I love the High School Musical trilogy (2006-2008). Love it. Zac Efron is magnetic in those movies, particularly in numbers where he does jazz hands on a golf course and swings from ropes in a high school auditorium. Have you ever watched the behind the scenes features? I have. Efron is in the fucking ZONE when he’s Troy Bolton, and he’s the life force of those films. Everyone expected him to have a huge leading-man career after HSM’s 1-3. Who wouldn’t? He’s talented and handsome, continues to stay ridiculously fit, has a jawline and cheekbones that could cut glass, and the camera loves him. Unfortunately, therein lies the problem. All cameras love Zac Efron. He came of age in Hollywood at a time when paparazzi and fans have absolutely no chill when it came to chasing down and hounding the biggest stars of the moment to steal glimpses of their likeness to sell to tabloids. Tabloids, in turn, create narratives about stars’ personal lives that may or may not be true. Zac Efron has been burned by this cycle many, many times. Efron famously dated his High School Musical costar Vanessa Hudgens for years, and fans were positively thirsty for pictures of the couple together. I remember seeing photographs of them in the adult section of what he claimed was a costume store — which he was then asked about on numerous talks shows (and he made the mistake of answering; just defer, Zac, or tell a joke and misdirect). The two were also spotted during very private moments on vacations in Hawaii, and just doing regular things like going out to eat or getting gas. They could never break free from the camera’s prying eyes. Even after Efron and Hudgens broke up, the public interest in both of them continued, which in turn fueled the paparazzi market for pictures of them. During this time in his career, Efron was on the precipice of the eternal question: Could he transition his leading man charisma beyond Disney movies into adult films and roles? Would he be able to carry movies at the box office based on the power of his name and the acting chops he’d established in the High School Musical franchise? That might work for his first few post-HSM films, but after that, he’d have to prove he was a strong enough actor beneath the razzle dazzle of Troy Bolton’s song and dance numbers. He'd also have to make this transition while his personal life was under a microscope in the tabloids. Efron’s post-HSM record at the box office has been rocky, to say the least. He’s had some success, with movies like 17 Again (2009) and Neighbors (2014), the latter of which used Efron’s perfectly sculpted physique and Ken-doll looks for self-referential humor. He’s also had some flops, like Me and Orson Welles (2008) and The Paperboy (2012). Then, there were the mediocre films that seem made for rewatching on basic cable, like Nicholas Sparks’ The Lucky One (2012), which also features a pre-Orange Is the New Black Taylor Schilling as Efron’s love interest.
This past weekend, however, the actor headlined a bonafide flop. “Not even the presence of Efron could lift We Are Your Friends (2015) at the multiplexes. The look at the electronic music scene bombed, eking out a paltry $1.8 million from 2,333 screens, making it the worst wide-release launch of the High School Musical star’s career and one of the lowest wide-release debuts for a major studio film in history,” Variety writes. In WAYF, Efron plays Cole Carter, an aspiring EDM DJ and producer. He’s ostensibly the main character in the movie, yet director and co-writer Max Joseph tells Refinery29 that Cole was the most undefined role. He’s not the alpha in his friend group, and the film is supposed to be Cole’s story, yet he can be quite passive. “He’s the biggest star in the movie, and yet he still appears to be following someone else’s lead, waiting for someone else’s cues,” Teo Bugbee writes on The Daily Beast. “[T]here are times when Efron seems stuck inside himself, planning the way he’ll say a line, doing damage control before there is any damage.” Bugbee also brings up the High School Musical movies, saying, “[I]f you go back and watch those movies, there’s [a]n reckless freedom to the way Efron moves in them that’s missing from his movies now.” This is a working theory I’ve had about Zac Efron for a while now, but I don’t think it’s all his fault. I think that the omnipresent cameras in his personal life have had a debilitating effect on his ability to get out of his head and lose that self-awareness and self-censoring when he steps in front of a movie camera to do his actual job and step into a character. He can’t separate a movie camera, which is a good lens in his life, because it means that he’s employed and insurable (when actors go to rehab, as Efron did, it can affect their ability to be insured and able to work), from a paparazzi camera or camera phone, which could mean a story in a tabloid. I see it when he does interviews to promote projects, too. Zac Efron is painfully aware of every camera that’s on him; afraid of the judgment he knows someone somewhere is making of his every move and statement. In this 2009 interview with Esquire during which he was ostensibly supposed to be talking about how 17 Again would be the transitory movie between his Disney days and grown-up career, the omnipresent lenses in his life are a recurring motif. The profile begins with Efron and the writer going hiking in the Santa Monica foothills, where signs warn them about bobcats. The actor is more worried about being paparazzi prey than mauled by a bobcat. When he was making the High School Musical movies, Efron was still a star on the rise. Paparazzi and fans weren’t as rabid about photographing him, and he didn’t feel caged in and hurt by stories those photos could be used to tell. Now that he’s older and has been the subject of rumors and bad publicity, Zac Efron has trouble with cameras. He knows the damage they can do. Unfortunately, it’s become a painful inhibition in the presence of all cameras, and it’s having an affect on his job performance. It could explain why he can't live up to the potential he showed as Troy Bolton and get his head in the game.