Not every Disney Channel star can parlay their success on this kid’s network into the broader world of acting. Sometimes, the stars just don’t align like that for a variety of reasons. But the likes of Ryan Gosling and Zendaya show that it is possible to have not just an acting career out of Disney Channel, but a vibrant one. Zac Efron is another positive example of this trend, with this heartthrob scoring his breakout performance in the High School Musical trilogy before managing to score a slew of varied roles in the years since.
While Efron has returned to the cozy world of musicals with Hairspray and The Greatest Showman, he’s also managed to explore a wide variety of genres that include R-rated comedies and indie dramas that have allowed him to demonstrate a commendable sense of range. In his time as an actor, Efron’s managed to score enough noteworthy roles, both big and small, that it can be hard to figure out what the peak of his craft is. However, these seven essential Zac Efron performances help distill down the very best that the man behind Troy Bolton has to offer.
Troy Bolton in High School Musical 2 (2007)
Yes, Zac Efron has managed to prove time and time again that he’s more than just Troy Bolton from the High School Musical saga However, that doesn’t mean his work in this trilogy isn’t worth bringing up, especially when it comes to High School Musical 2. For one thing, this is the first entry in the series that allowed Zac Efron a chance to use utilize his own singing voice rather than dubbing him over in post-production like in the first movie. For another, Efron’s lively body language and unabashedly ridiculous physicality in the “Bet on It” musical number is a wonder to behold.
Set against a golf course backdrop, Efron delivers a tidal wave of angst-ridden confidence within “Bet on It” that will often make you giggle but also can’t help but get you feeling pumped up. Delicately balancing that line between kitsch and sincere entertainment is something Efron did quite well throughout his High School Musical days. However, he was in especially rare form tackling that quality within the middle chapter of this great trilogy.
Link in Hairspray (2007)
Doing another musical right after he broke out as a potential star with High School Musical was a risky gambit for Zac Efron. Luckily, he wasn’t just taking on any musical, he was partaking in the world of Hairspray. Handling the role of TV heartthrob Link, Efron would now get to work with something a little more suggestive, sexual, and risqué compared to the escapades of Troy Bolton. Plus, playing a TV personality who makes every teen girl in a nearby radius swoon made for a fun nod to Efron’s real-world media personality molded by his High School Musical work.
Taking on all these details in the character of Link turned out to be right up Efron’s alley, especially since he lent such infectious energy to musical numbers like “Ladies Choice” and “The Nicest Kids in Town.” Plus, he had fun chemistry with the films leading lady, Nikki Blonsky, while the very specific oddball comedy tone of the movie ensured that Link wouldn’t just be a rehash of Troy Bolton. While the terrain of a musical was familiar territory for Efron, Hairspray Ensured he could still show off some new dimensions as a performer.
Richard Samuels in Me and Orson Welles (2009)
Over his acting career, Zac Efron has managed to work with several notable auteurs, ranging from the likes of Lee Daniels to Ramin Bahrani to Harmony Korine. However, his first foray into the field of working with such distinguished filmmakers came in 2009 with the Richard Linklater title Me and Orson Welles. In this collaboration with the future director of BoyhoodRichard Samuels, a teenager who becomes swept up in the life of Orson Welles (Christian McKay) in the late 1930s and eventually falls in love with production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes).
The generally positive marks for Me and Orson Welles didn’t tend to linger on Efron’s work in the film, with the lion’s share of the acclaim for the project’s acting going towards McKay’s turn as Welles. Still, Efron scored his fair share of praise for his performance and, even more importantly, managed to establish here his willingness to work on more daring indie fare. While that hasn’t been his default mode in the years since, Me and Orson Welles It was a pivotal movie for Efron that opened up new horizons for what this High School Musical leading man could do.
