If you want to see Zac Efron with his shirt off, you needn’t look further than his slate of recent and upcoming films: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, out last month, in which he’s often shirtless; Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, slated for August, which has him basically shirtless on the movie poster; and next year’s big-screen adaptation of ’90s TV series Baywatch, in which he’s routinely running on the beach—no surprise here—shirtless. A Google Images search for Efron yields hundreds of photographs that will make you feel terrible about your own fitness, as will looking him up on Instagram, where he’s lately contributed plenty of beefcake photos from the Baywatch set, where he and co-star Dwayne Johnson spend their off-hours engaged in bare-chested truck-tire-flipping contests.
Though Efron, now 28, worked very hard to achieve his physique (the same shirtless torso that, in 2014’s Neighbors, caused Seth Rogen’s character to say, “He looks like something a gay guy designed in a laboratory”) and works even harder to maintain it (more on that later), he’s also aware the subject has begun to spin out of control. The furious online coverage of his pecs, lats, and delts expands daily, ranging from fawning and breathless (“This Woman Spraying Zac Efron’s Body Has Your Dream Job!”) to downright weird (“Are buff male stars like Zac Efron driving young men to drugs and eating disorders?”). And certainly Efron appreciates the love; but as a guy who spent years running away from the first, extremely popular, version of himself—Zac Efron, Pretty Boy Teen Idol—he admits he’s now wary of being typecast all over again, this time as Zac Efron, Shredded Human Ken Doll.
But let’s be clear: That doesn’t mean Efron has any intention of letting himself go—as easy as that would be, given his ridiculous schedule.
It’s a Sunday in L.A., and we’re sitting at a table in the garden room of the trendy Soho House. He flew in early yesterday from the set of Baywatch, in Savannah, GA; so far he’s seen his girlfriend, slept a little, and filmed an entire day of reshoots on Neighbors 2, in which he reprises his role as Teddy. That shoot ran until 5 a.m., after which Efron spent some more time with his girlfriend, then caught a few hours of sleep before dragging himself out of bed to drive over to West Hollywood to talk about himself over brunch. As soon as we finish, he’ll go straight to the airport and fly back to Savannah, landing around 1 a.m., and by 7 tomorrow morning, he’ll be on set again, alongside the Rock, rescuing people pretending to drown.
“It’s been a pretty gnarly schedule,” he says. It’s obvious he’s tired, and I half expect him to order a cheeseburger and a beer and prop up his feet. Instead, he digs into a small backpack and pulls out a plastic bottle, shakes it up, and sets it on the table.
Inside is a yellow-brown liquid with a foamy head, comprising ingredients typed onto a label by his on-set nutritionist: mango, coconut, and lemongrass with coconut water, virgin coconut oil, Epic protein, and almond milk. He drinks a little, then adds water to dilute what’s left. When our iced coffees arrive, he pours a little of that into the bottle, too. So yeah: Zac Efron is so committed to his body that he’s BYO-health-drink at a place that offers at least five proprietary juice concoctions incorporating every conceivable type of vegetable as well as uniquely L.A.-ish ingredients like alkaline water, montmorillonite clay, and activated charcoal.
In person, Efron is taller than I’d imagined—5'9"—and far less bulky. It’s not until he pushes his sleeve up to scratch at the remnants of a fake fraternity tattoo from the previous day’s shoot that I glimpse a sign of it: a giant biceps, ridged with veins.
“I guess I forgot to scrub there,” he says.
Efron sips his drink and grimaces a little. This is something to tolerate, not enjoy. And the payoff is a body that, he says, feels as good as it ever has. “Right now I’m probably the physically strongest I’ve ever felt,” he says. “Not in terms of bench press or how much I can squat, but in how quickly I could get out of this room and destroy everything in my path.” He looks around the room—at the parents with kids, the willowy young women and men eating in sunglasses to disguise their hangovers—and laughs. Maybe this isn’t the boldest pronouncement he’s ever made.
