Zac Efron Wrestles With His Legacy: How the ‘High School Musical’ Alum Finally Found His Purpose With ‘Iron Claw’

Zac Efron
Photographs by Chantal Anderson
When Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” came out in 2008, Zac Efron was two movies deep into the Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” franchise, in which he played singing, dancing basketball phenom Troy Bolton. He’d been the swoony romantic lead in the movie musical “Hairspray,” opposite John Travolta and Michelle Pfeiffer, was shortly to play opposite Matthew Perry in “17 Again,” and had pulled his T-shirt up on the cover of Rolling Stone under the headline “The New American Heartthrob.” At 21, Efron might have seemed like the kind of actor who was as likely to watch footage of the moon landing and decide to become an astronaut as he was to take inspiration from Mickey Rourke’s grizzled, broken-down performance.

And yet. “That film impacted me in a really specific way,” he recalls over lunch in Los Angeles. “I was watching it with my dad, and I remember looking at him in that moment, saying, ‘That’s what I want to do. That’s where my heart is.

It was easier for Efron to imagine himself there than for his parents — an electrical engineer and an administrative assistant comfortably raising the new American heartthrob — to understand his passion. “It’s got to be weird,” Efron goes on, “watching your child go through the more challenging route. I know that at times they had to be thinking, ‘He shouldn’t even do this stuff.’”

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Efron had, to that point, made it through the maelstrom of Disney stardom, maintaining an image of squeaky-clean ambition even as his peers, from Shia LaBeouf to Lindsay Lohan, stumbled in the glare of a hot spotlight. Lanky and laconic, Efron was, above all, low-key — so much so that the tabloid coverage, inevitable for a star of his magnitude, focused primarily on his relationship with “High School Musical” co-star Vanessa Hudgens. (The pair confirmed their breakup in 2010.) The pressures of Hollywood took their toll eventually — Efron entered rehab for substance abuse in 2013, at age 25 — but his early days are remembered first for Troy Bolton, a tweenage dream of the ultimate nice guy.

The challenging journey Efron has taken to escape that character and image has lasted 15 years. That time has held a fair amount of movies, and a fair amount of living — but he got there. In “The Iron Claw,” the new film by Sean Durkin, Efron delivers a performance whose ambition will surprise you. It’s a movie-star turn as a character whose tragedy is that he can’t use charisma to bypass his problems. Durkin compares Efron to Robert De Niro in “The Deer Hunter,” calling him a “quiet leader”; and to Burt Lancaster in “The Swimmer,” “because he’s in a Speedo the whole time.”

He’s kidding, kind of — but Efron’s physicality is central to this work. With his hair cut into a Prince Valiant bowl cut, Efron has transformed himself into a Marvel-esque specimen. He’s playing Kevin Von Erich, a pro wrestler living through the deaths of each of his brothers in sequence. The real-life Von Erich was one of a family of grapplers on the 1980s circuit who were stalked by a series of fatal mishaps; on-screen, their father, played by Holt McCallany, forces them forward with a grim refusal to acknowledge their feelings, even as they mourn brother after brother. Men, they’re told, don’t cry — and so all of those feelings are converted into athleticism, or bottled away until they burst. Through it all, Efron battles with ever-increasing savagery in the ring, trying desperately to keep a lid on his feelings. His body is equipped to fight and to win; it also is visual evidence of the kind of choking masculinity Kevin forces himself to inhabit.

Chantal Anderson for Variety

On set, Efron was deep in character but still supportive — the kind of empathetic collaborator that the Von Erich brothers weren’t allowed to be.

“Getting into this, I wondered if there would be this quiet competition between us men, mimicking the relationship between these brothers,” co-star Jeremy Allen White says. “But Zac would push us to do better scene work and was a cheerleader in a way that I didn’t really expect. He was consistently patting us on the back and picking us up.”

Efron’s performance in “The Iron Claw” stands as proof that some golden boys have the potential to melt themselves down and reshape themselves into something new. In this small-scale, low-budget indie, Efron, at 36, is unambiguously and finally all grown up. And he’s playing a mix of emotions, and an attempted restraint over all of them, that suggests a potent power behind the usual charm. “The Iron Claw” is an unexpected delivery system for Efron’s ambition. But the actor that this star wanted to be all along has arrived.

