I’m obsessed with…. this Zac Efron eye candy
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THERE ARE BOBCATS AROUND. SIXTY-EIGHT-POUND BOBCATS. Or that’s what the sign taped to the gate at the head of the trail says, anyway. And some amateur naturalist has written a note on the sign, pointing out that sixty-eight pounds is “more than double the previous world record of 28 pounds.” Another sign, a little to the left, pleads for the safe return of a missing black poodle. Zac Efron pauses, scans all this, says, “Yeah—that dog’s dead.”
There are bobcats around, but Efron is not afraid of them. He unlocks the gate and we start walking up the trail, into the foothills of the Santa Monicas. He lives somewhere around here, in the circa-1947 Case Study house that his singing/dancing/basketball-dribbling appearances in three zestfully clean High School Musical movies—and on countless officially licensed lunchboxes and toe socks and flip-flops and I ♥ TROY messenger bags—bought. It’s built ten feet off the ground, hidden in the trees, so every morning, when his iPhone alarm wakes him up with a randomly selected song—today it was the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize,” the one with the Biggie, Biggie, Biggie, can’t you see? chorus—and before he does anything else, before he takes a piss even, he can walk out onto his terrace and greet the sun, the way he likes to, without it showing up all over goddamn TMZ. It’s also close to this trail we’re on now, where Efron takes his exercise these days. He used to go to Runyon Canyon, but the last time he went up there a gentleman in Gucci loafers and head-to-toe camo gear oh-so-subtly took his picture a few hundred times.
It’s one of those L.A. days that feel like an ostentatious gift. A breeze blows clouds across a chroma-key blue sky; it’s so quiet you can hear loose sediment trickling down the canyon wall. Efron’s in a blue T-shirt, muscle-ropy arms exposed to the sun, hair crammed under a gray stocking cap. We take the hill, he talks about his twenty-first birthday—he expected his friends to get him booze; they mostly bought him books—and the way Darren Aronofsky’s camera trails the wheezing side of beef that is Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.We talk about Sean Penn, whom Efron met a couple of awards seasons ago.
“He was, uh, not in top form,” Efron says. “Or maybe he was in top form. He was in rareform. Anyway—he told me to go skydiving. That’s all. Just—‘Go skydiving.’ ”
He kinda can’t believe he gets to meet these people. He went to the Oscars last week with Vanessa Hudgens, who was his love interest in High School Musical and remains his girlfriend in real life, although he will never utter her name in our presence, and when he wasn’t onstage—and he rarely wasn’t, because the Academy, desperate to inject the show with youthiness, kept shoving him back out there to sing or dance or present something—he didn’t know which incredible famous person to embarrass himself in front of first. It’s Robert De Niro! It’s Sean Penn, drunk as a slab of tiramisu, dispensing gnomic Sean Penn wisdom!
Before long we’re at the top of the trail, all of L.A. laid out before us like God’s own craft-service spread. Efron pushes his long Japanimation-character bangs under his cap, out of eyes as blue as the shallow end, points out Melrose Avenue, the modernist pancake stack of the Capitol Records Tower, the Cinerama Dome sitting there like a golf ball whacked hard into Sunset. Yesterday it rained and washed the crud out of the sky, and today the view is high-def. You can see all the way to the ocean. We sit on bare terra-cotta-colored dirt, contemplating.
“It’s crazy, all the stuff that happens down there,” Efron says. “It’s the American dream. I mean, it’s beautiful. But it’s so fucked-up. Up here, everything’s green. And down there, it’s crazy.”
Efron comes here a lot. “You can forget where you are for a minute,” he says. “And theyhaven’t figured out that I come here yet.”
By “they,” you mean—
How’s that going for you?
“Pretty well, actually,” he says, kicking a white-Conversed toe in the dirt. “I’ve kinda got it figured out. I just pull in to the lot at”—he says the name of a movie studio, then asks me not to print which one it is—“and they can’t follow me. The first time I did it, they weren’t going to let me in. The guy at the gate was like, ‘What are you gonna do for me?’ I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ He’s like, ‘I got kids.’ And I was like, ‘Well, I got a poster in the trunk!’ It’s smart to keep some swag in the trunk, just in case.”
Do you keep a lot of High School Musical stuff around?
Efron laughs. “In the house? Oh, hell no,” he says. “It’s in the garage. And then a lot of it’s at my parents’.”
You’ll probably want the Troy doll someday, we say, or the board game. When you’re 60. You could open a place up, like Burt Reynolds’s museum, where they’ve got the Trans Am from Smokey and the Bandit.
