The lights were down low in a movie theater, and up on the screen, Zac Efron was about to kiss a girl when a collection of shrill “oohs” and “aahs” interrupted the intimate moment.
FOR THE RECORD:
Zac Efron: A photo caption with an article about actor Zac Efron in Thursday’s Calendar misspelled director Burr Steers’ first name as Burt. —
With “Charlie St. Cloud,” out Friday, Efron tackles his first commercially dramatic role — a move that signals his desire to leave behind his reputation as a teen heartthrob. But considering his very vocal fans at the film’s premiere in Los Angeles last week, it may take more than just one film to make the break.
“I think that happens in a lot of movies,” Efron said, shrugging off the hooting and hollering while sitting on the patio of a Sunset Strip hotel beside director Burr Steers a few days after the premiere.
“With ‘Twilight’ too, I think. They work themselves up,” added Steers. “But you saw — with Zac, he gets, like, a Beatles reaction.”
Nowadays, the attention barely seems to faze Efron, 22, a veteran of the screaming-girl circuit. His roles in the three “High School Musical” movies and a film remake of the Broadway musical “Hairspray” ingratiated him with the tween set, who again came out for last year’s comedy “17 Again” (also directed by Steers). But Efron’s first turn in a drama — playing a young actor in the 2008 period piece “Me & Orson Welles” — didn’t resonate with audiences, perhaps at least partly because the Richard Linklater film got only a nominal theatrical release.
In “Charlie St. Cloud,” based on a novel by Ben Sherwood, Efron plays the titular character grappling with the death of his younger brother, Sam. As he struggles with his grief, Sam’s ghost appears, and the brothers head nightly to a forest to talk and play catch. But then Charlie meets Tess, played by Amanda Crew, and he’s forced to weigh his romantic feelings against his attachment to his brother.
Marc Platt, who produced the film, didn’t always envision Efron in the part. The two first met a few years ago, during the “High School Musical” days, when Platt was struck largely by Efron’s youth.
“I thought he was a real kid. Not used to the meetings — clearly sweet and lovely — but very, very youthful,” the producer recalled.
But when Efron came in to discuss “Charlie St. Cloud,” Platt saw a young man who had matured greatly.
“He had sort of shed that youthful teenage nervous energy and was very forthright and specific about why he was interested in this,” Platt said. “It takes a little bit of courage to take a left turn and say, ‘Here are the reasons I know I can do this: I have life experience. I have a relationship with my brother. Here’s something I should do so I continue to mature as an actor and my audience gets broader.’ ”
Once Efron was on board, the actor immediately wanted to bring in a director he felt comfortable with, like Steers. But selling the director of the edgy “Igby Goes Down” on the tearjerker wasn’t easy.
“Burr wrote me an e-mail and was like, ‘It’s a little bit cheesy, but if you’re really serious about this, if you’re up for it, then I’m in,’ ” recalled Efron.
“You bring someone like me in to take a little bit of that out of it,” Steers said of the story’s initial schmaltz.
Although the pair had an easy rapport as they conversed on a recent afternoon, their relationship began on a considerably more tense note.
At the first rehearsal for “17 Again,” the actor sat down for a table read and was greeted by a serious stare from his director. On the walls, Steers had plastered Mickey Mouse posters defaced with big “no entry” signs.
The director said his message was for Efron to leave his Disney days behind him and adapt a more subtle acting approach. “No Disney acting — no Disney kid acting,” he said. "… I meant no giving line readings. Hitting things. Face acting. Indicating.”
But fans haven’t always been supportive of Efron’s desire to take on more dramatic fare, like when he turned down the lead in Paramount’s planned remake of “Footloose,” he said.
“I was looking at ‘Footloose’ and how great it would be, and every person you talk to is like, ‘That’s a great move. That’s exactly what we would expect from you,’ ” he said, pouring himself some tea. “And after you hear that a few times, you kind of just go, ‘I have to look myself in the face.’ I wanted to slow down and do something challenging for the right reasons — not for the money or notoriety or for more fame or to be the king of genre.”
Although perfectly polite to everyone around him — especially a waitress, who offered him a plate of cookies — Efron seemed impatient about having to talk about himself once again. His voice was hoarse, likely because he had spent the last couple of days promoting “Charlie St. Cloud” on numerous morning television and radio programs. At one appearance at the Mall of America in Minnesota, more than 7,000 people turned up to catch a glimpse of him.
“He is incredibly sweet to his fans, and I’ve seen them rough him up,” said Adam Shankman, who directed “Hairspray” and produced “17 Again.” “They’ve ripped his clothes and knocked him over. And that’s weird — it’s the ugly part of fame that you have no control over.”
Shankman said he likes to serve as a mentor to Efron.
“I have all these musicals coming up that I’m attached to direct, and I tell him, ‘I’m not even coming to you. I don’t want to see you singing and dancing for a while. You have to start gaining momentum with your male audience,’ ” he explained.
That transition won’t be sudden, acknowledges Steers. “Charlie St. Cloud” is clearly being marketed to Efron’s female fan base, with the poster showing him dreamily staring out into the distance.
“Zac has his core demographic, and it’s about building on that,” Steers said. “With ’17 Again,’ there were people who didn’t want to see it and just wrote it off and then were on an airplane and caught the movie and saw how much more there was to it.”
Efron admitted he’s somewhat baffled by the frenzy. He grew up in Arroyo Grande, Calif., where his parents both worked at a local power plant.
“Over dinner, we wouldn’t watch TV. We didn’t have ‘Extra’ playing, or anything like that,” he said.
As a kid, the only famous people he admired were baseball players. Often he’d go to San Francisco Giants games and wait afterward for his favorite players to emerge from the clubhouse.
“I’d stand there with a baseball and a brand new pen and I’d just say, ‘Wait, wait, Barry, Barry [Bonds]! Please roll down your window.’ That’s the closest thing I can really relate to,” he recalled, shaking his head in embarrassment at the memory. “Now I know a little bit about how they feel.”