The Ringmaster: Zac Efron for Issue 91
Seventeen years ago he was the teen heart-throb of High School Musical. Now he is one of Hollywood’s leading statesmen. Zac Efron’s transformation is complete, writes Tom Chamberlin — and he still has us eating out of his hand.
Zac Efron has a cold. O.K., he doesn’t, but I must admit that as I prepared to interview him, I sensed I was having a Gay Talese moment, and so I couldn’t help but start this piece by evoking Talese’s famous 1966 profile of Frank Sinatra. Like Sinatra, Efron is monumentally well known — facially, anyhow. Hollywood is a magnet for opinions, the public has been thirsty ever since the lights to the iconic sign were switched on, and while technology and the media have changed how information is digested, curiosity and gossip have only intensified certain aspects of the human condition.
One of Zac’s admirable qualities is that his trajectory to (stratospheric) stardom came, unlike Sinatra, from a very young age, where the cultural tendency is for the general public to demand every detail of a performer’s private life and to obsess over his or her ups and downs. And yet, as a result of what I can only assume is an abundance of prudence — a mature head screwed firmly onto young shoulders — precious little is known about Zac, his passions, his personality, and his private life. The phenomenon that was High School Musical turned the then-teenaged Efron into an instant pin-up, vulnerable to all of the as-yet-unaddressed dangers that young stars face when a press corps and a screaming fan base stare back.
At this point, I want to settle nerves about the subject matter. This story does not spend the next however-many words delving into cheap gossip or (frankly unworthy-of-The Rake) hearsay about private matters, but the context in which Zac and I talked — notably the limitations of the actors’ strike in the U.S., which was ongoing when our interview took place — meant that I was able to dwell on Efron the man, and his motivations. In his journey so far, a king has emerged from a pulchritudinous harlequin, and his place now is as the sensitive hero, statesmanlike and dignified.
In his new movie, The Iron Claw, we learn lessons about how dedication, both physical and mental, helps develop a character on screen and off. Zac plays Kevin Von Erich, one of the Von Erich brothers from a famous wrestling family in the era of professional wrestling that preceded W.W.E. The film follows these young men under the whip-hand of their pushy father in a story that ultimately becomes a Shakespearean tragedy, and farce rolled into one. The Iron Claw is the name of the finishing move the brothers use in the ring, but the metaphor of a father’s vice-like grip on his children and their choices does not go unnoticed.
So the film is about the boys, but it is also about the responsibilities of fatherhood and what it means to push or control your children, knowing that children are wired to want your approval and to love you despite the harshness, almost to a farcical extent. Of course, as we view the film through a contemporary lens, we do so understand more about what kind of behaviours are or are not toxic and how our environment affects us. The movie also comes wrapped up in 1980s hairdos and a Rush soundtrack.
Efron says: “Very specific to the Von Erich brothers was this ride to peak stardom in pro wrestling. They really created a dynasty of the best pro wrestlers if not in Texas then maybe ever on camera, especially in this era. Initially they were outsiders who worked their way in, and a lot of it was because of their father, who was a ruthless albeit effective coach to them. He had a style that was — if you look at it by today’s standards — it would probably be too much to handle. These guys were training like monsters to essentially live up to their dad’s hopes and dreams.”
If you have seen the film’s trailers, you will have noticed the profound physical transformation involved for certain members of the cast. The brothers were titanic men, each a brand new David, had Michelangelo been active in the eighties. This, don’t forget, was the era of Arnie, Stallone, and the blossoming of professional wrestling in the cultural consciousness, where the Von Erich brothers were precursors and inspirations to names such as the Ultimate Warrior, Mr. Perfect, Hulk Hogan, Bret Hart and Rick Rude. The ideal bodies capped off with ideal hair, with again the whiff of farce thrown into a tragic true story.
Toeing that particular line and narrative arc was arguably perfect for Efron, who has elegantly slalomed between comic, romantic and dramatic roles in his career, from the guilty pleasure 17 Again (in which a court scene helped everyone realise that Zac was not to be pigeonholed as a pretty face) and the fantastical Charlie St. Cloud to the Bad Neighbours antagonist, another spin at a musical behemoth in the shape of The Greatest Showman, and his portrayal of Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. I was curious as to whether preparations from a technical standpoint were different depending on the genre of work. “My experience so far is that the difference between a comedic role and a very dramatic role is on the page,” Efron says. “It is situational, these characters are moving through different challenges they face — some of them, albeit from very dramatic things in real life, happen to be written in a very comedic sense. But the level at which you take them seriously never shifts, it never shifts when you know you’re doing comedy, it is actually kind of the opposite. Comedy can become more of a challenge because of that.