“Paul Newman had one of those,” Efron says. “He had a barn where he kept all that stuff, and that’s where he’d hold his meetings. I can’t imagine how intimidating that would be to have a meeting there.”
He’s been getting into Newman’s films lately, he says. Him and Steve McQueen. When-men-were-men kind of actors, and guys who never seemed to put a foot wrong, careerwise, despite not appearing to give that much of a shit about anything but the work.
When Efron talks about these guys, or when he talks about meeting De Niro and how all the “dedication and hard work” De Niro had put into all those great roles was written in the lines of De Niro’s face, or when he talks about how the movies of the ’70s were better because they didn’t test-market everything, you get the feeling he just wants to say the right thing. That he wants to make sure we know he knows that everything he’s done up until now—the basic-cable ratings record set by the second High School Musical TV movie, his decision to take a smallish role in Hairspray that winked charmingly at his own decidedly retro teen-idol persona, even his leap into the world of PG-13 movies with the winningly goofy old-dude-becomes-young-dude comedy 17 Again—means exactly jack, cinematically. That at least for now, he does not yet have the kind of history a man can hang in a barn.
You get the feeling he knows he should be saying this, to the men’s magazine. That he knows a career built almost exclusively on the squealing ardor of preteen girls, on choreographed dance numbers set to expository pop tuneage so perkily inoffensive it makes early ’NSync sound like Howlin’ Wolf, is something a man has to live down before you can, y’know, call him a man. He seems like he wants to pass a test. And yet he’s not wrong. Cool Hand Luke is awesome! Compared to the movies of the ’70s, the movies of today look like cheap, mercury-contaminated Chinese toys! And Steve McQueen and Paul Newman? They were awesome!
“I mean—they lived here,” Efron says, gesturing out at the city, clearly meaning not Hollywood the place but Hollywood, the state of being. “They made it through all this.”
Plus—look at this view. Nice pigeonhole, if you can get it.
BACK DOWN THE HILL. Efron’s talking about 17 Again. “It’s very transitional, y’know? I didn’t wanna alienate the fans that had been around for so long,” he says. Then he adds, self-mockingly: “The fans, who’ve been around for so many years.”
Efron’s Audi is a kiln. He starts the car and Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga picks up midsong. The words look! safe to move? blink on the video screen in the dash. It’s like a little koan for the cautious celebrity. An empty bottle of something called 5-Hour Energy (“hours of energy now…no crash later”) rattles in the console coin holder; in the compartment between the front seats, there’s an extra stocking cap—this one’s black and white—in case Efron leaves the house without one. We’re going to go get some coffee, maybe a sandwich.
Down through the steep street maze of Laurel Canyon. Efron squeezes the Audi past a yoga-holically thin woman leaning into the window of a parked car. He checks her out. We clock him checking her out. He (maybe) clocks us clocking him checking her out, exhales a verdict—“Tooooooooo skinny”—and turns his attention back to the road. He plays tour guide. Here’s where he almost hit Kathy Griffin with his car. Here’s where one of those oversize-load house trailers came out of nowhere. He scraped a stone wall, fucked up his rim. Oh, and that house, right there? “That’s where fuckin’ Britney Spears stays,” Efron says. “You can’t drive by there because of all the paparazzi.”
(There appears to be no paparazzi there today. Maybe he’s making fun of her.)
In 17 Again, Efron plays Mike, a high school basketball star who blows the big game and winds up thirtysomething, dejected, headed for a divorce. Then the universe intervenes, in the form of Brian Doyle-Murray as a magical janitor; Efron becomes a teenager again, goes undercover at his old high school, meddles productively with his high-school-age kids’ messed-up lives, and tries to save his marriage.
In a way, it’s a strange choice—Efron is trying to prove that he’s ready for more adult roles by playing a grown man trapped in a 17-year-old’s body. But it’s also a smart choice—a family-friendly comedy that doesn’t skew straight tween, an ensemble vehicle he can drive but doesn’t have to carry. The great Leslie Mann, of Judd Apatow’s crew, plays his wife. The great Matthew Perry gives a performance as Efron’s droopy-dawg adult self that is best described as good-sportsmanly, when you consider that the part requires him to embody a younger, handsomer actor’s total failure at the game of life. And yeah, it’s notCool Hand Luke. It’s heartfelt, it’s pretty funny, it’s a step on the path to something else.
