Most teenage heartthrobs insist that it's actually a drag to be craved, day in and day out, by millions of underage girls. If we were to listen in on a cross-generational pinup guy support group (think: Shaun Cassidy, James Van Der Beek, the brothers Jonas), the litany of grievances would likely include the obliteration of privacy, the lack of fellowship with other dudes, and, worst of all, the assumption that they're all a bunch of talentless knuckleheads. But Zac Efron, the current crown prince of the Tiger Beat set, takes a different approach to the experience. For him it's not just a job, it's an adventure. "I'm always bobbing and weaving through alleyways trying to get to meetings, scouting out and looking outside doors and running around like Jason Bourne," says Efron, who has emerged as a prime target of both the paparazzi and love-struck tweens ever since High School Musical became an international obsession almost three years ago. "I've always loved secret agent movies, whether it be James Bond or Bourne Identity. Now I'm kind of living it."
He also seems to be kind of enjoying it. If you're looking for the late-'90s model of reluctant teen idol hiding behind a half-grown beard, trucker cap pulled low, and a dog-eared copy of Rimbaud's A Season in Hell tucked into his back pocket, Efron's not your guy. Instead, he kicks off an afternoon outing with a burst of goofball enthusiasm. He leaps at the opportunity to ditch the car and walk a few blocks to the local sushi joint to grab lunch, and does not seem the least bit daunted as he bounds up to a bus stop teeming with high school kids. With his shaggy surfer hair, peg-leg jeans, and skateboarder sneaks, Efron blends perfectly into the crowd. Then come the screams. "Here we go," says Efron, still grinning as a girl in braces throws herself in his path. "You're kidding me: You're not really him," she bellows, rhetorically. Efron laughs. "I'm absolutely serious: It's absolutely me," he says, shaking her hand before ducking into the restaurant. "It used to just be that I had to worry about elementary schools," says the actor, scratching his head. "But now...who knows?"
Strange as it sounds, Efron's future seems as wide open as that of the high school seniors on the street corner. Just weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Efron is plotting his route from teen phenom to adult actor. It's a perilous path, littered with the failed careers of former pretty boys (anyone heard from C. Thomas Howell lately?), and Efron knows he's got a tough hike ahead of him. He's leaving behind the franchise that made him a superstar, after the Oct. 24 release of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, in which Efron and his fellow Wildcats (Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Tisdale, and Corbin Bleu) cope with going their separate ways by — what else? — putting on a show.
In some ways, he's already moved on. He's spent the past year working on back-to-back leading roles in two meaty dramedies. The first, due in theaters next April 17, is 17 Again, a kind of Big-in-reverse coming-of-age story in which he plays the younger incarnation of a disenchanted loser (Matthew Perry) who wishes for a life do-over and ends up inside the body of a high school stud. He also takes a stab at indie credibility by playing a naive young actor of dubious talent who links up with the legendary Mercury Theatre in director Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles. The film recently debuted at the Toronto Film Festival to mixed, but generally positive, reviews and is still awaiting a distributor and release date.
Meanwhile, Efron is plotting his escape from the teen scene by studying the winning playbooks of other young hunks who went legit. "I would love to just sit down and talk with Leonardo DiCaprio and "Johnny Depp and pick their brains about their early careers," Efron says, citing two recent actors who have made the leap from poster boys to Oscar contenders. "They do it because they love it, not because they enjoy being famous. You have to have good foresight and be really careful. If you don't adapt and learn at a very young age, you can really mess up."
As affable and easygoing as he likes to seem, Efron is also hyperaware of the precariousness of his position — and is happy to hide behind his buffed and polished Disney-trained media persona. He doesn't swear and seems to sweat the potential fallout each time he offers an unfiltered glimpse of the smart, skeptical, archly funny guy underneath the admittedly bland facade. One minute he's defending HSM's whitewashing of adolescent angst, saying it's good to present a "why so serious" version of the high school experience. The next minute, when asked if he's seen the current installment, he lets slip, "I hope it's better than the last one." Then he panics: "I didn't mean that the way it sounded!" Those who have worked with him recently are quick to vouch for those hidden depths. "I would never take Zac at face value," says Linklater. "He's actually a bit of a poker player. He comes in all nice and then he just takes your money. I think you underestimate Zac at your own peril."
Efron's first big gamble was on himself. Growing up about three hours north of L.A., in a California college town, Efron had no showbiz roots. His dad was an engineer, his mom stayed at home with Zac and his younger brother, Dylan, and performing couldn't have been further from his agenda until age 12, when his piano teacher saw the seeds of a Brad Pitt-like charisma and encouraged him to get involved with the local theater company. Efron was hooked instantly and persuaded his mom to let him jump onto Hollywood's rejection treadmill.
