Between his roles in the Broadway musical adaptation “Hairspray,” two seasons on the WB series “Summerland” and the unholy Disney Channel trilogy “High School Musical,” blue-eyed, pert-nosed actor and singer Zac Efron’s become a heartthrob to young girls en masse. Now just 22 years old, he’s begun to diversify in his career pickings, following up this past spring’s studio comedy “17 Again” with the Richard Linklater-directed period indie “Me and Orson Welles.”
Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel, the film stars Efron as Richard Samuels, an ambitious teen actor who weasels his way into a 1937 Broadway production of “Julius Caesar,” directed by a megalomaniacal, temperamental genius: yes, one mister Orson Welles (rivetingly played by Christian McKay). As Richard becomes smitten with a tough-minded production assistant (Claire Danes), he learns that both love and success have their complications, but at least he gets to sing. By phone, Efron spoke with me about him and Orson Welles, the worst part about being in a period piece and the odd pressures of being a tweenybopper idol.
In “Me and Orson Welles,” you ask Claire Danes’ character what it’s like to be a beautiful woman. So, on behalf of your squealing girls everywhere, what’s it like to be so dreamy?
[laughs] What’s it like? I don’t know. It’s not tangible, really. Anything you say here is kind of weird. It’s just the way that it is.
I’m being cheeky, but seriously, you’ve achieved a high level of success at such a young age. At 22, I certainly didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Do you feel like you won’t even be able to process some of these experiences until later?
Yes, most definitely. It’s been a whirlwind couple of years, a very exciting time. I feel like I’m in the height of living, and I’m just absorbing everything. That’s one thing that I’m addicted to at this point, having those achievements and raising the standard. That’s the best part of it all is that it’s growing, and there’s still room to grow.
But I’m sure there are some added pressures that come with fame, like with your appearance. I imagine you’re forced to look absolutely fabulous just to leave the house, while the rest of us can unashamedly run errands in any grubby old thing.
Yeah, there are small things you definitely miss. [laughs] The thing about it is if you comment on it, or talk about the negativity around it, it’s not really comprehensible to anybody. It’s one of the weirdest things to talk about with friends or family or anyone, to be honest.
There are little things you have to forgo. If you walk around in sweatpants and don’t shave or shower, or look a bit sleepy, there’s a high probability that there are going to be rumors out there that you’re on drugs or starting some sort of spiral downhill. So I’ve always tried to look my best, and look clean when I go outside. I think I owe it to everybody to show up well-groomed and put in a little effort. It’s the least I can do.
This film seems like a logical first step in transitioning to, for lack of a better term, an adult career. How self-conscious are you in planning out what you would like to do next, or five years from now?
You know, that’s a question I’ve been getting a lot recently. It’s like this is a chess game: “What are your next three moves?” Everybody wants to know, as if I’m looking that far down the line, or have some kind of strategy. But it’s really not the case at all, man. It’s more like surfing. I’m just riding it, not planning anything. I’m trying to follow my heart.
My judgment of what is a good film is developing over time, especially the more I work with great directors. I think the transition will come naturally, and I want it to come that way. I’m not going to calculate five moves to fame. To me, success is not victory. I’m trying not to let it become something that ever influences my decisions. In my mind, I’m not successful.
If you could pick any actor’s career of today or yesteryear, whose would you most like to emulate?
I guess Johnny Depp. Someone told me recently, “You should be like Johnny Depp and do something to change your image, something dark and messed up so people take you seriously.” I don’t think that’s what he did at all. He found a brilliant creative partner and mentor in Tim Burton, collaborated and came up with fantastic characters and great movies. I think that’s where I am right now, searching for that mentor. Not that I could ever try to copy those guys.