“There’s an idea that goes back to acting and portraying real people, be they alive or dead, that the best work you can possibly achieve is approaching the moment of being as close as possible to what they could have gone through, [but] at the same time holding those experiences dear to you and experiencing them on your own... So it is always going to be a hybrid that has to be authentic to you. As soon as you start getting into impressions or sticking too close to what actually happened, you can end up sacrificing a lot of the acting and the character work. It’s an interesting tightrope. You have to trust that the director has done his research and will guide you. It was clear to me that Sean [Durkin] had that in spades.”
Durkin wanted to make The Iron Claw as a tribute because he has been a lifelong fan of the Von Erichs. More than 40 years since the brothers’ heyday, the only one still living is Kevin, Efron’s character. “I might have felt a little bit more pressure, but that just meant another opportunity to get closer to Sean to figure those things out,” Efron says.
The physical preparation undertaken for the character is a story on its own. In October 2022, images of the cast from the set showed the muscle bulk that the stars — including the bicep-in-chief, Jeremy Allen White — had to achieve for the authentic physique. This is not Efron’s first rodeo: while he is known for keeping in shape and promoting the virtues of exercise, there have been roles that have required a little more — for example, he reportedly found the Baywatch experience particularly tough, and it affected his mental health. I was interested to hear whether these kinds of corporeal undulations are a sacrifice that actors have to accept, and whether Efron has learned how to cope with the physical effort involved in performing. “I am still learning. I have always admired physical transformations for a role, and I have had a couple of goes at it. In one way or another none of them were perfected on any level. For Kevin I knew that if I was going to do this right and hold my head high, it was going to be the most physically gruelling workout and diet regimen that I had ever embarked on. I started training six months prior to filming. By the middle of the six months I realised that that obsession with looking as good as possible, and that dedication to the work and the food, was becoming an obsession for me, and I took that into the role; it was a way for me to become Kevin in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. We were both ultimately preparing for roles, as wrestling is a performance, too.”
There are two sides to that story, though. While the process clearly had its merits vis-à-vis the final cut, there were challenges and sacrifices. “I didn’t do any socialising during filming, I was fully committed to the gym,” he says. “Wake up, ice bath, trying to find decent food, then training upwards of two hours per day. I was putting a lot into it, all different modalities of training. Feeling that was unique, I don’t know if I was enjoying it or not, it takes you out of a place where you have the ability to socialise with friends or family or travel or have the legs under you to go out and have dinner — you don’t have it in you. I sensed that it was narrowing my world to the point that I wasn’t sure whether I was enjoying it or not. I can safely say I don’t know whether I was enjoying the process.” Having recently played a few hours of backgammon, I sympathise with the strain this level of exertion can bring.
One aspect of Zac’s 20-year career that I have particularly appreciated has been the fact that his much-lauded physique and athleticism play more of a part in his life away from the silver screen than on it. Yes, the global moviegoing public sees a sex symbol à la Paul Newman or Harrison Ford, but The Rake also loves an intrepid type, and our cover star seems to be sans pareil in terms of the acting profession. Efron’s various exploits include appearances on Down to Earth, Running Wild with Bear Grylls, Off the Grid (on his own YouTube channel), and a series called Killing Zac Efron, which, by some accounts, nearly killed Zac Efron due to his catching typhoid in Papua New Guinea.
Given that it’s not completely unreasonable to suggest that Zac might choose to find the source of the Nile overshooting a film, I was curious as to where his motivations lay in this area. “One of the biggest blessings of my journey is that I have been able to travel from a young age,” he said. “At the beginning, it was really just for press, being called across to Japan for Hairspray, and I got to see Japanese culture, and I was really taken with that. That curiosity in me kept growing, and usually if I am not working then I will be on a trip finding something new. A new part of the world, trying the food, meeting the people, finding out as much about their culture as possible. It is a great way to live, and it opens your eyes to something much bigger than Hollywood, it can all feel very small if you’re stuck in L.A., and I was stuck there for quite a few years.”
Read the full interview in Issue 91, available now.
Photographer's Assistant: Paul Rae/Tarik Richards
Digital Technician: Brandon Smith
Grooming: Sydney Sollod @ The Wall Group
Stylist's Assistant: Cameron Greene
Producer: Aaron Zumback