Prowess beyond the pecs: Zac Efron's dynamism

Ahead of A Family Affair coming to Netflix, we look back on Zac Efron’s eclectic career and underrated star power

Feature by Lucy Fitzgerald | 28 Jun 2024
  • The Iron Claw

When it comes to engagement with Hollywood actor Zac Efron, typically, his appearance makes more headlines than his films. What gets lost in the sauce of aesthetic scrutiny and collective lust is his on-screen range across his varied, two-decade-spanning body of work. So despite being a globally recognisable face, Efron is still, largely, underrated. Let it be known: there is prowess beyond the pecs. 

Equally as game playing a sensitive musical theatre kid as he is a serial killer, Efron's oeuvre is expansive. Despite looking every bit the Übermensch, he dodged the superhero contracts that claimed and culled the artistic integrity of many careers in the last decade. Efron wields his notorious torso not in service of shameless, sexless military propaganda, but of slapstick, good-hearted vulgarity, and haunting dramas. His project choices have remained dynamic, with his IMDb boasting more indies than one might realise (Richard Linklater and Harmony Korine say hi). Efron is what I call an ambidextrous actor: he triumphs equally in comedy and drama. 

Over a decade before Timothée Chalamet apparently revolutionised male vulnerability on screen in Call Me By Your Name, a generation bore witness to the distress of Efron’s Troy Bolton on the Disney Channel sound stages of High School Musical, where his mounting existential crises were causing him multiple breakdowns because he was just so damn porous to the enrichment a life in the arts brought. Rendering the conflicted psyche of a teen at his first coming-of-age crossroads, Efron was deep in his feelings. Then, in 17 Again – playing a man who is approaching middle age and plagued with regret, but magically gets a do-over at youth – Efron summoned and sustained astonishingly lived-in emotion; we saw far-beyond-his-years pathos as he looked longingly at his separated wife with a lifetime of remorse in his eyes. His weepy fragility in the key penultimate courtroom scene was less art-house than Chalamet’s famous fireplace scene, but no less affecting!

Post-Disney, it was time to get serious. With consistent top billing, there was period drama Me and Orson Welles, Nicholas Sparks' war romance The Lucky One (in which lovers were sweetly tethered by… interventionist American foreign policy), the lachrymose Charlie St. Cloud, and the more explicit The Paperboy. Simply never turning in a bad performance, he also did the most with limited scripts – see the meagre That Awkward Moment, and We Are Your Friends, a distinctly 2015 schematic on EDM's liberating power and meditation on millennials resisting their generation’s assigned fait accompli of debt, hustling as self-starter disruptors in the Valley (Efron had heart as the central master of decks). 

Then, crucially, it was time to get silly. The mid-2010s marked a transition point. Some suggested he was on a downward trajectory, playing limbo with low-brow projects, but dismissing the power of the ribald studio comedy is a naïve, fatuous move – think of all-time great Robert de Niro, post-Meet the Parents, embracing fun and accessing a whole new creative reserve as a result.

In the Neighbours movies, Efron played a profoundly immature, insecure, and riotous frat bro. He brought subtlety to the crude cracks, a Midas touch to even the cheapest riff on erectile dysfunction. There is a delicate art to overkilling bong jokes and still being charming. With inspired expressions as Himbo Supreme, he became an auteur of airheads with every incorrect use of air quotes, scoffing retort, and glorious Buster Keaton-meets-Jackass feat of physical comedy. When Seth Rogen is cartoonishly grunting away, you have Efron, the unsuspecting comedic subject, statuesque, stealing the show with an eyebrow raise and a nonplussed cocked head. 

In 2016 he brought the compelling buddy comedy, the Palme d’Or-deserving Dirty Grandpa (some call it tasteless, I call it irreverent!) in which Efron entertained with incredulity as an uptight young lawyer, utterly mortified by the sleazy transgressions of his newly-widowed grandpa. Then, affirming the no-small-parts-only-small-actors adage, his colourful cameos in offbeat A24 films The Disaster Artist and Beach Bum were delightfully insane injections of chaos. In the former, he's a caricature street mugger. In the latter, a mystifying chain-vaping-skater-rehab-escaper with a panini-grilled beard and penchant for pyro.

Efron has been so defined by his commanding physicality, from his foundational work in musicals (there’s been a demanding dance quotient in many of his contracts: HSM, Hairspray, The Greatest Showman) to his Olympic-standard lifeguard training in Baywatch. With new roles, come full-body transformations à la Christian Bale. He underwent his most intense makeover yet for The Iron Claw last year, as a pro wrestler whose imposing form appears to scale only with his immense grief. It’s a near-merciless tale of the Von-Erich dynasty’s dysfunction and dashed dreams. He is the family’s keystone, and the harrowing film’s centre. He delivered a career-best performance, showing off a divine culmination of all his métiers fortified over the years: implosive and tender temperaments, and a formidable athleticism.

Now, in A Family Affair, opposite Nicole Kidman, Efron is back in the comedy combat zone as a soldier of silliness ready to disarm the audience once more. 

Whether swaggering or laid bare, Efron paints with his versatility. How lovely for us to witness a well-adjusted child star evolve and surpass their potential. His beefcake peers simply cannot stir tragedy like he can (Hemsworth, you’ve been lapped!), and his dramatic contemporaries simply cannot match his humour (Butler, I challenge you to a duel… at the open mic!). Ladies, get you a man who can do both!

A Family Affair is streaming on Netflix now