On a recent Friday night, as living rooms across America reverberated with the shrieks of roughly 17.2 million viewers, Disney Channel’s High School Musical 2 became the single most watched basic-cable show ever.
And Zac Efron became the single most wanted teenage heartthrob — for now.
It’s a precarious moment for the Arroyo Grande, Calif., native. Having ridden last year’s phenomenally successful HSM to a major role in this summer’s hit musical Hairspray, the 19-year-old went back to school for a triumphant reprise of his HSM role. Now his belly button’s on the cover of Rolling Stone, and his next moves will be closely watched. You can’t help but wonder: Will he be the next Leonardo DiCaprio or the next Scott Baio?
Making the leap from teen idol to leading man is one of the toughest tricks in Hollywood. The industry is so desperate for bankable male headliners that it’ll throw millions at Efron to do commercial projects that appeal to his teen fan base. But teen fan bases can become a liability pretty fast. Efron will have to resist a lot of money and flattery if he wants to be taken seriously. That’s difficult at any age; for a 19-year-old, it’s darn near impossible. Efron will also have to contend with the knowledge that Hollywood is a very fickle, uh, basketball coach. ”Hollywood is building up Zac Efron to fail,” says a top-tier publicist. ”He’s America’s sweetheart and I love that kid. But the first time he steps out of place, they’re going to kill him.”
At the moment, Efron has the kind of heat that every actor under 25 would give his six-pack for. Lately his name’s been attached to a trio of films, but he’s yet to finalize any deals. There’s the musical remake of Footloose, of which he says: ”It’s just an idea right now, there’s no script.” There’s Seventeen, about a 36-year-old guy who wants to be young again, and wakes up one day as a hunky high schooler; Efron is very likely to sign on, but there’s still no director, so there’s no final deal. And then there’s HSM 3, which is planned as a theatrical release. Efron has been in talks to extend the franchise — but hasn’t signed that contract yet, either. America’s sweetheart, it seems, has already passed the first test: He’s keeping his options open. He’s also wisely refrained from releasing a solo album and made Hairpsray instead of participating in last year’s HSM concert tour, though Disney must have been miffed.
Efron could certainly follow in the nimble footsteps of his Hairspray costar John Travolta, whom he’s idolized ever since he saw Grease. ”I remember thinking musicals were cool all because of John,” Efron says. (The affection is mutual, by the way. ”He’s very talented,” Travolta has said. ”He reminds me of me in Grease.”) Hairspray producer Craig Zadan thinks Efron has something approaching an obligation to the musical genre. ”Three decades have gone by since John did Grease, and no one has succeeded him,” he says. ”Zac should not turn his back on the musical. He should embrace it, as long as he peppers in other kinds of movies.” Actress Lori Loughlin — who costarred with Efron on a series she co-created for The WB, 2004’s Summerland — just wants to make sure the actor gets to demonstrate his range. ”He’s a really good dramatic actor, too, and I hope he can get back to that,” she says. ”He’s really hot now, but he’s still going to have to fight for the roles that the industry isn’t necessarily going to want to give him.”
Efron is certainly winning within the sunny confines of HSM, but it requires a tremendous leap of faith to believe that his acting will ever be in DiCaprio’s league. (His best dramatic outing was playing an autistic teen in 2004’s Miracle Run. But unless you’re an avid Lifetime viewer, you probably missed it.) Efron will have to fight for dramatic roles — and he’ll have to find a way to add more males to his following, without alienating the girls. At a pivotal point in his career, DiCaprio himself passed on a major payday for Disney’s Hocus Pocus and instead fought for a role in a small film called What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. It landed him his first Oscar nomination. Efron needs to find his crossover project. ”I don’t think he has to do Boys Don’t Cry, though,” says a well-known movie producer. ”I don’t think he has to play a transvestite.”
So Efron’s homework assignment looks something like this: Be commercial but credible, boyish but masculine; deliver audiences and good reviews; and do it all under the glare of a thousand spotlights. Well, in the original HSM, Troy Bolton managed to stay true to both his basketball team and his dream of singing. Efron just needs to get out there and play like hell.