And the danger — the possibility that the movie might not work out — is the fun of it, for audience and actor alike. “I’ve always sought out opportunities where the potential failures might outweigh the benefits,” Efron says. “I could very well fuck this up.”

Efron’s portrayal of a man who fights for glory and for fame only to find himself at a remove from humanity has some heavy real-world ballast. Efron is a self-described perfectionist — so much so that the excitement and spontaneity of the moment can feel out of reach. “We’re supposed to be having fun. I have to remind myself that this should be fun above all else,” he says. “If being a perfectionist is going to be the thorn in my side from this point on,” he says, “it’s like, jeez — life is way too short.”

But part of what makes moviemaking fun even with the rigors of preparation is that it doesn’t happen alone. Throughout our conversation, Efron comes back to the idea that reaching out to people, in the midst of the alienating process of becoming a commodity, has gotten him through. Among the people Efron speaks to regularly, he says, are John Cena, Robert Pattinson and Nicole Kidman, his co-star from the 2012 Lee Daniels film “The Paperboy.”

“I want to see Zac be lauded,” Kidman says via email. “I know he put his whole heart and soul into that movie, and I watched him physically and emotionally change to play that role.”

Inspiration comes from everywhere for Efron, including past collaborators. Asked about “17 Again” co-star Perry’s Oct. 28 death, Efron grows reflective. “He was in a unique position for me in my career, and in my life,” Efron says. “His passing is affecting me a lot.”

Unlike the paragon of bygone masculinity he’s playing on-screen, Efron allows himself to feel, and to acknowledge, his emotions. “It can be incredibly lonely, being an actor and being in the spotlight. It definitely can be isolating,” he says. “It’s very important to reach out to friends and foster relationships where you can talk and share stories. I wish in the past couple of years that I had an opportunity to do that with Matthew. I hold the time we shared together really dear. I’ve been thinking about him a lot, every day.”


Efron was excited when Durkin, the director of acclaimed Sundance films “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “The Nest,” offered him the role of Von Erich. But there was just one problem. “One of the first things that Sean said was ‘It’s a movie about pro wrestling,’” Efron says. “In my head, I was going, ‘Oh, my God, no — you’re kidding me.’ I’ve got nothing in common with a professional wrestler. I don’t have the athleticism. And you’re exposed out there.”

The casual observer might scoff at the idea that Efron — famously fit, with a recent Netflix reality series, “Down to Earth,” devoted in some part to his attempts to improve his own health and longevity — might feel trepidation about hitting the gym. (Efron arrived at lunch toting a bottle of duck-bone broth and poured his water into a sort of cylindrical centrifuge that seemed to make it ever so much healthier.) But wrestling, particularly of the glitz-and-cheese era in which the Von Erichs reigned, is different from just being a movie star; this choreography is orders of magnitude more challenging than the kind Efron mastered in “High School Musical” or “The Greatest Showman.” And Kevin Von Erich is action-figure pumped up in order to play the role of wrestling god; to enter his headspace, Efron decided he would have to be too.

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“Again, being a perfectionist at heart, I knew that I was up for a challenge,” Efron says. “My imagination ran wild.” He’s reluctant to describe the eight-month process he undertook solo in detail — “It can sound a little bit boring,” he says — but the result was a striking physical transformation, one from which Efron has come down; sitting before me in a black button-neck sweater and black tee, he looks like one of the more ambitious patrons at Equinox rather than the surrealistically swole figure of “The Iron Claw.”

“That necessity to be perfect — it became an obsession,” he says. “It was a singular focus for months. And your life goes out the window during prep.” Efron worked out for hours a day, starting with volume training to gain 15 pounds of muscle. “Then I was able to incorporate old-school body-building and Olympic lifting,” he says, “and really achieved that specific look of pro wrestlers, which was really hard.”

Durkin, who sought to avoid thinking too hard about the real-life visual presentation of the Von Erichs, left Efron to his work. “I felt, in terms of the physical, that I would stay out of that,” Durkin says. “I was much more supportive of him taking whatever route he needed to as a way in. And I think he used the physical as a way to find that level of commitment. We didn’t talk about it beyond that.”

Efron has spoken in the past about the toll of shifting his physique for modern-day movie star duty; to prepare to play a chiseled lifeguard in 2017’s “Baywatch,” he overtrained and used diuretics, and has said the process led him into a depression. “I learned a lot over the course of ‘Baywatch’ — I learned the hard way about not sacrificing my real health for a look on camera,” he says. “I had the right questions to ask for this one.”