“If the zombie apocalypse happened right now,” he says, “I’d definitely be able to defend myself.”
Zac Efron knows you think he's a jackass
Of course, Efron wasn't always recognized for being an obscenely fit man. Or, for that matter, for being a man at all. At the height of his early fame, circa 2007, Zac Efron was the extremely handsome teen star of Disney’s smash-hit High School Musical franchise who, according to a popularly cited but impossible-to-prove metric, was plastered on a third of all American teenage girls’ bedroom walls.
Efron probably could have made a bazillion more High School Musical sequels, albums, and mall appearances, then retired into a life of wealthy obscurity. But he had other things in mind.
“The second we finished the first one,” he says, he began to tell people this wasn’t the life he had in mind. “I was, like, 17. And I said, ‘Guys, you know this is not at all what I want to do?’ And they were like, ‘Really?’”
After appearing in the 2007 musical Hairspray, Efron went on to his next post-HSM projects, the teen-girl-friendly films 17 Again and Charlie St. Cloud; but he quickly bailed on the Footloose remake and began to do, well, anything that wouldn’t typecast him. There were dramas (Parkland), thrillers (The Paperboy), indies (We Are Your Friends), grown-up romances (The Lucky One and That Awkward Moment, the latter a bro-fest co-starring Michael B. Jordan and Miles Teller). He even voiced a starring role in Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, and poked fun at himself in several Funny Or Die sketches.
Off-set Efron was experimenting, too. He became a recurring character in the tabloids for a series of social shenanigans that culminated in early 2014, when he got into a fight with a homeless man under a downtown L.A. overpass. He went to rehab, emerged sober, and immediately owned up to his problems, telling The Hollywood Reporter that it was all part of being young, single, and successful in the industry. “I’m human,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes.
Then in May 2014, Neighbors came out, and the “Efronaissance” began: The former teen idol surprised nearly everyone in Hollywood by playing a lovably arrogant prick and showing formidable comedic chops. The R-rated comedy earned more than $260 million and became the highest-grossing live-action film of co-star Seth Rogen’s career; but the biggest surprise was probably that Efron stole the movie. Like Justin Timberlake before him, he seemed to successfully shed any former teen-idol lameness and managed to come out the other side not only respectable and unscathed but also cool.
And yet, Efron is nowhere near ready to declare this transformation complete. “I step back and look at myself and I still want to kick that guy’s ass sometimes,” Efron says of his former self. “Like, fuck that guy. He’s done some kind of cool things with some cool people—he did that one thing [Neighbors] that was funny—but, I mean, he’s still just that fucking kid from [High School Musical].”
That’s how Rogen felt, too, when he ran into Efron at a party a few years back. “For sure, I assumed he’d be a guy I wouldn’t like very much,” Rogen told me. “But he was very self-effacing and self-deprecating, and I remember really liking him. He won me over.”
Efron says Rogen “was and is my hero” and confesses he never considered working with him “within the realm of possibility.” In their initial meeting about Neighbors, Efron recalls speaking first. “I said, ‘I know what you think of me. I know because I don’t like me, so I can’t imagine what you think.’”
According to Rogen, it’s this self-awareness that makes Efron so endearing—it provides a level of psychological complexity that gives his characters a depth they might not otherwise have. “What’s surprising about him is how sympathetic and vulner-able he seems,” Rogen says, “probably because people view him a certain way and he’s been shit on. He’s someone you sympathize with, and that’s really hard to do when you look the way he does.”
“I know that’s how people think, and it’s in the back of my mind all the time,” Efron says. “I ultimately want that person to want to see me in another interesting role. And that can only come with time, respect, and making decisions that are hard.”
If you look closely enough, there are plenty of signs of this process at work, often in unlikely places. The previous night, I’d stumbled on something online I hadn’t seen before: Efron was the first-ever celebrity guest on Running Wild with Bear Grylls, the survival spin-off in which Grylls takes celebrities—most recently President Obama—into the wild and teaches (or tries to teach) them to fend for themselves.
