From the moment he backed out of a Footloose remake, the 22-year-old High School Musical lunchbox mainstay Zac Efron has made it clear that he has no intention of falling into the aging teen-idol trap, one which rarely ends with anything but a VH1 reality series 30 years later. And this week was full of news showing how serious he is about that: First came our story that he was negotiating to star in an adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’s novel The Lucky One, in which he would play a former Marine, and was also attached a Tarantino-esque action-thriller, Die in a Gun Fight. They won’t be airing on the Disney Channel! Then, he proudly admitted to spending a long evening at a Manhattan strip club: Print that, Teen Beat! And today is the opening of his “adult” drama Charlie St. Cloud, Efron’s latest attempt to show the world that he’s not just a pretty face, he’s a pretty face who can act. But does Hollywood (and audiences) have the inclination to rethink a man who made his fame dancing with basketballs? And in a young world now obsessed with Team Jacob and Team Edward, does anyone want to be on Team Zac anymore? We found out by subjecting him to the Star Market.
STOCK HISTORY: Though he’d dabbled in television on Firefly, ER, and Summerland (and received some acclaim playing an autistic youth in the 2003 Lifetime movie Miracle Run), Efron became the target of 73 percent of the nation’s tween-girl screams after 2006’s High School Musical aired on the Disney Channel in 2006. More than 225 million people worldwide saw the first entry in the squeaky-clean throwback franchise, he became a mainstay on the celebrity-magazine circuit for dating his co-star, Vanessa Hudgens (“aw, just like the movie!), and the next two HSMs got great ratings and grosses, respectively.
But after three HSMs, Efron thought he needed to stay far away from anything that combined dancing and smiling. He pulled out of Footloose, and did the body-switching 17 Again — a high-school comedy, yes, but one not quite as candy-coated. But later that year came his first real stab at being taken seriously: Me and Orson Welles. It seemed like the perfect formula: take a smaller role with an acclaimed director, Richard Linklater, and prove that he was willing to shuck off his tween appeal and keep it low key. It wasn’t a showy role; his co-star, Christian McKay, who played Welles, got all of the critical acclaim, and the movie only managed a limited release and was largely ignored, grossing only $1.2 million. But he did get credit for showing that he was willing to pay his dues. Now comes Charlie St. Cloud, a wider release backed by Universal’s marketing muscle, and all of it is geared around him: reviews for the movie — a drama about a 23-year-old still haunted by the death of his younger brother — have been poor (scoring a 25 percent on Rotten Tomatoes), but it’s not like the High School Musicals were winning Peabodys. The lingering question is whether his loyal female audience is still there, or whether they’re now busy writing Twilight fan fiction. Things seem reassuring: While overall tracking has been fair to poor, it’s been scoring very well with women under 25 and tween girls.
Hairspray (2007) $100,000
High School Musical 3: Senior Year (2008) $3,000,000
17 Again (2009): $1,000,000
Charlie St. Cloud (2010): $2 million
The Lucky One (2011): $2.7 (estimated)
PEERS: His biggest rival is Twilight’s Robert Pattinson — another good-looking young actor with a slobbering fan base. However, Pattinson is considered more valuable right now, even if his non-Twilight romantic drama, Remember Me, tanked: At least he has a current franchise. Efron is considered about equal with Taylor Lautner; even though Lautner’s muscles have him tapped for the action movies that Efron isn’t considered for, Lautner’s physique is topped with an equally smooth-cheeked face. To some extent, Channing Tatum (who is a few years older) has succeeded in breaking out of his pretty-boy image, giving him an edge, even though financially his films have ranged from the successful (Dear John) to the disastrous (Fighting). Efron is considered on par with Josh Duhamel and Chris Pine, while slightly more valuable than Tom Hardy.
MARKET VALUE: Efron’s fan base still seems to be there, as per the tracking. While this tearjerker feels like a good fit for him (girls love to say “awwww!” at a sensitive young damaged brooder), Efron is deliberately shirking the traditional route of the pretty boy, trying to build a career with the best chance of longevity. He turned down what some estimate as $10 million for Footloose, and recently formed his own manly monikered production company, Ninjas Runnin’ Wild Productions, and is actively developing new projects that will require him to show the grittier genre side necessary to build up a male fan base: His roster includes Art of the Steal, based on a Wired article about a master thief; Einstein Theory, a time-travel story; Fire, based on Brian Michael Bendis’s graphic novel about a young CIA recruit; and a remake of the Swedish drugs-and-gangsters thriller Snabba Cash. He hasn’t given up on women — The Lucky One could be his Notebook, allowing his growing-up fans to unashamedly follow him into their 20s — but he does seem intent on being welcomed into the world of badass movies, and that’s a much trickier fit.
WHAT HOLLYWOOD THINKS: Efron seems to have impressed many with his willingness to pass on Footloose — it shows he understands he can’t keep doing variations on High School Musical, no matter the payday. “You don’t lengthen your career by doing these musical numbers,” says one agent. “He has to find men, guys … Efron’s team are attempting to make movies that age with and grow beyond his audience, and that’s smart.” And yet while Efron’s approach is laudatory in theory, whether it’s realistic is something else. “It’s difficult: He may be too high profile, too ‘pretty,’” says the manager. “I don’t think men like to go to movies to see someone painfully better looking than they are. He’s not the rugged leading man kind of guy. He’s pretty and unscarred.” Another agent says The Lucky One may be a good small first step to winning over men; they’ll be forced to see him by their girlfriends and wives. But whether a Nicholas Sparks movie will do a lot to imbue men’s long-term loyalty to Efron is something else.
THE ANALYSIS: Efron seems to be taking the right steps toward the kind of career he wants. But is it humanly possible with … that face? Can you picture that face sneering? Winking, maybe. Possibly a faint smirk. But sneering? And what about being bloodied in a gritty action film? His face is so Ken doll-ish that it would seem like spattered gore wouldn’t stick to it. And if it did, cartoon bluebirds might come and lick it off. It’s a huge obstacle for him, and it informs and clouds every move he makes, since his clean-cut, innocent, young handsome looks feel jarring when paired with anything dark.
History could be a guide here: Among actors who’ve successfully gone from young hunks to real movie stars, Efron doesn’t quite have the intensity of Tom Cruise or the slightly unhinged quality of Leonardo DiCaprio. Instead, he recalls the young Rob Lowe, whose early films played off his easygoing self-confidence and showed a lot of promise. But he probably doesn’t want Lowe’s career, which was derailed by a sex scandal — albeit the kind of scandal that today would start careers, not end them — and only began to be resurrected when the actor displayed his comic potential in films like Wayne’s World and Austin Powers. A more recent comparison would be Jared Leto, who has the same teen-hypnotizing puppy-dog eyes; Leto rejected any attempts to turn him into a heartthrob, most notably having himself be pummeled in Fight Club. It worked: He’s no heartthrob. But he’s also unnerving and not particularly in demand these days.
THE BOTTOM LINE: What made him a star — his looks — complicates his desire to stay one. While he’s making good, careful moves, it remains to be seen whether he can overcome this “disability.” He may want to stick with romantic roles: Women will always be there for him, while targeting men may be a futile endeavor. At least until he gets a scar or a bad haircut or something.