Interview: Zac Efron talks to dead people in ‘Charlie St. Cloud’
By Todd Gilchrist
HollywoodNews.com: If there’s any dreamier actor in movies today than Zac Efron, we haven’t met him. Since becoming a cultural phenomenon in the “High School Musical” movies, the former Disney star has slowly but effectively built a career for himself as a leading man in movies like Hairspray, 17 Again, and his latest effort, Charlie St. Cloud, which reunites him with his 17 Again director Burr Steers, and offers audiences another opportunity to gaze into those crystal blue eyes of his.
In the film, Efron plays the title character, an ambitious high school graduate who foregoes a promising college career after his younger brother dies in an automobile accident. Hollywood News sat down with Efron last weekend at the Los Angeles press day for Charlie St. Cloud, where he discussed the challenges of the role, explored his own evolution as an actor, and examined the “it factor” that has found him a place among Hollywood’s most in-demand movie stars.
[Note: Although “Hollywood News” is used to distinguish questions from answers in the text below, our journalist was just one of many reporters asking questions of the filmmakers.]
Hollywood News: You and Charlie Tahan have terrific chemistry as brothers on screen. Did you have a lot of time to get to know one another before filming began?
Zac Efron: Yeah. We tried to have fun and do stuff outside of set. What’d we do? We went to hockey games. We saw a bunch of sports and stuff. And then we just played catch every day and sort of got in that rhythm. Yeah, it was fun.
Hollywood News: You helped Burr Steers get the job directing this. Why did you decide you wanted to work with him again after 17 Again?
Efron: I didn’t so much get Burr the job. Burr called me and said, “are you serious about this? Because I’m in.” And I’m like, all right. Let’s do it, you know. So, he really responded to it. And that was just exciting to me. I was stoked. I knew this was even more so in Burr’s wheelhouse than 17 Again. And I just knew we’d be lucky to have him involved.
Hollywood News: What is Burr like as a director?
Efron: He’s very generous with the actors. It’s funny, ’cause Burr is rare to give a camera note or anything like that, but guaranteed, every take he’s running over to talk to us. And he’s got so much to say- an opinion or a new point of view or something to think about. Which is great for me. I enjoy that much attention from your director. I think it’s great. When they’re not worried about the other stuff, they really care about your performance. He’s performance oriented, definitely, deep down.
Hollywood News: How did you define or maybe choreograph the way Charlie interacts with others throughout the movie? Because there’s some question how real are the relationships he has with other characters.
Efron: When [Charlie’s brother] comes back, that’s when Charlie really is living. That’s what he looks forward to. I think that’s when we have the most fun, in those scenes. If you have a ghost of somebody coming back, if you make it sad, that would just be, ‘Oh, man.’ Instead, we just tried to have the most fun in those scenes.
Hollywood News: Did you think of it in terms of his brother being a ghost that you were interacting with? Or was that just another person?
Efron: I think it’s real to Charlie, so like a real person. But he’s aware of it, but it’s too good. He can’t let go, you know? I- I hope that answers your question – I’m kind of confused on your question, so I don’t really know what you’re talking about.
Hollywood News: I’m sorry – I’m kind of confusing. What does it feel like when you see yourself on screen? Do you enjoy it, do you want to look away?
Efron: It’s fun. Enrique [Chediak] was a real, cool, fascinating DP and he’s very, very good at making everything look really beautiful. That’s what struck me the first time I saw it. And I still have not seen the final draft of the movie, but I noticed that, first and foremost – the way the ocean looked. The way it was depicted, I loved that. As far as looking at myself on screen, I tend to, especially the first time around, I pick out every single flaw or things I should have or could have done better. I don’t know why, I just tend to dwell on those things. I’m more of like a cringer at first. And then when it’s years down the road and it’s out of the way I can actually look back and appreciate it somehow.
Hollywood News: How do you feel about the film’s supernatural elements? Have you ever had an experience where you felt a presence or something that couldn’t be explained?
Efron: When I was growing up there was this house that I had to drive by on the way to school every day. And it’s this big, pink house. I can’t remember the name of the hotel. All my friends from home are going to slap me. Not the Madonna Inn. I don’t live that close to the Madonna Inn. But it’s this giant- it’s this big, pink house. People get married there and stuff. And there was always this rumor that in the top bedroom- there was a weird, attic bedroom that they never rented out but no one could really stay in it. It was closed off to the public. And there was just a bed in it. It was, apparently, a little girl’s room. And I swear that place was haunted. It’s just so scary. And people talk about- everyone who works there says they’ve seen the ghost and stuff like that.
Hollywood News: Before the interview today people were walking by the hotel and they would look up at your balcony and get these beatific smiles. How does it feel to elicit this kind of a response from people – a sort of “it factor” that Burr has said you possess?
Efron: I don’t know. It’s not really tangible – it’s not tangible to me. I don’t really notice it. But I know that my mom gets pissed off when she hangs out with me because she’s just like- she even walks behind me. And it’s funny because she says no one says anything until after I’ve crossed. It’s always after that they always look and go “it’s that guy!” But they never give it away. They’re always really good. So, I never see it. I don’t really notice.
Hollywood News: Do you think that your fame is a result of being the star of several movies now, or does that sort of “it factor” play a part?
