It's not the fact that he actually, earnestly, uses the word "neat" in casual conversation.
No, of all the things observed during an hour in the presence of Zac Efron, "High School Musical" heartthrob and star of the new indie film "Me and Orson Welles," the one trait that makes the strongest, most lasting impression is this: his impeccable manners.
Leave a napkin on a table? Efron will pick it up and toss it in the garbage. Need to squeeze into an elevator? Efron will make sure there's enough room. And if several people happen to be heading toward a building entrance, the actor will dash several steps ahead of the pack just to hold the door on everyone's behalf.
All this may be testatment to his solid upbringing -- raised in Arroyo Grande, Calif., by middle-class parents -- or evidence of canny grooming by Efron's publicists, who earlier this month shepherded the star to Washington to talk up the importance of high school arts education in visits to Capitol Hill, the White House and this newspaper. (Accompanying him in that effort: "Welles" director Richard Linklater, perhaps best known for "Dazed & Confused" and "School of Rock," and co-star Claire Danes, who dealt with her own, decidedly more angsty version of teen stardom 15 years ago in the TV series "My So-Called Life." )
Still, such attention to etiquette is one clue that the 22-year-old Efron has made the leap from squeaky-clean singing teen to considerate, mature adult. With the new film, set in 1937, when Welles was mounting his version of "Julius Caesar" at New York's Mercury Theatre, Efron seems to be carefully steering his career toward meatier roles and away from "High School Musical," the unstoppably cheery Disney phenomenon that turned him into every tweeny-bopper's dream date.
But of course, don't expect him to come right out and say that.
For example, when asked what appealed to him about playing Richard Samuels, the teen in "Orson Welles" whose eyes are opened after a week of working on a Broadway production with the temperamental Welles and his manic troupe, Efron stops and starts before finally answering.
"It was the only opportunity that I had at the time that was . . ."
"I don't know, it didn't feel like . . ."
He pauses again.
"It wasn't another musical," he finally says. "It was definitely a step forward in my opinion, and a risk, and something that I wasn't even expecting of myself at the time, so I knew no one else would be. It would be kind of a curveball."
True, the film again features Efron as a high schooler who acts and sings (FYI for the "HSM"-obsessed: the crooning is brief), but the curveballs come from the sophistication of the material.
Richard has an affair with Welles's secretary, an older and far more worldly, nakedly ambitious woman (Danes, who is, in real life, 30). He also recites a lot of Shakespeare and deals with the prospect of getting fired, all of which gives Efron the opportunity to delve into more dramatic territory. Particularly in the scenes when Richard goes head-to-head with Welles, played with convincing gusto by newcomer Christian McKay, one can see Efron beginning to flex acting muscles that perhaps didn't get stretched fully when, say, he was competing against Sharpay for the lead in the East High School play.
Linklater says he cast Efron for one simple reason: "Less than 20 seconds after meeting him, I was like, this is [Richard]."
But the filmmaker, Danes and Efron agree that in some cases, it can be a challenge for an actor to land truly adult roles once he becomes strongly associated with tween-and-teen fare.
"I kind of became the poster girl for teen angst, which is a kind of crass way of saying it," Danes recalls of her gig as the brooding Angela Chase on "My So-Called Life."
"But the teen roles that I was playing, they were bright and they were atypical. There was room there for that particular kind of character to mature, so I didn't face a great amount of resistance in that respect. But I think everybody has to fight to become a diverse artist because people are inclined to associate you with one thing or are a little unnerved by your daring to do something."
"I'd say the challenge right now is finding specifically what to try and work on next," Efron adds. "It's not in terms of people being close-minded, really, to be honest. Maybe it was for a little while. But I was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from where [Danes] started, in 'High School Musical.' Like [she] said, everything that you want to do and everything that I aspire to do as an artist is always that project that's just out of reach."
There is a pivotal scene in "Me and Orson Welles" when Efron's character finally blows up at his egocentric director for constantly and insensitively referring to him as Junior. It seems like a moment that must resonate with Efron, but he says it didn't really, perhaps because he would never talk to an authority figure that way.
The polite young man has, it seems, already learned an important lesson: that you always win more respect by holding the door open for other people instead of screaming about the few who won't let you in.
by Jen Chaney