How Zac Efron went from Disney heart-throb to Hollywood heavyweight

Actor’s critically acclaimed turn in The Iron Claw has finally won him the industry respect he deserves

After two decades in the business, Zac Efron has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. EPA
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Zac Efron is 36. Let that sink in for a moment.

If that leaves you feeling a little old, it’s because the world’s first big introduction to the American actor came when he was just 18, as East High’s popular basketball captain Troy Bolton in the 2006 Disney television film High School Musical.

Even if you weren’t a parent of tweens or the target demographic for the all-singing, all-dancing movie co-starring Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale, it was difficult to escape the wider influence of the film. This included an ear worm-filled soundtrack that hit the number one spot on the Billboard 200, parodies by the likes of Saturday Night Live and South Park, and the fact it reportedly became the most commercially successful Disney Channel Original Movie ever.

And he has not left the spotlight since. In fact, for the past few months it has shone a little more brightly on him thanks to his turn as Kevin Von Erich in the acclaimed film The Iron Claw. He even picked up his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last month.

Efron, Jeremy Allen White and Holt McCallany portray members of the real-life Von Erich family, who became as famous for being pro-wrestlers as they did for the myriad tragedies that befell them.

Amid potential Oscar nomination buzz, we reflect on Efron’s career – the twists, turns, highs and lows that saw the Disney heart-throb pay his dues to become a Hollywood heavyweight.

‘High School Musical was my formative years’

Already a Hollywood veteran before he won the role of Troy Bolton, Efron had appeared in 11 movies and TV shows, including ER and CSI: Miami, before High School Musical came out.

His follow-up was the 2007 musical Hairspray in which he played the gently narcissistic Link Larkin, a choice that saw him veer precariously into typecast territory, and one he course-corrected in Richard Linklater’s drama Me and Orson Welles, and the second-chance comedy 17 Again opposite Matthew Perry.

By the time he turned 21, Rolling Stone had named him the “new American heartthrob”.

“It’s impossible to look back on High School Musical with anything but love and joy,” he told AP in December. “That’s my formative years and it’s everything to me. I don’t look back on it with any sort of regret or anything like that, that’s impossible.”

Sincerity has always been a big part of Efron’s persona and appeal. The star’s willingness to embrace his past is in stark contrast to the likes of up-and-comer Jacob Elordi, who recently branded the popular Netflix Kissing Booth movie trilogy that made him a star “ridiculous”.

“I’m grateful for every bit of that early success,” Efron told The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “It was hands down the most honest, carefree, passionate experience of my life.”

Fame overshadows film

No matter how “grateful”, Efron’s early fame came at a price the star has admitted cost him professionally.

“It’s such a fine line between being famous for who you are personally and for your films. And I’ve been on the wrong side of it my whole career,” he told GQ in 2009.

His post-HSM filmography was wobbly to say the least, with the likes of 2010's Charlie St Cloud, 2012 films At Any Price and The Paperboy, as well as 2013's Parkland all critically panned.

By 26, Efron had tried on many Hollywood hats: Zac the romantic lead, Zac the ensemble man and Zac the indie darling.

The 2014 comedy Neighbors proved a turning point. Starring opposite comedy stars Seth Rogen, Dave Franco, Rose Byrne and Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Efron more than held his own as Teddy Sanders, a frat boy willing to stop at nothing to throw the ultimate end-of-year party.

The film launched Efron’s comedy era, which included 2016’s Dirty Grandpa opposite Robert De Niro, the obligatory sequel Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and Baywatch.

The 2017 release was an average box office success but a critical dud and one that left him feeling “depressed” and suffering from insomnia due to the toll of staying in six-pack shape.

Nice guys can finish first

His 2013 stint in rehab for alcohol and drug abuse seemed so par for the course in young Hollywood that it’s become a mere footnote in Efron’s story and not a time that defines him.

“I was drinking a lot, way too much,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in his 2014 profile. “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.”

In the same The Hollywood Reporter piece, Rogen was interviewed about Efron, saying: “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.”

Having a bunch of A-listers rooting for him has always been one of Efron’s defining strengths. People – the industry and fans – like him, they want him to succeed.

“I can’t say enough good things about Zac,” said his Baywatch co-star Dwayne Johnson while promoting the 2017 film, while Olympian Simone Biles calls him “so nice” and “genuine”. His Iron Claw co-star White called him a “cheerleader” and Nicole Kidman says: “I want to see Zac be lauded.”

Efron made headlines for portraying American serial killer Ted Bundy in the 2019 film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.

Playing against type or making such an abrupt career turn was a risk. Just ask Matthew McConaughey, who has spoken about not receiving a job offer for eight months after he turned his back on romcoms.

“I was very hesitant to do it, but I knew I could,” Efron said on The Graham Norton Show in 2019. “I just didn’t want to jump at something that could be seen as a desperate shot at trying to change my image. It was a unique experience and not what anyone expects. It makes me proud.”

A direct line can be drawn from the serial killer biopic to The Iron Claw, with praise being heaped upon Efron for the rawness and vulnerability his filmography to date has not demanded of him.

The National’s review points to Efron’s innate sweetness as a contributing factor to “what might just be the most devastating movie of the year”.

Director Sean Durkin calls Efron “a quiet leader”, comparing him to Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter, which is indicative of the goodwill the actor has earned and recognises the stealth mode with which this Disney alum is, against all odds, finally hearing his name mentioned alongside the greats.

“My goal is to make everything the best it can possibly be in any genre,” he told Variety. “But a big part that clicked early on was that it’s been a priority to never do the same thing twice, to the point where it’s uncomfortable – to have to learn a new skill set, or transform, or be vulnerable.”

Updated: January 10, 2024, 7:04 AM