I wonder if his girlfriend, the young actress Vanessa Hudgens, gave him the apple. His agency, often cast as Satan, certainly gave him the script. Efron is a little breathless and seems distracted. He sits and orders a hot black tea, but quickly disappears to make a phone call. Every eye follows him. Tousled brown hair, big sunglasses that hide his $10m baby-blues, a threadbare T-shirt, faded jeans — nothing can make anonymous one of the most famous young faces in Hollywood.
Efron tells me he was followed here by at least 15 paparazzi. When we’re done, an hour or so later, he suggests that I stand outside the hotel to watch his crazed celebrity circus ramp up again. As he drives away, a posse of aggressive paparazzi in huge black 4WDs appears from nowhere, brazenly running red lights, rolling up onto the pavement beside their prey, blocking him in so they can get more shots. It’s terrifying. I’m not surprised it took him a few minutes to compose himself.
Efron’s snatched photograph, preferably alongside that of Hudgens, has become one of the most prized by the tabloids. Efron and Hudgens vaulted to overnight teen stardom in 2006, in Disney’s High School Musical TV and movie series. The films became a monster hit, generating more than $1 billion worldwide. When I get home, one of the agencies has already posted photos of Efron arriving at the hotel for his interview with me. You can understand why they’re so valuable. Ten days later, thousands of screaming teenage girls, clutching pictures of their beloved, turn out on Leicester Square for the UK premiere of his latest film, Me and Orson Welles.
“I have no control over the 15 dudes outside,” Efron shrugs as he takes a sip of tea. “They can do anything they want. It’s the law. Maybe you could call me paranoid, but I have become a very private person. I imagine there are people who can thrive in this scenario, who can be the centre of attention, but I just get overwhelmed.”
It would be a mistake to underestimate Efron, who has just turned 22, as simply a pretty face. Although he decided to pursue acting, his high-school grades were easily good enough to get him accepted by the top universities in Los Angeles, UCLA and USC. He’s bright, articulate, accommodating, almost too nice, thoughtful, perhaps a little too self-conscious, but that’s surely a consequence of living so young in the weirdness of the modern celebrity spotlight.
For now, his photographs may be caressed every night by millions of adolescent lips. But not many leap the giant chasm from teen idol to adult movie star. Few emotions are as brutally discarded as the affections of teenage girls. Dozens of once adored but now forgotten pretty boys, like Donnie Osmond, David Cassidy and Luke Perry, star of Beverly Hills 90210, can attest to that. To avoid their grim fate, Efron is keeping an eye on the careers of male stars a generation or two older than he is, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp and Tom Cruise. They, too, were once teen idols.
“I’m rewatching Leo’s transition, from my perspective,” Efron says. “He is the best barometer for me. It’s amazing to see actors who have been able to sustain this for so long and keep positive, still focused on the work, still trying to make their best film.”
Efron knows such longevity is an anomaly. He knows those who have sustained careers have been both as private as their celebrity will allow and shrewd about their career choices. There was a big Hollywood flap earlier this year when Efron pulled out of a big-budget remake of the movie Footloose.
Having starred in High School Musical, and played Link Larkin in the movie musical Hairspray, he seemed perfect for the singing and dancing role. It would have earned him more than $10m. Too perfect. “I felt it was something I had done before,” he explains, “and that if I held out a little bit longer, there could be an opportunity to try something new and scary, to start from scratch. If I’m going to go down, I’m going down with guns blazing. I’m not going to go down safely.”
The desire to take a risk is evident in Efron’s decision to star in the relatively low-budget period drama Me and Orson Welles. Shot last year on the Isle of Man and in New York, it is directed by Richard Linklater, whose last film was Fast Food Nation. Efron plays the Me in the title: Richard Samuels, a young actor who lands a small part in Orson Welles’s famous 1937 Mercury Theater production of Julius Caesar in New York. Welles’s imaginative contemporary restaging of the Shakespeare play was a powerful critique of European fascism. Claire Danes plays Sonja, Efron’s love interest, while the British actor Christian McKay gives a fabulously rich performance as Welles.
Efron’s role, which requires a much wider range of emotions than he has had to show in the past, took him into new territory. Although he’d played an older man trapped in a younger body in 17 Again, this is his first serious dramatic role. It was also a lot of fun, he says. “A group of actors trapped on an island was a pretty exciting prospect for a guy like me. I felt like the young gun on set. I couldn’t help empathise with the character and what he went through, his love of the theatre and his enthusiasm and excitement for performing.”
Efron started acting when he was about 11 — a small part in a local production of Gypsy, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. “It was amazing to be part of something that my parents couldn’t help me with. I had this whole other life. Why does Batman put on the mask? It was almost that level of fun. But it never crossed my mind that it might be a valid career path. I was kind of dead set against it. Later, I worked hard in school to keep my options open, to be able to go to college, to be able to go back to a normal life.”
Efron grew up in a small town in central California. His parents worked at the nearby nuclear power plant. In his early teens, his mother would drive him to auditions in LA, three hours each way. He started picking up small roles in television series such as The Guardian, NCIS and CSI: Miami before getting a recurring part in a series called Summerland. Even now, he feels amazed that he was cast in High School Musical.
“It was a shitload of luck, to be honest.” Here, as he does a few times as we talk, he catches himself, worried about the swearword, worried about how he will come across. “A lot of luck,” he corrects himself. He doesn’t want to upset his millions of fans; most of all, he doesn’t want to appear arrogant or ungrateful for his success, despite the annoyances of the paparazzi.
He takes care to mention that he had been reading a particularly heartfelt birthday card from a young female fan the previous night. “It was almost like she knew what I was thinking about. It completely lifted my spirits.”
Efron is endearingly excited about some aspects of fame. He admits he’s still completely star-struck, although he cringes when he remembers meeting Leonardo DiCaprio. He later told a journalist DiCaprio had told him: “There’s only one way you can mess this all up. Just do heroin.”
“Oh my God, I can’t believe I just did that to him,” Efron recalls feeling when he read the story. “It was a joke, it was meant completely in sarcasm, but it came across so differently in print. I was devastated. I tried to call Leo and say, ‘Dude, I’m so sorry, that’s not at all what I meant to say.’ It was the worst feeling in the world.”
After Efron and I have said goodbye, I wander out to my car, but double back to use the loo. To my surprise, Efron is in there, gesticulating towards an older man who looks incongruous in a tweed shooting cap, thick glasses and a long brown raincoat. The older man seems taken aback by the attention. “I just love your work,” I hear Efron gushing. The older man, who looks vaguely familiar, mumbles a thank-you, raising an eyebrow to me as he leaves. He seems to have no idea he’s just been accosted by one of the most famous young stars in the world.
“Oh God,” Efron says after the man walks out. “I can’t believe I just did that. He must think I’m so ridiculous. Did you see who that was? Oh my God.”
I rattle my brain. Why, I realise, that was Robert De Niro. Zac Efron and I have just met Robert De Niro in the gents. How weird is life in Hollywood? Will anyone snap De Niro’s photograph as he leaves, I wonder.