This is my favorite place to eat breakfast, because you don’t see the SUV’s with the blacked-out windows here,” Zac Efron says as he sits at a greasy diner in Toluca Lake, California. (The name is Patty’s, but don’t tell the paparazzi.
Efron is wearing mirrored sunglasses and a brown knit hat, which, in the summer sun, is making him sweat. He hasn’t had a decent shower, because the hot water in his nearby two-bedroom apartment was shut off today. “As long as I stay boring, I think I’ll be fine,” he declares.
So that’s your strategy for success? Just stay boring? “Yeah, seriously,” he says. “I’m going to try.”
He picks at his scrambled eggs and brown rice with his fork. “I’ve never done interviews like this before,” he says. “I’m still so new to this, it’s literally a one-in-a-million chance that I’m here.”
Efron is a nineteen-year-old celebrity doing his best to act like a normal nineteen-year-old boy, which, as anyone who reads the tabloids knows, isn’t easy in Hollywood. If you’ve never actually heard of Efron, that’s OK. He’s only the actor, singer, dancer and heartthrob who launched the biggest-selling CD of last year and what may be the most popular made-for-TV movie of all time. Of course, he barely even sang on the album, but we’ll get to that later. That’s all part of why life is a little confusing for Efron right now.
Efron’s current status stems from three words that will haunt him for the rest of his life: High School Musical, the Disney Channel song-and-dance movie about an unlikely love between a school jock (Efron) and a brainiac transfer student (Vanessa Hudgens) who are rumored to be linked in real life –— but more on that later, too. Efron’s aw-shucks charm, crush-worthy good looks and charismatic dance moves were to a large degree responsible for the movie, DVD and soundtrack shattering records. But unlike, say, Ratatouille, High School Musical has no double-entendres, visionary artistry or adult appeal. It is not even bubblegum enough to be enjoyable on an ironic level. It is plain vanilla, no sprinkles; it is the type of hormone-drained, rebellion-free idealized teen fantasy that parents want their kids to see (the lovers in the movie don’t even kiss). And their kids are seeing it —– tens of millions of them.
It is one of the crowning achievements of a powerful new pop-culture demographic that makes the kids who liked Good Charlotte seem elderly in comparison. Empowered by the ability to buy entertainment on the Internet at the press of a button without even understanding what money is, these tweenyboppers are even surpassing hip-hop and rock fans. Just last month, this audience helped the new double album from Miley Cyrus (star of Disney’s Hannah Montana) hit the Number One slot, selling more copies in its first week than debuts from American Idol stars like Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry.
The poster boy of the tweenybopper set is Efron –— one Web site even insists that one of every three teenage girls in America actually has a poster of him. Efron also happens to be Disney’s most reluctant star. Though every breakout star in the cast of High School Musical has signed a solo record contract, he has turned all offers down. Though High School Musical may film dozens of sequels, he said he’d “hopefully not” do many more. And when High School Musical‘s cast went on tour, he was the only one who sat it out.
“If I had to hear the High School Musical songs anymore,” he confesses, “I probably would have jumped off something very tall.”
It’s not that Efron isn’t grateful. He knows that High School Musical transformed him from television-drama walk-in to leading man. That’s why he’s starring in the sure-to-be-a-hit sequel, which premieres on Disney on August 17th, in which the East High kids go to a summer country club and a Disneyfied class war ensues. However, Efron now has the clout to play by his own rules, so he fought Disney – and won – in order to be allowed to sing on the movie and album this time around.
“I didn’t even sing on the first album,” he admits. “It wasn’t my voice in the movie. Even though I wanted to do it.” He pauses to order a vanilla shake, then continues, “So what do you do when the entire cast is supposed to accept an award at the Billboard Awards and your voice is only on the album in a select few lines? I felt extremely guilty.”
Efron’s breeding is evident in everything he says and every decision he makes. It is clear he was well raised. When a group of girls and their mother pester him for an autograph, Efron stands up and walks outside the restaurant to allow them a better photo; afterward, he shakes everyone’s hands and asks for their names. Everywhere he goes, he’s glad-handing and introducing himself – —smiling, humble, obliging, never too busy —– as if he’s running for public office.
