The years since "High School Musical" have been hard on the former child star, replete with hits ("Hairspray"), misses ("Charlie St. Cloud") and substance abuse. Now, with "Neighbors," he's working on his life as an adult: "I needed to learn everything I did."
Zac Efron leans back, lost in thought.
"No matter who you are, you face challenges growing up," he says. "You go with your things, you learn, you have to. It's impossible to lead an honest and fulfilling life as a man and not make mistakes and 'fess up to them when you need to. But it's especially humiliating when they happen to be so public and so scrutinized."
He pauses. "When you have success young, and you accept the good things, you have to accept all of it. You have to accept the moments of glory but also a great responsibility. And that responsibility, to some degree, involves being a role model. At the same time, I'm a human being, and I've made a lot of mistakes. I've learned from each one."
It's April 11, mere weeks since the 26-year-old star of the High School Musical franchise and such movies as Hairspray and 17 Again got into a tussle with a homeless man in downtown Los Angeles in the early hours of the morning. Add that to his well-publicized stint in rehab, and any reporter might be forgiven for expecting the worst. But as we sit for lunch at West Hollywood's Soho House, I'm surprised to find him thoughtful, gracious and candid about the growing pains he has endured while navigating the shoals from teen celebrity to adult stardom.
"I was drinking a lot, way too much," he says, acknowledging there were drugs, too. "It's never one specific thing. I mean, you're in your 20s, single, going through life in Hollywood, you know? Everything is thrown at you. I wouldn't take anything back; I needed to learn everything I did. But it was an interesting journey, to say the least."
That journey is one well traveled by other young stars, with varying degrees of success -- from Judy Garland to Corey Haim to Lindsay Lohan to Robert Downey Jr. Like them, Efron has had his travails well documented: First, he entered rehab for an addiction to alcohol and drugs last spring; then he suffered the indignity of having his jaw wired shut following a fall in his Los Feliz home, when he skidded by an indoor fountain; and finally came the March incident when his car clunked to a halt in a dubious part of town, after which Efron grappled with a homeless man. Precisely what happened has given rise to endless tabloid speculation, and Efron is coy about the details.
"I had a friend come pick me up late at night -- we were looking for a place downtown to get a bite and catch up," he says, without identifying the friend. "We were having trouble finding somewhere -- a lot of places were closed -- and the car ran out of gas off the 110. It was ridiculous. We had to pull over, and I called Uber."
While waiting, "A homeless guy, or vagrant, tapped on the driver's-side window. Before I knew it, he [the friend] was out of the car, and they started fighting. I saw that [the homeless man] was carrying some sort of a knife, or shank, and I got out of the car to disarm him. At some point, he dropped the knife, and I got hit pretty hard in the face -- and almost instantly the police were there to break up the fight." After that, the two friends went home. Efron calls it "the most terrifying moment in my life."
The timing of the occurrence hardly was ideal, just weeks before the May 9 release of Efron's new comedy, Neighbors, in which he stars with Seth Rogen. The $18 million film is getting terrific buzz for the younger actor, who plays a frat boy spinning frighteningly out of control.
"His character tests through the roof, and the most common comment we hear is how much the audience loves seeing him in this new kind of role," says Peter Cramer, co-president of production at Universal Pictures.
Insiders say Efron took a major pay cut to make the film in exchange for a heftier share of the back end (sources say he can get around $5 million a picture, but he often has cut his salary to do work that challenges him). Since then, he has received a surge of offers based on strong word of mouth about his performance but has opted not to shoot anything.
He is trying to shed an unwanted skin, cleanse himself mentally and physically, purge a past that has come to haunt him. A self-described insomniac, he acknowledges wrestling with anxiety ("100 percent") and being plagued by "thoughts, just thoughts, just overthinking things."
Currently single, he speaks of "the struggles of dating, of falling in love, of searching for love and being there for your friends when they need you. There's no question that to receive anything great, like love or respect, or to better yourself, you have to give a piece of yourself away."
As he tries to change, he is living an ultrafit life, using weights and a rowing machine, and swimming 20 laps a day. He has the type of regimen that makes older men weep -- working out daily, eating healthily and even drinking pH-balanced water from a specially installed alkaline faucet.
He gets ready for bed around 9 p.m., when he'll watch a movie and read a script, turning in before some of his peers even rise because "I like to get up early and swim and train."
