Zac Efron still remembers the first time he drove to Los Angeles.
“I was in the back of my mom’s minivan” rolling down the first four-lane highway he’d ever seen, recalled the the San Luis Obispo-born actor, who was about 13 at the time. “It was petrifying. It was like, “What the heck is going on? This is a huge city.” It was so surreal to see so many cars on a freeway and buildings 10 times the size of my house.”
That experience has stuck with the star of “Baywatch,” “The Lucky One” and the “High School Musical” movies as he’s gone from teen idol to ab-tastic Hollywood hunk.
“That grassroots (upbringing) is always going to be a part of me,” said Efron, an Arroyo Grande High School graduate who appeared in productions at the Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville in Oceano and PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria. “The Central Coast made me who I am.”
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Efron’s latest movie, “The Greatest Showman,” represents a return to his show-business roots. The big-screen musical, which opens in theaters Dec. 20, stars Hugh Jackman as legendary circus owner, entrepreneur and entertainment impressario P.T. Barnum.
Efron plays Phillip Carlyle, a sophisticated theater actor who leaves behind his upper-crust life to become Barnum’s ringmaster protegé. Along the way, he falls for a pink-haired trapeze artist played by Zendaya.
Efron recently chatted with The Tribune about his career, his Central Coast roots and why he stopped doing musicals.
Q: You saw “The Greatest Showman” for the first time at the Dec. 8 world premiere. What did you think?
A: I was sitting next to my mom. It just brought me back to that overwhelming feeling of joy that I’ve always gotten from music and from musicals. ...
(Director) Michael Gracey really accomplished what he set out to do — that was (to) make a truly original musical, which is very, very hard to do these days. (Chuckles) It’s almost unheard of. Not only did he accomplish that but (this movie also) has so many positive messages in a beautiful world, a beautiful setting, that resonates with adults and kids and families alike.
Q: What attracted you to this project in the first place?
A: Michael Gracey really is a visionary, the only guy really ambitious enough out there (to tackle this project). You can see it in his eyes and in the way he speaks. It’s in his spirit, really, this passion to deliver something spellbounding and different. He’s not afraid to break the mold. He’s not afraid to go places that aren’t typical. ...
I sense that (spirit) sometimes in myself when I’m doing good work (chuckles), but only glimpses. He’s the real deal. He does it 24/7.
Q: What else about “The Greatest Showman” drew you in?
A: The music was definitely one of the most cool things about the movie. ...
(Lyricists) Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are two incredible musicians that I met prior to their Academy Awards and Tony Awards ... (working) on this movie. They were just two cool guys who were really, really great with music and encouraged me and got me excited to sing again — which I was a little nervous about to say the least. ...
One of the first things I did when I got a packet of material from the director was throw the CD in my car. I just had the songs on repeat.
They weren’t showtunes. ... They didn’t sound like vaudeville or something old-timey. It was quite the opposite. They sounded like modern-day hit pop songs. They also had some soul and some grit and some really deep spirit. I was like, “Damn! Holy crap! This is next level.”
Q: Why were you nervous about singing again?
A: Just because it’s been a while. The voice is like any other muscle in the body. If you don’t train it every day, if you don’t use it every day, it can shrink. It’s been out of commission for a while for me. I’ve lowered my register. (Laughs) I went back basically to square one and started vocal lessons.
Q: Were you equally nervous about the dancing aspect?
A: Dancing is something that’s never really come naturally. ... It’s been a while since my tap class since I took for all of three lessons when I was 14. (Laughs) Or anything of the stuff I did training with (drama teacher) Robyn Metchik for our vaudeville acts. (Laughs)
And also, I’ve put on a little weight since then. It was like moving around with a whole different body. For a few days it was like, “Oh man, I’m extraordinarily tired way too soon. I used to be able to go through a whole number like a breeze.” But, you know, I’m 30 now. (Chuckles)
Q: It’s been a while since you’ve done musical theater. Were you trying to distance yourself from your early career?
A: It was a necessity, in my opinion. I don’t think my career would be interesting for me if I would’ve just stuck to the same thing. I needed to stretch myself in a different way. ...
Exploring acting has been a profoundly justifying journey, a very, very cool journey. And it’s unfinished — I still have a long way to go. I feel like I’m literally just getting started.
Q: You’ve done everything from silly comedies to serious dramas. How do you pick your projects?
A: Whenever I’m looking at a project, I feel like I’m Neo in “The Matrix” and have the option of taking the red pill or the blue pill. (You take) the blue one, you wake up and things stay the same. Or you can take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes. I feel like that’s always the more interesting route.
Seeing how far I can really push myself (has) led me to meet some of the most interesting people and go to some of the most interesting places ever and accomplish things I never really dreamed of. ... It’s like a never-ending game. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you’re regardless a better player at the end.
Q: Why are you eager to share “The Greatest Showman” with the world?
A: There’s a lot of great messages riddled throughout (the movie). There’s one of acceptance of all people regardless of their shape, size, gender, color, sexual orientation, etc., etc., etc. But (there’s) an even more important one about coming to love yourself, unabashedly so, and not being afraid of who you are.
Every single fault, or every single thing you may think is wrong about you, is in fact what sets you apart from everyone else in the world and makes you special.
That’s one of the great things about theater. (Chuckles) In high school, oftentimes people get made fun of us for being theater nerds or liking something different. I was luckily around a good group of friends and in a supportive atmosphere when I was younger. ...
I had a platform to work with people that were college age when I was 12 or 13.
It was just mind-blowing to me that there were such free-thinkers in the world. They didn’t really believe in the same things my parents did. They had different opinions that they weren’t afraid to share. (Laughs) ... They sang beautifully and they could move like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in the movies I watched. ...
They would cry, openly. That was OK there. ... That wasn’t necessarily OK in my house. It wasn’t something I saw every day.
These guys were very in touch with their emotions and they weren’t afraid of them. I think that’s part of what shaped me.
Q: That sounds liberating.
A: It was. All the way from the Melodrama to PCPA, (these theater programs) ... were just incredibly liberating and fun. They would stretch you as a person.
Every day you’d get to confront a fear, something that made you nervous. Like, I hated public speaking.
A: Yeah, and I still do. I still get butterflies today. But rather than see those butterflies and feel terrified, I take the butterflies and kind of breathe them in now. It makes me feel alive. (Chuckles)
Q: What do you miss most about the Central Coast? Are there places you always try to visit?
A: Nowadays when I go home I try to drive through all the places I grew up, like Santa Maria and the (Nipomo) Mesa. I like to go by the beaches and see how much they’ve all changed and grown. It’s really crazy all the development that’s gone on.
I love spending time in San Luis (Obispo) and Grover (Beach) and Pismo (Beach), the places I used to surf growing up — well, tried to surf. (Chuckles)
It’s the place that got me in touch with the outdoors, hiking around Dinosaur (Caves Park) or going out to Pirate’s Cove, sneaking into the hot springs (in Avila Beach). For some reason, I still want to sneak in even though I don’t have to any more. (Laughs)
I’ll still hit the same movie theater (Regal Cinemas in Arroyo Grande) I went to growing up and take my mom out to see whatever the latest thing that she’s digging.
Q: Would you ever move back to San Luis Obispo County?
A: One hundred percent. (I’ve) already had far-fetched plans to do it, but time just hasn’t allowed it yet. It’s all there in the future. I visualize it every time that I meditate.
Part of me never left. I’ll definitely be home soon.