He’s won the hearts of thousands of young girls but can he make it outside the teen scene? The well-mannered, well-behaved Zac Efron talks to Donald Clarke
IF YOU are over the age of 16 then there is a very real possibility that you haven’t heard of the most famous person in the world. This realisation struck me about four years ago when I attended the UK premiere of Hairspray. While being channelled through the service entrance, I suddenly heard an uproar of apocalyptic proportions. A small nation of teenage girls was flinging itself hysterically against the ropes while emitting piercing high-pitched wails. One of the stars of this entertaining musical was clearly making his or her way up the red carpet. It was nice to know that Michelle Pfeiffer was still so admired. Maybe the lucky actor was Christopher Walken.
Zac Efron? Sorry? I have no idea who you’re talking about. Efron is almost certainly no longer the most famous person on the planet. The last High School Musical movie – the cause of Zac’s renown – emerged in 2008. That’s a lifetime in this universe. Biff Bolden or Chuck Sexpot has probably grabbed the crown in the interim. Heck, Justin Bieber can probably walk down the street unmolested these days.
To be fair, young Efron turned out to be a pretty decent actor. After waving goodbye to the High School follies, he went on to shine in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles. He has just finished working on The Paperboy, the new film from Lee Daniels, director of Precious.
Before those more rarefied pleasures come along, however, the public can savour the Efron brand in Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve. The film is, essentially, Marshall’s Valentine’s Day – that thing with all the interweaving stories – dragged back in the calendar by a month and a half. Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Hilary Swank and a dozen other stars have supposedly touching adventures on the last day of the year. Efron plays a bicycle courier who finds himself helping Michelle Pfeiffer’s frustrated office worker to achieve a series of apparently unreasonable ambitions. Efron acquits himself quite well under the circumstances.
“Last time I worked with Michelle was on Hairspray,” he says. “I was a lot younger. I was really nervous. I put my foot in my mouth whenever I talked to her. This time, we got to hang out a lot more. I am a little more sure of myself now.” Oh, I think you’re pretty sure of yourself, young man. To generate this degree of teen love you need to convey a perfect blend of vulnerability and confidence. You should have the sort of face that looks as if it might cry during the sad bits in Highway to Heaven. But you also require the swagger of the class joker. It’s been this way for generations. Paul Mccartney managed it. So did the Bay City Rollers. Leonardo Dicaprio had it in his younger days. The difficulty – with which Leo is still struggling at 37 – is translating teen fame into grown-up stardom.
Efron is off to a good start. He’s spent the last year broadening his range. What advice would he have for any young actor lucky enough to be confronted with this dilemma? “I think it’s important to stay private,” he says after a long hum.
“It’s important to remember the big picture. Follow your heart and, most importantly, know what you want. It’s really hard. And you probably shouldn’t live in LA.”