There's nothing quite like seeing a movie star take on a series of challenging roles.
After establishing himself on both lighter television fare ("High School Musical") and film ("Neighbors"), Jewish actor Zac Efron is going for it. Or, going for as many different roles as possible. The surprising part was that the darker he went, the better of an actor he became. It's that particular shade of authentic pale on his resume that I think he will one day pick up an Oscar.
Ted Bundy will always represent the real takeoff. In one of Netflix's riskier undertakings, Jewish director Joe Berlinger's "Extremely Wicked, Shocking Evil, and Vile," Efron played the infamous killer, bringing a chill to his pretty boy persona. Up front, viewers saw the leading man from comedies and heartwarming family shows, and then he turned into a cold-blooded killer. The biggest trick an actor can ever pull is allowing you to think he or she is capable of just one speed on the screen. Right there and then, Efron convinced me that he could be more than just average "Baywatch" remakes and heartthrob roles that didn't require a step beyond six pack-abs and crackerjack smiles.
But it was just another step in his transformation from credible movie star to credible actor in dramatic roles. His next role could be his biggest leap and challenge yet. In the upcoming remake of Stephen King's novel, "Firestarter," Efron tackles the lead role of Andy McGee, a father with psychic abilities whose daughter also shares extraordinary powers. It's those "specialties" that land the two on the run from a government agency called "The Shop." Andy got his powers from a drug experiment he participated in, but it was the versatile array of moral dilemmas that made the star go crazy for the complicated part. I'm in for that.
Right off the bat, I get potent vibes of "Midnight Special," an under-watched Michael Shannon film where he takes his alien son on the run from who else, a shadowy (aka very shady) government agency, who merely wants to turn the kid into a weapon. That seems to be the idea behind "Firestarter," directed by Keith Thomas. It's just the latest example of Efron going against the grain.
According to an article in The Rolling Stone written 14 years ago, while Efron, whose surname is Hebrew, is of Jewish heritage, he grew up in a middle class family that didn't practice religion. It's the agnostic position that seemed to stick with the man as he grew up into a Disney star, branched off into comedy roles, and kept his eye on weightier roles. Ones like Richard Samuels in Richard Linklater's 2008 film, "Me and Orson Welles." He voiced Anakin Skywalker and a Power Ranger in "Robot Chicken," and had a great role in James Franco's "The Disaster Artist." While he built up trust with studios in churning out a "Neighbors" sequel and took a chance in "The Greatest Showman."
What Efron, which is a Biblical place name and comes from Zac's Polish Jewish paternal grandfather, continues to do is surprise you. The role in the King novel remake should show even more range, as it is another different shade of grey from the guy who really could sing, even if he didn't in the first "High School Musical" TV film. A man of many talents who continues to slowly reveal them. I enjoyed his Netflix TV mini-series documentary, "Down to Earth With Zac Efron," where he displayed a full-blown dad bod (In Efron's case, one pastrami on rye per month). A travel series where Efron sought out sustainable ways to live off the grid, so to speak.
Another shade of pale for a movie star who could have coasted on Ken Doll status for life, but chose to get dirty in the gritty genre of film. He'll be 34 in October, when a slew of his latest features, even voicing Fred Davis in "Scoop!" and another remake, "Three Men and a Baby." But there's also the next discovery channel-esque project, one called "Killing Zac Efron."
I see a guy comfortable in movie star glamour skin but not afraid to leverage that trust for a meatier performance. A rarity for someone who got started very young, going through the sometimes terrain of the Disney entertainment jungle. But he stuck around. Efron came out of all of that with dual intentions: establish yourself and then take bold chances. Convince the audience you're just something nice to look at, and then dazzle them in a completely different way.
He's going to continue to stick around, and I hope the roles in his future look more like Ted Bundy and Andy McGee, instead of Teddy Sanders and Troy Bolton.