Zac Efron leans back, lost in thought.
"No matter who you are, you face challenges growing up," he says. "You go with your things, you learn, you have to. It's impossible to lead an honest and fulfilling life as a man and not make mistakes and 'fess up to them when you need to. But it's especially humiliating when they happen to be so public and so scrutinized."
He pauses. "When you have success young, and you accept the good things, you have to accept all of it. You have to accept the moments of glory but also a great responsibility. And that responsibility, to some degree, involves being a role model. At the same time, I'm a human being, and I've made a lot of mistakes. I've learned from each one."
It's April 11, mere weeks since the 26-year-old star of the High School Musical franchise and such movies as Hairspray and 17 Again got into a tussle with a homeless man in downtown Los Angeles in the early hours of the morning. Add that to his well-publicized stint in rehab, and any reporter might be forgiven for expecting the worst. But as we sit for lunch at West Hollywood's Soho House, I'm surprised to find him thoughtful, gracious and candid about the growing pains he has endured while navigating the shoals from teen celebrity to adult stardom.
"I was drinking a lot, way too much," he says, acknowledging there were drugs, too. "It's never one specific thing. I mean, you're in your 20s, single, going through life in Hollywood, you know? Everything is thrown at you. I wouldn't take anything back; I needed to learn everything I did. But it was an interesting journey, to say the least."
That journey is one well traveled by other young stars, with varying degrees of success -- from Judy Garland to Corey Haim to Lindsay Lohan to Robert Downey Jr. Like them, Efron has had his travails well documented: First, he entered rehab for an addiction to alcohol and drugs last spring; then he suffered the indignity of having his jaw wired shut following a fall in his Los Feliz home, when he skidded by an indoor fountain; and finally came the March incident when his car clunked to a halt in a dubious part of town, after which Efron grappled with a homeless man. Precisely what happened has given rise to endless tabloid speculation, and Efron is coy about the details.
"I had a friend come pick me up late at night -- we were looking for a place downtown to get a bite and catch up," he says, without identifying the friend. "We were having trouble finding somewhere -- a lot of places were closed -- and the car ran out of gas off the 110. It was ridiculous. We had to pull over, and I called Uber."
While waiting, "A homeless guy, or vagrant, tapped on the driver's-side window. Before I knew it, he [the friend] was out of the car, and they started fighting. I saw that [the homeless man] was carrying some sort of a knife, or shank, and I got out of the car to disarm him. At some point, he dropped the knife, and I got hit pretty hard in the face -- and almost instantly the police were there to break up the fight." After that, the two friends went home. Efron calls it "the most terrifying moment in my life."
The timing of the occurrence hardly was ideal, just weeks before the May 9 release of Efron's new comedy, Neighbors, in which he stars with Seth Rogen. The $18 million film is getting terrific buzz for the younger actor, who plays a frat boy spinning frighteningly out of control.
"His character tests through the roof, and the most common comment we hear is how much the audience loves seeing him in this new kind of role," says Peter Cramer, co-president of production at Universal Pictures.
Insiders say Efron took a major pay cut to make the film in exchange for a heftier share of the back end (sources say he can get around $5 million a picture, but he often has cut his salary to do work that challenges him). Since then, he has received a surge of offers based on strong word of mouth about his performance but has opted not to shoot anything.
He is trying to shed an unwanted skin, cleanse himself mentally and physically, purge a past that has come to haunt him. A self-described insomniac, he acknowledges wrestling with anxiety ("100 percent") and being plagued by "thoughts, just thoughts, just overthinking things."
PHOTOS: Zac Efron Through The Years
Currently single, he speaks of "the struggles of dating, of falling in love, of searching for love and being there for your friends when they need you. There's no question that to receive anything great, like love or respect, or to better yourself, you have to give a piece of yourself away."
As he tries to change, he is living an ultrafit life, using weights and a rowing machine, and swimming 20 laps a day. He has the type of regimen that makes older men weep -- working out daily, eating healthily and even drinking pH-balanced water from a specially installed alkaline faucet.
