Zac Efron is at the next stage of his career, and he knows it. Though he’s ceded his teen dream status to Taylor Lautner, the 22-year-old Efron is nothing if not savvy about picking his next wave of projects: Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles proved that Efron could go indie for a respected director, while the new romantic drama Charlie St. Cloud courts the female audience who’s grown up with him, yet gives Efron his first meaty, adult role. Where will he go from here? As he told Movieline, that’s the question at the forefront of his mind.
Your last two movies were directed by Burr Steers. What is it about him that makes him different from the other directors you’ve worked with?
Burr is very performance-oriented. He’s very good at explaining different points of view and finding interesting motivations; basically, he’s great with actors, and he’s great with me. I’m not necessarily trained — I never have been — I’ve just kind of gone from project to project and learned as I went along, and I always thought everyone I worked with was an “actor’s director” just because they were nice to actors. Burr has sort of redefined that for me. He’s very generous, very giving, and also a perfectionist. I appreciate that because I am too, and I never want to quit until we’ve got it.
This is a much more subtle performance than you’ve had before, though. Is it more daunting to approach a scene where you’re supposed to very little and hope it all comes through onscreen, or to be given a scene that’s very showy and emotional?
I’ve always been more inclined to the showy and emotional. No one ever really told me otherwise! I didn’t know what I was appreciating in other people’s performances, and the movie that really helped me wrap my head around it was No Country For Old Men, where you are so deeply devoted to those characters. The actors are so specific, and they don’t give too much — actually, it’s what they don’t give that’s more interesting. Burr’s been a revelation with that sort of thing, explaining internalization and that sort of stuff.
He’s more inclined to have you do more by doing less?
But by doing less, you can’t do nothing. As long as you’re thinking in terms of the character and as long as you really feel it, it’s going to show. You don’t have to necessarily have to emote what you’re doing, you know? Burr is very Meisner. He’s always dropping acting philosophies from different coaches, and I read this Meisner book he gave me after 17 Again that just sat on my coffee table forever, with this picture of an old-looking dude with gray hair and glasses on the cover. [Laughs] It’s a hard one to turn the first page, but I just sat and down and committed that I was going to read it all, and then I couldn’t put it down as soon as I started it. I read the whole thing in about three days. It’s just fascinating, and it’s all those little things that I wouldn’t have gotten into if it weren’t for Burr.
You say you aren’t formally trained, but you’ve been acting in this business for a long time. Did you feel like there was a point where you had to break yourself of habits you developed as a child performer?
Yeah. It was always through observation, seeing what I liked from other people’s performances in movies or fellow actors that I worked with. I’ve always been kind of improvisational, which is not always a good thing, believe it or not. I always thought it was great and really fun to do, but a lot of writers really want you to stick to the script, and it is your responsibility. [Laughs]
You’ll have to get yourself into an Apatow movie, then.
I would love to, man. I would love to work for those guys.
~superhero bit from before~
Would remaking a movie like the thriller Snabba Cash put you a step closer to that?
You know, maybe. I don’t look at movies as an interim to doing something else, but Snabba Cash, I look at that character and I see someone who’s driven by a naiveté and a classic class struggle. I see a way into that character that I could believe myself in, and that’s few and far between these days. I read scripts, and people tell me, “Matt Damon was going to do this project.” And I’m like, “Of course Matt Damon was going to do that project, it’s f**kin’ crazy! I can’t do that.” [Laughs]
You’re much more self-deprecating than I thought you would be, Zac. You talk about having to learn technique and earn the places you want to go…does it worry you to have to do all that learning in the spotlight?
No, that part’s fun, man. The stakes are high, but that’s why it’s interesting. I’m ready, man. That’s the thing: I’m willing to put in that work to get there. I know that given the right time and the right guidance, I can do it, and I’m confident in myself in that way. I’m not shy about that. I know I will be able to do it.
You’re generating material now under your own production banner, Ninjas Runnin’ Wild. Please tell me about coming up with that title.
