They’ve got a kinetic energy that suits them uniquely to the demands of American genre filmmaking; action films in Cruise’s case, musicals in Efron’s. Reading about Efron’s freakish work ethic on sets—breaking his hands for Neighbors, spinning basketballs until his fingers were raw on High School Musical—certainly recalls the famously diligent Cruise. But where Cruise at his best is a force of infinitely expendable energy punching and staring and show-me-the-moneying out through the screen, somehow Efron seems stuck hesitating, waiting for that extra push.
The 27-year-old actor is the rare leading man who consistently get paired with older leading ladies. In the time since Efron graduated from High School Musical, he’s romanced Claire Danes, Taylor Schilling, Leslie Mann, Heather Graham, Nicole Kidman, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
He might be the biggest star of his age group in Hollywood, making movies all about boys and their big dreams and their swagger, but unlike other hot shot breakout actors, Zac Efron’s got the looks but not the attitude. When in doubt, he defers.
In his latest movie, the DJ flick We Are Your Friends, Efron’s character is surrounded by a cabal of bros, whose whole vision of life amounts to a get-rich-quick scheme. They’re loud and thoughtless and douchey, but despite his proximity, Efron never comes off that way. He’s the biggest star in the movie, and yet he still appears to be following someone else’s lead, waiting for someone else’s cues.
With the exception of the romance-novel-come-to-life movies that Efron has made, it’s interesting how often Efron has relegated himself to the role of a novice. He was just riding along with Matthew McConaughey in The Paperboy, just apprenticing for Christian McKay in Me And Orson Welles, just picking up beats from Wes Bentley in We Are Your Friends. Even when his character is a central figure, Efron is generous to his scene partners to the point of being self-effacing.
At a certain point as a fan, you’ve got to wonder when Efron will stop acting the part of the student and just start acting. With a lesser actor, this inaction would seem like just a lack of focus, but Efron is always present onscreen. He’s not an intellectual performer, but he thinks before he speaks. In fact there are times when Efron seems stuck inside himself, planning the way he’ll say a line, doing damage control before there is any damage.
As calm and in control as he seems to want to appear onscreen, there’s an anxiety to Zac Efron. Being an actor requires a willingness to step into the spotlight and the actors who are most exciting to watch are the ones who adjust to the unnatural situation that the camera facilitates. Efron has worked with actors skilled at this, most notably Nicole Kidman on The Paperboy, but co-stars like Seth Rogen and Dave Franco can do it too; they notice the camera and just perform anyway.
In an interview this week, Efron claimed not to remember any of the songs in the High School Musical films and maybe he doesn’t. The High School Musical movies are for kids so they’re painted with broad strokes—not exactly what you want to be reminded of as you’re trying to maintain a career as a serious adult actor. But if you go back and watch those movies, there’s an reckless freedom to the way Efron moves in them that’s missing from his movies now. High School Musical is scrubbed clean of all the things that make life complicated and sometimes unpleasant in a cheesy, very Disney way, but that’s why Efron is so good in them. High School Musical was pure, and Efron kept them sincere.
Efron has aged out of child stardom with relatively few major setbacks. He hasn’t gotten arrested, he hasn’t punched any photographers, and his stint in rehab for cocaine addiction was handled mostly privately and seemingly with success. But navigating the dark waters of Hollywood is a full-time job and it’s hard to be reckless onscreen when you know everyone’s watching. Efron practices self-control in a profession that thrives on self-expression.