In two new films, former High Schooler Zac Efron majors in seduction, advancing from learning curve to learning curves
By Holly Millea | March 04, 2009 10:00 a.m.
Looking like a live-action prince drawn in a Walt Disney fever dream, Zac Efron has a heavy brow, Technicolor-blue upturned eyes, black curling lashes, a linear nose, bowed lips. His smile, so ultrabrightly perfect, makes you wonder, Are those his real teeth? “Do they look like someone else’s?” the prince replies, grinning, swatting at a cartoon bluebird. Gone is the gap of his childhood, erased by braces. As befits a Disney star, he has smooth, poreless skin that refuses to grow a heavy beard, extending the warranty on his tween-idol contract.
Dressed in a dark green hoodie, his lowslung jeans revealing a pair of multicolor pinstriped boxers, the High School Musical icon sits at a patio table, shaded from the noon Los Angeles sun, eating a tuna burger and sipping cold sake. At 21, he is young enough to get the girl and newly old enough to get the woman, too. In 17 Again he does both, playing a man whose wish for a life do-over turns him back into a teenager falling in love with his estranged wife, still 37. Think Big, backward. “It was hard not to be a lady cougar around him,” says costar Leslie Mann, his older object of desire. “One day during rehearsals, I was leaving, and Zac said, ‘What’s your phone number so I can call your daughter on her birthday.’ I gave it to him, and he turned to the director and said, ‘See, I told you I would get it.’ ” She laughs. “He’s such a woman’s fantasy, especially for someone with an Oedipus complex.”
“I was wondering at the beginning— how is this gonna work?” Efron says. “How am I gonna…you know….” Fall for an old lady on-screen? “And by the end of the first rehearsal, I had such a big crush on Leslie, I didn’t have to fake it.” He smiles and pops a french fry in his mouth. “Now I know how Ashton Kutcher feels.”
Physically, Efron is evolving into the kind of masculine beauty embodied by Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, James Dean in East of Eden, Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass, and their modern equivalents: Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, and Leonardo DiCaprio—former teen idols all. “I met Leo at the beginning of his dramatic transition,” says Kenny Ortega, the director of the High School trilogy. “Leo read for me for Hocus Pocus [with Bette Midler]. Everybody in town wanted him and he chose What’s Eating Gilbert Grape—good choice! It was very familiar, meeting with Zac. The well runs deeps with him.”
Hearing DiCaprio was going to be honored as one of GQ’s Men of the Year, Efron showed up at the party. “He was the only reason I went,” he admits. “I thought maybe I’d get to shake his hand. No one had seen Leo, and I was walking out and he walked right by. I was all, ‘Oh, hey!’ And he turned around and right there I had the ‘in,’ and I was like, ‘I just want to shake your hand, dude, I’m a big fan…. I’d love to sit down and talk with you sometime.’ And he goes, ‘Right on.’ A few nights later, I was at a Lakers game and I texted him, and he said he was coming. And this guy in a ball cap and coat with the collar up sits next to me. We talked the whole game, and he was just everything I thought he would be: smart, levelheaded, charming, hilarious. You know, the older-brother vibe.” Efron shakes his head. “That sounds so cheesy.”
The road to Zac-istan begins four hours north of L.A. in tiny Arroyo Grande, California. His mother, Starla—“a hippie in the best way possible, very spiritual”— worked for a winery; and his father, David—“he operates from left hemisphere, very logical”—is an engineer. Efron was 12 when he began performing in Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts productions. “I liked being the kid in the adult circle,” he says. “As far back as I can remember, I couldn’t understand or relate to a lot of kids. I still don’t understand how High School Musical became a hit.”
The waitress approaches to clear the table. From the flush of her cheeks, she’s clearly a member of the Zac Pack. “By the way,” Efron says, about to make her day, “you have the most gorgeous eyes. Awesome.” He is being completely sincere. Everybody knows Efron has been dating Vanessa Hudgens since High School. Why, just yesterday, pictures were posted on the Internet of the couple posing with a fan in what looked like a sex-toy store. “Oh, man,” Efron says, laughing, sinking into his chair, covering his face. “It was Halloween Eve, like, two years ago! It was just a costume store, and in the back they have an adult section for adult costumes. And this nice older woman asked for a photo.” Against a backdrop of phalluses and boxes labeled party sheep.
“My mom is like, ‘Zac, what did you buy in a sex shop?’ I was like, ‘Mom, calm down, it’s not a sex shop.’ She wouldn’t have any of it. She’s like”—he mimics his mother’s worried tone—“ ‘I knew you were being sexual!’ But she understood. My stocking was full of condoms this Christmas. She buys me the economy box.” Oh, my.
“This is the movie where Zac loses his virginity on-screen,” jokes Richard Linklater, who directed Efron and Claire Danes in the upcoming Me and Orson Welles, a drama set in the theater world of 1937. “Here he is, this kid from California stepping into a group of accomplished British actors, and he was so not intimidated. Zac’s like a really good poker player. Don’t underestimate him. All bodes well for a long career. Of course, it would be more fun for the culture if he had a lot of problems.”
Just when he has graduated from high school, they keep pulling him back in. Efron is considering playing Kevin Bacon’s role in a remake of the 1984 hit Footloose, directed by Ortega, and may reprise Link in a Hairspray sequel, in which he will have “lots of great ’60s problems,” says Hairspray creator John Waters. “How rad does that sound?” is all Efron will say, having yet to commit.
“Zac, please read the treatment—let’s get the movie made!” Waters implores over the phone, though regarding those “ ’60s problems” all he’ll say is, “Loose lips sink ships!” The treatment, he will allow, “makes fun of the image that Zac’s a dreamboat from High School Musical. I would imagine he’s getting weary of that. I mean, just because you’re a dreamboat doesn’t mean you can’t act. Please! He twinkles! I told him, ‘If you played a junkie, you’d win an Oscar!’ ”
Those opportunities are sure to come, but for now, Efron says, “I’m going to make as many lighthearted movies as I can. Every time we started a new High School Musical movie, I wanted to keep that kid inside of me alive.”