On Saturday night, in a French brasserie far north of the busiest heart of the Toronto International Film Festival, Sony Pictures Classics held a party celebrating its nine films at the fest. Their fare this year is relatively highbrow, as is their trademark: The list includes Michael Haneke’s Cannes Palm d’Or winner, Amour, about an elderly couple at the end of life; Jacques Audiard’s also French-language Rust & Bone, starring Marion Cotillard as a double-amputee; and Gael Garcia Bernal’s No, about a 1988 ad campaign to oust Pinochet from Chile. So it was quite the disconnect to happen by the gathering and see an excitable crowd of teenage girls, gays, and moms yelling and shrieking and craning for looks at someone inside as they were blocked by security guards at the restaurant’s patio entrance. "Who are you waiting for?" I asked a lucky teen jostling for position at the front. She frantically shushed me, terribly embarrassed that I’d asked and that their target might have overheard, and then mouthed: “Zac Efron!!!!!” (Insert sound of squeal here.)
Efron is at the fest to promote Sony's At Any Price, an agricultural family drama — yes, such a genre exists — by director Ramin Bahrani (Man Push Cart, Chop Shop); the actor plays the stock-car-racing son of a commercial farmer in Iowa (Dennis Quaid) who will go to any length to protect the family business. Toronto marks the second major festival in four months at which Efron has debuted an adult-themed movie, following his May trip to Cannes for Lee Daniels' The Paperboy (a.k.a. the movie where he gets peed on by Nicole Kidman). For the last two years Efron has been making a clear effort to distance himself from his teenybopper High School Musical image, and has clearly been undeterred in this quest by the underwhelming Charlie St. Cloud and The Lucky One, taking on increasingly edgy projects. He's gotten some good early notices for At Any Price, but his new grown-up goals seemed to go unnoticed by the many lucky moms inside the party who lined up for a quick moment with Efron. “My teenage daughter will kill me if I don’t get a photo with you!” one cooed, rubbing the young man’s back maybe just a few seconds too long.
Efron seemed unfazed by those fans clearly still attached to his old oeuvre. “Oh, it’s okay," he told us, having extricated himself for a brief chat before the throngs descended again. "Everyone here is helping us get the movie out. It’s very exciting.” At the party, he looked appropriately James Deanish, leaning against a tent pole in a plain white shirt and simple jacket, chewing at length on a toothpick. Was the toothpick a tool to stay in character as the heartland rebel itching to leave his small town? “Ah, no, it was purely functional,” he said, laughing; it was just something he acquired after eating a passed hors d’oeuvre.
“He’s a really good actor,” Quaid had said of Efron earlier in the evening. “He's doing with his career, like, what Johnny Depp did. Because Johnny Depp really early could have gone out there and been like Tom Cruise and just done big movies right off the bat ... I feel like Zac is trying to do a lot of different types of things to really expand himself.” When told of Quaid's comparison, Efron was flattered: “That’s very kind. All I can really do is look to my elders and the guys that were here before me, and if they were standing in my shoes, what path would they have taken. And guys like Johnny, I think, would have been more excited to work with Ramin than anybody else in the world right now.” Which elders in particular? The ones who also had teen heartthrob existences? “Look at anyone older who’s transitioned from success at a young age and inevitably they prove themselves outside of that initial genre.”
He does seem to be proving himself; both recent performances are quite solid. But he’s also smart enough not to ignore the fans he acquired as a teen idol, even as he keeps trying to move into manly roles. He took every photo that was asked of him, and often came outside to appease the awaiting fans. In The Paperboy, Daniels had filmed him in warm light, often shirtless, his golden skin oiled and glistening. (There was one scene when he twirls around in slow motion in a spray of water; watch the movie just for that.) In a Cannes press conference after the screening, someone had asked Daniels why he’d shot Efron so … admiringly. Daniels replied, “I’m gay!” When I asked Efron what he’d thought about that moment, he blushed and grinned and looked down and did a weird awkward move where he balanced on his arms between two chairs, as if conducting an uneven bars gymnastics routine — anything to get through this conversation more quickly. “That was very funny. I don’t know what … Yeah, Lee’s hilarious.” Then he went back inside, tossing one more smile back at the crowd, and retiring to dinner with another chorus of screams.