It’s the belly of August, and by the time Zac Efron reaches the Valley, the mercury is scraping the three–digit mark. An hour later, after Efron goes through hair and makeup, and meets the animals with whom he’ll be working—Richard the hawk, Kina the gray fox, Eddie the monkey, Zeus the screech with cataracts—it’s 115 degrees Fahrenheit. The dead dry heat sits over Sylmar, the northernmost town in Los Angeles and the home of the Wildlife Learning Center. In a two-acre plot, on a street lined with cookie cutter exurb houses, David Riherd cares for over 50 wild animals, many of whom were kept as illegal pets or found abandoned. It used to smell of olive groves here years ago when the mistrals swept up San Fernando Valley. Now no breeze moves the desiccated air, and the scorched earth smells, understandably, like a zoo. Nevertheless, Zac Efron, who is wearing a full suit on which Zeus is pooping and whose pockets are full of bunnies, is beaming. “Animals are dope!” says Efron as his cherubic lips part from pucker into a SoCal surfer boy grin. Shit, if that smile don’t outshine the sun.
“What is the felt experience of cognition,” asks Elaine Scarry, Professor of Aesthetics at Harvard University, in her book On Beauty and Being Just, “at the moment one stands in the presence of a beautiful boy or flower or bird?” With two out of three present in Sylmar, I can say I felt a couple of things. Among them were feelings of being hot, happy, and enthralled. In fact, I couldn’t look away from Efron and his animals.
This kind of creepy staring, claims Scarry, is an act of copying, the compulsion of which is a unique trait of the beautiful. “Beauty seems to incite, even to require, the act of replication,” she writes, “this replication in the realm of sensation can be carried out by a single perceiver across time or can instead entail a brief act of perception distributed across many people.”
So I, a single perceiver, stare at Efron for a while because of how his olive skin glows and how he scrunches up his face like he’s trying to make out a figure on the horizon and how he, reflexively, purses his lips when he sees a camera. But many people, hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions of people, pay an average of $7.93 to watch him in the only-okay movies he’s made thus far. Nearly 1.5 million people follow him on Twitter to catch 140 character-long glimpses of his soul. In DVD collections, on pull-out posters, bedroom walls, screens, bed sheets, magazine covers like ours, canvasses, and in life-size wax sculpture, Zac Efron is replicated over and over again. So desperate to replicate his beauty is the world that wherever he goes, paparazzi lie in wait, armed with zoom lenses like big game hunters slavering for a trophy.
Beauty, physical beauty and probably spiritual beauty too, is a recessive gene in human beings. Efron’s parents, David Efron, an electrical engineer and Starla Baskett, a former secretary, are good–looking but not holy-shit-what-the-fuck gorgeous like their son. Zac Efron is the point in which the sine waves of beauty, moving through time and generations, meet, thereby increasing the pulse of beauty exponentially. His face, in terms of how good-looking it is, is like when you’re jumping on a trampoline and double bounce and go flying, face-first, into the yard.
But Southern California is full of pretty boys and handsome men. Sure, if they ever made a movie adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Efron would be a shoo-in for Adonis, but the maniacal cult of Efron derives its adherents not from his face but from how it has been emulsified with the characters he’s played. First came the virginal soft-shoeing Troy Bolton in the High School Musicals. There was the 2006 original, unnumbered like The Great War was, since Disney didn’t know it had a franchise on its hands. Then came the sequel in which Disney began to cotton on to the draw, and finally, the third film, Senior Year, in which Disney realized it had reached full monetization capacity.
The cultural relevance of these films cannot be overstated. There have been ice capade versions, Brazilian versions, Argentinian versions, a reality show version, and a video game version. The films form, along with The Godfather, The Twilight Saga, and the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, one of the most important trilogies in American history.
HSM also slingshotted Efron to fame and fortune. It led to a run of shmoopy pop pablum, like the 2007 musical remake of Hairspray, which was engineered to arouse the wallets and budding sex organs of tweens (Efron’s Young Elvis hip-thrusting in Hairspray, for instance, began our photo editor Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez’ long-standing crush on the star. Nevermind that she was 22 when it came out.)
Nominally, Efron aged too. In 2009, when he was 20, he starred in 17 Again, playing a young version of Matthew Perry. Though a good actor, Efron couldn’t mask his Dorian Gray terror at possibly actually being a younger version of Matthew Perry. The next year, he starred as Charlie in the shmaltzy dead brother romance Charlie St. Cloud. There were other films, too, in which I’m sure Zac Efron played a part, but no one really went to see Zac Efron disappear into his characters. They went to see Zac Efron be Zac Efron. The movies were simply the scallop shell rising out of the ocean to present him.
For an actor, at least an actor with self-respect, the situation couldn’t go on forever. “Around the time Charlie St. Cloud came out,” Efron told me, over omakase at a Studio City restaurant near his house, “I was confused. I wasn’t here for money; I didn’t need any more of it. I wasn’t here for fame; I wasn’t enjoying it. I was here for art.”
What, when one is the engine behind a multi-million dollar industry devoted to inoffensive desire, can a man do? Efron began by looking in the mirror. “As a man watching Zac Efron,” said Zac Efron. “I don’t necessarily like me yet. So how can I like Zac Efron?” He toyed ponderously with a lone edamame then concluded. “Maybe, if that guy shook things up, did what I didn’t expect him to do, if he wasn’t afraid to be a dick, if he wasn’t afraid to fall on his face, if he hung around long enough and did the grunt work, one day I might respect him.”