Teddy Sanders in Neighbors (2014)
For a little while in the early 2010s, Zac Efron was searching for what would be the next step of his career. A couple of romantic movies like New Year’s Eve and The Lucky One didn’t quite sell him as the next Hugh Grant while indie titles like Parkland and The Paperboy failed to drum him up much buzz as a go-to dramatist. But then Neighbors hit in May 2014 and a new era for Efron blossomed. Playing fratboy Teddy Sanders, Efron suddenly demonstrated an incredible amount of skill as a comic performer, to the point that he could go toe-to-toe with Seth Rogen and not seem out of his league.
Even better, Efron brought some welcome layers to his performance as a guy who could’ve been a one-note caricature of a college-aged party animal. Efron managed to play Sanders as someone with internal insecurities gnawing away at his insides all while not weighing down the wacky dildo fights that same character got into. Granted, the subsequent comedies Efron would headline after neighbors were far from masterpieces (Baywatchanyone?) But Neighbors was one of the landmark movies of Efron’s career and a demonstration of how he could nail a fantastic comedic performance if the occasion called for it.
Dan Janjigian in The Disaster Artist (2017)
Zac Efron only appears as Dan Janjigian in The Disaster Artist for two brief moments, though that minimal screentime alone captures why this performance earned a spot on this list. Efron is now at a point where he doesn’t have to be the leading man of a movie. He’s comfortable and confident enough as an artist to just show up where he needs to, sprinkle in his unexpected presence, and then bounce. He’s come a long way from the days of more generic star vehicles like Charlie St. Cloudwith this tiny appearance serving as a microcosm of the evolution of his career.
Plus, it’s just a fun cameo, with Efron initially appearing as just a threatening performer on the set of The Room miming stab motions and making screaming noises. It’s already a fun wild card turn that gets even more humorous when Efron reappears during the climactic premiere of The Room being totally chill and normal as if he hadn’t been acting terrifying before. The dissonance between these two appearances is already quite humorous, but it’s especially fun since Efron proves convincing in both molds. If you want an example of Efron’s talents even in small doses, The Disaster Artist will do nicely.
Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile doesn’t work as a whole movie thanks to some strange story structure choices and uninspired filmmaking choices. However, the bold casting of Zac Efron as serial killer Ted Bundy did end up being more than just a piece of gimmicky casting. Though far from super experienced in playing intimidating figures in prior film roles, Efron managed to succeed in portraying Bundy as someone who could pass as just a normal guy. At the same time, he could demonstrate flickers of something more controlling and evil.
Efron especially excelled with depicting Bundy tiptoeing on a thin line between trying to put on a persona of being an unjustly persecuted man while communicating words and actions that made it clear darkness was brewing under the surface. Even Efron’s physicality sold these dueling sides of Bundy, in the process making this man’s body language totally unlike anything else he’d done in his film acting work. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile wasn’t as good as its lead performance, but you can’t say Efron phoned this one in.
Flicker in The Beach Bum (2019)
Moondog (Matthew McConaughey), the titular lead character of The Beach Bumruns into his fair share of colorful characters throughout his ramshackle adventures, including Martin Lawrence as an outsized dolphin tour guide and Jimmy Buffet playing Jimmy Buffet. But while he’s rehab, he also runs into Flicker, a wild card and pyromaniac played by none other than Zac Efron. Though his screentime is minimal in The Beach BumEfron makes the most of it as he plays the high-voltage yang to McConaughey’s laidback yin.
Efron also comes decked out on-screen with facial hair intentionally meant to mimic a panini sandwich, a bold choice that only furthers the memorable vibes about this particular role. Like much of The Beach Bum, Flicker isn’t much more than just a hodgepodge of strange ideas and big swings. However, Efron’s unyielding commitment to such a dangerous and unpredictable character makes Flicker one of the better manifestations of The Beach Bum’s shaggy style. He fits so nicely here into director Harmony Korine’s grimy style that you can be forgiven for briefly forgetting that he got his start belting out “We’re All In This Together” in a High School gymnasium.
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