And Efron gets this. “A guy I worked with recently told me, ‘You have to earn the right to hold a gun.’ And that completely made sense. Can you imagine me running around with a gun in a film? I noticed the second I started that the things you want to be involved with are always just out of reach. Most parts you’d want, people won’t really consider you for, because you have to earn that respect. The things people do want you for are usually not things you want to do. At one point, somebody said to me, ‘What do you wanna do? A cool crime drama? Do you wanna shoot up heroin? We’ll do anything you wanna do…the Musical.”
Efron says he’s never taken an acting job to get paid. That there are no commercials for frozen minibagels on his reel. And when music-business people came to him after the second High School Musical broke all those records, when they offered him the chance to do an album, he declined. It just seemed like a teen-idol thing to do.
“It’s such a fine line,” he says, “between being famous for who you are personally and for your films. And I’ve been on the wrong side of it my whole career.”
He was worried about 17 Again. He worried about it becoming nothing but a dumb teen comedy slapped together to showcase his charms. It wasn’t until he met with director Burr Steers that he felt like it could be something more. Steers—best known for the Salingerian coming-of-age dramedy Igby Goes Down—didn’t talk about him taking his shirt off in the movie. Steers talked about story, about character, how it could be a real film. Steers got the job.
Then, on the set, Efron says, “he messed with my head a little bit. There were scenes where I had to be pissed off, so he’d be a total asshole all morning, to make me a little bit on edge. I had no idea what he was doing until after the movie was over. I just thought he was a huge asshole. But it turns out he’s incredibly smart. He doesn’t just give you what you want to hear and tell you that you’re doing a great job. It’s a different kind of love and support.”
Efron still talks his career decisions over with his parents. They met at a nuclear-power plant near Arroyo Grande, a few hours north of Los Angeles. Efron’s father was an engineer. His mother was a receptionist. His dad was analytical, logical, deeply left-brained—Efron says he’s still the smartest guy he knows. His mom was spiritual, passionate. “She was at Woodstock,” Efron says. “She lived an exciting life. She still hasn’t divulged all the details.” Neither of them had any showbiz in their background. But when he started auditioning professionally—after doing tons of “bad community theater” and catching the eye of an agent—they supported everything, drove him back and forth to L.A., even though he didn’t book much real work. As long as he kept his grades up, Efron says, “they could have cared less how many auditions I tanked.
“They’re both pessimists,” Efron says. “They’ll give it to you real. They don’t blow you up with excess confidence. I didn’t grow up thinking I was the greatest kid in the world. And they completely believed that there was a one-in-a-billion chance I would ever be successful. And that was ingrained in the back of my head: I will fail. I’m going to fail. They managed my expectations. I was always prepared to fail. So it was kind of confusing when things started to work out.”
You didn’t have a plan for that.
“No,” Efron says. “That was the one thing I wasn’t prepared for. This wasn’t supposed to work, y’know? There’s 150 guys that are just like me, except more talented, and they probably deserve to be out here. It’s a fluke.”
But if you were so sure it wasn’t going to happen, why did you keep doing it?
“If I knew I was going to fail?” Efron says. “Because it was fun? I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
He thinks about it for a second. (We’re out of the car now, drinking coffee at a patio table in front of a little country store/deli in Laurel Canyon, a stone’s throw from the restaurant where Efron had his last birthday party.)
“I never half-ass anything. And every time I do, it always comes back to haunt me. Whatever I’m focused on is what I will succeed at. When I was in school, I told myself I’d get good grades, and I got great grades. And when I started doing this—you learn. You can’t help but recognize what the people that are better than you do. Every film is a challenge. You have to acquire new skills. You have to put your ass out there. And that’s what I wanna do next.”
You can tell this is what got him here, what drove him through the endless basketball drills and dance rehearsals High School Musical required—this sense that the work was a challenge and that the challenge was necessary. Sure, he’s cute as a damn button—but he’s pushed himself this far with the iron will of a mathlete bent on crushing his crosstown rivals. Whether this is going to be enough to get him into better films—as opposed to just bigger ones, which will undoubtedly come—remains to be seen. Better films demand certain intangibles, stuff an actor can’t necessarily pull out of himself by buckling down and studying hard. He could smack the ceiling of his talent and that’ll be that. But it won’t be for lack of drive.
