Zac Efron has seamlessly made the transition to more adult roles, in a way that most younger actors only dream of. Following his work in the three High School Musical films, he has gone on to do both comedy and drama, with films like Hairspray, 17 Again and Me and Orson Welles. Now, he is playing his most vulnerable and emotional role yet, in Charlie St. Cloud.
Based on the acclaimed novel of the same name, Charlie St. Cloud tells the story of a small-town hero who survives a tragic accident, only to find out that his life has been changed forever. When Charlie (Efron) realizes that he can still see his younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan), even though he’s dead, he vows to keep his promise to him and meet him every afternoon for baseball practice. And then, when his high school classmate Tess (Amanda Crew) returns home and sparks his interest, he becomes increasingly torn between his promise to his brother and his feelings for someone who is still very much alive.
During an interview to promote the film, Zac Efron talked about defining this character, working with director Burr Steers and striving for diversity in his film career. He also discussed his production company, Ninjas Runnin’ Wild, and the possible film slate that he’s hoping for. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: Since you were the one who actually got Burr Steers the directing job, why did you decide that you wanted to work with him again?
Zac: I didn’t so much get Burr the job. Burr called me and said, “Are you serious about this ‘cause I’m in,” and I was like, “All right, let’s do it.” He really responded to it, and that was exciting to me. I was stoked. I knew this was so much more in Burr’s wheelhouse than 17Again, and I just knew we’d be lucky to have him involved.
There are lots of movies about man-children, but Burr always makes movies about boys who have the weight of the world on their shoulders. What was he like to work with, and how does he get that mature performance out of you?
Zac: He’s very generous with the actors. It’s funny because Burr is rare to give a camera note or anything like that, but guaranteed, every take, he’d running over to us and have so much to say, or an opinion, or a new point of view, or something to think about. I enjoy that much attention from your director. I think it’s great when they’re not worried about the other stuff and they really care about your performance. He’s so performance-oriented, really deep down.
How did you define the way this character interacts throughout most of the movie, since the two most important relationships are, essentially, imaginary?
Zac: When Sam comes back, that’s when Charlie really is living. That’s what he looks forward to, and that’s when he has the most fun. If you have a ghost of somebody coming back and you make it sad, that would just be, “Oh, man.” Instead, we have the most fun in those scenes.
Did you think of it in terms of it being a ghost that you’re interacting with, or did you see it as just like another person?
Zac: I think it’s real to Charlie, so like a real person. He’s aware of it, but it’s too good. He can’t let go.
Did you and Charlie Tahan get any time to get to know each other or just hang out?
Zac: We had fun. We had a blast. We tried to have fun and just do stuff off of the set. We went to hockey games, and did a bunch of sports stuff. We played catch every day and just got that rhythm. It was fun.
What is it like when you see yourself on the screen? How do you feel?
Zac: It’s huge. It’s fun, you know. Enrique [Chediak] was a real cool, fascinating D.P., and he’s really good at making everything look beautiful. That’s what struck me, the first time I saw it. I loved the way the ocean looked and how it was depicted. As far as watching myself on screen, I tend to, especially the first time around, pick out every single flaw, or things I could have and should have done better. I don’t know why, but I tend to dwell on those things. I’m more of a cringer, at first. And then, when it’s years down the road and it’s out of the way, I can look back and appreciate it somehow.
What was the most physically exhausting or difficult scene to do?
Zac: The sailing was pretty hard. I’m actually crewing, which is technically the easier part, aside from where you have fasten in and stuff like that.
You had lessons?
Zac: We did. We all capsized. That’s the first thing they make you do. They didn’t tell us that they were going to make us do it on purpose, but that’s what they do because it’s inevitable that you will.
How do you feel about the whole supernatural element of the film? Has there ever been a moment when you’ve felt a presence, or do you feel that there’s a way to communicate with people who have passed on?
