Zac Efron Leaves 'High School Musical' Behind for 'The Paperboy'

Photo Source: Henny Garfunkel

Zac Efron has been spending a lot of time in hotels. The Toronto International Film Festival, where he was promoting the gothic potboiler “The Paperboy” and the family drama “At Any Price,” required him to jet from location to location for interviews and photo shoots. “I think I have seen every hotel in Toronto today,” he says from his seat in the hotel bar. “I could write a guidebook.” Still, the exhausted Efron is gracious and gregarious, stopping to pose for photos and sign autographs for anyone who asks—and a lot of people ask.

Spend any time with Efron and it becomes clear that the burgeoning movie star does not have an equally burgeoning ego. “I might not be the greatest actor, but I walk in to every project willing to work hard,” he says. “There are a lot of people who can slide on talent their whole lives; they’re just naturally gifted. I’ve never considered myself one of those people. I enjoy outworking the opposition.”

Efron is savvy about his shot at longevity in a fickle business. Unlike many actors who hit it big in their teen years, he has kept his head down and concentrated on the work. There have been no public scandals, no drunken outbursts, no reports of bad behavior on set. Efron is wise beyond his 24 years, saying, “I know I’ve been lucky. But it’s what you do with that luck afterwards that really defines whether you stick around.”

Talk to anyone who’s worked with Efron, and you’ll be told two things: how nice he is and how seriously he takes the job. Lee Daniels, who directed Efron in “The Paperboy,” hitting theaters this week, praises his star for being “pure and hungry.” Ramin Bahrani, director of “At Any Price,” expects the actor to “follow in the footsteps of great actors like Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise, who started one way and pushed themselves to another.” But Thomas Lennon, who starred opposite Efron in the 2009 comedy “17 Again,” perhaps puts it best. “Zac is the real deal,” Lennon says. “Even if he hadn’t been the guy from ‘High School Musical,’ he is a great actor who would be working today. Even if he were slightly less cute.”

But Efron is the guy from “High School Musical,” the Disney phenom that turned the unknown teenager into an overnight sensation. Efron was raised in the small California town of Arroyo Grande, where his love for music led to community college productions and an agent. His first professional audition, for the 2003 film “Peter Pan,” was disastrous. “It was one girl in a room with a camera,” Efron says. “I don’t know how else to say it, but I fucked up. It was a turning point. I had to ask myself, Was I going to let it get to me, or was I going to move forward?”

Three years later, Efron landed the role of Troy Bolton, the Big Man on Campus at the center of the three “High School Musical” flicks. What began as a cattle call became a sensation that turned the 18-year-old into a heartthrob. He chose to put college on hold to take a role in the film version of the Broadway musical “Hairspray,” then made his first foray into serious filmmaking with Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles.”

In those early performances, Efron says he wasn’t stretching much. “I was playing the wide-eyed kid, and I was. But as the material changes and my tastes change and I want to be involved with more character-driven material, I find more in-depth preparation is necessary.”

Which is why he sought out more challenging parts, such as Jack Jansen in “The Paperboy,” a dark, seamy tale worlds away from high school roles. Efron embraced the daunting task, even though he says he didn’t completely understand the character. “It’s crucial for me to be finding roles that I don’t necessarily have the answers to,” he says. “I’m proud to say I was courageous enough to step into a part I didn’t fully understand and followed my director blindly.”

Jack is a college dropout who finds himself drawn into the murder investigation of a local cop when he agrees to help his reporter brother (Matthew McConaughey) prove the innocence of the man convicted of the crime. Jack also becomes obsessed with the convict’s fiancée, played by Nicole Kidman. Efron met with the “Precious” filmmaker about the role, and the two instantly hit it off. “Lee has a reputation as an eccentric, but what I found him to be was uncensored,” Efron says. “He wasn’t afraid to keep pushing me to try new things.”

Those new things included some graphically violent scenes a far cry from Efron’s previous work and an already infamous moment in which Kidman’s character urinates on Jack after he’s been stung by a jellyfish. While Efron admits to being nervous about the material, he says Daniels was instrumental in guiding him on set. “Lee is all about truth,” Efron says. “From day one, he told me to always be honest. He said he would sacrifice anything else—the dialogue, the structure, anything—for our performances. And I needed to be guided, because I’m still learning. I started very young, and there’s a lot of work I have to do to grow as an artist. These are my chances, and there are great people who are taking shots with me.”

Next year, audiences will see Efron continue to tackle different kinds of roles in “At Any Price,” in which he plays the son of Dennis Quaid’s old-fashioned farmer. Like “The Paperboy,” it’s a small, character-driven movie and an interesting choice for an actor who has likely been offered big studio movies and franchises. “It’s not that I’m opposed to doing a big-budget action movie,” Efron says. “But it has to be the right project. I don’t know that I’ve earned the right to hold a gun, if that makes sense. I need to pay my dues.”

Efron points to the motif of “At Any Price” as a parallel to his career. “The theme of the movie is get big or get out,” he says. “That’s sort of the way I describe how a lot of people in Hollywood approach their careers—take the bigger movie for more money that people will see. Take the franchise, the part in your wheelhouse. But that’s not my goal. Instead of get big or get out, my goal is to get good and stay.”