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The Transformation Of Zac Efron From High School Musical To Now

When Zac Efron broke out in 2006's "High School Musical" on the Disney Channel as basketball player and all-around good guy Troy Bolton, he became an international celebrity and a teen heartthrob almost overnight. Even though most of his song vocals were dubbed in the first film (by Drew Seeley), he had the "it" factor that casting directors need to make such a risky project — a television musical, not based on a Broadway show, with a $4.2 million dollar budget — a roaring success. The franchise then became a bonafide pop-cultural phenomenon that generated more than $100 million in sales for Disney, as reported by the New York Times.

"When we first met Zac, we felt he had the quality of what we'd call a matinee idol. He was stunning, but he wasn't cocky, which isn't something you'd find in young people," casting director Natalie Hart told Variety. "He had an accessibility. We knew he had the capability of being a leading man."

In some circles, the actor is still best known for his high-profile performance in the "High School Musical" trilogy, which, more than any of his other projects, gained him a cadre of fervent fans that follow him to this day. However, his journey during the last 15 years has shown that he's a versatile talent who can play anything from wholesome dancing heroes to serial killers. And if you still think of him the way he appeared from his Disney days, you're missing out on a whole lot. Let's take a look at his career from then to now.

He went the teen idol route — for a few more films, anyway

Although some of his co-stars from "High School Musical" fully embraced the Disney star life as the movie got more popular, doing interviews and fan events and going on tour with "High School Musical: The Concert," Efron's career trajectory changed instantly. Sure, he did an episode of "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" in which he played a smart guy that London (Brenda Song) was trying to impress, though ultimately ended up being attracted to Maddie (Ashley Tisdale, his "HSM" co-star). But he quickly moved on to other projects playing teenage leading men, too, including "High School Musical 2" and "High School Musical 3."

One of his most publicized projects coming out of "High School Musical" was 2007's "Hairspray," another musical — this time based on the 1988 John Waters cult film that was turned into a Broadway show. He played the leading man to Nikki Blonsky's Tracy Turnblatt as Link Larkin. He also leveraged his teen-leading-man power in 2009's fantasy-comedy "17 Again," in which an accident turns Matthew Perry's character into his 17-year-old self, allowing him to fix mistakes he made as a teenager. 

But Efron, showing some career savvy even at a young point in his career, knew that staying in these types of roles might get him typecast. In 2007, he was attached to the remake of the 1980s dancing film "Footloose" fresh off his success with "High School Musical," but it ultimately got released in 2011 without him. He told People, "I'm sure 'Footloose' would have been a huge challenge, but the actors that I love and the actors that work really hard in this industry are always shaking things up, trying new genres, acquiring new skill sets. That's what's always going to appeal to me: the unknown."

Zac Efron cut off a maturing career to address addiction

Instead of staying in those types of roles, Efron moved on to more mature (but way less popular) movies like "Charlie St. Cloud," where he portrayed a small-town sailing hero who survives a tragic accident but can now see the spirit of his dead younger brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). He also starred in "The Paperboy," a 2012 entry at the Cannes Film Festival in which he played Matthew McConaughey's younger brother Jack. The film, however, was a big flop both critically and commercially. Of course, that same year, he also voiced Ted in "The Lorax" animated film, which did much better. 

Efron isn't the first young actor to have trouble navigating the pitfalls of stardom at a young age, and he won't be the last. In 2013, though, he took a career break to address some personal issues. He did a stint in rehab for drug and alcohol addiction, and then in 2014, he made headlines for getting in a fight with a homeless man. ""I was drinking a lot, way too much," he told The Hollywood Reporter, admitting to the presence of drugs as well. "It's never one specific thing. I mean, you're in your 20s, single, going through life in Hollywood, you know? Everything is thrown at you. I wouldn't take anything back; I needed to learn everything I did. But it was an interesting journey, to say the least."

At the time of the interview, he was in Alcoholics Anonymous and was also seeing a therapist. He also acknowledged his role as a role model and said, "I'm a human being, and I've made a lot of mistakes. I've learned from each one."

He went through a 'dude-bro' stage

Despite that hiccup, he was soon back on-screen, often playing young adult roles in comedies with varying amounts of success. 

For example, Efron took on the roles of an happily unmarried bachelor in "That Awkward Moment" and fraternity president Teddy Sanders in "Neighbors" in 2014. There are some rather famous shirtless scenes in "Neighbors," but it's uncertain what role Efron's bare upper bod played in the success of the movie, which Rolling Stone described as "the highest-grossing live-action film of Seth Rogen's career." In the plot, a frat led by Teddy moves in next door to Rogen's character, Mac, and his wife (Rose Byrne), who have a new baby. A call to the cops during a party leads to all-out war between the neighbors. 

Efron followed that up with roles in several comedies in which he played similar hard-partying characters, such as two "Neighbors" sequels and "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates." His role in "We Are Your Friends" from 2015 is a bit more serious, allowing him to become a DJ in a coming-of-age drama, but it's a similar general idea. All this was part of Efron's growth process, though, as he eventually reached A-list mainstream status a few years later.

Zac Efron eventually became a Hollywood A-lister

In 2017, Efron played ex-Olympic swimmer and bad boy Matt Brody in the abysmally-reviewed "Baywatch," based on the '90s beach drama, which had a big budget and stars like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Priyanka Chopra. On the other hand, he also made big waves starring opposite Zendaya and Hugh Jackman in the giant hit "The Greatest Showman," returning to the musical genre that turned him into a superstar in the first place. 

Efron took on his most challenging role yet for Netflix in 2019, playing serial killer Ted Bundy in "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile." "I've never played a role in which I really have to separate myself from when I go home at night and it was almost impossible," he said, as quoted by the Daily Mail. "I'd like to say that I did it successfully but I couldn't." He said he wasn't interested in glamorizing "a horrendous person or his acts," but the film's unique way of investigating his psyche made him want to take the project on.

His other project for Netflix was 2020's "Down to Earth with Zac Efron," in which he and wellness personality Darin Olien explore sustainable living. Efron's upcoming movies including remakes of '80s favorites "Three Men and a Baby" and Stephen King's "Firestarter." There's no word on what happened to the series he was doing for Quibi, "Killing Zac Efron," which reportedly got him hospitalized for typhoid while filming. 

All in all, Efron has played a wide range of roles in film, and that's not even counting his videos on YouTube and social media projects. Sounds like a pretty major transition from the teenage musical idol he became in "High School Musical" — we're looking forward to seeing what he does next.