"I'm growing up"
Can Disney superstar Zac Efron escape his "High School Musical" past?
By Jeanne Dorin McDowell
Even by Hollywood standards, Zac Efron has been blessed in the gene department. Sitting in a booth at Casa Vega, a Sherman Oaks, Calif., Mexican restaurant, it's hard not to be mesmerized by his eggshell-blue eyes lined with long lashes and that toothpaste-white smile peering out over the fish taco he's munching on. The gray knit beanie covering his head fails to prevent every waitress and female customer in this very dark joint from noticing the young star.
Still, as perhaps Efron understands better than most, life is not a Disney musical. "I'm at a transition point," Efron concedes, taking a measure of his current position in the Hollywood constellations. "My taste is changing. I'm growing up."
The change is not entirely obvious in his new movie, which is actually called "17 Again." In it, Efron, 21 in real life, again plays the cute guy, and a basketball star at that, à la "High School Musical," the monster hit movie series he starred in and which, he is quick to add, "is over" for him. The catch this time: A depressed 37-year-old with a failed marriage and career (Matthew Perry) gets to do over his life in the body of his 17-year-old self (Efron). Although still playing a teenager, Efron does it with his first hint of adult-style machismo.
"I saw it as a more complex part that could help me shift into adult material," he says hopefully.
Whether a movie called "17 Again," bound to be a hit with young girls, is the vehicle that will propel Efron from teen heartthrob to leading man remains to be seen. "The challenge for Zac Efron is to start to win over a general audience, including grown-ups, and to be taken seriously as an actor without losing his fan base of teens and tweens," says movie critic Leonard Maltin. "We're talking about the all-important transition from boyhood to manhood, and the term is not 'leading boy' but 'leading man.' Efron's got to prove he has what it takes to fans and critics."
In person, Efron, wearing a Beatles tee and worn jeans, is friendly, but super self-conscious about the interview. (In a second of exasperation, he blurts out, "I'm trying to figure out what you want me to say. What do you want me to say?") Growing up in the public eye, Efron has grappled with his own ambivalence about celebrity and what often has seemed like a 24/7 surveillance of his private life.
"I didn't want to be famous," he explains. "I get sick of seeing my own face around.
"I used to get so frustrated. For a while, I felt like I was completely lost in celebrity-land. I didn't know how to handle it. Now I know that I have to plot where I'm going, when I'm going there and where the back entrance is. It's like I'm playing a giant game of tag."
Given that, it is to his credit that he still, by many accounts, lives a relatively modest life for a guy who already earns several million dollars a picture. He lives in the San Fernando Valley, which is considerably less cool and expensive than the trendier Hollywood Hills or Santa Monica, and works out at a gym near his house. He likes to cruise around town, talking on his Bluetooth headset and listening to hip-hop. His idea of a great Saturday? "Hanging out with a group of friends and jumping on the 405 South to the beach for a day of sun and music," he says.
If it all sounds ridiculously "High School Musical" meets the Beach Boys, that's because Efron's roots are, in fact, laid down in the sand and surf of the bedroom community of Arroyo Grande. He had a relatively angst-free childhood.
"My parents really kept us anchored," Efron says of his dad, David, an engineer, and his mom, Starla, who worked in a winery for years, then opted to stay home with Zac and his younger brother, now 17 and a high school football player. "I played sports on weekends -- baseball, basketball -- and when I sucked at those, I started playing golf and ping-pong in the garage. After I lost interest, I started singing. I was always singing to the point where my parents would shout, 'Shut up, Zac! Enough already!' "
In high school, what he lacked in natural academic ability he made up for with determination, racking up an impressive 4.3 GPA and landing acceptance to the competitive University of Southern California. (He deferred going because of film projects.) "I wasn't a genius like some of my friends who slacked off and got A's," Efron says. "But I was a hard worker. I always give 100%."
When it comes to professional behavior, Lindsay Lohan he is not. To the contrary, Efron is known to do his homework, show up on time and make the most of it. For his role in "17 Again," he studied every detail of Perry's physicality and the tempo of his speech.
"Zac doesn't take anything for granted," says producer/director Adam Shankman, who directed Efron in the 2007 movie "Hairspray." "He never stops rehearsing, almost to an annoying degree. He's earned his way into more complicated roles."
What's next? For now, it's not clear. He has an art-house movie in the can, "Me and Orson Welles," with no release date. He recently opted out of starring in a "Footloose" remake, but he landed in a risqué photo spread rolling in the dirt with a naked model.
"I'm definitely not the best actor in the world at this point," he says, taking a last gulp of iced tea. "But hopefully, with time and effort and smart decisions, that will change."
As he exits Casa Vega, the paparazzi have tracked him down, and two rogue photographers shout questions at him. Efron smiles, pulls his beanie down over his head and takes off in his shiny black Audi.
Cover and cover story photographs by Julie Dennis Brothers for USA WEEKEND;
Grooming: Lina Hanson, Magnet L.A.; styling: Jenny Ricker, The Wall Group
Cover clothing: vintage T-shirt from What Comes Around Goes Around, L.A.; Inside clothing: shirt and suit pants by Dior Homme, vintage tie from What Comes Around Goes Around, L.A.