We know that Zac Efron can sing, dance and set teenage girls' hearts alight (OK, and ours too), but can he really make it as a grown-up actor? This month, he just might.
Zac Efron, at 22, has been so dizzyingly famous for so long now, so permanently surrounded by paparazzi and screaming girls, that the sight of an empty pavement has become a thing of curious beauty to him. Today he's in Vancouver, where he's been filming on and off since last summer. "I've had total freedom here," he smiles, all teeth, flawless skin and those mythological eyebrows. "I can leave my apartment, walk around, I feel like I got my life back. I've never seen so much sidewalk before. It's beautiful!"
If his freedom feels astonishing, it's all the more so because he's here with his girlfriend, Vanessa Hudgens, who has also been shooting in Vancouver: Zac is starring in The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, a drama due out next year, Vanessa in Sucker Punch, an action-fantasy-thriller due in 2011. Today, the one time High School Musical sweethearts are Hollywood's twentysomething Brad and Angelina. "Living in Los Angeles is tough," notes Zac. "Normality is so skewed, it's not something your friends and family can relate to in any way and it's not even fun to talk about. But here's we've spent so much time just getting lost in the woods, hiking and watching wildlife. I love the outdoors - there's something about when there's no one around that I'm drawn to!"
Right after filming his teen-star breakout comedy success, 17 Again, in early 2008 (which raked in $136 million at the global box office), and just before High School Musical 3 (which made a staggering $253 million) was released, Zac took the biggest risk of his career. He starred in Me and Orson Welles, a drama set in 1937 New York about a precocious teenage boy given an opportunity to appear in Orson Welles' legendary production of Julius Caesar.
A beautifully acted art-house movie (where Zac delivers a compelling Shakespeare soliloquy), it's taken almost two years to find UK and US distribution, a testament to Hollywood's inability to take a supposed risk and Zac's determination to blast through the facade of this teen-hunk history. The decision, he beams, was "the opposite of scary, it was an opportunity to work with filmmakers and outstanding actors, much more exciting than anything that could lead to more... fame."
Did Zac sense it was difficult for directors to take him seriously, given his cartoon-attractive good looks?
"Oh, man," he flusters, "[Director] Rick Linklater did take a chance on a kid like me, or me. It was unbelievably confidence-boosting. There was hope! I was back at square one, taking a chance."
Zac is not only incredibly handsome, though - he's also a polite, sweet-natured skateboarded from California, who's favourite words are still "oh man!", "cool" and "triumph". A people-pleaser, he continually apologises for his rusty responses: "I'm so unprepared... I wish I could say things more eloquently... I'm sorry!"
A creative kid who loved "drawing, painting, writing songs", Zac was encouraged to act by his parents (who worked in a power plant), and grew into the skinny, gap-toothed 'class clown' who shaved off both his eyebrows aged nine, "because I was bored the night before school photos. My mother was horrified!"
After years of school theatre productions, he studied drama at the Pacific Conservatory of The Performing Arts, starred in TV drama Summerland in 2004 and in 2006 because the most shrieked at 19 year old on earth via Disney's High School Musical franchise. It was there that he met Vanessa, and now, four years on, the couple remains fiercely protective of their romance. Zac describes their relationship with one unlikely word: ordinary. "And I cherish all the ordinary things in my life. We're stay-in types - some food, a movie. But tonight we're going to a drive-in to watch scary movies because it's Halloween. We love to just be together, as much as possible."
Their Vancouver days, though, are spent training together. For Sucker Punch Vanessa had to work out with ex-US Navy SEALs - and Zac wanted in on the action. "She was boasting about how difficult it was, so I had to see it for myself," he says. "And it was every bit as hard! An intense routine of crazy exercises and heavy weights." A sports enthusiast adept at baseball, golf, skiing, rock climbing, snowboarding and surfing, Zac is fitter than ever - the reason, maybe, why his shirt keeps 'falling off'?
"Oh man," he giggles, "Well, one of my top priorities is taking care of myself. It's always been a big part of my life and I can't tell you how much it's helped with my confidence and my ability to pick roles."
Zac calls the celebrity typhoon that engulfs him "The Madness". His friend Leonardo diCaprio told him that the best way to ruin his career is to "just do heroin". And last year, friend Megan Fox caused consternation when she jested that she and Zac were "the same person. He just puts on his wig and a dress and it's me."
"It was funny," muses Zac, cautiously, "but if I comment it's not fair on her, it becomes another thing she's gotta deal with." Even his eyebrows are much-discussed. Today he reveals he feels "pretty lucky with the eyebrows. Every once in a while they try to grow together but I don't really have to touch 'em. People try to mess with these on a shoot, but no way. I need these things."
So why hasn't the down-to-earth Zac, in teen-star tradition, gone off the rails?
"I think it's because I know why I started," he decides. "And it's about creativity. Everything else is extraneous. And to not think about The Madness. I make no plans. I love not knowing what's ahead."
This year, Zac became a homeowner and describes his place as "unique, very modern, very clean, very simple, with concrete floors so that I can skateboard inside the house."
Does that description sum him up?
"That does sum me up," he laughs.
So, beneath the calm exterior, he's skateboarding on the inside?