The episode opens with Efron and Grylls skydiving from a helicopter to begin their quest. Efron had jumped a grand total of once in preparation, and that was with an instructor at a much higher altitude. But then the show called for him to make a 5,000-foot solo jump with a self-deploying chute. To viewers at home, Efron jumped out, the chute opened, and he landed. In reality, he says, what happened was “one of the worst things possible.”
To be more specific, he almost died when the lead chute’s cord tangled around his ankle and wouldn’t deploy. “As I was going head-first toward the ground, I thought to myself, ‘Something’s wrong here,’” Efron recalls. He could feel the tension of the chute’s cord tightening around his leg, “and everything went kind of white and I started to say, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic, reach for your reserve!’” Jumping from only 5,000 feet doesn’t give a person much time to react, but he did everything he could to free his leg. “I just started kicking wildly,” he says. “Then all of a sudden, shoomp!, the parachute came out. And I went, ‘Oh my God, that was close.’”
Perhaps most surprisingly, he then just brushed it off. “I haven’t really told anybody this since then,” he says. He adored Grylls, and the two wandered around the woods for two days, snacking on worms, rappelling down cliffs, and camping out in a cave, where they joked and told stories. “This is a guy who’s not in the entertainment industry,” Efron says. “I don’t know what he knew of my work or if he’d seen any of it, but I was so grateful he was interested in who I was. I felt like I was talking to just a guy, a dude, with no judgments. He came in with no preconceived notions, and we talked about awesome stuff.”
From the court to the stage
Efron was born in San Luis Obispo, on California's central coast, and spent his childhood there with his younger brother, Dylan, who’s now his roommate in Los Feliz. Their father, an electrical engineer at a power plant, and mother, a secretary who worked at the same facility, gave their boys a fairly normal middle-class life. Efron recalls that, throughout his school years, he had one defining trait: his height, or lack thereof.
“I was the shortest kid in every grade, by a long shot,” he says, and only 5'1" by the time he left high school. He didn’t reach his current height until he turned 20.
His dad pushed both sons to try sports. Zac played baseball but quit at 13 when his size became a real hindrance. So he switched to basketball, “and rode the bench for most of the year.” He scored a total of two points that season and says that when he made that lone shot—a layup that only happened because the defense assumed he wasn’t worth guarding—“everybody [in the crowd] fucking lost it. Literally the parents stood up. My team lost it.”
In the end it was a piano teacher who saved Efron from a life of athletic ridicule, recommending that his parents let him audition for a show at a nearby conservatory after hearing him sing a Michael Jackson song. Efron auditioned for Gypsy, got the part, “and that was it.” The show ran 60 performances. “Once I found theater, I’d do anything to get onstage,” he says. He took drama classes and continued to win parts at the conservatory, practicing and performing alongside college students and even professional actors from the area.
“I was, like, 13, 14, and thrust into this world where my parents weren’t allowed, with college girls and dudes who loved to share knowledge, and it opened up a whole new world for me.”
For all our talk about getting away from the past, it’s obvious Efron still cares deeply about musical theater. “I’d love to find a way to reinvent a musical,” he says when I ask if he’d do it again. But for now, Efron’s reading scripts and taking meetings—but, he says, every audition is still a fight.
“The only way people really get me is if they meet me,” he says. “Until that happens, I don’t think they have their heart set on me for any role. Afterward, maybe they take me more seriously.”
Zac Efron earned his Baywatch body
Efron’s fitness goal, especially for Baywatch, is to be “fast and light.” His physical archetype is Bruce Lee. “I want to be lean,” he says. “When I put on a T-shirt, I don’t want people to go, ‘Oh, that guy’s a bodybuilder.’”
