Zac Efron Rides Again

He has been a child star, a fitness pinup, an onscreen himbo, and an environmental activist. But Zac Efron hasn’t always been healthy. Now he’s reinventing himself again, and he wants to do it right.

I had seen Efron’s biceps earlier, while on set for his photo shoot. When I got to the ranch in the hills north of Malibu, he was zooming about on an ATV, doing wild circles around the photographer and creating a cloud of dust. The sharp lines of his arms were apparent even through a dust tornado and even from a safe distance away.

When he arrives at the steakhouse in Thousand Oaks, where the staff has squirreled us away in a back room behind the kitchen, Efron positions himself as though to background the biceps—leaning forward, with his hands loosely intertwined on the table—and I feel louche for peeking.

I feel even loucher for writing about them, but the thing is, Efron’s arms have become part of his whole deal, appendages to his identity as well as to his torso—to say nothing of the torso itself. In 2017’s Baywatch, his onscreen abs looked almost painted on. That film was a fit-guy debutant waltz for Efron. People started looking very closely at his body after that.

Then the pandemic hit, and the guy who could do it all—and who, since he was a teenager, had been doing it all, all the time—did very little. He sequestered himself in Byron Bay, a beachy haven in Australia. He slept on a hammock in the trees. He dated a civilian. He took moonlit swims with phosphorescent plankton that glowed around him with every motion.

A world away, Efron, too, was rethinking the body he’d become known for. He was reconsidering how he ate (vegan), how he trained (really hard), and how he slept (poorly). Efron, like many of us, has newly emerged from his own pandemic cocoon, blinking in the sunlight, ready to unfurl a revamped personality with back-to-school optimism. Besides a new health and fitness philosophy, Efron has a new movie—The Greatest Beer Run Ever (premiering September 30 on Apple TV+), in which he acts opposite Russell Crowe and Bill Murray—and new career cravings.

In this chapter of Efron’s career, he is seeking depth. He looks to Leonardo DiCaprio as a North Star, both as an actor who seems to have achieved balance in his life and for the roles he selects; ditto Robert Pattinson, another veteran of teen stardom. But Efron, now 34 and with 16 years and a stack of films between him and High School Musical, still hasn’t found the niche that will carry him through the next few decades. He has done demanding physical transformations for roles. Now he’s after a much deeper transformation.

As we peruse the menu at the steakhouse, he reveals that this is his first meal out in a long time. He’s the kind of actor around whom fans lose their faculties, and he’s also the kind of actor whom people feel comfortable approaching.

I get it. He has a very welcoming face, in spite of intimidatingly symmetrical and chiseled features. His eyes are blue and twinkly, and whenever he’s not smiling, he looks like he’s about to. He has played several very approachable characters, the type of guys a friend of mine calls “self-aware bros.” He also played Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, but that doesn’t put anyone off.

“I just don’t go out. People in large groups, it triggers my agoraphobia,” he says. It’s a jarring comment from Efron, who seems to have a compulsive desire to put those around him at ease, mirroring and doubling the energy of whoever is before him. Our server, Erin, arrives and begins to describe the menu’s features. Erin is bubbly and sharp, and I watch each one trying to outdazzle the other. “Oh wow,” Efron says as Erin extols the virtues of the seafood tower, his eyes trained on her with evangelical ferocity. By the time she gets to the meat—to, in particular, the Japanese A5 Wagyu steak—Efron is in raptures. Once he has ensured that the meat is grass finished rather than grass fed, he cajoles me into splitting the A5. We will also split a filet mignon, as well as a seafood tower and two sides. “I’m bulking,” Efron says, laughing as he hands his menu back to Erin. When she’s gone, he says, “I can’t believe I said that,” as though it’s too Zac Efron a line for Zac Efron.

“I started to develop insomnia,” he says, “and I fell into a pretty bad depression, for a long time. Something about that experience burned me out. I had a really hard time recentering. Ultimately they chalked it up to taking way too many diuretics for way too long, and it messed something up.” Six months after the film wrapped, he finally began to feel right again.

It wasn’t until his Australian sabbatical that he really started to reevaluate his approach to fitness. For the first time in his working life, Efron had a window to take a real break. And to fall out of shape.

“At one point, that was a dream of mine—what it would be like to not have to be in shape all the time,” he says. He had been acclimated to a certain level of fitness since he was a kid, joining his father on runs. “What if I just say, ‘Fuck it’ and let myself go? So I tried it, and I was successful. And for all the reasons I thought it would be incredible, I was just miserable. My body would not feel healthy; I just didn’t feel alive. I felt bogged down and slow.”

But even if he wasn’t training, he was thinking about training. He read a lot—he felt particularly aligned with turbo athlete David Goggins and his “stay hard” doctrine after reading Can’t Hurt Me—and sought advice from biohacking experts like trainer Ben Greenfield. “I enjoy pushing myself and really laying it all out, to the point where I kind of have to do it. Otherwise I don’t feel like myself,” he says. He wanted to keep training militantly—his fitness philosophy is one of embracing constructive misery—but more mindfully.

He’s now a foam-rolling fanatic and has ten or so foam rollers of all different sizes; he does it for half an hour before training and a full hour before bed. He champions stretching, self-massage (“I live attached to a Theragun”), and yoga. Efron has also become an ice-bath adherent. “It’s my favorite part of the day. Before is when it’s most miserable, and when you finally just commit and jump in there. From that point forward, you’ve conquered something deep within you; you do not want to get cold,” he says. “That’s the simplest philosophy: Anything you don’t want to do, make it a habit.”

