It was really odd, Chris Reinacher was saying, seeing childhood friend Zac Efron walk the red carpet at a Hollywood premiere, when suddenly he encountered Efron in a big way.
"Hey, look--I'm driving in the car, and I just saw a 'Hairspray' billboard with Zac Efron on it," the South County native said recently over a cell phone while driving in Los Angeles.
Efron, also a San Luis Obispo County native, is clearly on a roll, as evidenced not only by L.A. billboards but also by a quick check of the magazine racks, where his image is regularly plastered on several teen magazine covers at once.
"I think I get a daily phone call, asking if I'd give up his phone number," said Katie Boeck, another childhood friend who now goes to school in Southern California; her younger cousins are huge Efron fans. "But I've managed to restrain from having to do that."
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While he had bits parts before his starring role as Troy Bolton in last year's Disney Channel movie "High School Musical" made Efron a teen idol. This weekend Efron will make an impression on adult audiences, as his big-screen debut -- in a remake of the John Waters' classic musical, "Hairspray" -- opens nationwide.
The cast includes John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah and Efron, who director Adam Shankman described to Newsweek as "arguably the biggest teen star in America right now."
A long way to L.A.
Los Angeles may only be 189 miles from San Luis Obispo, but for many Central Coast kids trying to make it in show business, it might as well be a thousand. To borrow a cliché, the trip to stardom is usually a long and winding road.
"I can't believe where I've ended up," Efron said during a phone interview from Southern California. "I've always considered myself that theater kid from San Luis Obispo and Arroyo Grande."
Efron started acting at 11, when he tried out for a minor role in "Gypsy" at the PCPA. After that came more auditions, parts in local productions and drama classes.
"He was always personable and charismatic, even as a kid," said Boeck, now a UCLA musical theater major who appeared with Efron in many local productions.
By the time he was in middle school, drama teacher Robyn Metchik recognized that Efron had what she calls "sparkle." So she recommended he try out for Hollywood roles and referred him to an agent.
"He has a look, he has energy, and he has talent," said Metchik, whose own kids have appeared in several television roles. "So he's got it all."
Metchik helped him make an early connection, but succeeding in Hollywood would require considerable commitment. So Efron's mother, Starla Baskett, drove him to Los Angeles for auditions up to three times a week as he pursued his dream.
While there were a share of rejections, success has come relatively quickly for Efron, 19. And his role in "Hairspray" is yet another launching pad.
"I think he's going to be the next Leonardo DiCaprio," Metchik said.
Even though "High School Musical" broke TV records and spawned a huge-selling sound-track, Efron is the first of the cast to land a major film role.
"I was blessed to find such a cool role right after 'High School Musical,' " Efron said. "It fit perfectly with what I wanted to do."
His role as the hunky Link Larkin in "Hairspray" entailed pairing up with both young upstarts and screen legends. "I sat down todo a table read, and I was next to Michelle Pfeiffer, and on the other side of me was Amanda Bynes and across from me were John Travolta and Chris Walken," he said. "It was such a star-studded cast, I couldn't believe I was sharing a table, let alone working in the same movie as them."
Early reviews have praised both the film and Efron's performance. Describing Efron's work, film critic Emanuel Levy wrote: "Blessed with the looks of a heartthrob, Efron ... is a major talent to watch, with (a) bright Hollywood future ahead."
Of course, many already know this.
"At the premiere, he stepped out of the limo, and everybody was screaming his name," said Boeck, who Efron had invited, along with Metchik and Reinacher. "At the afterparty, he couldn't sit down and eat two bites of his hamburger without having someone come up and ask to take a picture."
While he's often mobbed by fans -- especially younger girls -- friends say Efron is still having fun.
"It's just so nice for me to see that he's so gracious with his fans," said Reinacher, who, like Boeck, is in the UCLA drama program. "And at the same time he really hasn't changed. He's not the superficial Hollywood person you'd expect."
Enjoying the ride
About a month after completing "Hairspray," Efron worked on "High School Musical 2," set to be aired next month.
While more offers are coming in, friends say he's handling success well.
"You hear those stories about young stars on the brink of fame, and they're going downhill by the minute," Boeck said. "But he's really calm and collected, and I think that's because he knows what he wants, and he knows what his goals are."
While Efron does have two publicists working for him, he chuckled when asked if he has a full-fledged posse.
"I have the essentials," he said. "I call it my team because in no way are they a posse. It's like a group of friends and colleagues that come together and help me make decisions."
Right now his team is primarily setting up talk show appearances and promotional tours. Efron just returned from a promo stop in London. Future trips to Spain, Japan and Australia are in the works.
"You travel to exotic places, and then do nothing but sit in hotel rooms the entire day," Efron said, describing the process. "You sit in a room for hours and hours, interviewers come in, and they have five minutes of time."
While some people have offered him advice on his future moves--this being an opportune time to build momentum --Efron said he's not fretting his next role too much. What's really important, he said, is that he enjoy the work.
"I'm trying to follow my heart here," Efron said. "I try not to worry about sustaining momentum. With 'High School Musical' coming out pretty soon, I think if anything there's going to be too much momentum."
Living in L.A.
Now that he lives in the L.A. area full time, the long commutes are over. But he often visits his parents and younger brother in Arroyo Grande. And when in L.A., he often hangs out with his childhood friends now studying there.
"These are the friends I used to do theater with," said Efron, who was also accepted to UCLA but decided to put it off while he pursues his career. "They were the ones I can relate to because we had the same hobbies when we were younger. We weren't playing sports. We weren't goofing off after school with our friends. We did what wasn't cool at the time: We took theater, and we did it together."
He hasn't forgotten his friends or Metchik, whom he credits for keeping students interested in theater.
"She was sort of a mother figure," Efron said. "She kept us all performing together, put us in shows and trained us--and that's how we fell in love with performing."
As for his other mother figure, Efron also won't forget his mom's contributions, even though she no longer has to manage him and drive him to auditions.
"I talk to her all the time," he said, "but now she's back to being my mom. She's just there for support, like when I started theater."