Zac Efron: The New American Heart Throb
“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.”