“I don’t like cocky people,” he says. “I’m such a regular dude. This whole [celebrity] thing is kind of awkward for me. I feel like the kid that snuck into some party and shouldn’t be there. Every morning I wake up and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I did differently.’ “
UNLIKE MANY YOUNGER STARS, Efron was neither a child star nor the progeny of pushy show-business parents. He was born Zachary David Alexander Efron in Arroyo Grande, a small, picturesque town in the middle of California ranch country, three hours north of Los Angeles. His father, David, met his mother, Starla, at a power plant where they both worked.
“I was raised agnostic, so we never practiced religion, but my parents were very strict,” Efron says. “After school, there would always be a parent at home. After I did all my homework, we would eat dinner and then I could play video games. And that was my life.”
His parents exercised their control by grounding him for relatively minor infractions: In fifth grade, he was grounded for a week for cutting his own hair and then lying to them about it. And throughout his childhood, he was grounded for rough play-wrestling with his younger brother, Dylan.
When Efron was eleven, his parents took him and his brother on a road trip along Route 66. It was on this trip that his life changed. His parents flipped on the radio, to a song Efron believes was Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper,” and he began singing along.
His parents turned to him and asked, he recalls, “Zac, what would you think about maybe taking piano lessons?”
His response: “No way, that’s stupid.”
They asked Zac if he thought he was musical, and he told them, “Not really,” then flipped on his Game Boy, and that was the end of the conversation.
But, Efron recalls, “They did their parental looks back and forth, and then who knows what conversation went on in the front seat.”
David explains that conversation: “When Zac was a toddler, after watching The Wizard of Oz we found him emulating the Tin Man dance. Over time we noticed that he had an uncanny ability to listen to a song on the radio, memorize the lyrics and sing it back a cappella with correct rhythm, tone, pitch and inflection.
“Years later, when he was eleven, he expressed a desire not to play another season of baseball, so we gave him the option of taking piano lessons. Since he obviously had musical ability, we wanted to encourage him to learn how to properly read music.”
A few weeks later, Efron was taking piano lessons with Jeremy Mann, who worked for a company putting on Gypsy and encouraged Efron to audition.
“The first time I met him,” recalls Mann, who later directed Efron in the musical Peter Pan, “I said to myself, ‘This kid’s gonna grow up to be Brad Pitt.’ He’s probably the most charismatic little kid I’ve ever met.”
Efron was accepted as one of the newsboys for a run of some seventy performances of Gypsy at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in late 1999, and from that day forward he no longer wanted to play sports after school.
“It wasn’t even that I had so much fun onstage,” he says. “It was that there were five other kids in the show, and we would just goof off backstage for the hour and a half when I wasn’t in the show. It was such a fun environment.”
There were also benefits to escaping his parents’ strict supervision. “We had some really cute girls that played Gypsy and Baby June. I was going into, like, seventh grade, and girls were a new and interesting thing. So when you’re backstage with them 24/7, things happen.”
Efron won’t say much about his early dating life, but he does admit, with much bashfulness, “I had girlfriends all through school and everything, and they always seemed to be cute. It sounds so gloating, but I don’t mean it to be. But, uh, yeah, I set my sights pretty high.”
After Gypsy, Efron was hooked on acting. “Me and a core group of friends were constantly performing,” he remembers. “So we became kind of known as the theater kids around town.”
What few people know about Efron is that he was also in an improv group, That One Team, which formed to take part in something called Destination Imagi-Nation, a competition that involves ere-ative problem-solving, teamwork, science and theater. Funnily enough, the competitions are a lot more similar to what the nerds did in High School Musical than to what the jocks did.
“We actually had so much fun doing it that we won the worldwide competition,” Efron says. After demonstrating one of their skits, which involves him beatboxing and rapping about topics suggested by the judges, he continues, “V*/e beat out fifty states and, like, seventeen other countries. It was crazy. Afterward, we came home and absolutely no one cared, so we had to start doing plays again.”