He gets ready for bed around 9 p.m., when he'll watch a movie and read a script, turning in before some of his peers even rise because "I like to get up early and swim and train."
He has joined Alcoholics Anonymous and also has been seeing a therapist. "I just started going," he says. "And I think it's changed my life. I'm much more comfortable in my own skin. Things are so much easier now."
Still, he admits of his battle with addiction, "It's a never-ending struggle."
Click the photo for exclusive portraits of Zac Efron.
"On the grand scale of things, he's doing a pretty good job," says Rogen. "He was a child actor, and you don't need to have a sociology degree to see the pitfalls, especially as they transition to becoming an adult actor. But people are rooting for him. You can see his performance was incredibly good in the movie."
Efron and Rogen met six or seven years ago at the Sunset Tower, where both were attending an awards party, when Efron was riding the High School Musical bandwagon. "He passed me, and I just stopped and was compelled to say something," recalls Efron. "I blurted out: 'Hey, Seth, my name's Zac. I'm an actor, and I just wanted to tell you that I really love your work. And thank you for everything you've done.' "
Rogen looked up in shock. "And he goes, 'Are you serious?' " continues Efron. "And I was like, 'Yes, I'm 100 percent serious.' And he goes, 'Aw, man, I just wanted to hate you.' And I'm like, 'Seth, I get it. I don't even like myself at this point.' "
Several years later, when Rogen was working with writers Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien on Neighbors, he remembered that friends like Jonah Hill had spoken well of Efron, and approached him to play the leader of an Animal House-like fraternity that moves in next door to Rogen and his onscreen wife (Rose Byrne).
"We met with him and pitched the idea -- there was no script yet," says Rogen. "We got him attached, then we went to studios." Efron said yes then and there and was instrumental in the screenplay's development, arguing that his character should be more human, less a villain just spouting venom. "One thing he was vocal about, which was very smart, was making a movie that wasn't just critical of fraternity life," notes Rogen. "Most of us are nerdy comedy-writer guys, and he's not, so it was very helpful to have the voice of the other group. It was a defining moment for the movie."
Universal agreed to finance the film, and early last summer a 41-day shoot took place in and around the West Adams district of Los Angeles.
Filming came shortly after Efron's stint in rehab, presenting its own set of challenges. "The best part of the shoot by far was hanging out with Seth and the guys," he says. "The hardest part? Every single day was more or less a party. You went into this kind of dream state: You show up, it's dark, and there's a raging party. Drive home, and the sun's up, go to sleep and then get back to set. Glow lights, girls in bikinis, electronic dance music blasting in between takes, people jumping around. It was pretty cool, but it was a lot. It was a lot. It sort of became real."
It didn't help that Efron broke his hand during a fight sequence with Dave Franco, who plays his best friend. "It was amazing and really scary," says Rogen. "I couldn't believe it. In the scene, he punches Dave and maybe hits the ground. He kept going for a while, and slowly his hand was getting very swollen. He had to have surgery. We were budgeting what it would cost and writing it into the [script]. But he was back a day or two later. We didn't change our shooting schedule at all."
Adds Rogen: "A lot of actors are looking at any opportunity to not do their very easy job. The fact that he instantly was willing to get surgery and go back to work was huge. It showed a very good character and a good work ethic, and I immensely appreciate that he was willing to do that because he could have derailed the movie."
Efron had all but given up hope of a career as an actor and was set to study film at USC when the then-17-year-old was invited to a cattle call for a new Disney TV movie.
"My mom dropped me off out of a minivan somewhere in North Hollywood," he remembers. "I had no idea what to expect. There were about 40 guys. And we walked in, and [director] Kenny Ortega was there with a piano, and they put everybody in a room together, and we ran through different phases of what we would need to do -- first dancing, then singing -- and a few of us got tapped on the shoulder [to leave], and I didn't. And next came the scene-reading sections, and I got paired with Vanessa Hudgens."
