Zac Efron grins big. But worry dims the dazzle. He's reassessing our interview before it's quite over. It went, he reckons, "to an incredibly weird place". Fear flickers in those luminous blue eyes. It needn't – it didn't, not really. But perhaps in Zac-land even the mundane can seem weird.
Look at what's normal to him: since 2006, and the first High School Musical TV movie, it's been security at every step, paps at every door, screams to guide the path. A million smiling dolls moulded in his image, a hundred Day-Glo websites detailing the names of his dogs (Dreamer, Puppy) and his secret talent ("I can blow bubbles with my spit"). Fans so devoted they smoke him out even when he's shooting on the Isle of Man.
A cluster shiver outside the Soho Hotel in London today, and who can blame them? They're all but guaranteed a felt-tip squiggle. No teen star since David Cassidy has such a reputation for being obliging. Efron is sweet and wholesome as peach cobbler, his personality perfectly synchronised with his HSM character, Troy, the all-singing, all-dancing, all-slam-dunking, most popular guy in school.
Face to face, Efron is more superhero than human. His skin glows like butterscotch. His highlights must have been applied by angels. Perched on the sofa, he stretches his arms out in front of him; half-sat, half-crouched, ready to leap. Into what, though? Now High School Musical is done (the third and final instalment was released last year), it's crunch time for the poster boy. Has he the nous to graduate into an adult acting career? Will he be Leonardo DiCaprio, or Chris O'Donnell?
Me and Orson Welles, out next Friday, looks tailor-made to ease him from the Disney world into something more fitting for a man of 22. Directed by Richard Linklater, it's a credible, literate imagining of the backstage wrangles on Orson Welles's groundbreaking 1937 Broadway production of Julius Caesar. Efron is Richard, a theatre-mad 17-year-old who lands a part in the show. He learns life lessons from Welles (Christian McKay, in a star-making turn) and loses his heart to Welles's assistant, Sonja (Claire Danes). It is one of those weeks, quite common at the movies, after which nothing was ever the same again.
But Efron says he wasn't consciously choosing a break–out role. "I didn't think of it in those terms at any point. Like any actor, anywhere in the world, I was looking for something that's at once transitional and a new challenge, and something different that would be surprising to myself but also to my audience. Something that would be a bit more mature. It kind of spoke to me. I didn't really think of it in terms of a move."
That's a lot of caveats for something that just spoke to him. But it does seem like it was the director who made the running. "My manager told me Richard Linklater had a script he'd like me to read," recalls Efron, "and I was like, 'Ha ha, you're hilarious'." His face dimples; he looks, briefly, about 12. Working on the film was "a bit scary. All I could think about was, 'Man, I'm gonna disappoint Ric'. He was taking a shot with me, and I refuse to be the one who's gonna screw it up, the one who's gonna let him down. So I was just honoured he embarked on this journey with me."
Did Efron really think he wasn't bringing much to the party? "I think it was a risk, y'know? I wasn't the easiest choice. I think there's better actors out there he could have gone with."
The notices have been nice enough. Efron is really rather good – you can see him working hard, forever looking and thinking and waggling his eyebrows. But it is still a coming-of-age role, in which gauche moments can be written off as intentional.
Efron carries the film, but his burden is lighter than it might have been. Me and Orson Welles is as much his co-star's breakthrough as his own – it's McKay people will go home talking about, he whose name Oscar voters will jot down. Efron may take top billing, but he's supposed to be outshone.
It's a common position for him to take: dead centre, but not quite in the limelight. In HSM, too, he's the straight man, the one who rolls his eyes when someone less conventional says something outrageous. That, says Linklater, is exactly what he was looking for – an Everyman: "Zac is playing the guy. Richard is a young guy on the make. It's creepier when you're older. An old guy on the make is repulsive."
Says Efron: "I always enjoy that character in movies, the one who represents the real guy." He works hard to seem similar off screen, too. He enjoyed, he says, the moment Richard asks Sonja what it's like to be a beautiful woman, "because that's gone through every guy's head". He liked his asking her if she wanted him to fight for their relationship: "I think that's a feeling that guys can relate to who've been in a relationship, you know what I mean? You take the lead from them."
It may well be Efron holds devastatingly generic opinions. But what makes him hard to swallow as an average Joe – both on screen and off – is his beauty. There is, despite Linklater's words, something fleetingly creepy about Richard in the film, the odd flash of real, glassy-eyed menace – because of those killer looks. People like Efron don't act like Everymen; they don't need to. He'd make a terrific Ripley.
It's something others seem to have noticed. "A lot of people ask: 'Will you play a psycho to really change your image and prove you can act?' But that's not what I'm about. I don't want to prove that I'm … I'm not trying to ... Ah, I can see... " He pauses, weighs up what he's saying, tries it out for spin and misinterpretation. "I just want to make great films and be good in them. And I think that my perception of what's great in a film is constantly evolving. It's growing up, so I'll want to try different things. But I'm not going to do anything for the sake of changing my image. It's just not that important to me. I think that will come with time. I think you earn respect."