IN ADDITION TO THE LOCAL THEATER scene —– he also appeared in Little Shop of Horrors, The Music Man and Once Upon a Mattress –— Efron began to audition for film and television roles. For months, Efron’s mother drove him to Los Angeles, only to face rejection after rejection. Eventually, she said that if he didn’t have a job after a year, then she was done hauling him around. Just before the deadline, Efron started booking short spots, like one on E.R. in which he died on the operating table after getting caught in gang crossfire. Although it’s a great early performance, when he looks back on it he feels that he “underacted” and “screwed it up.”
After the show aired, he learned his first lesson in humility. “I made the huge mistake of bringing the tape into school because one of my teachers asked to see it,” he says. “I found out after my period that he had shown it to every single class. I was open to so much ridicule. It was embarrassing. After that, I was like that weird actor kid at school. It singled me out.”
Now, he says, “I will never offer to show anyone any of my work. It’s hard enough for me to invite friends to my premieres.”
Afterward, Efron landed a string of guest spots on shows from CSI: Miami to Summerland, the small-town-California drama on which he eventually became a cast member. He left high school to earn his degree quicker at a junior college and also appeared in several made-for-TV movies, most notably Miracle Run, in which he plays one of the lead characters, an autistic boy with a Rocky fixation.
In these pre-Disney days, Efron was often cast as a troubled adolescent hiding a dark secret. But all that changed when he showed up at a series of Disney auditions for High School Musical and, thanks to his theater training, was able to stand out during a daylong callback that involved dancing, singing, acting and playing basketball.
Talking during breakfast at Patty’s, he portrays himself as a lucky innocent who stumbled into success. But two days later on a Studio City golf course, another side of Efron emerges.
Efron is a perfect golf partner, only too eager to help a neophyte with his game, but he’s having trouble with his own swing. Every drive slices into the trees. And though Efron doesn’t actually lose his cool, he is clearly getting frustrated. Like many raised by strict families, he’s ambitious, competitive and often hard on himself.
“It’s almost tough for me to play sports,” he admits while searching for his ball in the trees on the second hole. “Like, I haven’t necessarily had fun bowling yet, but I can bowl a aoo. I always tend to lean toward the mind-set of being more productive, learning and trying to better myself. I wish I could get out of it sometimes.”
Though Efron’s avoidance of a record deal and tours may seem like a lack of ambition, they’re actually evidence of how high his goals are. After he sinks a putt on the third hole, he turns and asks, “Have I told you about the music?”
It seems as if he’s going to confess something big. Instead, he says, “It’s kind of a sore subject with me, because I keep having to say no to these record deals.” He grabs the golf bag and leads the way to the next hole. “It’s almost like people don’t understand. But I’m not interested in mass marketing. If I made an album, would it be brilliant? Would it be a real artist’s music? Would it be something inspiring? Probably not.”
Efron doesn’t want to be popular just for the sake of it. His role models are not stars but actors, from Matt Damon to Al Pacino. And he is near-obsessed with movie series like Die Hard and the Bourne trilogy. When Efron notices that a maintenance man, who’s been mowing the same patch of grass for half an hour, is dumping some liquid into a trash can, he points it out.
“We can make a movie about this,” he says, eyeing the guy suspiciously. “What happens to two guys sitting on a golf course when an arsonist blows up a trash can?”
He leans in close, his eyes shining. “How many people can we save before we make it back to the parking lot?”
Zac Efron is a hero in search of a burning building. And if he can’t find it in life, he’ll find it in a script. “The kinds of characters I love are people who can overcome what life’s handed them and become heroes,” he says. “That’s why the Rocky story is so good. I’ve watched all of them, like, twenty times. I also loved Arnold Schwarzenegger and all those guys when I was young. ‘Chariots of Fire’ was my ringtone forever, then I switched it to the Rocky theme. It went off in this audition right in the middle of a really climactic scene, and I started boxing.”