Zac: When I was growing up, there was this house that I’d have to drive by on my way to school, every day. It was this big, pink house where people get married, and there is this rumor that there’s this weird attic bedroom that they’ve never rented out and that no one could really stay in. It was closed off to the public, and there was just this bed in there, and it was apparently a little girl’s room. I swear that place is haunted. It’s just so scary. Everyone who works there says they’ve seen the ghost.
Did you ever discuss what people might see, if they happened to come upon you while you were having these relationships with ghosts?
Zac: Oh, we had many a laugh over what was actually going on. If Tess was imaginary, what would Charlie look like right now, in the graveyard? But then, a lot of people would say that it wasn’t imaginary, that it was actually happening. 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 worked that in.
You’ve only done three movies where you’ve been the star, but your career is just continuing to grow. What do you think it is that people respond to in you?
Zac: 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. It’s got to come from the work. I hope that I can continue doing this. I would hate to attribute all this to something that I can’t control. That’s a bit scary. That’s why I wanted to slow down with this and do a movie that was all about character and real people, and that was more of a dramatic type movie.
Are you aware of the kind of response you get from people when they see you out?
Zac: 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. She will walk behind me and it’s funny because she says no one says anything until after I’ve passed by. That’s when they look and gawk. They never give it away. They’re really good, so I never see it.
Is a role like this something you have to go after to prove you can do different things, or has the success you’ve already enjoyed opened you up to do whatever you want?
Zac: It’s somewhere in between. It’s not like I have total freedom to do what I want right now. I look at movies now and there are a million factors that go into it, but first and foremost, I look at the type of movie and the messages. I really do care about the audience that has been so devoted to me, and I would hate to leave them behind or betray them, in any way. So, rather than leaving the responsibility up to them to follow me into these new films, the best way to think about it is that I need to stay relevant and, to do that, I need to grow up, live my life, experience things and make movies about those experiences. Hopefully, they’ll have a movie there that helps them get through that next phase, when they discover that life isn’t always like High School Musical.
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?
Zac: Definitely, there’s a style to those films that I knew I didn’t want to stick with forever. Because it’s incredibly fun, I dig those movies. With High School Musical, I was in my element. It’s just that I’m constantly chasing the dragon, so to speak. I’m trying to bring that energy to all of the things that I do. But, I definitely think that me and my manager wanted to make movies with substance, rather than doing more stuff like High School Musical, until it gets tired or old. I’d rather move on and try new things, and see how deep the rabbit hole goes and how far we can take it. That’s just diversity. I noticed, early on, even when I was doing High School Musical, that the actors and the movies that I was seeing were not anything like High School Musical. I recognized, in the actors that I appreciated and 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 with interesting perspectives and messages.
Are you thinking of anyone in particular?
Zac: Well, one person that comes to mind for me, right now, is Leo [DiCaprio]. I think Leo is a guy that’s been through all this. 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 the best and the worst of times. He made cool movies, and some that didn’t work so well. Regardless, he’s doing it and he’s survived and, just now, he’s starting to make some of the coolest movies of his career.
You talk about making the migration to more adult roles, in a way that your audience can grow up with you while your career is maturing. Do you think strategically about the best way to do that, or is it just a matter of serendipity?
Zac: You can’t help but think of it, in the back of your mind. It’s instinctual. I definitely look at it for myself as, “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, I knew he could probably get it out of me.
Why did you call your company Ninjas Runnin’ Wild?
Zac: ‘Cause that’s what we are in the business. I don’t know. Hopefully, our movies will speak to that in the future.
What do you think your film slate will be? Do you want to make action movies?
Zac: Yeah, hopefully, in the future. I don’t know if that’s coming up right next, but maybe.
Obviously comic book movies are really big right now. Is there a particular character or story that you think would be cool for you to play?
Zac: There are a few. We have a couple of things at Ninja’s Runnin’ Wild that are from graphic novels, that we are adapting right now. We’ve got a great one, called Fire, that Brian Bendis is writing right now. That’s a bit more action/thriller with some spy elements. We’re definitely trying to find that kind of thing, for sure.