Zac Efron is already on top as the star of three High School Musical films and the idol of every teenager (and grown-up, frankly) in America. Now he can look forward to growing up to be one of the stars of "Friends." In the upcoming comedy 17 Again , Matthew Perry plays Efron’s older self who returns to his younger body for a chance to undo his great regrets.
"Matthew shot a couple days and I’d come in and shoot," Efron said. "I was able to see a couple of scenes that Matt had done for sure, but I know that most of the work we did on figuring out the character was just done in rehearsals. We had a couple days where we were able to just hang out and talk and figure out the key moments that really it was Matthew’s line that I was just kind of saying."
There are no dance numbers this time, but Efron still gets sweaty on the basketball court like Troy Bolton. Consider it a transitional movie for Efron’s budding career.
Zac Efron in "17 Again," in theaters on April 17.
"It was exactly what I was looking for. This is an opportunity to work with a brilliant cast and an amazing director and yeah, it was that chance to switch it up. It does take place in high school, in a high school setting, but it’s not a very high school character and that’s what I want to do more of."
If it’s grown-up comedy he’s after, perhaps Efron needs to consider his personal safety. When his unusual behavior climaxes in a series of misunderstandings, several different women slap him for it. His costar Thomas Lennon slapped him several times, and Efron took his hits for real.
"It was amazing watching everybody have so much fun that night. No, it was funny, it started slow and Tom was very nice about it. He was like, ’There’s no way to fake a slap. We’re just going to have to go for it.’ And he did. He knew how to do it. We had a stunt coordinator that day who was instructing everyone how to slap and he goes, ’You guys really got to sell it! You have to slap him!’ And I’m sitting there like, ’They’re slapping me, bro.’"
Now in a body of his children’s contemporary, Dad can help his kids be cool. Of course, Zac Efron shows up in high school and he’s automatically the cool kid. That must come from experience, right?
"I was pretty cool until about freshman year of high school and then it was downhill until I was about 17 and then something happened and it all came back. But that was pretty much the time that I was just average. I worked hard in school, got good grades. I was not that cool, so to speak. I mean, I thought I was cool. I wasn’t bulled that bad or anything like that. I just wasn’t the ’it’ guy at school."
Efron’s most notorious high school incident was a wardrobe malfunction. If only the students at the time knew what a peek they were getting at a future star.
"I got in trouble once. I actually got sent home from high school because I went up to the front of my Spanish class, in Spanish 3, and I was going to write a sentence on the board and my pants fell down in front of the class. Everyone starting laughing. It wasn’t that big of a deal but the teacher got really flustered and upset and sent me home. That was probably the most I got in trouble."
Otherwise, Efron blended in amongst all the other teens in high school. "I had friends from all different cliques so to speak. I didn’t just stick to one group of friends. I kind of had them in all different areas of high school. So I’m sure I had several of these friendships. I’ve got 4 or 5 best friends. I don’t know, I guess we are all about the same. We’re kind of geeky, fun loving kind of guys."
Most high school nerds have to wait at least a solid decade to reap the benefits of their intellectual investments. At 21, Efron is already riding high with a movie star career.
"The number one question I’ve been asked for this movie is, ’If you could go back, would you change anything? If you could be 17 all over again, what would you do different? Would you go down this road?’ I’m like, absolutely. This is like the best job in the world. I’m having the time of my life. I wake up every day with a new challenge whether it’s filming, learning a new skill set, interviews, press, that kind of stuff. It’s always fun. It’s always interesting. It’s always a challenge. I’m very happy with that and I’m very happy with my life right now."
Playing a 37-year-old dad meant Efron had to think ahead to play this role. "I thought about the way that my dad tried to have those talks with me and my little brother and he was always very passionate and energetic and he delivered it like a champ. Really, he was just really excited, I think. So that’s what came out."
Efron’s movie son benefits from his dad’s romantic advice. Surely anyone could benefit from love tips from a heartthrob idol, but Efron says he keeps out of real life relationships.
"I think maybe with some best friends or close friends, but it’s not like a top priority in life really. I think they’re doing pretty good for themselves."
Only four years older than his 17 Again character, Efron already knows how to reflect on high school. He won’t need another 16 years and a magical age degeneration to learn that lesson.
"Everything is heightened. You feel like you’re an adult when you’re 17 and you have the social awareness of an adult but that doesn’t really apply in high school because everyone’s young and stupid. It’s hard if you take it too seriously so I’d probably go back and tell myself to chill out. This is just the beginning and get ready because stuff’s about to pop off."