Adam Shankman, who directed Efron in Hairspray, believes that Efron will reach his goal as a Hollywood hero. But initially, Shankman was not a fan. “I actually had thought he was too light to play Link” –— the pop idol in Hairspray. “He seemed like Davy Jones or Bobby Sherman, and that’s not who I pictured. But then my sister, who’s also my producing partner, said, ‘Adam, you don’t understand: High School Musical. He’s going to be the biggest teenage male star out there.’ “
After working with Efron, Shankman is a believer: He is currently creating a comedy vehicle for the young actor, Seventeen, about a man who gets his wish to relive high school again. (Efron is also attached to play the Kevin Bacon role in a musical remake of Footloose, with High School Musical director Kenny Ortega.)
For Efron, Hairspray was not only a career jump – and an opportunity to act alongside heroes like John Travolta and Christopher Walken –— it was a life change. The movie was filmed in Toronto, which meant that Efron had to move out of his home for the first time. “Toronto was where I grew up, and it happened quick,” he says, hooking his sunglasses into the neck of his shirt. “I was self-sufficient in a matter of weeks. It was great, but then I started clinging to the people I was working with. I would come to the set and just observe, even if I wasn’t working that day.”
TODAY, EFRON LIVES BY HIMSELF in a small two-bedroom apartment in North Hollywood, in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Although this seems like a recipe for disaster –— a teenager and Disney star living on his own just a few miles from the Hollywood clubs – Efron shows no signs of following in the footsteps of Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears. But that doesn’t mean he’s an angel, either.
“You know, I’m nineteen,” he says. Sitting on a bench at the seventh hole, he wipes the sweat off his brow but refuses to remove his winter hat because the paparazzi followed him here. “I’m the same age as some other people who are dealing with scandals. I’ve got friends out here, and we do what kids our age are doing. We don’t need people taking photos of us.”
Not only does Efron claim that he’s never been in a Hollywood club, he says he doesn’t even have a fake ID. The secret, he says, is to have your fun in private. “A lot of problems you see people having in this business is that it becomes about their personal lives and not about their work,” he continues. “Matthew McConaughey has single-handedly funded the tabloid magazines for the past two years now. If he would put on a shirt and just get away from the beach, maybe there would be a few less paparazzi around.”
Despite Efron’s reluctance to expose his personal life, one of the most discussed topics online is conjecture over his relationship status. Rumors that he was dating Vanessa Hudgens, who plays Gabriella, his love interest in High School Musical, were confirmed when paparazzi leaked photos of the two making out during a trip to Hawaii after filming ended for High School Musical 2. Fans enamored with the pair call them Zanessa.
When asked about Hudgens, Efron hesitates for a moment, then decides to answer: “The weird thing that no one expected about Vanessa is that underneath such a sweet girl – this Gabriella-type character –— is a very, very sexy woman. I don’t think anyone was prepared for that.” He pauses, then adds awkwardly, as if he’s said too much: “So that’s just a humorous thing.”
Then something odd happens. Without even being asked about Ashley Tisdale, his other co-star in High School Musical, he begins talking about her: “Since we started High School Musical, you watch Ashley grow up too. She’s maturing and turning into a very, very pretty girl. It’s just funny the way that everything works out.”
Efron turns red when asked if the silver band on his hand is a commitment ring. “I’m not even going to say who it’s from,” he says. “This is just a ring from a friend that I got. ‘Commitment’ is way too weird a word for me right now. I’m wearing it for a friend.”
A female friend? “It is a female friend, but I can’t say who, because then it would be chat-room pandemonium and teen-magazine hysteria. Yeah.”
One of the drawbacks of being the object of affection for hundreds of thousands of girls is that hundreds of thousands of boys will resent you. There are countless scathing, deliberately cruel comments written about Efron in online forums and blogs, but he says he never reads anything about himself online.
“I can’t even go on IMDB because I know that so much of it would be negative,” he says as he bypasses the last hole, late for a meeting with his manager. “It’s just depressing. I know, for instance, at my cousin’s school, there’s a club called the I Hate Zac Efron Club. And I laughed hysterically when I heard that. I laughed because if there are people out there devoted enough to make a club that hates me, I’ve gotta be doing something right.”