It's been five years since Zac Efron graduated from the "High School Musical" franchise, the guileless film series that established the young star as a mom-approved heartthrob.
Yet even with his Disney Channel days in the rear-view mirror, the actor has maintained a reputation as the upbeat boy-next-door. Careful not to isolate his tween fan base, Efron's first post-"Musical" projects were relatively innocuous: a body-switching comedy, a Nicholas Sparks tearjerker. He even took the more benignly likable route with his character in Lee Daniels' R-rated melodrama "The Paperboy" (though Nicole Kidman did urinate on him).
So when reports broke this week that Efron, now 25, allegedly had completed two secret stints in rehab for a cocaine addiction, the Internet freaked out. Sure, he'd once admitted to Jimmy Kimmel that he frequented strip clubs, but substance abuse still seemed out of character for the actor. Furthermore, how could he have hidden such a serious problem while appearing on his game at numerous public appearances this year?
In April, he did a fair amount of press alongside Dennis Quaid to promote "At Any Price," a drama in which he played the rebellious son of an Iowa farmer who would rather race cars than go into the family business. During a Times interview this past spring, Efron was anything but distracted, making sure to fully answer a reporter's questions.
These allegations come as Efron finally looks to segue to more adult roles. Indeed, he has yet to become one of Hollywood’s go-to leading men, and that has reportedly troubled him. (According to TMZ, the actor became addicted to cocaine partially because he was “upset about his movie career, which was once white hot.”)
Efron was hoping "At Any Price" — which failed to break out at the box office, with fewer than $500,000 in ticket sales — would be the first of many films to show in him a more sophisticated light. Earlier this month, he traveled to the Toronto International Film Festival to promote "Parkland," another independent drama. In the movie, out Oct. 4, Efron plays a young doctor attempting to save John F. Kennedy after the president was shot.
But though Efron seems intent on proving his more serious acting chops, he has always found better luck at the box office in all-ages comedies. Outside of the "Musical" franchise, his biggest commercial hits have been a 2007 "Hairspray" remake and "17 Again," the 2009 body-switching picture. Whatever the demographic, he's most popular in funny, easily digestible fare.
Perhaps in an effort to play to his strengths, Efron this spring completed shooting the R-rated "Neighbors," about a newlywed couple who move into a house next to a fraternity. (It was on the L.A. set of the film that Efron's drug habit allegedly got out of control, according to TMZ, which said the actor "was a no-show on a number of days.") Coincidentally, he plays a beer-chugging party animal in the film, and when Universal Pictures debuted the trailer online earlier this month fans seemed to be responding positively to a less inhibited — and oft-shirtless — Efron, though it remains to be seen if one can sell a good-times comedy after the more serious tabloid reports.
While the most feverish press interest in Efron's struggles will at least mostly have died down when "Neighbors" is released next May, it will be difficult for the actor to avoid the spotlight until then. Not only is "Parkland" set to hit theaters next month, but FilmDistrict announced this week it will release his next movie in January. That film, a comedy about three single guys, coincidentally just had its title changed from "Are We Officially Dating?" to "That Awkward Moment."
Mark Olsen contributed to this report.
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