He has such an unshakeable image as a nice guy, I say. He comes straight back: "Cool." Doesn't it ever frustrate him? "No ... well. Let me think of how to ... it's like – no." Again, he gives his words a health-and-safety check to ensure they're on message. "There's a way that you can throw negativity out there that seems rebellious. But I've always taken pleasure in a different kind of rebellion, which is putting a positive spin on everything, trying to enjoy myself at all times. That's who I've always been, and I'm working very hard to maintain that philosophy and outlook. And I don't want to go the other direction. It's – y'know – it's been done before." Another considered clarification. "And rebellion's a bad word – I can see that getting spun some way; it's not what I mean to say. I'm not "fighting for happiness" or anything. It's just I'm not really mad about anything."
Efron doesn't just want to be one of the guys, he wants to be one of the blandest guys. He won't come down on one side of any fence, no matter how innocuous. He may no longer be owned by the House of Mouse, but Efron still seems to enjoy pitching for employee of the month. The longer one spends with him, the more one wonders whether he actually wants to grow up on screen, not whether he'll be able to. Late on in the film, Welles says he sees in Richard that understanding the reason one acts is to avoid having to be a real person: "If they can't find you, they can't dislike you." Did that strike any chords?
He claps his hands together, animated suddenly. "I think that's one of my favourite bits of Orson's philosophy in the movie. It's such a bold statement but, to be honest, that's ... I think that is ... well, if I say that's how I feel then that's, I'm not …" He's getting into a pickle. "It's a really strong statement. Definitely my head's in a different place right now than that. I find that it's always more interesting to live out your fantasies through characters. It's not necessarily that I'm afraid to be myself – it's that you get to do cooler things; you get to be a more interesting person when you're playing someone else. You get to be all the things you wanted to be or that you saw someone else be that was really cool or be someone that you really hate; you can be all those people. I think that's probably my spin on what Orson was talking about. Sorry – it took me a minute to think about it. It's slightly true."
One thing one doesn't expect, meeting Efron, is to feel sorry for him. But one does: the slickness is just surface; he's forever tripping over himself, and he knows it. "I think the weirdest part of it all is that people expect you to have an opinion on your own perception or that there's got to be something you're unhappy with about your situation. And I get asked these questions about things honestly I just don't think about – it's not that I don't have an opinion on them. Well, what am I trying to say? I don't know. There's just a lot that I'm oblivious to right now. And I'm happy that I am. I'm happy I live that way."
I'm still not quite sure where that incredibly weird place was, but I do feel sorry for having taken him there.
NY Daily News, "Despite own fame, Zac Efron still awed by celebrities"
At the Cinema Society opening of "Me and Orson Welles" on Monday night, the actor had to stop in the middle of an interview when another Zac walked by. Efron got flustered, halted mid-sentence and asked his publicist, "Wait … is that Zac Posen? Wow."
After regaining his composure and apologizing to the reporter, Efron stopped once more when photographers' flashing bulbs signaled that Amber Rose had shown up — sans Kanye West. "Amber Rose is here?" he asked incredulously.
At least the admiration was mutual. Rose nervously approached the heartthrob at the Gramercy Park Hotel's Three Olives fete later in the evening and asked him to pose for photos with her. Gushed Efron yet again: "I just can't believe she's here."
But the 22-year-old was a little less humble when he admitted that kissing Claire Danes, who plays his love interest in the movie, came "relatively easy." Said Efron, with a smile, "She is a very beautiful lady."
Excerpts (others on Zac)
Sunday Times (UK), "Claire Danes: the secretive starlet"
"Starring opposite teen heartthrob Efron was “crazy”. She becomes suddenly animated when she describes how Efron was “spotted in a cafe and mobbed. He had to be escorted out in a police car and a girl bloodied her fist because she was pounding the glass of the window so forcefully”. It sounds scary, and she shudders. “It’s bananas. I feel lucky I never have to deal with that level of attention.”
Telegraph, "Christian McKay interview"
Instead he’s grabbing the role of a lifetime with both hands. Me and Orson Welles was shot on the Isle of Man, where McKay took to the experience like a duck to water, joking with the crew, swiftly befriending Efron and generally having the time of his life.
During the shoot, much of the Isle of Man’s tweenie population was milling around, desperately hoping they would glimpse Efron and screaming deliriously when they did. One day, in front of the whole crew, McKay apologised straight-faced to Efron for the screaming girls: “It’s a very educated young audience here, you know, Zac. They’re all just crazy for Orson Welles.”
He rates Efron highly and defends him stoutly. “I can’t believe people saying he’s 'surprisingly’ good. A journalist made that comment to me and I asked him: 'Have you ever sung in front of an audience? Or acted? Or danced? Zac’s doing all three at the same time. He’s doing his training in front of the world’s media and you say to me, he’s 'surprisingly’ good!’”