Well, I’m not going to tell you the exact story of how it came up…
Oh, it’s a mystery.
Perhaps it is a mystery, and I think it should stay that way. [Laughs] Having watched movies all my life, I know you sit in a theater and those [production logos] pop up all the time before a movie, like the one Spyglass has with the man looking through [a telescope], that kind of stuff…
So will there be actual ninjas runnin’ wild for yours?
I mean, hopefully! Hopefully. Just something that goes, “BLAAH!” that’s a little crazy and different, and when you see it, you’re like, “OK, here we go again.” [Laughs] Something memorable that has some punch to it.
You’re attached to a workplace comedy that was just announced in the trades. What can you tell me about it? Is it in the vein of The Office?
No, it’s not like The Office. It’s…how would I describe it? We’re literally still looking at treatments for it, so it’s really early on. Right now, it’s about a young man working his way to the top, and the lengths he has to go to succeed. Is that good?
Is it a dark comedy?
No, not really. Well, wait. Is it dark? I don’t know yet. [Laughs] It’s not written. I sure hope there’s some dark moments in it, because I love that stuff.
You went to the Maui Film Festival recently, and shirtless paparazzi photos of you there ended up on the cover of People in just a few days. Are you conscious of that when it happens? Does being objectified like that frustrate you at all?
It was like, what am I going to do: go to Hawaii and not go to the beach and say for the rest of my life that I didn’t do it because [the paparazzi] were there, or am I just going to brave it, go out, and let all that happen?
Is that just something you’ve had to fold into your daily life: If you choose to do something outside, there will be someone who will take pictures of you doing it?
Sort of, more or less. I mean, I’ll say that it goes through my mind a lot. You just have to know that if you’re in a place that isn’t private property — if you’re in anywhere public — more often than not, there’s going to be someone there. If you’re even anywhere where there’s people nowadays…people are so integrated with their [mobile phone] cameras. It’s like The Matrix.
So you could be eating at a restaurant, and you know that girl at the corner table is taking a picture of you on her camera phone that she’s going to post to Twitter or Perez Hilton?
It goes through my mind sometimes, you know? I try not to dwell on it, and I try not to put myself in those scenarios. It gets frustrating. I’m definitely aware of it most of the time when it’s happening — I feel like I kind of know what’s really going on.
At least you got the cover of People for “Best Beach Bodies” instead of for doing something bad.
It’s not the worst thing in the world. And you know, aside from that, I had this amazing trip with my brother. He’s just graduated from school, and I haven’t been able to connect with him as much as I’ve wanted to since I’ve been away filming and going on trips. I really got to take him away from the family for the first time to go on a brothers trip, and we had the time of our lives. We just tore it up! Every single day, by the time 8:30 rolled around [at night], one of us would conk out and then we’d wake up at 7 and have a full day of hiking through the jungles of Maui or surfing. We lived it up, and it was really fun.
Zac Efron is taking on mature film role in 'Charlie St. Cloud'
Zac Efron is all grown up.
And he knows exactly how to prove it.
"Eventually I'll be getting to adult-adult (entertainment), for real. But baby steps," the actor deadpans.
Don't fret, Efronistas. He's only kidding. Efron, 22, still remains his wholesome, hunky self. But the actor with the gleaming blue eyes and immaculately spiked hair, who broke through as studly varsity basketball captain Troy Bolton in Disney's High School Musical trilogy, is gradually scoring more mature roles.
On Friday, he headlines the drama Charlie St. Cloud, a family flick starring Efron as a sailing prodigy with a scholarship to Stanford whose entire future collapses amid the accidental death of his beloved younger brother. And the film, which deals with debilitating isolation and loss, has nary a musical number, which is one of the many reasons the project resonated with Efron.
