Troy Bolton has grown up.
Once best known as the musically inclined basketball star from High School Musical, Zac Efron has spent much of the past decade escaping the image that made him famous. Instead of making a quick buck on his breakout film's sequels, he diversified. For every musical like Hairspray, there was an independent movie like Me and Orson Welles. For every comedy like 17 Again, there was a drama like Charlie St. Cloud.
At least for a while, this diversity of work wasn't getting him anywhere. His movies did well, but his star power wasn't any bigger than it was when he was a Disney Channel actor. He eventually wound up in rehab in 2013, admitting afterward on an episode of Running Wild with Bear Grylls that he was attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after getting out.
"It was getting to the point where I was caring less about the work and waiting more for the weekend," Efron told Grylls of his pre-rehab life. "I couldn't wait to go out and sort of let loose and have fun, but then when Monday and Tuesday were difficult to get through, then I was like, 'This is bad.'"
That experience brought Efron back to a healthier, more centered place — one that's helped his career. It was a turning point for him in accepting himself not just in his life, but in his work.
It's time to take Efron seriously, because he's taking himself as such; every inch of himself, actually. From career choices to embracing his body in his work, Efron's made himself a star by being who he is.
All about his appearance: Like Neighbors, The Paperboy and That Awkward Moment, Efron's physique has been part of the performance. That's different than relying on body: He's bringing physicality into his work.
His hot fraternity brother in Neighbors was all surface, nothing beneath. He looked great, but he also had no clue what he was doing with his life. The film's final, dark gag: He left college and became a shirtless Abercrombie & Fitch model. Likewise, Efron played the part of a hot, young piece of meat in The Paperboy, even letting costar Nicole Kidman's character pee on him. That's dedication right there. Lee Daniels' movie may have been wild, but Efron was along for the ride.
And sure, maybe That Awkward Moment wasn't the most ambitious work, but you can't deny that toilet maneuver (NSFW) was impressive. He appears to be using the same, ahem, assets in the upcoming Dirty Grandpa, and who can blame him? Efron is comfortable flaunting it, and he's using what he knows people love to continue to build his presence.
Beyond his body: Efron is leaning into his bro-ish stereotype in a way that strangely works. His next movie, We Are Your Friends, features Efron as an ambitious DJ in Los Angeles. Yes, it's tank tops, dance parties and gloss — which is perfect for him.
That's the thing about Efron: He's not Matthew McConaughey; he's not going to turn into an Oscar-worthy actor any time soon. McConaughey is 45, after all (Efron is 27) — it took him a lot longer to reverse his career trajectory. Prestige projects don't have to be Efron's radar any time soon; the Efronaissance isn't about that. It's about making him the best version of himself.
So movies like Dirty Grandpa and the That Awkward Moment are the type of work he should be doing. It showcases him as his authentic self. Occasionally, one of those roles is going to give him more depth to explore. His performance in Neighbors, for instance, is good, second only to Rose Byrne's.
That's how he'll grow as a performer and as a persona. Efron is becoming the best version of himself, and that's what we should want from him. If we can't take that kind of genuine work seriously, we're doing wrong by one of our hardest-working, most intriguing young stars.