I study him as he eats a crab leg. His jaw area looks much as it has always looked. This may be salient intel for some, because in April 2021, after Efron appeared in a clip promoting an Earth Day special from Bill Nye, the Internet again came alive with chatter about Efron’s body, this time with speculation that he had had plastic surgery on his face.

When I ask him about this, he tells me that the masseter muscles, used for chewing, work together with the other muscles of the face “like a symphony”; when he was injured, the muscles on the inside of his face and jaw had to compensate. He works with a specialist and does physical therapy to mediate this, he says, but in Australia he took some time off from that, too. “The masseters just grew,” he says, shrugging. “They just got really, really big.”

Efron says he didn’t know about Jaw-gate until his mother called to ask if he’d gotten plastic surgery, because, though he appreciates that social media can be useful for promoting projects he cares about, he generally avoids it. This is a survival tactic, one that he has been honing since he became a public figure at 17. “If I valued what other people thought of me to the extent that they may think I do,” he says, “I definitely wouldn’t be able to do this work.”

PERHAPS AS A result of his detachment from his digital public, Efron is candid about most subjects. He doesn’t shy away from questions about his romantic life, for instance, though he says he wishes there were more to say. “I’ve really been taking time to focus on, you know, self- fulfillment and trying to find my groove. I know that probably when I meet the right person, it’s going to be when I least expect it.” (When I point out that that kind of talk is likely to earn him a torrent of DMs on Instagram, he admits that not being able to communicate with certain people on Instagram directly is one of his few laments about distancing himself from social media, then sighs. It’s a “can of worms.”)

He speaks most carefully about his film roles and seems anxious not to appear flippant. Once we’ve made some headway on the seafood, I ask Efron what drew him to The Greatest Beer Run Ever. While he’s jovial and off the cuff during the rest of our conversation, as he talks about the film, his voice gets quieter, his wording more precise.

The Greatest Beer Run Ever is based on the memoir of the same name by John “Chickie” Donohue, who set out, in November 1967, to deliver beer to all his hometown friends who were fighting overseas in Vietnam. At first glance, Efron is playing a version of some of his past comedic roles, a himbo in a war zone.

But the character’s humbling is gradual and profound. Just as gradually, the humor of the first half gives way to the horrors and complexities of war. The final quarter of the film is very visceral, surprisingly so if you jumped in expecting a PBR-themed buddy-com.

Efron read the script in an hour and a half. He liked the weight of a film set during the Vietnam War and how it balanced tension with humanity and humor. What’s more, he could relate to his character. “I can empathize with what he was going through, sitting in New York when all his close friends are on the front line,” he says. “It was the fastest decision I’d ever made.”

At this point, the seafood tower between us begins making a witchy bubbling sound. Efron talks over it for a second, but the noise draws my attention—the tower sounds like it’s about to erupt. “He gets the audience engaged through the humanity and the relationships,” he says of Farrelly before trailing off, sensing my distraction. Frustration flashes across his face, quickly replaced by amusement. He carefully moves the remaining Dungeness crabmeat from its dry-ice bath and places the bowl of dry ice on the table. But that isn’t much better. He then walks the dry ice over to one of the empty tables, faint icy breaths unspooling behind him. He tries to pick up where he left off; however, the distance has only aggravated the dry ice, which gurgles menacingly from across the room.

At last, a few bussers arrive and remove the seafood tower and the banished dry ice. The steaks appear, and Erin breezes in after them to ask Efron whether the A5 is the best he’s ever had. “It tastes like foie gras,” he says. The fat is so finely webbed throughout the beef that you can’t see it.

Sure, Efron had been able to find purpose in his himbo repertoire. He appreciates the “self-aware bro” description and discusses that kind of character (“somebody that’s learning, that’s listening, that has an open heart and mind”) with tenderness. But playing the fun-loving, self-aware bro is not a challenge for Zac Efron, who presents as a fun-loving, self-aware bro.

Efron seems poised to plunge into the ice-bath roles—the ones so challenging that they “conquer something deep within you”—but uncertain that people in the industry see him that way. Farrelly, who’d wanted to work with Efron ever since they met years ago, admitted that he probably wouldn’t have thought of him for The Greatest Beer Run Ever if he hadn’t seen him as Ted Bundy, an unlikable character Efron had to somehow make charming. “I realized, Well, this is a guy who wants to stretch,” the director recalls. “I didn’t realize how much he could stretch.”

Before he can conquer transcendent roles, though, Efron must conquer his fans. As we leave the restaurant, he has already made one (well-earned) birthday video for Erin’s daughter when a middle-aged man chases him down to ask if he might take a photo with his birthday daughter. Efron accepts the request with gusto. The man races back to his table and returns with two teenage girls. Efron poses, smiling, with the birthday daughter and gamely asks the non-birthday daughter standing nearby if she would like a photo as well. She would, she says, “but can we take a selfie?”

Having spent the past few hours interrogating Efron, I have been primed to detect some discomfort under his jocularity. And the second the father and his brood turn away, the actor, after a hasty goodbye, literally runs away. In an instant, he has disappeared around the corner of the building in search of the valet.

The valet has—remarkably, given his presumably brief interaction with Efron—perceived him exactly as he seems to want to be perceived. Maybe everyone else will, too.

Lauren Larson lives in Austin and is a features editor at Texas Monthly magazine.