In the second High School Musical—the one where, through various creakily miraculous plot contrivances, all the leads from the first movie end up with summer jobs at the same country club—there’s a scene where Efron, as high school basketball star and musical-theater prodigy Troy Bolton, sings and dances alone on a well-groomed golf course the color of lime Jell-O. The song is called “Bet on It”; it’s the moment in the film when Troy realizes he’s lost the trust of his friends and has to stand up to the country club’s big jerk of a manager and force him to let the guys from the basketball team perform in the country club’s annual talent show. But first he has to dance. He has to dance angrily. And the number that follows is easily the greatest Angry Dancing moment in recent film history. Efron clutches his head in frustration, falls on his knees as if cursing capricious gods, hits a golf ball right into a water trap. The scene serves almost exactly the same narrative purpose as Kevin Bacon’s legendary warehouse dance scene in Footloose, the previous high-dudgeon mark for cinematic Angry Dancing; you can see why there was a Footlooseremake in development for a while as a vehicle for Efron, with High School Musicaldirector Kenny Ortega attached. (Efron has decided not to do the film.) But when we talk to Efron about his work ethic, what we realize is that “Bet on It” may be the closest the junk written for him to sing in these movies has come to expressing something that’s really there inside him—namely, steel. I’m not gonna stop, he sings. That’s who I am. I’ll give it all I got. That is my plan.
And that is his plan, y’know?
Efron isn’t embarrassed about High School Musical, by the way. He says if he had it all to do over again, he’d do another one for free. He does get embarrassed, though, when he starts explaining what it was like when acting finally did get in the way of his schoolwork, when he found himself torn between his ambitions as a performer and the life of a normal high school kid. “I was really fucking confused,” he says. “This is so stupid, but it was kinda like…”
“It was kinda like High School Musical.”
He had this other life, where he’d go and do plays, which meant being around adults, people who seemed to have their shit together, people who were making a living being creative, and this made him able to not care when people—even his friends!—made fun of him about doing community-theater productions that involved singing and dancing in front of senior citizens.
And the weird thing is that this, basically, ironically, is the plot of the movie that made Efron who he is today. High School Musical is about a young man struggling to choose between high school sports and the temptation of musical theater, and finding the courage to do something his buddies think is totally gay, except it’s a Disney movie and therefore it takes place in a universe where being gay does not exist, so Troy’s buddies just say things like “You ever think LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal auditioned for their school musical?”
“It was the worst possible thing you could do in high school,” Efron agrees. “Kids who are in musical theater tend to be self-confident in a quirky kind of way, and when kids who are really self-conscious see somebody doing that kind of thing, they try to bring them down. I used to do random things, man. When I was a kid? I dyed my hair silver, to look like SisQó in the “Thong Song” video. I just didn’t give a fuck. I didn’t care.”
Somehow this reminds us: What’s up with this story about you wearing false eyelashes? Is that for real?
“If somebody can find any photo that shows me wearing false eyelashes,” he says, “I will give them a fucking million dollars. That’s bullshit.”
“You know what, dude? A couple of times, when I was young, and I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing—it’s just what happens. Somebody’s there, and it’s their job. And they load you up with makeup. They don’t do the girlie thing, but they, y’know, cover your zits. It didn’t come from a self-conscious place—it was just what everyone did. And since then, people just constantly think I’m wearing makeup. It’s a recurring theme. But fuck, man. I have never worn false eyelashes in my entire life.”
He blinks a couple of times. Bat, bat—“That’s all me.”
What about, y’know, guyliner?
“No. Fuck, man,” he says. “No.”
Other things that aren’t true: He isn’t fighting with Justin Timberlake and Twilight’s Robert Pattinson over the lead in Ohio, a movie about the Kent State killings. He’s never even seen a script for that. He says he doesn’t want to say what his next movie (after 17 Againand Richard Linklater’s forthcoming indie Me and Orson Welles) is going to be. He says he doesn’t know, which means he either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to say. We ask if it’s the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean, as has been reported, or a big-screen version of the ’60s cartoon Jonny Quest, and he is vague and nice about telling us he can’t tell us. “I’m truly ready right now. I can’t wait, dude. I’m going to do something—something cool. Something people aren’t necessarily expecting.”
The lady who runs the coffee cart brings a blond, very poised preteen girl in a white dress across the patio for an autograph.
“You are beautiful,” Efron says to the girl. “What’s your name?”
“Olivia,” says Olivia.
“Nice to meet you,” Efron says.
“Nice to meet you,” Olivia says. “I’m doing High School Musical 2 in school.”