Irish Times, "Citizen Linklater"
For all McKay’s gifts, the film’s main selling point remains the presence of young Mr Efron. A few short years ago, Efron was entirely unheard of. Even now, most people over the age of 30 might have trouble putting a face to the unusual name. But, since High School Musical went ballistic, Efron has, by some reckonings, become one of the four biggest stars in the world. Entire cities shake with undulating teenage libidos whenever he jets in for a press junket.
“Well, I never saw High School Musical ,” Linklater confesses. “I mean it is just not my demographic. I didn’t care what he’d been in. I just knew in 18 seconds that this guy was perfect: really funny, really smart, really knowing. He’s a natural song-and-dance man. It occurred to me I needed somebody with real presence or he might disappear when set beside Christian’s Orson.”
Christian McKay later tells me that, while shooting in the Isle of Man, he and Efron were chased into a tea shop by screeching Efronites. In what sounds like a scene from Shaun of the Dead , Christian and Zac huddled behind the cream horns while a hundred teenage girls bellowed outside. Such conspicuous adulation must have caused problems on set.
“I don’t think it was ever a problem on the actual set,” Linklater says. “I felt sorry for him. He would leave the set and walk out into this hysterical squealing. It really was like The Beatles. It is to Zac’s credit that he has reacted well. He doesn’t like it too much and he doesn’t dislike it too much. Some actors overdo the negative reaction. Others soak it up more than they should. I think, like DiCaprio, he’ll move on to do good work.”
Movieline, "Richard Linklater on Zac Efron, Child Actors..."
…and the reason I bring it up is that Me and Orson Welles stars one of the hottest actors from his generation, Zac Efron. I’m curious about how things have changed. I would imagine that when you did The Newton Boys, there wasn’t a lot of paparazzi hanging out outside the set.
No! Totally different era. I told Zac that he’s in the wrong era, man — everyone can take a picture of him. It used to be that you could go to a bar and your every move wasn’t on the internet. Like wow, what a small fishbowl that must feel like to be him right now. It’s really tough. Having been around names like that in previous years, it’s a whole different culture.
Do you think that taking a film like this is strategic from Zac’s point of view?
I don’t know. I would hope that in Zac’s career, it means something. I thought he was the best guy for this movie — I needed a leading man, and Zac is one. He’s got a lot of charisma, the camera loves him, he’s really gifted and a triple threat. Each generation has a group of actors that you keep up with — they do different things and have these long careers — and I really think he’s one of those guys. It’s weird, though: If you’re starting out at his age and no one knows you, you’re at the 50-yard line, but starting out having had his early success, it’s like he’s almost penalized. He’s starting from the end zone, he’s pushed back a bit. He just has to work his way out.
Zac and Claire have worked in the business for a long time, and in fact, you’ve worked with a lot of child actors and a lot of actors who grew up in this industry. Do you see any common thread with those types of people?
Yeah, there’s a mentality. You know, it’s hard to [be a child actor] and not be conflicted. I know Ethan Hawke was in a movie when he was 13, Explorers, and Ethan really didn’t have the mentality at that age. He’s more of a conflicted guy, so he went back to school and didn’t act until he was 18 or 19. That wasn’t what he was really meant to do, whereas other people stayed with it. It’s all about where you’re at in your stage of development, and Zac is one of the least conflicted guys about his own talent that I’ve ever met. He had every reason to be intimidated — he’s this kid from California flying to London who doesn’t know anybody and he’s thrown into an ensemble with these serious, great actors — and he showed up and became a team leader in his own way. He was set up to be the punk that no one liked, but it was the opposite. He wasn’t intimidated — or if he was, he hid it really well.
Times Online UK
All this was wonderfully described some decades ago by the Welles scholar Richard France, whose work was the starting point for Robert Kaplow’s charming romantic fiction, Me and Orson Welles. The book has now been made into a movie, and — astounding to report — they’ve got it all right. The story itself is a fiction, a tale about a boy (a very winning and skilful Zac Efron) who joins the Mercury just before the opening of Caesar, briefly plunges into the life of the theatre, and then leaves, swatted away by Welles. They have changed a few things to accommodate that story, a few others for practical reasons, but the essential facts are there, the characters are on the whole like their originals (though they don’t often look like them), there is a credible sense of what work in the theatre is like.
Links (non-Zac MAOW articles)
indieWIRE, "Reverse Shot Talkie: Richard Linklater"
The Wrap, "Richard Linklater: Grilled"
IFC, "War of the Welles: Seven Actors Who've Played Orson"
Scotsman, "Interview: Richard Linklater, film director"
Theatermania, "Oh Welles"
Backstage, "Iconic Class"
Wall St. Journal Speakeasy, CM "on Channeling the Boy Genius Filmmaker"
Louisville Courier-Journal, "He & 'Orson Welles': Ed Hart..." (a really interesting look at the financing and distribution aspects of the film)