Zac Efron has come a long way from East High School with his starring role in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile, on Netflix now. Looking back to 2006, Zac Efron was at the forefront of High School Musical, a corny-but-peppy-and-bubbly Disney Channel original movie that became a full pop culture phenomenon, the likes of which likely surprised even the folks at Disney. It was an overnight sensation — literally — once it aired on the Disney Channel that fateful evening. Since then, Zac Efron has been a household name, and has earned no shortage of adoring fans.
However, because of his success in this three-part film series, there are some folks out there who still associate Zac Efron's acting with his work as Troy Bolton in High School Musical. Despite his best efforts to branch out and expand himself as an actor, there are some musical lovers out there who only see Zac Efron for the work he did in the past without recognizing his developing talents. That's not really fair. In the past decade, Zac Efron has proven to be a versatile, charismatic performer, having varied himself well enough to be more than his work in the Disney Channel trilogy. He should be accredited as an accomplished, talented and dedicated actor.
Much like how we are not much like our high school selves once we get older, Zac Efron has grown up and matured in a strong, promising actor. He has developed an esteemed resume and shown himself to be an established actor in many different respects. So, let's take a moment to showcase a number of the roles that prove that he's bigger than his hit performances in High School Musical 1, 2, and 3.
Me And Orson Welles
In 2008, shortly after he rose to celebrity through his appearances in High School Musical 1 & 2, Zac Efron worked alongside director Richard Linklater in the period piece biopic Me and Orson Welles, which followed a starry-eyed teenager who got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with the great Orson Welles in his 1937 production of Julius Caesar. It was certainly the work of a young performer, but it gave audiences outside of the High School Musical fanbase a chance to see an actor on the rise.
Plus, it showcased that had dramatic range and potential that wasn't fully explored in those TV movie musicals. Sure enough, as the years went on, the actor would continue to prove himself in a variety of different performances.
While Zac Efron rose to super-status through his vocal pipes, singing tunes for High School Musical, the actor reached a new career phase when he did his first voice-only performance in The Lorax, Illumination Entertainment's 2012 feature-length adaptation of Dr. Seuss beloved children's book. As the voice of Ted Wiggins, the child protagonist, Zac Efron uses his popularity with the younger crowds to draw viewers into this new take on the old environmental tale. While the film itself didn't win over many critics, it provided Zac Efron with one of his first major box office smashes. During its 2012 release, The Lorax made over $348 million worldwide.
During its 2012 release, The Lorax made over $348 million worldwide. That's not too bad for a first big animated outing.
After a series of unremarkable performances in inert or underwhelming dramas, Zac Efron finally found his calling outside of High School Musical. And it was in the comedy department. In a role that allowed the rising actor to finally be free from the restraints of Disney's child-friendly image, Zac Efron appeared alongside Seth Rogen in 2014's surprise hit R-rated comedy Neighbors, allowing the actor to prove his comedic chops (while also not being afraid to take off his shirt a few times).
Though the comedies he appeared in afterwards didn't acquire the same success (See: Baywatch and Bad Grandpa), Efron's work in Neighbors proved that he was on his way up the ladder, creatively. Plus, could be really funny, to boot.
The Disaster Artist
As anyone who has seen The Room will note, the role of Chris-R is just as puzzling and bizarre as anything else in Tommy Wiseau's elusive passion project. Yet, the actor who played the role, Dan Janjigian, gave a convincingly menacing and surprisingly compelling performance, channeling more believable and palpable emotion intensity in just one scene than anyone else did throughout the entirety of the movie. It is often considered the one good performance in a film that's certainly less-than-great, and Zac Efron certainly had his work cut out for him.
In James Franco's dramedy biopic, The Disaster Artist, Efron played Janjigian/Chris-R in a similar memorable sequence, and he reportedly went method in the same way his on-screen persona did. Once again, Zac Efron proved his talents are quite versatile.
The Greatest Showman
Following 2008's High School Musical 3, Zac Efron opted not to participate in any more movie musicals. The actor was focused more on comedic and dramatic roles, challenging himself as an actor and pushing himself more as a performer. It wasn't until nine years later when he appeared in The Greatest Showman that he got a chance to sing and dance again.
Sure enough, while it was nearly a decade after his first movie musical, Zac Efron was far from rusty in the singing department. The box office numbers and chart-topping album sales also suggest that audiences will continue to come out in droves to see Efron belt out a tune or two in a theater near them. Plus, this time, Zac Efron got to sing as a very much adult character dealing with the period issues of the day.
The Beach Bum
Similar to how fellow High School Musical alum (and Efron's former fling) Vanessa Hudgens moved away from her Disney image with Harmony Korine's cult hit Spring Breakers, Zac Efron wanted to work with the auteur indie director to push himself as an actor into more adult territory. The result is a limited-but-impressive turn in The Beach Bum, Korine's recent follow-up to Spring Breakers, which finds Efron playing the role of Flicker, a hard-drinking, Creed-loving, Panini beard-wearing party-lover who mirrors Matthew McConaughey's titular Beach Bum on his path to self destruction.
Even though he is only in the movie for 10 minutes -- maybe 15 minutes max -- it is a great and unique turn for Zac Efron. And it's another performance that shows Zac Efron's talents as a supporting actor, beyond his leading man roles. Plus, just look at that facial hair.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil And Vile
In what could easily be described as his most controversial role to date, Zac Efron's performance as Ted Bundy in the historical drama Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile was met with a great deal of trepidation and concern from the media due to the subject matter at hand. The story of Ted Bundy is not for the faint of heart, and it was certainly a far cry from Zac Efron's Disney days. Yet, through his involvement in this film, Zac Efron provided a meta thesis to the dramatization of this true story.
Zac Efron's charisma and good looks are eerily similar to the late serial killer, and it shows how the media painted a muddled picture of the events that caused people to question whether a person like Ted Bundy could commit such heinous crimes, despite the stark evidence that suggested — over and over — that he did. It's an intriguingly metatexual performance, and one that shows Efron's dramatic range.
As a young, on-the-rise actor, Zac Efron is continuing to prove himself with a variety of different movies and shows. The actor is steadily expanding and challenging himself in different roles and with different opportunities, and there's a good chance that we'll continue to see Zac Efron's stardom rise in the future. For now, though, we hope we showed you how Zac Efron continues to develop and excel an actor, and how he is much bigger than his work in the High School Musical movies.
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Will is an entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. His writing can also be found in The Playlist, Cut Print Film, We Got This Covered, The Young Folks, Slate and other outlets. He also co-hosts the weekly film/TV podcast Cinemaholics with Jon Negroni and he likes to think he's a professional Garfield enthusiast.