"It seemed like someone I could play. There were a lot of scripts I was getting with guys that were too cool, you know? Not only am I not that person, why would I pretend to be that person?" Efron says. "Charlie was a character I felt I could bring something to. Having a little brother, having goals and aspirations, loving sports, all that kind of stuff just made sense to me. For me, a huge part of my life is family, my mom and dad and brother. Charlie St. Cloud was a chance for me to dream and say, 'What if I didn't have that?' "
If that sounds thoughtful, it is. Efron is methodical about planning his on-screen evolution from teen heartthrob to serious actor, à la his acquaintance Leonardo DiCaprio. So far, he has not done anything too risqué, opting instead for gradual gravitas in his roles. "It's all about the progression," Efron says.
Efron has been meticulous about laying the foundation for his post-Disney choices, starring in a musical (2007's Hairspray), a little-seen but pedigreed drama (2008's Me and Orson Welles) and a rom-com romp (2009's 17 Again). Critics took note. Welles, according to Rolling Stone's Peter Travers, "proves Zac Efron can act," and The New Yorker's David Denby called him "surprisingly winning" in it.
To those who have worked with Efron, his talent is old news.
"I was so struck by his earnestness and willingness to grow. He's almost weirdly unassuming and grounded," says his Welles co-star Claire Danes. "I quickly realized how gifted he is. He's actually a really fine actor under all that amazing charisma and coordination and charm."
Efron is a blend of circumspection and boyishness. He carefully discusses film choices and weighs the appeal of certain characters over others. But he also loves video games and anything released by the house of Steve Jobs, admitting somewhat sheepishly that he spends most of his money on iPhones to replace ones he breaks.
Choices and chances
Professionally, Efron is making strides toward distancing himself from his supersized Disney persona and pursuing the kinds of roles that will, he hopes, ensure career longevity.
"Everybody is taking him seriously. He's the real deal. No matter how much of a hater you are, he's there. There's no argument," says Burr Steers, who directed Efron in 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud. "The thing for him is to keep on challenging himself. People will be advising him to play it safe. He's scratched the surface of his talent. It's about working with really good people and taking chances and getting better."
Hollywood Reporter film columnist Martin Grove agrees that Efron seems to be making ever-more interesting choices.
"His inclinations are good. He seems to have stayed away from the bad stuff, and that's a very important part of career management. He hasn't gone looking for the paycheck or to duplicate something like High School Musical. That speaks well for him," Grove says. "I would tell him to continue to work with filmmakers and look for projects that stretch him as an actor and take him out of the world of obvious teen stars and put him more into roles that are at least somewhat more in depth."
To that end, Efron just formed a production company called Ninjas Runnin' Wild. "We're looking for stuff that is original, that doesn't necessarily have a brand associated with it. You can make something truly brilliant now and it doesn't have to be a remake," he says.
Is that why last year, he dropped out of Footloose, being directed by HSM's Kenny Ortega?
"There were so many factors to that decision. It wasn't to do something like Charlie St. Cloud. It was sort of a feeling of where I was at the time. I was yearning to try something new. Anything I say is ... " he trails off. "Calling Kenny was one of the hardest things I had to do."
Efron views DiCaprio, who left the estrogen-fueled frenzy of Titanicbehind to forge a lauded body of work, as a role model of sorts. Ask Efron what the key to having a DiCaprio-esque career is, and he leans back, pausing and thinking for a good 20 seconds.
"A lot of different things go into it. Every time I watch a movie Leo has done, he seems like a completely different person. You can't ever be caught resting on your laurels. You can't be caught being lazy," he says. "You have to search for innovation in everything you do and hold out to work with those good people that know how to really make movies. That's what Leo's done. He's a walking example of what to do."
Walking the line
The only time Efron gets somewhat defensive is when he's asked if he feels a need to prove himself as a serious actor, since so many people associate him with Troy Bolton.
"Taken seriously is pretty vague. Everyone has to (prove themselves). I did when I was on stage at 15. I always have. That's who we are. It's ingrained in my psyche," he says.
Like DiCaprio, Efron is mindful of what he says in interviews and thinks before he speaks. It's why he's so reluctant to discuss the annoyance of having the paparazzi camped outside his house 24/7 or the attention he gets when fans spot him at a Lakers game or out at dinner.
