The Sunday Times
Zac Efron: take me seriously
His new film may be a comedy, but real life hasn’t always been a laugh. The former teen star talks about depression, dating and why he says he’s not funny
For girls born in 1993 and the years following, Zac Efron will most likely be remembered as their first big pin-up crush. In 2006, aged 18 and shortly after graduating from school, Efron arrived on TV screens as the all-singing, all-dancing Troy Bolton in the Disney Channel’s wildly successful High School Musical franchise. The three films went on to gross $253m (£190m) worldwide, not counting the lucrative lines of merchandise: Efron’s Ken-doll-handsome face adorned school satchels, sticker books and posters.
Now 28, the former child actor strikes me as self-effacing, nervous and frustrated when we meet in a hotel on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. Wearing skintight leather trousers and a ripped Harley-Davidson T-shirt, he is dinky (he has over time claimed to be anywhere between 5ft 8in and 5ft 10in), with a streak of platinum blond in his quiff and Muscle Beach biceps. Days on the teenybopper franchise were "very long", he recalls, but despite previous "misquotes" claiming he harbours resentment for his big break, he remembers the bubble-gum years fondly. "I have nothing disparaging to say. High School Musical set the tone for the rest of my life. You can't knock it. It's about being free. It's not about being popular. It's not about Instagram. It's about being you, and that's magical. Kids need that today. High School Musical f****** rocks!"
For five years he and costar Vanessa Hudgens dated. But life since hasn't always been as magical. There was the familiar child star descent: the partying that got out of control as he succumbed to the pressures of being young and famous. He became depressed, something he says was exacerbated by social media. Today he has no access to his own Twitter and Instagram accounts — they're both controlled by a hired hand he instructs. "I lost my mind because of the internet. I'd read 30 positive things and one bad thing, then I'd harbour that bad thing. It drove me crazy."
In early 2013, he checked into rehab to deal with his drug and alcohol abuse. Barring a brief fracas with a homeless man on Skid Row in 2014 — nobody was ever charged — Efron seems to have been on the straight and narrow since. Today he orders a coconut water and a coffee with almond milk, and espouses the virtues of living dairy-free: "I don’t think regular milk"s good for you. They started feeding all this shit to cows. That stuff goes into your system. I'm lactose-intolerant now and I didn't used to be: I'm allergic to my favourite beverage of all time."
A member of Alcoholics Anonymous, he's open about his recovery. Is it important to him that mental-health issues aren’t taboo in Hollywood? “I don’t want to sound high and mighty, and I only know my story. There's a theory that actors should live like monks. You stay private, you make a great movie, then that's all people see and you're not a product of your struggle. But if you're comfortable sharing your story, celebrate it. Most days I wake up excited now." What’s the first thing he does? "Fifty push-ups," he smiles. "It’s a tradition I got from Batman. Once you’ve done 50 push-ups, you're not thinking about anything else."
Efron lives in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of LA with his younger brother, Dylan, after he sold his bachelor pad in Laurel Canyon. Despite being four years younger, Dylan was always taller. "I was Machiavelli [sic] towards him, but now he takes care of me." Born in central California (San Luis Obispo — the state"s rural heartland), Efron is eager to emphasise his humble beginnings, describing his secretary mother as “very loving” and his engineer father as the one who "worked his ass off". (If the acting hadn’t taken off, Efron had plans to study at the University of Southern California — he was accepted, but deferred entry.)
What about girlfriends? Since the end of his relationship with Hudgens, he has been linked to Lily Collins (daughter of Phil), the actress Michelle Rodriguez and the model Sami Miro (they split earlier this year). "Dating is something I’ll never be able to do," he says glumly. "As in the dictionary definition of dating, because one way or another I've impacted that person's life and they'll soon realise it." Dating, says Efron, is about seeing somebody for the first time, which is impossible given his omnipresence. "A date has to be very long to dispel whatever people think about me." So the likes of Tinder would be a no-no? "Amazingly, when I signed up for Tinder, nobody swiped me! They thought it was fake." He pauses for dramatic effect. "That never happened. Aha-ha." Tumbleweed.
Efron says he spends his time "saying no" to a lot of films to avoid becoming typecast. Attempts at more serious roles in the likes of Me and Orson Welles and Charlie St Cloud came and went, and although he won critical praise for his performance in the Lee Daniels film The Paperboy, it was a flop. So, who are the Hollywood directors still on his wish list? "I’d love to work with the Coen brothers," he begins. His brow is furrowed, thumbs punching his iPhone screen — he had written down the names. “On my way over here, I said, 'Zac, you’re not gonna remember the directors, so make a list.'" He looks back at his iPhone: "I'm not texting, I swear." I think he has just Googled "top directors". "Clint Eastwood?" he says sheepishly. He continues to scroll. "JJ Abrams! Um, I'd love to work with, eh-argh, sorry-sorry-sorry, next question."
He found career resurrection via a friendship with the comedy writer/actor Seth Rogen, and the Bad Neighbours franchise. It led him to Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, a real-life tale about two brothers who seek female companionship for their sister's wedding via the internet. When the girls they find (played in the film by Aubrey Plaza, who rose to fame in Parks and Recreation, and Anna Kendrick of Pitch Perfect) accompany them, chaos ensues. On meeting his seasoned comedic co-stars, Efron admits he was shy. "What would they think of me? I wouldn't say I'm a great comedian. I wouldn't even say I'm a good comedian. I'm not funny." That's not ideal. "I'm potentially good at honesty."
Comedy, it seems, is not for Efron. Well, not for ever. "I want to earn the evolution [to drama]. To earn something, you've got to go all out. Don't be afraid to be fearless." In other words, he's putting himself out there, willing to be mocked. "Take your shirt off. Know you're a douchebag. Make an idiot of yourself. Then reap the benefits. What you get by doing this is street cred, then you get to work with great directors." He clears his throat and gets serious. "I need to meet somebody face to face, then I can earn that dramatic cool role, that good role."
On the subject of "tops off", Efron is currently in the midst of his "Baywatch diet". The movie adaptation of the 1990s David Hasselhoff/Pamela Anderson show rolls in next year. He'll star alongside the Rock, who has left quite an impression upon him. "He wants to make an impact beyond acting. He could run for president. F*** it, he'd be better than anyone at this point." Efron contemplates what the Rock has taught him, while looking out towards the Hollywood skyline. "I’m realising the value of film," he says. "We have the ability to change the world with cinema. I love acting, I study it every night — Enter the Dragon, Se7en. It’s been a struggle. From day one, I wanted to do authentic work. It wasn't about money. It wasn't about fame. It wasn't about Instagram."
He looks wistful. "I feel like I'm just unlocking right now. I'm just getting started."