The Philadelphia Inquirer
Hard enough to be a teenager and blunder your way into maturity as a private citizen. Harder still for a teen idol to prove his manhood professionally as the fans watch. Leonardo DiCaprio did it. So, too, did Will Smith. Can Zac Efron, boy heartthrob of High School Musical, make the leap?
The answer may be Charlie St. Cloud, a Ghost-y weper starring the former Tiger Beat centerfold as a Stanford-bound student who grieves – and grows – in the wake of family tragedy. Efron’s performance is low-key but high-impact. The film from Burr Steers, who directed Efron in 17 Again, opens Friday.
The bed-head hair, triple-dip lashes, and seaglass-blue eyes that are Efron greet you en masse at Philadelphia’s Ritz-Carlton. The St. Jude medal around his neck? A memento from the movie, and good-luck charm. Who can measure his candlepower? William Blake described his opposite when he wrote, “He whose face gives no light, shall never be a star.”
Efron’s air – a whiff of the Hollywood Hills by way of California’s Central Coast – is unassuming. He strikes a stranger as both casual and conscientious. As a kid growing up in Arroyo Grande, near San Luis Obispo, he was both a jock and a nerd. “My parents encouraged me to excel – even though I was the shortest kid on the basketball team, I had a great jump shot.” And straight A’s.
Look at the 22-year-old in the sky-blue shirt and you think: Risky Business-era Tom Cruise. Listen to his thoughtful responses and you think again: Good Will Hunting-era Matt Damon.
Efron has no regrets about deferring his 2006 admission to the University of Southern California. “This is my career prime time,” he says matter-of-factly. “My parents are giving me grief about college, but I want to see where this takes me. If this” – his unexpected win at the Hollywood roulette wheel – “had not happened, I’d be graduating from college now.”
But it did happen. And it made him one of the most photographed and gossiped-about people in America, a teen multimillionaire whose main splurge is “small electronics devices with an Apple logo on them.”
He shrugs off the tabloid headlines and speculations. “You gotta laugh,” he says. To clarify: Yes, he is keeping company with High School Musical costar Vanessa Hudgens. No, much as he admires other actors who made the passage from small to big screen, he would rather be himself than the next Johnny Depp. And no, “I don’t go to Hollywood clubs very often. That culture is not my culture.”
Zac-culture is “Getting out there and having fun like every other 22-year-old living in L.A.,” but having it beyond the reach of telephoto lenses and tweeters. Not that it wouldn’t be fun to mix it up a little more.
“I wish that I could see more live music,” he says wistfully. He doesn’t want his fans to overwhelm him and divert attention from the act on stage. “But I did go to Coachella,” he says of the alt-music Woodstock held annually in the California desert, “and nobody bugged me.”
On his iPod, the guy who warbled the vanilla tunes of High School Musical listens to the rugged rap of Eminem, the hip-pop of Kid Cudi, and the Rent soundtrack. (Hudgens is slated to play Mimi in a Hollywood Bowl production next month.) And, yes, Efron does dance to the music.
There is no “game plan” for his transition from teen song-and-dance dreamboat to grown-up actor. “You could apply one of a thousand cliches to it. But basically, it’s not what you do, but what you don’t do.” Since he graduated from High School Musical and director Kenny Ortega, he hoped to continue working with good filmmakers.
And he has, choosing indie filmmakers and projects over franchise machines. If acting can be compared to weightlifting, Efron incrementally has added 50 pounds with every film rather than showboat and hoist 250 pounds all at once.
In Adam Shankman’s film adaptation of Hairspray (2007), he shined as twinkled-toed dancer Link Larkin. In Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles (2008), he cut unexpectedly deep as the callow high schooler who gets hired by the legendary stage director and gets a taste of backstage life. And in Steers’ 17 Again, a disarming body-switch comedy, he succeeded in being simultaneously heavyhearted and buoyant as a tired 40-year-old returned to his teenage self.
“Basically, I’m trying to find new and interesting material – not remakes,” he says (he passed on a Footloose do-over). “I’m trying to find movies that evoke emotion and are still powerful.”
He apologizes for sounding elusive, but what he’s looking for is elusive. “I’m trying to find scripts that ask questions, that make you think, that leave something . . . lingering.” The Efron formula, it would seem, is that there is no formula.
As a teen song-and-dance man on the cusp of diversifying his portfolio, Efron is where (Hairspray costar) John Travolta stood after Grease and Patrick Swayze after Dirty Dancing. There are doubters. But also a lot of believers.
“Zac is a performer capable of great subtlety and vulnerability,” said Claire Danes, DiCaprio’s costar in Romeo + Juliet and Efron’s in Me and Orson Welles. That accurately describes his work in Charlie St. Cloud, which, despite the vealcake shots of its shirtless star, is an emotional portrait of mourning and moving on.
“He has incredible talent, drive, and work ethic,” says Steers, unsurprised by last week’s announcement that the actor is forming his own production company, Ninjas Runnin’ Wild. “He’s taking control of his own career,” Steers says, “creating his own opportunities. That’s how it’s done.”
A few years back, Efron sought out DiCaprio. “I wanted to pick his brain. We had a coffee. We hung out for about a minute. I would like to have his attitude and awareness and humility.”
Efron has the humility thing down. And he’s working on the awareness. He doesn’t, like so many other young stars seeking a mature audience, feel obliged to assume R-rated trappings. “I don’t think that to be perceived as an adult or cool that I need to carry a gun.”
“There’s a difference between watching a guy with a gun and watching Philip Seymour Hoffman with a gun,” he says of the Oscar-winning actor. “You won’t be seeing me with one until I can carry one like Hoffman.”
“How do I know if a script is for me? I ask, ‘Does it feel genuine? Can I do it genuinely? Can I do it genuinely without having to change it?’ ”