That combination proved golden, and High School Musical became an international phenomenon, making Efron and Hudgens celebrities, not to mention boyfriend and girlfriend. (The two no longer are in close touch, but, says Efron, "She was a really interesting, sweet person.") HSM led to two sequels, the third of which was released theatrically in 2008 and made $252.9 million worldwide.
"I'm grateful for every bit of that early success," he adds. "It was hands down the most honest, carefree, passionate experience of my life. There were no expectations. [But later] I definitely felt that pressure. I'm not comfortable with it at all times. The people that I saw and the people that I started to meet, the majority were young. These were kids, and I looked into their eyes and I saw myself as a fan, and it was shocking to be on the other end of that. You just want to please every single one."
The son of an electrical engineer father and a mother who is a former secretary, Efron grew up in Arroyo Grande, Calif., near San Luis Obispo, and stumbled into acting only when his parents insisted he do some extracurricular activity.
Efron's mother, Starla, was the more nurturing figure, while his father, David, a graduate of the California Maritime Academy, pushed him to succeed. "My dad's a rock," says Efron. "He's in every sense a man's man. He raised us [Efron and younger brother Dylan] with a firm hand and instilled in us, 'If you're going to do something, do it right.' With him behind me, I could excel at anything. He was very driven, very motivated. He always had us doing something. You could say he was strict. But to this day, there's nobody that I go to more for advice. My dad, he's probably the best guy I know."
Efron's father encouraged his son to perform when he overheard him singing and realized he had memorized every word of Michael Jackson's songs. "We had the Greatest Hits album playing in my mom's car constantly," says Efron. "One day, I started singing all the songs consecutively, word for word. My dad was like, 'How do you know all the words?' He said, 'If you're not going to play sports, you have to do something.' "
Soon, Efron signed up for classes at nearby Allan Hancock College, home of the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts, where he took small roles in stage productions of Gypsy and Peter Pan. Initially, he says, "I was terrified. But within a week of [the first] rehearsal, I was immersed in this world of college-age theater kids. They were so different. They were carefree. They were incredible dancers and movers. They took me under their wing and treated me like one of their own, and onstage I remember watching them and saying, 'God, this is magical.' "
After winning two improv competitions with his friends, Efron landed his first professional roles, appearing on such TV shows as ER, CSI: Miami and Joss Whedon's Firefly. Then came 2006's HSM.
Following the two sequels, Efron unexpectedly pulled out of a Footloose remake that would have reteamed him with Ortega. "I was aching to do it," he says. "It just sounded like so much fun. But I knew if I did that, it would ultimately be limiting. And at that point, I was really searching for something else. It was never about money for me, [but] the hardest part was saying no to Kenny because I adore him so much."
"He called me and said: 'I need to see you. Can I come to your office?' " recalls the movie's producer, Craig Zadan. "What he had done was extremely smart. He'd picked actors he admired and went to them and said, 'If you were me, what would you do?' He spoke to Tom Cruise, a lot of people. And he said, 'I'm not going to do another musical for a long time.' It was smart, but it was also sad."
Efron's team -- CAA agents Joel Lubin and Mick Sullivan and Alchemy Entertainment manager Jason Barrett -- then lined up roles in everything from Richard Linklater's period piece Me and Orson Welles (2008) to the romantic comedy 17 Again (2009) to Lee Daniels' Cannes entry The Paperboy (2012). Throughout, Efron felt an urge to keep working, a need to perfect himself, a dissatisfaction that still drives him.
"I'm constantly searching for characters that are about betterment of self and betterment of others," he says. "And I'm searching for those parts because those are the ones that make me happy. They're the ones that fulfill me personally."
Taking on three diverse films in a row was too much, he admits: "I had done films back-to-back-to-back. I was burnt out." It was this workload, rather than any individual precipitating event, that pushed him over the edge, he says, though he grants there were deeper causes, too. "There was something lacking, some sort of hole that I couldn't really fill up."
