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SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. - It didn’t take long for Zac Efron to encounter one of the downsides of superstardom.


As the hottest young actor in Hollywood, the Arroyo Grande, Calif., native has become a paparazzi favorite. Whether he visits an airport, Starbucks or a gas station, several photographers will follow, repeatedly snapping his image.


“The first time was so innocent - I didn’t know what to think,” Efron said. “I just politely waved and went about my business. I had no idea it would escalate to these levels.”


When he speaks about the paparazzi, he’s characteristically careful - perhaps wanting neither to offend nor encourage. Yet, while he’s not always comfortable with the paparazzi (in one YouTube video, Efron is seen sprinting away from photographers in a parking garage), don’t expect him to pull a Sean Penn and strong-arm a photographer.


“They’re just doing their job,” he said.


With his wholesome image and a scandal-free lifestyle to back it, you might think Efron would be a dull subject for the tabloids. Yet, as “High School Musical 3” prepares to hit the big screen this week, Efron’s celebrity continues to build. A Rolling Stone cover story called him “The new American heartthrob.” But it’s not just an American thing. As Efron toured the world to promote the latest “HSM,” the Daily Mail of London described him as “the world’s biggest teen idol.”


That’s a long way for a kid who just six years ago was photographed performing a skit with other local middle-school students headed for a competition in Knoxville, Tenn.


“What a weird deal,” Efron, 21, said by phone from Los Angeles. “I never would have expected it. I call home, and we laugh about all this craziness.”


While Efron started out performing in local plays, his first big role was in the original “High School Musical,” a made-for-TV Disney movie that shattered ratings records on its release Jan. 20, 2006, and spawned a No. 1 soundtrack.


The original movie featured Efron as Troy Bolton, the captain of the East Side High School basketball team who teams up with a math whiz to audition for a musical. The success of that movie led to a sequel, following the student body through summer vacation. When that too became a hit - along with the mass merchandising that accompanied the movies - East Side was ready for the big screen.


“At first I was a little bit weary,” Efron said of coming back for a third installment. “I wanted to make sure that I had established myself in some other type of role before I was onboard to do ‘High School Musical 3.’ But when we saw the script and we saw that it would be made into a feature film and that it would be centered around graduation and prom, I thought that’d be a great way to finish off ‘High School Musical.’”


That other role he speaks of was his portrayal of Link Larkin, a high school heartthrob in the remake of “Hairspray,” which also featured John Travolta, Christopher Walken and Queen Latifah.


With good reviews from that and the momentum from the “HSM” franchise, Efron has received many other offers - including more teen musicals.


But like Troy Bolton, Efron is ready to graduate. So don’t expect him in the upcoming “High School Musical 4.” “I think it’s important to grow up,” he said. “Everybody’s got to do it eventually, and now’s my time.”


In the upcoming “17 Again,” Efron really grows up - playing a 37-year-old man. That movie, which co-stars former “Friends” star Matthew Perry, features Efron as a dissatisfied man who gets a chance to be a teen again.


While that film has the mainstream appeal of a blockbuster like “Big,” Efron is also set to star in the indie film “Me and Orson Welles” with Claire Danes. In that movie, he portrays a young actor who bluffs his way into an Orson Welles play and finds himself competing with the famed director.


If appearing in an indie movie about the theater sounds like something Johnny Depp might do, that’s no surprise. “That would be amazing to have it perceived that way,” Efron said. “I’m trying to think like him. I’m trying to make smart moves.”


As his stock increases, choosing the right roles becomes more important to sustaining momentum while also garnering respect as an actor, not merely as a teen idol.


“I’m always searching for that project that’s just out of reach,” he said. “But I think that’s important. I want to continue to challenge myself and continue to diversify and play different roles. It would be great to do something next that people wouldn’t necessarily expect of me.”


Given his musical background, it’s not too surprising that he has signed on to play the lead role in a remake of “Footloose.” His character, Ren McCormack (originally played by Kevin Bacon), is a Chicago teen who moves to a town that has banned dancing and rock music.


“He’s a great character,” Efron said. “I think he’s one that should be revisited.”


His favorite scene from the original film occurs when Bacon’s character tries to teach Chris Penn’s character how to dance while “Let’s Hear It For the Boy” plays on the soundtrack.


“I think that’s a very charming sequence,” he said.


Before filming begins on “Footloose,” Efron will continue to promote “HSM 3, which likely will be his most commercially successful project to date. Promotional tours allow Efron to spend more time with his castmates, who have become good friends.


“We can relate to each other in so many ways that my friends outside of ‘High School Musical’ wouldn’t be able to,” said Efron, who is dating co-star Vanessa Anne Hudgens. “So we have each other for support. And I’m constantly calling my friends for advice.”


One thing they all have in common is the wild ride that started when “High School Musical” hit the air. Less than three years - and more than $1 billion - later, their images can be seen on dolls, posters, charm bracelets, Twister games, caps, umbrellas and practically everything else that is marketed to kids.


“We all started as pretty unestablished actors,” Efron said. “And none of us expected the whirlwind that would ensue.”

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