Back then he was a gap-toothed kid who had yet to grow into his looks, and it took some four years of getting by on go-nowhere bit parts on ER and CSI: Miami and one well-received prominent role in the short-lived WB drama Summerland before he found his footing. In 2005, he was close to giving up and accepting his deferred admission to USC when he showed up on the last day of auditions for HSM. That's when director Kenny Ortega knew he had found his sweet and studly BMOC, Troy Bolton. "He had an ease and a charm where even if he messed up, it turned out better than if he had done it right," recalls Ortega. "He reminded me of Cary Grant or when I worked with Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller."
Cary Grant? Maybe not. But he does have effortless charm and golden-boy looks to spare, which, when combined with his paparazzi-baiting off-camera relationship with costar Hudgens, has made him irresistible to Hollywood's pop-sensation-making machine. After the first HSM took off, he was flooded with offers for big-bucks recording contracts. But unlike his costars (and fellow Disney spawn Lindsay Lohan), Efron resisted the temptation to make a play for multimedia Renaissance man status. He even backed away from a slew of acting opportunities, taking a year off to catch his breath. "I didn't want to do what everyone else did," says Efron. "I thought to myself, 'What can I contribute to the music industry?' I can't say that I would be proud of the work I would put down."
Instead, he dodged leading roles in bombs like Speed Racer and waited until he found the perfect showcase for his specific constellation of talents — in Hairspray. Interestingly enough, the film's director, Adam Shankman, didn't initially think Efron was right for the role of Link Larkin, the swoony, Elvis-coiffed rebel harboring hidden depths. "I felt he was too aw-shucks Disney," says the director, who ultimately cast him after requesting he not smile during his second audition. "In High School Musical he had been asked to be handsome and energetic, and this role needed to have that sex appeal thing. He had to be de-Disneyfied." As it turned out, this slightly less vanilla-flavored version of Efron had girls screaming even louder — and helped drive Hairspray's box office far beyond expectations, to $119 million.
Efron's experience on Hairspray made him hungry for more substance and big-screen success. He was reluctant to sign on for HSM2, and did even more tortured hand-wringing before committing to HSM3. Ultimately, he decided that he owed it to the fans and to himself to complete Senior Year before he could graduate. "This felt like a good final chapter of HSM for me," Efron says of the film. "The fans basically demanded we make it. So this was our opportunity to do everything to the best of our abilities on a big screen." Plus, there's no underestimating the appeal of getting paid for singing and dancing and maybe even kissing his real-life girlfriend on the big screen. "After three movies together, Vanessa and I feel free to do whatever we want, and we're just kind of silly and uninhibited," he says. "It felt like the best working vacation I've ever taken."
You don't often hear a 20-year-old superstar throwing around terms normally uttered between a couple of suits on the commuter train. But Efron hopes that by taking his job seriously, he'll make audiences take him seriously. Earlier this year, while shooting 17 Again, he worked a whole day on set despite excruciating stomach pains. Everyone joked that he had a bad case of gas and suggested he down some Beano. But Efron suspected something more dire. "I'm sitting in between takes, just off set, debating whether or not an alien was going to pop out of my stomach," says the actor, who was later taken to the hospital with a case of appendicitis that nearly killed him. Even so, he was so worried about delaying the production that he was back at work two days later performing an emotional scene in which he breaks down in tears proclaiming his love for the woman (Leslie Mann) whom the grown-up version of himself had let slip away. "I was one organ lighter, but I had to get back," he says nonchalantly. "Not only was I putting 17 Again in danger of not finishing, but I was also potentially threatening Me and Orson Welles."
For better or worse, to be Zac Efron right now is to feel the threat of an uncertain future looming. He knows that his every move is being monitored by fans and detractors alike. Not so different, as it turns out, from being a secret agent. Only with much better pay. (Efron stays low-key about what he does with the reported millions he earns on each project — he drives an Audi and lives in a modest two-bedroom in the Valley.) But he refuses to walk away from a challenge. After lunch, he's made plans to play tennis with some friends, but he accepts an invitation to face off against some EW staffers on PlayStation 3's Rock Band. Though he refuses to step up to the mike — "I'm definitely not singing here" — he plops down in front of the drum set. "I've never played this before, but I've heard the drums are hardest," he says blithely. Sure enough, when Weezer's "Say It Ain't So" cues up and he starts pounding away, he's a natural, scoring in the high-80th percentile. The next song, Mountain's "Mississippi Queen," is a tough slog for even the most experienced Rock Banders, and Efron struggles to stay in the game. "Oh, man, this one's so hard," he says, looking like any American kid happy to escape his life and pretend he's a musical god for a few minutes. "Oh, wait. I'm coming back," he says, engineering a last-minute save. "I've got this, people. I'm not going down just yet."