Can teen heartthrob Zac Efron grow up on screen?
The difficult move from tween to adult stardom seems to have left the actor confused...
The chasm between teenage and adult stardom is so vast — and so littered with heartthrob corpses — that one can’t help fearing for the long-term future of Zac Efron. For every tween superstar who successfully makes the leap, there are a thousand who fail. We know it, Efron knows it. And the uncertainty about what his future holds appears to have left him feeling tentative, even confused, about what moves to make next.
“I’m committed to saying that I would like to do this for ever but I’m also aware that that may not always be the case,” he says frankly, reclining in the lounge of the Sunset Tower Hotel in Los Angeles. “I’m going to work hard to make sure it stays that way, but who ultimately knows? I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Efron’s outlook is fatalistic but also pragmatic because he never expected any of this to happen in the first place. Born in San Luis Obispo, California, where both his parents worked for a nuclear power plant, he was raised to work and study hard, with university always the long-term goal. But sensing that their son had talent, his parents encouraged him to take singing lessons from the age of 11 and to start acting in high school and local theatre productions. Eventually his mother was regularly ferrying him on three-hour car journeys to LA for auditions, where Efron’s easy charm and golden-boy looks landed him guest spots in ER and Firefly, TV movies and, finally, his Disney Channel breakthrough High School Musical.
From High School Musical’s first broadcast, Efron became an instant star, his dynamic dance steps and dazzling smile as the squeaky-clean jock Troy Boulton catapulting him to a level of hysterical fan adulation that few will ever experience (his co-star and girlfriend of four years, Vanessa Hudgens, being one).
But in making him America’s next top pin-up, Disney’s corn-fed franchise also set him on a perilous path. It’s one that he’s managed to navigate with aplomb until now. He piled on a few pounds to play the cagey dreamboat Link Larkin in Hairspray in 2007. He settled for a male ingénue role in Me and Orson Welles but gained indie cred under the tutelage of the director Richard Linklater. And he demonstrated comic and dramatic flair as a disillusioned thirtysomething who flips back to his teenage years (and body) in the engaging age-switch comedy 17 Again.
Cautious but savvy moves, which is why his latest film, The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, is a major disappointment, a treading-water vehicle in which he gets to tackle adult emotions (grieving his dead brother, mild depression) but in the middle of a befuddling, syrupy mess that leaves the 22-year-old actor stranded. Not quite checkmate, but it puts Efron in the unenviable position of needing to come up trumps with his next movie.
Oddly, Efron stepped into Charlie St Cloud shortly after pulling out of a big-budget remake of Footloose, in which he was due to reteam with his High School Musical director Kenny Ortega. The actor insists that there was nothing untoward behind his departure. He simply came to feel that Footloose would be “a bit redundant”. Another role in which he showed off nifty dance moves? It would have made it that much harder to move his career beyond being an expert hoofer at a point when he maintains that he’s ready to stretch himself.
But Efron reveals himself to be wary of tackling anything remotely controversial. The overriding impression is of someone whose candyfloss image dictates the choices that he’s prepared to make, in deep thrall to his doting fanbase (Efron tells me that the days when a fan approaches him to share an anecdote about ways in which High School Musical has changed his or her life are days when he falls asleep with a smile on his face). But when pressed about whether he feels beholden to them not to stray too far from his white-bread persona, he insists: “No, not at all. I just wouldn’t want to misrepresent myself. I don’t want to dive into anything that someone else could do better . . .”
One of the actors Efron most admires is Leonardo DiCaprio. Efron approached him at an LA Lakers game and it has led to the two regularly hanging out, although he’s hesitant to label it a friendship. “He’s a cool guy and he’s been awesome to talk to. Hopefully we’ll become friends . . .” Tricky possibly, after Efron’s embarrassing blunder last year when he misquoted DiCaprio in print, telling a journalist that the older actor had told him, “There’s only one way you can mess this all up. Just do heroin.” He later told this newspaper, “It was the worst feeling in the world.” No wonder he’s cagey.
Ask Efron if he thinks there are lessons to be taken from the risqué roles DiCaprio was willing to tackle early in his career — a teen heroin addict in The Basketball Diaries, gay French poet Arthur Rimbaud in Total Eclipse — and he counters that “it’s a different time now. It’s harder to get those films made. Also, it has to be roles that I can identify with and relate to. I wouldn’t do it just to do it.”