(She’s playing Sharpay, Ashley Tisdale’s mean-girl diva character. It’s one of the better parts in the second movie—she gets to sing about her Jimmy Choo flip-flops and mistreat people while Hudgens, as Gabriella, is stuck with drippy ballads and lines like “Promise is a big word.”)
“My best friend,” she says, “is playing Troy.”
“Oh yeah?” Efron says. “Is he a good-looking guy?”
“It’s actually a girl,” Olivia says.
THE AFTERNOON SUN’S like a heat-beam from space; Efron’s all the way at the end of the picnic table, scrunched into what’s left of the shade. We’re talking about Leonardo DiCaprio. They sat next to each other at a Lakers game not long ago. Floor seats. DiCaprio talked with his hand over his mouth, like a wiseguy trying to foil FBI lip-readers; Efron took his lead, covered his own mouth. They set up a lunch. He doesn’t want to get specific about how the lunch went, but when we ask if he got tips from DiCaprio about flipping his teen-idol stock, Efron says no, not really.
“I thought I was gonna ask him questions,” Efron says. “He ended up asking me questions, and in that, he told me a lot. He said, ‘There’s one way that you can really fuck this all up. Just do heroin. If you steer clear of that—the other obstacles you’ll be able to navigate.’ And that makes sense, dude.”
Efron’s not doing heroin. He cops to having enjoyed the rights afforded a 21-year-old on his birthday. He drinks in private, with friends. “Behind closed doors,” he says, in a way that seems to close a door conversationally. He has not rounded up a Pussy Posse. You get the sense that he has calculated the potential fun quotient of these activities, weighed that against his long-term goals. Or that the undoubtedly kick-ass, CIA-assassin-school-grade media training he received at an impressionable age is still working.
“I wasn’t programmed by Disney,” Efron says. “It’s common sense. If you’re gonna be drunk with your friends, don’t get wasted at the Chateau Marmont and hook up with some famous chick. It’s not rocket science.
“I don’t want to be famous for my personality. If anything, I keep that under wraps.”
All this makes good sense. But by refusing to be out there in the mix, participating in the thermodynamics of Hollywood social life, Efron’s placing a giant bet on his ability to stay relevant post–High School based on hard work and talent alone. He grew up in a Disney force-field bubble surrounded by shrieking girls; now it’s like he’s replaced that bubble with one of his own making. It protects him from dirt; it may also be protecting him from grit. He might have a better shot at some of those Penn-like roles if he were willing to let the world see a side of him that hasn’t been carefully managed.
A couple of months ago, there were these pictures on the Internet of Hudgens and Efron posing with a fan in what appeared to be the adults-only section of a novelty store. Inflatable farm animals, Penis Pasta—the kind of naughty, bachelorette-party-gift items no one’s ever put to serious use in the bedroom. This was covered on blogs as an embarrassing gaffe on Efron and Hudgens’s part. The Disney couple saying cheese in the marital-aids aisle—they might as well have been Mickey and Minnie caught shopping for cock rings. But we venture a theory that this might actually have been good for his image—that it was the kind of fuckup that makes famous people seem less like robots and more like human beings. Human beings who have sex. Efron sort of grumbles noncommittally.
“That’s a Halloween store,” he says, by way of explanation. “You know those stores that pop up during Halloween? But there’s always an adult section. And somehow there was a brilliant lapse in judgment, and I decided to take a photo with a fan, in front of a giant dildo or something.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Your parents see that stuff, y’know? My mom was like, ‘Zac, what are you doing in a sex shop?’ And I was like, ‘Mom, it’s not a sex shop.’ My dad called me, and he’s like, ‘Y’know, Zac, just from now on’—it was literally straight out of American Pie—‘if you’re shopping for sex toys, don’t take pictures with fans inside the store.’ I’m like, ‘Really, Dad? I’ll take that into consideration next time I’m stocking up.’ And then my friend is like, ‘Next time why don’t you take a picture holding a giant dildo? Really give ’em something to talk about.’ ”
Well played—he doesn’t mention Hudgens, even though she’s there in the pictures next to the Luv Ewes, too. Just as carefully, we ask about their status. You went to your manager’s wedding in Kauai, we say. Everybody thought you were getting married.
“That was such bullshit,” he says. “I’m definitely not getting married. In this business, you’re either getting married or they want you to be pregnant. I’m not getting married until I’m 40. If ever. The thought never crossed my mind.”
And then, after a few seconds in which he maybe calculates how this is going to sound to the girlfriend he doesn’t talk about having, he says:
“Maybe not 40. Maybe not until I’m 30.”