Zac Efron: He acts, he sings — and he's local

Besides acting, singing and dancing, 18-year-old Zac Efron of Arroyo Grande plays a mean air guitar. He also can play a real guitar and the piano.
Besides acting, singing and dancing, 18-year-old Zac Efron of Arroyo Grande plays a mean air guitar. He also can play a real guitar and the piano. The Tribune

In a moment 13-year-old girls could die for, Zac Efron has just emerged from the shower, his hair wet, his feet bare and the belt holding up his torn jeans still unbuckled. He's getting ready to head to Los Angeles to promote "High School Musical," the television movie that has crushed Disney Channel ratings records and spawned a soundtrack that just rose to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

But for a couple more hours, the 18-year-old actor is at home in Arroyo Grande, where his parents recently had to change their phone number because of a sudden influx of fan appreciation.

"Somehow our phone number got out online, and it got really bad," Efron says. "We were getting calls in the wee hours of the morning."

It wasn't long ago that Efron was performing in plays at Unity Church in San Luis Obispo. Now he's a veteran of television and movies, whose face graces teen magazine covers and whose name is springing up all over the Internet.

In January, he was the second-highest rising Google entertainment search subject, ahead of actress Kate Beckinsale, the Pittsburgh Steelers and "American Idol."

While Efron was a regular on the short-lived WB network show "Summerland" and has made guest appearances on "CSI: Miami," "ER" and "NCIS," his role in "High School Musical" has propelled him into teen stardom.

The movie -- about a high school basketball star played by Efron and a shy brainy girl played by Vanessa Anne Hudgens who share a love of singing -- is the Disney Channel's highest-rated show ever.

At his parents' home, posters for the movie are stacked on a kitchen table, not far from a pile of teen magazines and newspaper clippings Efron's father has collected. A script for a Lifetime network movie sits on the kitchen counter.

By day's end, Efron will have to decide whether to take the role being offered in that movie. Meanwhile, he's working on a Fox network TV pilot. And there's already a sequel planned to "High School Musical."

Efron started acting at age 11, when he tried out for a minor role in the PCPA musical "Gypsy." Though he had no formal acting or singing experience, he got the part.

"From Day One, I got addicted to being on stage and getting the applause and laughter," he said.

Soon he was auditioning for a slew of local plays. Then came singing lessons and drama classes. Eventually, his eighth-grade drama teacher recommended he audition for TV and movie roles.

While still enrolled at Arroyo Grande High School, Efron and his mother would drive to Los Angeles three days a week so he could try out for parts.

Originally awarded a guest spot in the WB show "Summerland," he eventually became a regular. Since then, he's spent much of his time in Los Angeles, where his parents rent an apartment.

Though he made the jump from small plays to TV in relatively short time, it doesn't come as easy as it seems.

"For every role that I have done on TV and movies, I've auditioned for 30 or 40," he says.

Efron has auditioned for some roles 10 times, he says, only to be rejected. Other times, he's been told he had a role, only to see it go to someone else.

"It's ruthless," he says. "There are several thousand kids out there with brown hair and blue eyes that are my age trying to be in movies. Getting a job is like beating a casino."

As the list of "High School Musical" candidates thinned, 15 actors were auditioning for each part, dancing, singing and acting for the movie's makers and Disney executives.

"As they watched, they would tap people on the shoulder and send them home, saying they were no longer needed," Efron recalled.

Eventually, Efron won the coveted role of Troy Bolton.

As that role continues to increase his popularity, "The Derby Stallion," a movie he made a year ago, is being shopped around.

The plot centers around a former derby racer, played by character actor Bill Cobbs, who teaches his craft to a teen in rural Georgia. The movie also features William R. Moses of the TV show "Falcon Crest," musician Billy Preston and soap star Tonja Walker, who plays Efron's mother.

On the set, Walker said, Efron quickly became a hit with her young daughters, who also play her daughters in the movie.

"Oh my gosh -- they just love Zac," she said.

While Efron doesn't want to limit himself to Disney Channel movies, he's also not ready to take on overly risque roles, which is why the wholesome "Derby Stallion" appealed to him.

"I'm not going to be going out there having sex on screen and stuff like that at this point in my career," he says. "I want to save a little bit of that young image that I've earned from the Disney Channel."

Local teen on TV

"High School Musical" re-airs at 8 p.m. today on The Disney Channel. Zac Efron, one of the movie's leads, will appear for a screening of his film "The Derby Stallion" at the Palm Theatre at noon Saturday in a San Luis Obispo International Film Festival event. Tickets are $8.