Work, he says, "started to become the reason to go anywhere, the reason to talk to anybody. The phone calls I received were regarding [work], the ones I wanted to make were regarding scripts or to producers. Slowly but surely, I was no longer living in my house. It was just hotel to hotel. So my hobbies went out the window."
He stopped seeing friends, grew distant from his family and hopped from location to location, living out of a suitcase, turning to alcohol and drugs to make the rush of it all tolerable. "I was just so deep into my work, it was really the only thing I had," he says. "I clung to it in a way that became a little bit destructive."
Efron took a major step away from that lifestyle last year when he moved out of his classic Case Study home in Laurel Canyon and into a contemporary residence in Los Feliz, where he lives with his 22-year-old brother.
"That house was sort of in the middle of everything," he says of the Laurel Canyon home. "It spit you out on one end on Sunset and on the other end onto Ventura Boulevard. It was a great idea initially -- concrete floors, metal windows -- a great bachelor pad, in my opinion. But it was surrounded by windows, and at night people started coming up and tapping on the glass while I was asleep. It started to get a little bit strange."
Now, says Efron, "I try to stay as low-key as possible." He spends as much time as he can at home, where he consumes books and screenplays, among them Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, the sixth-century-B.C. Chinese Tao Te Ching and Christopher McDougall's Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.
He also collects vinyl records and listens avidly to music, everything from Kings of Leon and Black Keys to Ray Charles. "I'm on Spotify 24/7," he says. "Kendrick Lamar and his album good kid, m.A.A.d city is one of the coolest things I've ever heard."
He loves to travel and recently returned from a trip with his father to Peru's 15th-century Inca site Machu Picchu, a vacation he calls part of a "reset" of his family relations: "I've turned a corner with them in a big way, and we're coming back into each other's lives." He refuses to blame them for his issues. "I had a great dad; my parents were fantastic."
He also is trying to restore links with old friends, including ones who go back to his time at Allan Hancock College. "I hadn't seen any of my very close friends in months," he says. "I didn't realize how incredibly isolated I had become. I had a fantastic excuse to put myself at ease, which was: 'It's for the work. It's for the art. You should be lonely when you're working like this. That's what artists do.' "
As he moves deeper into his 20s, his goals are becoming more defined. He is keen to take charge of his career and has started producing through his Ninjas Runnin' Wild Productions, where he is partnered with Michael Simkin. His first movie as producer, That Awkward Moment (about three guys who vow to remain single, only to have their plans derailed) was released in January, and while it didn't light up the box office with its $26 million gross, it cost only a reported $8 million. He recently bought the rights to John Grisham's The Associate (which centers on a Yale Law School graduate forced to go undercover in a law firm with defense-industry connections) after Paramount let it lapse and is developing it with producers Douglas Wick and Lucy Fisher.
His production slate also includes a Bourne-like espionage thriller, Fire, which he is producing with Neal Moritz; and the lower-budget psychological thriller Black Math, to be sold at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival, with Efron and Barrett paying for its development out of their pockets.
"Professionally speaking, I'm incredibly impressed with his work and his ethic," says Rogen. "I know he's been going through things, but he's been adamant about getting himself in shape, and as we've been promoting the movie, it's been an amazing show of energy and willpower, and I'm psyched to see how happy he is."
Adds Zadan: "He is the most delightful person to work with. Always in great spirits, always excited about the work. Hollywood is very forgiving of actors when they go through the stress of being stars and being followed around by paparazzi -- to a point. If you become one of those people where every single day is another misuse of alcohol or drugs or car crashes, that's different. But Zac has never been that. He's very well grounded."
Sitting with him, as we wrap up 2½ hours of conversation, it's hard not to empathize with Efron's struggles, and he is lucid about their impact. "Without those moments where you feel like your lowest, it's impossible to appreciate the high ones," he says. "But I sit here in front of you today much happier and healthier than I've probably ever been."
Damn, finally letting him grow up and talk, eh? Good.