Will 2024 Be the Year People Start Taking Zac Efron Seriously as an Actor?

When will the former teen heartthrob get the respect he deserves?

January 12, 2024 6:14 am
Zac Efron
When will this former teen heartthrob get taken seriously as an actor?
Olivia Sheehy

“I’ve always sought out opportunities where the potential failures might outweigh the benefits,” Zac Efron recently told Variety, perhaps explaining why the Disney Channel graduate’s recent filmography is littered with box office flops, middling streaming efforts and Razzie favorites. On the flip side, this risk-seeking approach has made the man who’s convinced as both High School Musical pin-up Troy Bolton and real-life serial killer Ted Bundy one of Hollywood’s most wonderfully unpredictable actors. And in 2024, Efron’s willingness to embrace the unknown looks set to reap its biggest rewards.  

Indeed, there’s even talk of a dark horse Academy Award nomination next week for his latest remarkable transformation in wrestling biopic The Iron Claw. Still, even if Efron’s hugely committed portrayal of man mountain Kevin Von Erich isn’t deemed as worthy as Bradley Cooper acting with a capital A, the Californian has undeniably now consigned his himbo persona to the past: if you want to feel like a relic, just note the former Tiger Beat cover star is now a 36-year-old playing a married father of four.  

Of course, by depicting a one-time WCWA world champion, Efron still has to show off his rippling six-pack. In fact, he spends much of the movie wearing little more than a ridiculously tiny pair of trunks (and a dodgy bowl-cut mullet). But while his body would send even the most jacked MCU star rushing back to the gym, Efron’s ability to get to the core of a man primed to bury both his opponents and his emotions inspires the most awe. The real Von Erich has certainly given his endorsement anyway, something which his on-screen double has described as “far and away the most important review to me on so many levels.” 

Director Sean Durkin has even compared Efron’s “quiet leader” performance to one of Robert De Niro’s all-time greatest, Staff Sergeant Mike in The Deer Hunter. Instead of the horrors of the Vietnam War, though, Von Erich must deal with the tragedy of losing no fewer than four of his brothers in quick succession, one from an autoimmune condition and three to suicide. Raised by a father who views crying as a sign of weakness — even at funerals — the brawler spends most of his life choked by this toxic definition of masculinity. And ironically considering all the rumors of Botox and plastic surgery, something he’s attributed to a serious jaw injury caused by slipping onto a granite fountain, Efron often manages to convey the bottled-up heartache with just a subtle facial expression.  

This isn’t the first time Efron has admirably opted for restraint where others would opt to chew the scenery. In the controversial Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, he perfectly embodied the emptiness behind one of America’s most notorious murderers. And he single-handedly carried dystopian survival thriller Gold with a quietly magnetic turn as a drifter who slowly loses his mind in the Australian outback. But Efron was hampered in both cases by scripts which bordered on the banal. As a compelling meditation on brotherhood, generational trauma and the fallacy of the good old American Dream, The Iron Claw is perhaps the first time in his career that such a top-tier performance has been complemented by such a well-rounded film.  

“The Iron Claw” and the Tragedy of Toxic Masculinity
Director Sean Durkin takes some liberties in his depiction of wrestling’s Von Erich family, but they ultimately pay off

Had The Iron Claw been pushed more strategically by distributor A24, then Efron may have already been showered with accolades. Sadly, only arriving in cinemas three days before Christmas, it was released too late for Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards consideration — one voter for the latter, Jacob Throneberry, tweeted he’d have given the film 10 nominations including Best Actor had it been eligible. Still, Efron, who’s acknowledged Mickey Rourke’s similarly transformative comeback in The Wrestler as a major source of inspiration, will no doubt take some consolation from the Hollywood Walk of Fame star he received back in December.   

“A true triple threat with a combination of immense talent, incredible work ethic and above-average face,” was how Miles Teller described his That Awkward Moment co-star at the ceremony, a combination which explains how Efron has, unlike his fellow High School Musical alum, swerved the usual child star career trajectory: in comparison, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale’s last screen credits, respectively, were the final installment of frothy wish fulfillment trilogy The Princess Switch and Nickelodeon’s movie adaptation of Baby Shark. 