So take it from Zac Efron. Don’t hold onto your youth. "I cannot wait to grow up! Apparently it’s just getting exciting. No, I was being sarcastic. I think I’m having fun right now. Whatever this age is, I’m thoroughly enjoying it. I think it’s getting better so hopefully I’ll have the same answer [in the future]."
Adelaide Now: Zac Efron wants to get a life
HIGH School Musical star Zac Efron has been taking advice from Leo DiCaprio.
After running into the Titanic star at a function, the pair got together at a basketball game, and talked the talk.
"He had a little bit of advice, but it wasn't grand, he didn't sit me down for a big two-hour talk about how to live my life or how to work," Efron says.
"But I did get a vibe of the philosophy that he has in this industry, the way that he likes to work. He very much has that restless energy, he constantly needs a challenge. He works with good directors too. It's all evident in his work.
"Hearing a couple of things from Leo was nice, in that it means a little bit more than just coming from anyone else.
"If anything, it just solidified the fact I've got a long road before I'll be anywhere near where he's at."
Gallery: Zac Efron - a teen girl's dream
The question is, where exactly is Efron's road leading?
"I have no idea. I'm still working out what I'm doing here. But it's gonna be fun, it's gonna be a challenge, and I'm gonna keep it interesting," he says.
Efron's new film, the 30-something guy transported back into his teenage body comedy 17 Again, isn't exactly as interesting a choice as What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but it's a start.
Efron carries the film as the teenage version of Mike (the adult version is played by Matthew Perry), a career no-hoper who's headed for divorce.
When the grown up Mike wishes for a "do over" on his life, he falls down a wormhole and comes out the other end as his 17-year-old, very good-looking, Efron-played self.
"It was different than anything I'd ever done before, that's for sure," Efron says.
"It was a nice change, it was exactly what I was looking for. Not that I was sick of doing the (High School) Musical, but this was a new challenge, and that's what I was looking for, a place to grow.
"17 Again feels like a nice transition, it's safe."
Not alienating the screaming tweenage girls who line the red carpet at his premieres is a big consideration in camp Efron.
On this front,17 Again couldn't not feature a scene in which Efron busts out a dance.
"Yeah, there is one," he smiles. "But it's in character, so it's all right."
The movie's themes of regretting opportunities not taken also rang home with Efron, as the world lays itself at his feet.
How does he take advantage of everything he's being offered right now, and how does he make sure he says yes to the right things?
"That's the challenge at this particular moment in my career. It's crazy, there's so much going on, and I'm making an effort right now to really take my time," he says.
"There's so many ways to do too many things and take the wrong movie for the wrong reasons, and I don't want to fall victim to that. So I'm really hanging back and just doing my thing."
He's talked in the past about maybe pulling his cap down low and travelling the world incognito for a year.
"I think it's likely to happen," he says.
"You have to find some time to go off and live and be yourself and have human experience, to go and live your life, and it's hard to do on the road all the time.
"I most definitely will not go movie, press, movie, press, movie, press my whole life. I will take time to myself."
It may be hard to believe, but Efron didn't spring fully-formed from High School Musical land.
Besides the big screen musical Hairspray in 2007, he's worked his way into the business with bit-parts on shows such as NCIS, ER, The Guardian, CSI: Miami, Joss Whedon's Firefly, and a solid stint in the teen drama Summerland.
"Yeah, I wasn't birthed in High School Musical," he agrees, somewhat hesitantly.
"But I still have a lot to learn. 17 Again was very much a learning experience. I had the musical thing down, and that was a safe place to be, but when I went outside that comfort zone, just to stay in a movie without breaking into song and dance for a while, I hadn't done that for a couple of years. It was kind of like: back to reality!"
Efron's co-star, Leslie Mann (who plays older Mike's wife) is in real life married to comedy king Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, The 40 Year Old Virgin).
"There's a scene where Leslie and I are supposed to dance together, it's probably the most romantic scene in the film, and I was a little bit nervous, to say the least," Efron recalls.
"I showed up that morning, and of course who was on set but Judd and the whole family. I was like 'Oh great...'. 'Hi, I'm Zac and I'm gonna be dancing with your wife'. So it added to the pressure somewhat," he laughs.
Did Efron get in a quick "If you're casting for your next film, Mr Apatow..."?
"Oh yeah, absolutely. He knows I would love to work with him. So whenever he chooses, I'm here."