In not wanting to betray himself on screen, he shows a strong loyalty to his strict but stable middle-class upbringing. By his own admission, the most rebellious thing he ever did was deciding to stay in the business when his parents were pushing him to go to university. “It just wasn’t a viable option to them,” he says. “‘Have fun but what are you really going to do?’”
Efron has carried that ingrained sense of responsibility to his young adulthood. Although he and Hudgens don’t live together, they’re only ten minutes’ drive from each other’s houses, spend most of their time together when one or the other isn’t away working and, by all accounts, are genuinely loved-up. “How do you stay focused when there are so many distractions? It’s being in a relationship.”
As well as DiCaprio, Efron expresses admiration for Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt and, tellingly, Tom Cruise and Will Smith “for playing the hero roles so well”. He recently ploughed his way through Smith’s back catalogue — a superstar who started off in a cheesy sitcom may be an easier yardstick for Efron to measure himself against. Certainly, the gap between aspiration and readiness appears wide. The movies he says he wants to emulate are “ones they made in the 1970s”, his favourite performances (Timothy Hutton in Ordinary People, Sean Penn in At Close Range) come from “a time when weirdness was celebrated in film. Everyone was striving to find something new and it was artistic and fun so those are the performances that I gravitate towards. I like Sean Penn’s early stuff.”
Intriguingly, Efron has struck up a friendship with the man who directed Penn to his second Oscar in Milk, Gus Van Sant, staying in touch after the film-maker interviewed him for Interview magazine. “I felt like he understood what was going on [with my life] more than anyone else,” Efron says. “I had a blast, so since then we’ve had a sort of open dialogue. He’s someone I really hope to work with in the future. We can communicate on a level that a lot of people can’t.”
Van Sant was in the middle of editing Milk when the pair met, leading to an obvious question: if they’d struck up their acquaintance earlier, would Efron have considered it if Van Sant had asked him to play, say, the flamboyant characters portrayed by Emile Hirsch or Diego Luna? “It’d be interesting,” he says, hesitantly. “I would sit down and talk with Gus and figure it out. I enjoy a film-maker that really has a passion for their film because then they can convey to me what they see as the strengths or what the value is to the story. But, yeah, absolutely.”
Easy to say but hard to picture. Even when it comes to expressing an opinion about recent roles in his age bracket that he might have loved to play, he keeps his cards close to his chest. “I can’t really think of any at the moment,” he demurs, before adding: “Some of the animated movies that have been coming out have been really cool. I think one of them would be fun.”
But as non-committal as he’s feeling, he’s calculating his options. Professing an interest in doing action movies, Efron had early meetings about taking over from Tobey Maguire in Sony’s Spider-Man reboot and flew up to Vancouver to hang out on the set of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, in which Hudgens has a key role. What he needs is for a smart, left-field film-maker such as Van Sant or Snyder to take a punt on him and to exploit his talents in a startling, unexpected way. But what he’d most love is for “a great director that’s passionate about a project and has some kind of role [for me. That’s the best way to get involved because they already have a clear vision of what they want.”
But at this point in Efron’s career, there’s an air of perversity — even paralysis? — in operating on the vague hope that a brilliant film-maker will decide to take him under his wing, especially when he isn’t showing any willingness to take the daunting (but ultimately liberating) risks that the DiCaprios, Pitts, Depps and Damons took early in their careers. Where there’s a will, there’s a way, but when Efron says: “I gotta be honest, man, having no game plan at this point is strange,” you can only agree, while feeling the urge to shout out the names of the tween-idol casualties that have fallen before him.
His next film, The Lucky One, an adaptation of another novel from the one-man sap factory Nicholas Sparks, doesn’t appear to be a choice to stop the rot either. It’s an effort to toughen up his screen image by playing a US Marine in Iraq, and in Scott Hicks, the director of Shine, he’s found his strongest director since Linklater, but it’s another baby step for Efron when he should be taking adult strides. Too many more forgettable tours of duty and High School Musical 9 could well beckon, with Efron back at East High as the school’s new theatre director, passing on his moves to a new generation of Disney dazzlers.