MINNEAPOLIS — Young girls adore two things: long-lashed boys resembling girls, and unicorns.
A psychiatrist might speculate on the correlation between the two, but our purpose here is to note that girls in their tender years tend to focus their first puppy love — at least their first celebrity crush — on a boy who isn’t threateningly macho. The idealized imaginary boyfriend is sweetly pubescent, downy of cheek, and smooth of chest. (See: “Lautner, Taylor;” “Bieber, Justin;” “Jonas, Nick” et al.)
The inescapable problem for a performer who apprentices as a man-genue is that one cannot remain a Non-Threatening Boy forever. Somewhere along his professional path, biology asserts itself. Beards germinate and the Teen Choice Award torch passes to next-gen Disney Channel stars. The maturing cutester moves on to projects aimed at people old enough to drive, or else. (See: “Cassidy, David;” “Phillippe, Ryan;” “Bloom, Orlando” et al.)
Thus the quandary facing Zac Efron. Having graduated with honors from the world of “High School Musical,” the doe-eyed 22-year-old actor must figure out what to do with the rest of his career.
Not that his allure is dimming yet. Efron currently is traveling the country promoting his new movie “Charlie St. Cloud,” a tour that brought a record-breaking crowd of 7,000 swooning, squealing fans to his stop at the Mall of America. For the record, Efron structured the PR excursions so that he could spend weekends home in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and “Musical” costar Vanessa Hudgins.
His latest film is a mystical romance that blends a young adult love story and intense drama. He plays a tragedy-traumatized sailing champion, a role that requires him to brawl in a bar but not step onto the dance floor. In fact, he chose the part over the lead in the remake of “Footloose” because “I’ve been in that world so many times before. I want to challenge myself,” he said.
Balancing dramatic performances against lighthearted entertainments puts him on a course like the one followed by his favorite song-and-dance man, Gene Kelly. “When you watch Gene Kelly’s movies you want to be him. You wish you could say all the things he said. He had such charisma and style and masculinity. You live vicariously through him.”
Efron, who was already appearing in guest roles on several TV series at 15, said he was reluctant to watch “Singin’ in the Rain” that year, but his father insisted. It immediately became one of his favorite movies. “When I saw that I actually jumped into tap,” he recalled with a smile. Kelly also taught “High School Musical” director/choreographer Kenny Ortega, putting Efron one degree of separation away from his role model.
Running his new production company is a step toward creative independence, he said. “We have offices” on the Warner Bros. lot, “and desks and chairs. Now we have a better chance of getting movies made than ever before. I guess now I’m supposed to be coming up with ideas for movies,” he said. Efron’s wish list of collaborators includes Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”), Todd Phillips (“The Hangover”) and any writers who can create age-appropriate roles for a young actor in transition.
Still, he’s not about to settle into a desk-jockey routine of a fulltime producer.
“I’ve never been in my office. I’ve sort of looked in once. I’m kind of afraid to go in. Then it all will be real.”
So far, his choices have been solid. Had things run the usual Hollywood course, he’d have been urged into projects along the lines of “Teen Wolf 3.” Instead, Efron launched his own company (with the proudly immature label Ninjas Runnin’ Wild). Efron’s first post-“High School” project was a grown-up collaboration with indie-artsy director Richard Linklater, who balances free-spirited oddities such as “Slacker” and “Waking Life” with mainstream hits like “School of Rock.” Linklater wanted him for an unlikely project, a classy period piece celebrating the greatest moviemaker of all time. “Me and Orson Welles” cast Efron as a bright, stagestruck high school senior who becomes a member of Welles’s Mercury Theatre in 1937.
“I was at this phase, having just done ‘High School Musical,’ where I was really hungry to work with a director I could learn something from. I met with Rick before having read the entire script and after vibing with him and seeing how cool and relaxed he was, I just really wanted to work with him. I figured I would pick up a lot of knowledge along the way because he’s been making such great movies for so long. As I read the script I could see the character was a lot like me. I could see myself pulling it off.” Though it was no blockbuster, it proved that Efron could hold his own in a solid acting ensemble including Claire Danes, Christian McKay and Eddie Marsan.
His follow-up was the predictable but pleasant high school body-swap comedy “17 Again.” Though it was clearly designed to delight his young fans, indie director Burr Steers (of the darkly comic “Igby Goes Down”) brought a caustic edge to the project. The film opened No. 1 at the box office.
In “Charlie St. Cloud,” Efron rejoins Steers in a still darker story. Efron tackles scenes of turbulent emotion, especially in relation to his bratty younger brother, whose claims on Charlie prevent him from entering the world of adult relationships.
“It just had all the green lights around it. I looked at it from the audience perspective. We want to challenge the audience with original material. At the same time, I want to challenge myself, and I do think the fans will like this movie,” he said. “They’ll understand it, it’s just a little bit older.”
The role is Efron’s first stab at playing a troubled character. “The emotional stuff I had a connection to. The tough part is the endurance, because you have to sustain that for shots that last sometimes for entire days or weeks.”
That was a test for Efron, who enjoys “constantly goofing off,” entertaining the crew and visitors to the sound stage. “I found myself in a dark place on set and I’m not used to that. I’m used to a very fun set. This time I had to be a little bit of a downer.”
The film’s extensive sailing scenes, shot in British Columbia, were exhilarating but demanding, he said. “I thought it would be something I could pick up but man, it’s challenging,” he said. “It’s a hard sport.”
With a background in dance and a streak of natural athleticism, Efron could help fill the void of younger stars who could persuasively move up to action roles — provided the adventure is grounded in a solid story.
“I think it’s what’s driving the action that’s so important. Action for the sake of action is a genre that I never really gravitated towards. I don’t go to those movies. ‘The Matrix’ was the type of action I like to see because that was a psychological thriller with action. That’s really interesting. Just to beat ‘em up — I know there’s a million guys who could do it better.”
So why did he call his production company Ninjas Runnin’ Wild?
Efron came close to blushing at the memory of the brainstorming process that produced that handle. “I won’t tell the story of how we came up with the name,” he grinned. What looks like a stoned toss-off joke, he explained, is calculated corporate brand planning with a view to long-term public image control.
“I just figure if you watch Ninjas Runnin’ Wild come up before a movie you might remember it. It’s not going to be like some of these names. I mean. It’s irrelevant, but you might say, ‘Oh, it’s that one.’ You might retain it a little longer because it’s unusual.”
Spoken like a true survivor.