So, like a ship of state, Efron set his course for a distant shore where Terpsichore, Melpomene, and Calliope dwelt. There were some hiccups on the way. (No one who saw 2011’s New Year’s Eve could call it anything but frumious gunk.) But the journey had begun, the Rubicon crossed.
Retrospectively, of course, it is easy to see the signs that something had to give. There was that condom that accidentally flew from his pocket onto the red carpet at the premiere of The Lorax, a film adaptation of a Dr. Seuss book for which Efron provided a voice, as apt a place as any to announce that Efron makes love. (“A brilliant fuck–up,” he calls it.) There was the prison tattoo he got on his hand that reads YOLO, short for You Only Live Once [Ed Note: Funny how YOLO is only used to justify poor judgment. No one says, “I should put an extra 15% into my 401K because YOLO.”] Efron doesn’t remember exactly the details of that tattoo. “I went through a period there, when I was single for the first time in six years, where I went out a lot,” he explained sheepishly.
But there was nothing as explicit, mindful, or successful as The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ pulpy tale of murder, journalism, and sex in the bayou, which comes out October 5th. “I wanted a project that involved risk,” Efron explained, “I wanted to see how deep the rabbit hole went and how far I could really push myself.” If The Paperboy marks twain, the rabbit hole is very deep. In fact, it might never end.
The film stars an ensemble cast of heartthrobs emeritus, but Efron alone is still card-carrying. Daniels has brilliantly exploited the non-diegetic lives of his actors. Matthew McConaughey, whose sackcloth-and-ashes transformation from rom-com man-meat to thespian has been well documented, plays a flawed hotshot reporter named Ward Jansen. Ward is the big brother of Efron’s beefcakey, naïve college dropout named Jack. Both are enamored, for very different reasons, of Nicole Kidman. Ward wants her story; Jack wants her body. Kidman, who at this point in her life resembles a blow–up sex doll version of a younger Nicole Kidman, plays a blow–up sex doll named Charlotte Bless. John Cusack, who in his youth once held a boombox above his head and the hearts of America in his big doe-eyes, now plays a very bad man named Hillary Van Wetter, whose pimples and pustules are the embodiment of his rotten soul.
To illustrate just how far a departure this movie is from Efron’s hitherto Hot Topic crowd pleasers, I’ll just mention that there’s a very graphic scene—and not the one in which Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron’s face, but another one—that takes place in a jail visiting room. Zac Efron watches John Cusack masturbate through his pants as Nicole Kidman mentally fellates Cusack to climax and Matthew McConnaghy adjusts himself in a way meant to indicate he may or may not have a hard- on. There’s no sticking to the status quo here.
As intense as the scene is to watch—and it is incredibly intense to watch—it was even more intense to shoot. “That was the first day of filming,” Efron recalled, “and Nicole just completely went for it. She was telling everyone, ‘I’m bringing my A game. What do you have?’ I’ve never been so scared in my life. But that moment affirmed this movie was everything I set out to do.” It’s not just journalistic flimflam or sycophantic razzle–dazzle to say Efron really does nail the role and that it’s almost inconceivable to think he could revert back to his Disneyfied pretty boy alter ego. It’s as if he’s finally moved from Flatland to Spaceland, and you can’t undiscover a new dimension.
And the Efronian rebellion continues, as if to ensure all bridges will be burned. Next, Efron stars in Ramin Bahrani’s upcoming film At Any Price. Efron plays a sneering farmer-turned-race car driver named Dean Whipple who destroys his family in his hubristic pursuit of glory. “He’s a bad guy,” says Efron, not without admiration, “but that’s what I was looking for: someone who lacks moral integrity.” He smiles and though it may be a fleck of nori, there seems to be a hitherto unnoticed darkness in the grin. “I want to go so deep I have to rise from the ashes.”
It’s edging past noon in Sylmar, and the sun is only getting more malevolent. Efron has already posed with a lynx, a kinkajou, a pair of sugar gliders, and a gray fox. It’s so hot he has his friend, Chris, visit the set to buy fans online. (He’s a fan of Dyson’s Air Multiplier.) Every animal is panting. But Efron is irrepressible. He’s excited about the chinchilla— “Chinchillas are dope!”—but first makes a stop at the birds of prey enclosure. From his perch, Richard, a seven–year–old red-tailed hawk, stares at Efron without blinking. He seems nonplussed by Efron’s fame or good looks. He, himself, is quite good-looking, with powerful wings spanning nearly 60 inches and impressive tawny breast feathers fanning into his brick-red tail. Richard, like many of the animals at the center, has been imprinted. That means, though wild at heart, he wouldn’t survive uncaged and unassisted.
Someone kept Richard as a pet, thought he’d be cute or, perhaps, cool. They fed him an inappropriate diet, and made his bones soft. Richard’s working back to being wild, but it might never happen. Zac Efron reaches out his gloved arm onto which Richard, after some coaxing, grudgingly perches. The hawk fixes his great seeing eyes onto Efron’s blue ones and, perhaps thinking that Efron might know something about wanting to be free, spreads his wings to fly.