What’s interesting is that despite his recent forays into darker subject matter, Efron still remains resolutely proud of his all-singing, all-dancing beginnings. “I still think about it every day,” he told the franchise’s producer Bill Borden and director Kenny Ortega while accepting the honor. “I sing the songs in the shower. Go Wildcats.” He’s therefore more likely to have been flattered than embarrassed about current castmate Harris Dickinson’s admission that watching Troy Bolton gave him the impetus to explore an interest in the arts. This mixture of humility, charisma and self-awareness no doubt explains why the late Matthew Perry discussed casting his 17 Again co-star as his younger self in a proposed biopic.  

No matter whether the Friends star’s untimely death has put pay to the project, the “Efronaissance” still looks set to continue. Indeed, the self-described perfectionist told AP News his experience depicting the last surviving Von Erich brother has “definitely rekindled something inside me,” and he has three movies officially in the pipeline to prove this.  

Firstly, there’s the reunion with Nicole Kidman in A Family Affair, one of Netflix’s more star-studded attempts to prove the rom-com still has a future. The pair displayed a surprising chemistry in 2013’s The Paperboy, Efron’s first concerted attempt to distance himself from his squeaky-clean persona, even if their most memorable scene together involved Kidman’s death row widower urinating on her much younger co-star’s jellyfish-stung victim. While the forthcoming role of movie star Chris Cole might not seem like a stretch for the Hollywood A-lister, the May-December romance at least gives him something a little different to sink his pearly white teeth into.  

A month later, Efron jumps into bed with another streaming giant for Ricky Stanicky, playing one of three lifelong friends who hire an acting has-been (John Cena) to portray the fake friend they’ve blamed for past indiscretions. The comedic premise sounds like a return to the dudebro fare of the mid-2010s. Yet the fact it’s adapted from a Black List screenplay and that Joaquin Phoenix nearly accepted a role suggests the Amazon original will be a cut above the likes of Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Its director Peter Farrelly, meanwhile, helmed a great leading man performance, if not necessarily a great film, from Efron in the hackneyed wartime dramedy The Greatest Beer Run Ever.  

And at some point this year, Efron will take over from either Ted Danson, Tom Selleck or Steve Guttenberg in a contemporary take on ‘80s Blockbuster staple Three Men and a Baby. On paper, this appears to be yet another unnecessary redo a la Home Alone, Father of the Bride, etc. And Efron’s terrible track record with remakes (Firestarter, Baywatch, Scoob!) doesn’t inspire much confidence, either. Still, with Woke producer/director Maurice Marable on board, there’s a chance this will have something to say about the societal changes since the days when men being primary caregivers was considered a comedic concept.   

However these future endeavors fare, you can pretty much guarantee Efron will deliver. His sole Worst Actor Razzie nomination, for 2017 dud Baywatch, seemed to be both a case of guilty by association (the film picked up five nods in total) and a response to the diuretics-inspired, depression-inducing physique which even the man himself acknowledged looked CGI’d. The closest he’s come to justifying such derision is in unnecessary Stephen King redo Firestarter where his performance as a telepathic father was more phoned-in than downright terrible. Even in the biggest turkeys of his career — ensemble schmaltzfest New Year’s Eve, Nicholas Sparks melodrama The Lucky One, vacuous EDM fest We Are Your Friends — Efron has always been a watchable screen presence.  

“I never saw you not good at anything,” Jeremy Allen White told Efron during a joint Entertainment Weekly interview about their experiences working together on The Iron Claw, a fair remark considering his co-star has also enjoyed nine Hot 100 hits, formed his own Ninjas Runnin Wild production company and picked up a Daytime Emmy Award for hosting adventure documentary series Down to Earth. Like Matthew McConaughey and Brendan Fraser before him, two naturally charismatic actors who’d routinely been dismissed as airheads before belatedly getting their dues, the wider world is now finally accepting Efron as a force to be reckoned with, too.  

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