Zac Efron has always been the ultimate Hollywood eye candy. He has legions of fans who will seemingly follow him—and his abs—anywhere, and his endless magazine covers and talk show appearances speak volumes about his star power. But as many actors have learned, star power doesn't always translate into box office success.
For a few years, it seemed like Efron was struggling to get his foot in the door with big-name movies, but he's now carved out a strong comedy career—that doesn't always rely on his shirtlessness. We may have associated Zac with the A-list from the beginning, but going from starring in struggling indie flicks to rolling with Seth Rogen's crew is a pretty impressive feat, and one that deserves some serious praise.
As Zefron folklore would have it, the star first sashayed his way into our hearts (and, okay, our fantasies) with the High School Musical franchise. He turned those breakout hits into several big-screen roles, taking parts in heady indies like The Paperboy and Me and Orson Welles, and packing on the romance with Charlie St. Cloud, New Year's Eve and The Lucky One. The Zac faithful certainly enjoyed the plentiful bedroom scenes these movies afforded—although there were certain moments in The Paperboy that most would like to forget—but the surrounding buzz and, more importantly, box office results, left something to be desired.
It was clear to everybody in Hollywood that he wasn't resonating with movie audiences the way he did with the Disney Channel set. The big studio movies he had chosen were either forgettable or disappointing in theaters (cough...New Year's Eve...cough) and the indie movies were incredibly challenging—after all, you try getting peed on by Nicole Kidman. Refusing to go back to his singing-and-dancing ways (sorry, Footloose!), it was time to make a change.
First up was 2014's That Awkward Moment, the bromantic comedy (that's right, we just coined a new genre) co-starring fellow red-hot actors Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan. Zac and a few of his industry pals had founded a production company back in 2010 and this was to be the first project on the slate. As Efron explained in many of his later press appearances for the flick, he'd always been searching for a movie about single friends, so when the script landed in front of him he decided to jump at the chance to do something a little different. While the final result wasn't exactly a home run, it introduced audiences (and, perhaps more importantly, studio heads) to Zac's funnier side.
Plus, it's never a bad day when you get to watch Zac Efron planking naked over a toilet bowl.
Before That Awkward Moment even hit theaters, the actor had already begun work on what would turn out to be his big comedy break: A little flick called Neighbors. And it all started with a man crush. As Zac tells in what seems to be one of his favorite anecdotes, he had looked up to Neighbors star Seth Rogen for years, having mentioned his interest in working together several times. "He rebranded comedy, and I identified with it," he told People during the a set visit. "It's how I want to be." That persistence worked, because as soon as Rogen saw the script he thought of Zac, despite his lack of experience in the comedy world.
Of course, signing on to the project took a little bit of sacrifice on Efron's part—according to The Hollywood Reporter, he took a hefty pay cut in exchange for a larger portion of the back end profits, a technique often employed by actors looking to branch out or take on roles they're passionate about (see: Jonah Hill in The Wolf of Wall Street).
But in this case, it paid off in spades. And, also, in dolla dolla bills. Neighbors was a straight-up breakout hit, opening in the top spot in the box office and earning a surprising $268 million worldwide. On top of the cash money, Efron held his own against his comedy heavyweight costars in a big way. "His character tests through the roof," a Universal exec told THR. "The most common comment we hear is how much the audience loves seeing him in this new kind of role."
And with that, a new comedy star was born.
Glen Wilson/Universal Pictures
Following up a runaway hit is always tricky, but Zac seems to be aligning himself with the industry's best and brightest, as well as taking his career into his own hands. Dirty Grandpa is the second film from his production company—according to the flick's distributor, Lionsgate, Efron and his partners were sent the script after the success of Neighbors, and besides the appeal of yet another raunchy R-rating, the chance to work alongside Robert De Niro sealed the deal.
The comedy, in theaters today, follows Efron's straight-laced lawyer as he accompanies his grandfather on a wild road trip to Daytona Beach the week before his wedding, to sow 40 years of bottled-up wild oats (the grandfather) and to discover the downsides of being straight-laced and lawyer-y (Efron). It deals much more in raunch and less so in banter than Zac's other projects (yes, it is possible to be raunchier than Neighbors—who knew?), but still offers plenty of opportunities for him to flex his comedic timing muscles...and a few other muscles, if you know what we mean. That's because, spoiler alert: He's naked a lot.
Of course, despite Zac's previously displayed funnyman chops, many of his coworkers on the film still considered him a newcomer to the comedy scene—they surrounded him with industry vets like Adam Pally and Jason Mantzoukas (who are notably less famous than their costar) to lend a hand in the improv department. By the end, even the hardest skeptics became Zefron believers, and the filmmakers have high hopes that the novelty of seeing the actor in a still-new role will be an enjoyable draw for moviegoers.
Before the box office numbers roll in, though, Zac has secured a solid lineup of funny flicks to ensure this new turn isn't a fleeting one. For those who have been hiding from the Internet this week, Neighbors 2 (yes, that trailer you've seen at least a dozen times) will drop in May. Later this summer Zac will appear alongside comedy cult hero Adam Devine (of Workaholics fame) in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, a wacky movie that follows two brothers who post an online ad for, yes, wedding dates.
And before anyone wonders whether that bromance with Rogen and his gang would be short-lived, Efron is currently filming The Disaster Artist, a movie brought to you by none other than James Franco and, yes, Seth Rogen.
Sure, Zac may not have the expertly curated blend of action-franchise-meets-Oscar-worthy-indie that some of his peers can boast about, but he seems to have tapped into a heretofore underutilized market with his very specific brand of bro-comedy. As Seth and his partners can attest to, there are a lot of people out there who will pay big money to see dudes bantering over beers, and even more people who will pay big money when that dude has the eyes/lips/abs of Zac Efron. The novelty of getting to watch Troy Bolton smoke a bong on the big screen may soon wear off, but there's a good chance that audiences will recognize his talent before it does.
And if not, there's always the shirtless promos.