been in love with her for a long time — since 'Moulin Rouge,'" Efron said. "It was the loveliest time in the world for me."
Jill Lawless can be reached at http://Twitter.com/JillLawless