"That's what I hate reading as well. I hate people (complaining) about it. I would hate to come across as (complaining) about it," he says. "We've been on that for a while for now, so I'd like to talk about something else."
That "something else" doesn't include his longtime girlfriend and former HSM co-star Vanessa Hudgens, 21. Efron says he refrained from gushing about her in the press "from the very start. We still never talk about it or celebrate it. It's personal. It works for us."
Privacy is paramount to him. Efron is approachable one-on-one, but the security around him is nearly impenetrable in public situations. For this chat, he's kept in a closed-off private room, adjacent to the public restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, away from prying eyes. A personal publicist stands guard. And when he's led out of his quarters, he's surrounded by handlers and security, to avert any prying eyes as he glides through the hotel — but not before stopping to thank staffers for their hospitality.
The reason for all those precautions is simple.
"The craziness around him was a bit amazing," Danes says of the Welles shoot. "It was reminiscent of what I saw happen to Leo after Romeo + Juliet came out and certainly when Titanic came out. There were girls permanently camped out outside the hotel for the duration of the shoot chanting his name. It was wild.
"He definitely struggles to remain balanced and focused and try to ignore the parts of it that could potentially be a little maddening. It was really extreme and he handled it so gracefully."
Efron has found "a million" ways to evade the paparazzi, none of which he's willing to share. Being such a star at such a young age, he says, "didn't leave me with any appetite for success or fame. I figured out what was going on very quickly, and I knew that was not why I wanted to do this. So why did I? Why am I doing this? Why am I here? I realized it was for the work."
And to keep on working, he had to jump off the lucrative and easy teen movie circuit.
"I couldn't keep on that train. That's what I focused on almost immediately. I can live within my means. I'm not excessive. I'm not an extravagant guy. I never have been," he says. "Sometimes the money is that appealing. The notoriety does feel good. At certain times, I'm not going to say I haven't fallen victim to both of those feelings.
"But right here in my stomach, I am always guided right back to what am I doing to change, improve, innovate, be relevant."
Where, exactly, does that levelheadedness come from?
"He's always been incredibly together," says Charlie St. Cloud director Steers. "I was so impressed the first time I met him. He was so young but had such a clear vision of the kind of career he wanted to have. His parents are incredibly substantial in terms of what is important.
"When he was pursuing acting, his parents were clear that if he wanted to do it, he had to drive himself to L.A. and sleep on his friends' couches. He had some hard knocks and had to hustle. When High School Musical broke so huge, he appreciated the break and was making sure to take advantage of the opportunity."
Efron lights up when asked about people he'd like to work with, such as Watchmen director Zack Snyder.
"I have to mention him because I just saw Vanesssa shooting Sucker Punch. She was in Vancouver, beating the hell out of people and stunt guys. Watching your girlfriend do it, it's incredibly hot, but at the same time, jealousy was just oozing out of every pore. She can do all the stuff you dream of when I was a kid. I was watching that. So cool. I was happy just to be on set."
Next up for Efron: time out.
"I'm searching and waiting. The opportunities will come," he says. "I'm not in any rush."
Hollywood.com Junket interview
Amanda's TeenHollywood... the Zac parts
TeenHollywood: Let's get to it. Are you ready for a lot of girls and teens to be jealous as hell of you?
Amanda: [laughing] Well, so far I've met a lot of Zac's fans because they would be around the set. He has really great fans. I haven't had any mean fans there. They just want to know what he's like and, thankfully, I have only amazing things to say about him.
TeenHollywood: What was the whole process of meeting Zac like and how would you describe him?
Amanda: Well, the first time I met him was at the chemistry read [to see how she and Zac would click]. Obviously he's a good-looking guy but I was never that girl that had his poster above my bed or anything but then I met him and he has this effect on people and I'm sure all of us ladies have felt it. He's a dreamboat. All of a sudden I'm turning into a 12-year-old girl and giggling. 'Where did that laugh come from?' But he puts you at ease so quickly.
TeenHollywood: How do you think he does that?
