There was a time when everyone was worried about Zac Efron. When it was unclear whether his story would be one that mirrored Leonardo DiCaprio or more Robert Downey, Jr. It seems almost hard to comprehend at this point, but just a few years ago the actor was going through one of the more difficult times of his life—and now, as he turns 30 years old, he's facing down what is set up to be the best year of his life.
As he celebrates a marquee birthday, he also celebrates more than a decade in the industry. It's been marked by impressive feats, like turning a Disney Channel original movie into one of the most popular teen franchises of all time, but he also struggled in the face of the fame it brought. 2013 and 2014 were filled with tales of partying, late-night run-ins and more than one stint in rehab.
The actor gave a now-notorious interview to The Hollywood Reporter in April, 2014 that is perhaps the single best example of the struggles he was going through. He spoke candidly about his addiction struggles for the first time, saying "I've made a lot of mistakes" and "it's especially humiliating when they happen to be so public and so scrutinized."
But now those scandals are in the distant past and life is looking up as he starts his fourth decade. When Efron was getting clean many around him emphasized that it was his relationship with his younger brother, Dylan, that was helping him fight his demons and stay on the straight and narrow. They were roommates during the height of Zac's partying and it was often Dylan who encouraged him to stay clean. Whatever his strategy, it seemed to have worked wonders, because today the two brothers are closer than ever.
The younger Efron, who works at a Hollywood studio, is extremely athletic and outdoorsy and has a strong influence on Zac's healthy lifestyle. They recently completed the Malibu Triathlon together, teaming up for the intense training and spending time visiting patients at the Children's Hospital (the beneficiary of their fundraising). The brothers are also the newest—if not the first ever—spokespeople for Columbia Sportswear, a gig that sees them traveling around the country and exploring different national parks.
It's a relationship that is of particular importance right now—Efron hasn't dated anyone seriously since his public breakup with former girlfriend Sami Miro last spring. And though it may seem counter intuitive, his single status is actually yet another sign that he has his life on track. During his past struggles, his romantic partners were often at the center of the drama, whether it was wild partying with Michelle Rodriguez or simply failing to focus on himself the way he deserves. Staying out of the dating game has allowed Efron not only to stay on the straight and narrow but to throw himself into his work.
And on this hallmark birthday, it's his work that is due the most praise.
Zac's 29th year was all about blockbusters (he had just come off Neighbors 2 and spent a good chunk of his time promoting his starring role in Baywatch), but he's taking a bit of a highbrow turn now. This holiday season he'll be starring in The Disaster Artist, James Franco and Seth Rogen's dark comedy about the making of The Room (an old movie that's widely believed to be the worst of all time) and The Greatest Showman, a biopic of P.T. Barnum also boasting Hugh Jackman on the roster.
The actor is starting to take more control and agency with his own career and creative life as well. A few years ago he founded the Ninja's Runnin' Wild production company, with the intent to develop new films and take a stronger hold on the roles he accepts. The company put out both The Awkward Moment and Dirty Grandpa, but the future slate is busting to the seams.
They have nine different projects in development, ranging from the onscreen adaptation of John Grisham's The Associate to a Wall Street thriller to a movie about a college student recruited to work for the CIA. Ninjas is also producing Efron's next big starring role, titled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.
True crime buffs will recognize that flick as the real-life story of notorious mass murderer Ted Bundy. Director (and true crime expert) Joe Berlinger spoke to E! News about the casting and the movie's preparation earlier this year, explaining that Efron's role will be unlike most other true crime movies.
"Zac is a really excellent choice because we see the film through the girlfriend's perspective," said Berlinger. "Most serial killer movies are about the time when they're killing or the police are tracking them down and you see the clues to the killing. But that's only a small percentage of the serial killer's life—we want to take you through Bundy deceiving the public and, in this case, deceiving his significant other."
It was a highly sought-after gig, and one that Efron won for his energy as much as his talent. Berlinger explained that in order for the movie to be plausible, the audience has to understand how Bundy's girlfriend could have believed he was innocent while he was committing the murders. In other words, he needed an actor who was 1) strong enough to portray the mental complexities of a man who commits mass murder and 2) pretty enough to con the audience into thinking he might not be committing mass murder. That's Zac Efron.
"Who out there could be so believable in persuading people?" Joe asked himself. "I felt Zac would be the perfect candidate because he's naturally charming and he's a terrific actor. And I think he's been waiting for an opportunity like this, to show his chops as an actor."
Waiting would, presumably, be an understatement. Efron has made no secret of his desire for a career that is not only long-lasting, but inspiring. He's often drawn comparisons to DiCaprio, and not just for his start as a fresh-faced boy wonder just like Leo. For all of his fame and his monetary success, Zac has never received a major nomination for his work—unless you count the MTV Movie Awards, which you shouldn't.
Could this finally be his time? Zac Efron sure hopes so.