He has joined Alcoholics Anonymous and also has been seeing a therapist. "I just started going," he says. "And I think it's changed my life. I'm much more comfortable in my own skin. Things are so much easier now."
Still, he admits of his battle with addiction, "It's a never-ending struggle."
"On the grand scale of things, he's doing a pretty good job," says Rogen. "He was a child actor, and you don't need to have a sociology degree to see the pitfalls, especially as they transition to becoming an adult actor. But people are rooting for him. You can see his performance was incredibly good in the movie.
Efron and Rogen met six or seven years ago at the Sunset Tower, where both were attending an awards party, when Efron was riding the High School Musical bandwagon. "He passed me, and I just stopped and was compelled to say something," recalls Efron. "I blurted out: 'Hey, Seth, my name's Zac. I'm an actor, and I just wanted to tell you that I really love your work. And thank you for everything you've done.' "
Rogen looked up in shock. "And he goes, 'Are you serious?' " continues Efron. "And I was like, 'Yes, I'm 100 percent serious.' And he goes, 'Aw, man, I just wanted to hate you.' And I'm like, 'Seth, I get it. I don't even like myself at this point.' "
Several years later, when Rogen was working with writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brienon Neighbors, he remembered that friends like Jonah Hill had spoken well of Efron, and approached him to play the leader of an Animal House-like fraternity that moves in next door to Rogen and his onscreen wife (Rose Byrne).
"We met with him and pitched the idea -- there was no script yet," says Rogen. "We got him attached, then we went to studios." Efron said yes then and there and was instrumental in the screenplay's development, arguing that his character should be more human, less a villain just spouting venom. "One thing he was vocal about, which was very smart, was making a movie that wasn't just critical of fraternity life," notes Rogen. "Most of us are nerdy comedy-writer guys, and he's not, so it was very helpful to have the voice of the other group. It was a defining moment for the movie."
Universal agreed to finance the film, and early last summer a 41-day shoot took place in and around the West Adams district of Los Angeles.
Filming came shortly after Efron's stint in rehab, presenting its own set of challenges. "The best part of the shoot by far was hanging out with Seth and the guys," he says. "The hardest part? Every single day was more or less a party. You went into this kind of dream state: You show up, it's dark, and there's a raging party. Drive home, and the sun's up, go to sleep and then get back to set. Glow lights, girls in bikinis, electronic dance music blasting in between takes, people jumping around. It was pretty cool, but it was a lot. It was a lot. It sort of became real."
It didn't help that Efron broke his hand during a fight sequence with Dave Franco, who plays his best friend. "It was amazing and really scary," says Rogen. "I couldn't believe it. In the scene, he punches Dave and maybe hits the ground. He kept going for a while, and slowly his hand was getting very swollen. He had to have surgery. We were budgeting what it would cost and writing it into the [script]. But he was back a day or two later. We didn't change our shooting schedule at all."
Adds Rogen: "A lot of actors are looking at any opportunity to not do their very easy job. The fact that he instantly was willing to get surgery and go back to work was huge. It showed a very good character and a good work ethic, and I immensely appreciate that he was willing to do that because he could have derailed the movie."
Efron had all but given up hope of a career as an actor and was set to study film at USC when the then-17-year-old was invited to a cattle call for a new Disney TV movie.
"My mom dropped me off out of a minivan somewhere in North Hollywood," he remembers. "I had no idea what to expect. There were about 40 guys. And we walked in, and [director] Kenny Ortega was there with a piano, and they put everybody in a room together, and we ran through different phases of what we would need to do -- first dancing, then singing -- and a few of us got tapped on the shoulder [to leave], and I didn't. And next came the scene-reading sections, and I got paired with Vanessa Hudgens."
That combination proved golden, and High School Musical became an international phenomenon, making Efron and Hudgens celebrities, not to mention boyfriend and girlfriend. (The two no longer are in close touch, but, says Efron, "She was a really interesting, sweet person.") HSM led to two sequels, the third of which was released theatrically in 2008 and made $252.9 million worldwide.
"I'm grateful for every bit of that early success," he adds. "It was hands down the most honest, carefree, passionate experience of my life. There were no expectations. [But later] I definitely felt that pressure. I'm not comfortable with it at all times. The people that I saw and the people that I started to meet, the majority were young. These were kids, and I looked into their eyes and I saw myself as a fan, and it was shocking to be on the other end of that. You just want to please every single one."