To consume enough calories to carry out Baywatch’s many physically difficult scenes yet keep his body fat minimal, Efron eats a diet designed by his nutritionist, trainer Patrick Murphy: Every element—carbohydrates, fat, salt, vitamins—is broken out for every meal, so both he and the nutritionist can see exactly what he’s putting into his body. The diet is extremely low-carb, with an emphasis on fully organic whole foods. “After a while your body stops craving junk food and you look forward to these meals,” he says. When I express my skepticism, he explains further. “There’s this trigger that happens after two or three weeks of dieting and eating healthy food, where your body switches its primary energy source from burning mainly carbohydrates to burning fat,” he explains. “And when it switches over, all your cravings change. You go, ‘Holy cow, I want kale and vinaigrette shredded with beets and a little bit of sweet potato!’” I wait for him to laugh. He doesn’t.
Efron was no less serious about the fitness regimen created for him by Murphy, who spent 10 weeks helping him “drop the last bit of body fat” and “get into the best shape of his life.” It wasn’t a superfluous task: “Many actors train hard for a specific scene,” Murphy says—but Efron was prepping to shoot an entire film wearing, for the most part, nothing but swim trunks and a whistle.
Murphy trained him five or six days a week, often twice a day, mixing balance and agility, strength, and endurance training, plus swimming and sprinting/hiking to create what he calls “the most dynamic program I’ve ever put together for a client.” A few weeks after our chat in L.A., Efron has a rare day off in Savannah, and I manage to get him on the phone.
One thing I’d wanted to ask him about in L.A., before we ran out of time, was his sobriety. Efron battled some very public drug and alcohol issues, and he’s been forthright about those episodes ever since. He says he’d even discussed those days with Grylls on the show. “I was caring less about the work and more about the weekend,” he told Grylls as the two prepared to eat an omelet made of wild bird eggs and earthworms. “I don’t want to have to take anything from the outside to feel good on the inside.”
And when I bring it up, Efron doesn’t flinch. Working out has definitely helped, he says. “When I’m very careful about my fitness and have a goal in mind, it keeps me motivated and balanced. I wake up earlier. I don’t feel the need to be out—that kills your day, your hobbies, and your motivation.”
Fitness, he says, is now a key part of a formula that seems to be working: “Balancing sobriety and work and finding that comfortable place where you feel like a good person.”
Being exiled to Savannah to work for weeks alongside the Rock isn’t likely to lead to a relapse, either. Johnson, Efron says, is exactly what any of us imagine him to be: a superhero in corporeal form, “like the genes just clicked and made this dude.”
Efron wakes up at 5 a.m. to train—but the Rock rises by 4. “He’s getting less sleep than I am and he already did a post on Instagram at 5:30, doing the most ridiculous leg day you’ve ever seen,” Efron says. “He’s reached nirvana—muscle nirvana.” The admiration, it turns out, is mutual. “Athletes know how hard it is to prep, train, and diet for a competition,” Johnson says. “It’s months of focused sacrifice all leading up to one particular event that takes place in one night. In the case of Baywatch, Zac’s had to apply the diet and training strategy of an elite athlete, but he’s also had the ‘added bonus’ of needing to maintain that look for months while we’re shooting. Zac committed to be the best version of himself possible and did it. He came in looking like a fucking animal.”
The two have been gleefully bro-ing out ever since.
Early on set one day, as the cameras were preparing to roll, Johnson noticed Efron working with some elastic bands—“to, as Arnold says, ‘get the pump on,’” he explains. Johnson asked Efron to toss one his way, and the two commenced prepping their movie-star muscles for the first scenes. The surreality of the moment poured over Efron like a bucket of nacho cheese. “Here we are lifting weights on the beach, surrounded by a bunch of people watching. It was one of the most ridiculously narcissistic moments of my life.”
And with that, Efron has to go. He’s late to be fitted for a new carbon-fiber road bike his manager bought him so he can take up endurance cycling. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you about my first triathlon sometime,” he says.
The way he’s going, it’ll probably be the Ironman.