Amanda: He's just so down to Earth. He is genuine. He's humble. He's normal and no ego. So, we did a lot of rehearsals before we actually started filming which was great because we did build this great friendship between us. I think part of that is to do with the fact that he's not this guarded guy, 'I'm God. I'm Zac Efron'. I didn't know him before he had all this success but I feel like the person I'm meeting today is the same person as before all the success hit him.
TeenHollywood: Did you know Zac was in the movie when you went to audition? How did that process of landing the role of Tess go?
Amanda: My agent sent me the script and she was like 'this is an amazing script. You have to read this' and, at the time Zac was attached and I'm like 'who's Zac Efron?' I had to look him up. Then I saw his picture and was like 'I don't know if this will work. I don't know if there's any chemistry there'. No. [she's kidding]
Then the audition process started. I met with Burr [Steers], the director first and then got the call on my birthday that I'd be doing a chemistry read with Zac which was just like 'Oh my God!' To be considered for the part was such an honor. So then the chemistry read and the screen test and blah, blah, blah, long process. And then getting the call that I got [the part]. I was actually in my agent's office and I've got a photo of me because I'm hunched over crying. Dream come true.
TeenHollywood: You were shooting on your own turf up in the Vancouver area. Did you show Zac and everybody around?
Amanda: A bit of that, yeah. I took them some places and then also, it's cool being in your hometown but with tourists because you find out things about the city that you had no idea about. It's always nice being with Zac because people are more willing to show him different stuff because it's Zac Efron so we got to see some cool stuff. We all went up to Whistler one weekend zip lining and stuff like that. So, we were always trying to find something to do.
TeenHollywood: Was there any location in Canada that you hadn't been to? Did you have a favorite one?
Amanda: We got to go up to Gibsons which is an island off the coast up there. I have a dog named Gibson so that was the running joke, 'Is Gibson coming to Gibsons?' Ha ha. We filmed some of the stuff on the boat outside of Zac's cottage and some of the sailing sequences were filmed up there. That was amazing. That was the first time when I surprise Zac with his boat and we go sailing.
Usually the sail boat was rigged to another boat and it's all movie magic. But, at one point, they were like 'Okay. Training wheels are off. You guys are goin' off out in the water.' And we'd never sailed together. We'd done our separate sailing so we sailed together and it was amazing. It was so windy but to actually feel like we were doing it on our own. So, I think that was well captured on film. But, it was mainly Zac telling me what to do because I had no idea. He was like 'Go right. Your other right!' 'Okay. Okay'. [laughs]
TeenHollywood: Did you get any tips from young sailors?
Amanda: We had a lot of different sailing coaches and trainers on the set. One specifically was this guy named Sterling. He's young, early 20's so he was great. He told me just little things to do like when I'm standing on my boat in the scene where I'm talking to Zac. This boat is [her] baby. It's [her] home. [She] knows everything about it so [she] doesn't just stand on [her] boat, [she] does stuff. He'd constantly check in with me, 'touch this' or 'play with this rope'. 'Tie this up' so we actually looked like we knew what we were doing.
TeenHollywood: Can you tell us a funny story from set?
Amanda: The sailing stuff was always a disaster with me. Zac picked it up really quickly but I'm not very athletic. We did a lot of sailing training and we had personal trainers to do a lot of weight training in the gym but I'm a klutz. I had bruises all over my body through the entire shoot just from falling over. Just before the screen test, a friend of mine, he's a professional sailor and he's like 'Come up to San Francisco. We've got this amazing boat. We're doing a practice run'. 'Sweet! Bikinis and champagne'. That's what I pictured sailing to be. It's not.
It's a sport.
We were going back and forth and pretty much my job was to run from one side [of the boat] to the other for the weight thing which you would think is easy but it's not and I slipped and fell on the deck so hard and had this massive bruise down my leg and arm. So, I show up to the screen test the next day with bruises. 'What happened?' 'I have an abusive boyfriend.' I'm like 'I went sailing. I swear I'll be good if you hire me'.
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