Efron: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s something that I innately have. I don’t want to think that. That’s too good to be true. I think that something- it’s got to come from the work. I hope that I can continue and that will come from the work. I would hate to attribute all this to something that I can’t control. It’s a bit scary. It’s too good to be true. That’s why I wanted to slow down with this and really do a movie that was all about character and real people and felt grounded – you know, a more dramatic-type movie to see what- I don’t know.
Hollywood News: Do you feel like you now have the opportunity to choose whatever you want to do? Or is this the sort of role you really have to pursue and prove you can play?
Efron: It’s somewhere in between right now. It’s not like I have total freedom to do whatever I want to do right now. I think that when I look at movies now, there’s a million factors that go into it. But first, and foremost, I look at the type of movie, the messages. I really do care about the audience that’s been so devoted to me so far. And I would hate to leave them behind or betray them in any way. So, rather than leaving them [or] leaving the responsibility up to them to follow me into these new films, I think that the best way to think about it is I need to stay relevant. And to do that, I want to grow up, live my life, experience things, make movies about those experiences and then by the time the audience catches up, hopefully they’ll have a movie there that helps them get through that next phase when they discover life isn’t always like High School Musical.
Hollywood News: Why did you decide to call your production company Ninjas Running Wild?
Efron: Because that’s what we are in the business, ninjas running wild. You know, I don’t know. Maybe, hopefully, our movies will speak to that in the future.
Hollywood News: Does that mean you’re thinking of developing action-oriented movies?
Efron: I don’t know. Hopefully it’s that in the future. I don’t know exactly if that’s coming up right next, but maybe.
Hollywood News: Comic book movies are obviously big now. Are there any properties you would like to get involved with?
Efron: There’s a few. We have a couple things that are at Ninjas Running Wild that are graphic novels that we’re adapting right now. We’ve got a great one called Fire that Brian Bendis is writing right now. And that’s a bit more action/thriller and some spy elements and so we’re definitely trying to find that kind of thing. Sure.
Hollywood News: How tough has it been to make the transition from working with Disney to taking on projects that give you more creative freedom and more adult opportunities?
Efron: I think, definitely, there’s sort of a style to those that I knew I didn’t want to stick with forever. Because it’s incredibly fun – I dig those movies. High School Musical, you’re in your element in those things. It’s just [that] I’m constantly chasing the dragon, so to speak. I don’t know if that’s a weird term to use, but you know what I mean- I’m trying to bring that energy to all of the things that I do. But, I definitely think that we – me and my manager Jason Barrett, we wanted to make movies with substance. And rather than doing more stuff like High School Musical and sort of doing that until it gets tired or old. I’d rather move on and try new things and see how deep the rabbit hole goes- how far we can take it. And that’s just diversity. I noticed early on, even when I was doing High School Musical – that I knew the actors and the movies that I were seeing were not anything like High School Musical. I recognized in the actors that I appreciated in the movies that I was going to see that it was about diversity and innovation and not being afraid to take risks and try new characters and interesting perspectives and messages and things. So, I think that’s what we tried to do, straightaway.
Hollywood News: Are you thinking of anyone in particular?
Efron: Well, one person that comes to mind for me right now with Inception coming out is Leo. I think Leo’s a guy that’s been through all this. He knows exactly- oh, I’m sure he knows how this felt, at one point or another. And he just continued. He persevered and stuck to his guns and went through all different- the best and the worst of times and made the coolest movies and some that didn’t work so well. Some- regardless, he’s doing it and he’s survived and now, just now, he’s starting to make some of the coolest movies of his career.
Hollywood News: Can you talk about working with Amanda Crew and developing your on-screen relationship with her?
Efron: Amanda was really fun to work with. She was really easygoing, and for romantic scenes and stuff like that, I’ve never really found them intensely or incredibly awkward, which I was supposed to be during this. So, I think we found common ground. We held each other’s hands through this whole experience. I don’t know. We got along – we just got along really well. There was nothing to be nervous about. The only weird part was that, in the movie I guess it makes sense, but being in a graveyard for that love scene was kind of, a little bit weird.
Hollywood News: You talk about making the migration to more adult roles in a way that your audience can sort of grow up with you. Do you think strategically about the best way to do that, or is it just a matter of serendipity where a certain part comes along that happens to be suitable for that sort of career arc you’re developing?
Efron: I think you can’t help but think of it in the back of your mind. It’s sort of instinctual. But I’d say it’s somewhere in between both of those. I definitely look at it for myself, as well- what am I going to be able to do with this character. Is it really something I can see myself doing? Can I pull this off? With Charlie St. Cloud I had my doubts. I was like, “man, this would be a real emotional role.” And then when Burr signed on it was like, he could probably get it out of me.
Hollywood News: Was there a point where you were doing something in the movie and you started imagining what it would look like, or how you would explain it if someone happened upon you in that moment where you were interacting with someone who might not be there?
Efron: Oh, we had many a laugh over what was actually going on. If it was imaginary, what Charlie looks like right now in the graveyard. But then, a lot of people would say that it wasn’t imaginary, that it was actually happening. So, it’s hard. You could- you can’t really watch the movie and decisively say either way what’s going on. And I really liked that. I thought that was cool. Burr sort of worked that in.