Something about the solitary nature of the preparation and transformation for “The Iron Claw” may have helped Efron live inside Kevin’s mind. “It was an unforeseen ally,” he says. “Having all that weight on, you don’t feel normal. And the delayed-onset muscle soreness was through the roof. During preparation, it’s one thing to manage that — you don’t have to be super social. I found myself withdrawing quite a bit.” It suits a character who’s alienated even from himself.

“Because he put in so much commitment, and so much time, his mindset was all ‘Iron Claw,’” says Harris Dickinson, who plays Von Erich’s sensitive, soulful brother David. Coming straight off another project, Dickinson hadn’t trained as rigorously, and took advice from Efron on how to warm up before shoots. “His life was solely about that. It was contained. And it was shut off from everything else.”

“Harris and I — we got dinner every once in a while, or we allowed ourselves a little bit of life outside of work during that time,” White says. “And I’m not so sure about Zac. He was kind of a machine during that time. And I do think that these men probably felt like machines in some game constructed by their father. I don’t know how far away Zac got from Kevin during the entirety of the filming process, but if I had to guess, I don’t think he ever drifted too far away from character.”

Chantal Anderson for Variety

Efron’s preparation helped him to stay in character, and to nail consecutive days of shooting wrestling matches. “These matches were anywhere from seven to 15 minutes long,” Efron says, “and we wouldn’t break at all. We would complete them, start to finish.” And then they’d do it over again to get coverage. “I was talking to a couple of professionals,” Efron says. “And they were like, ‘Dude, we only do that a couple nights a week. We don’t have to do it multiple times in a row.’”

The result is matches that move the story forward. “When you’ve just jumped off the top rope and been slammed a few times in the face and hit the mat really hard,” Efron says, “you walk differently.”


Efron speaks slowly and deliberately, with as consistent eye contact as a person can make; he says precisely what he means and tends to resist flights of fancy. But it’s not hard to see the film’s central transformation as a double appeal for a star like Efron: For one thing, it literalizes the process of preparing for a role, presenting clear benchmarks that can satisfy a self-confessed perfectionist. And it represents, too, the chance to escape a constricting image. (“High School Musical,” of course, has its fans to this day: Dickinson says that, as a teen contemplating a career in the British military, Efron showed him that a life in the arts was possible. “I was battling between understanding my interest in theater and being in the Marines — there was this machismo. And I remember seeing ‘High School Musical’ — and this is incredibly cheesy and vulnerable — but I remember thinking, ‘Oh, if Troy Bolton can do it …’ The films he’d done, they were cultural phenomena.”)

Efron has been famous for nearly half his life — “High School Musical,” the first installment, came out when he was 18. The mania around that franchise — which ended up as a trilogy whose final installment, released theatrically, made $252 million at the global box office — was akin to the craze for “Stranger Things” today, except that the only special effect it had was the shared charisma of its teen stars.

“If I could go back and tell myself one thing,” he says, “it would be to relax. It’s not the end of the world.” But the idea that “High School Musical” had transformed his life “started to settle in pretty quickly,” he says. “I knew that those are things that you don’t really ever have control of. There’s a certain number of things you can control in your life, and the rest, you have to realize you’re not in control of it.”

Part of regaining control is leaving a situation you don’t enjoy; Efron, for instance, no longer lives in L.A. As he figures out where he wants to land, he has spent time on property he owns in Australia.

“Any time I want, I can spend time with my parents — I know they’re always going to be in California. But I’m thinking about where I want to build a home base and cultivate my life. It’s shocking — sometimes you wake up after doing three movies a year, and you’re like, I’ve neglected thinking about my own personal life for this long.” That that personal life happens far from public view suggests another lesson learned even from the relatively friendly coverage he received back in the day.

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Efron’s past attempts to escape Troy Bolton haven’t been consistently successful. (As if to demonstrate how inescapable his past can be, a TikTok user recently uploaded footage of Efron walking through the airport in Miami, set to a sped-up version of a “High School Musical” anthem.) His biggest role since has been in the family hit “The Greatest Showman,” in which he romanced fellow supporting player Zendaya, while his meatiest pre-“Iron Claw” part, as Ted Bundy in the dark drama “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” played at Sundance but got lost in the shuffle on Netflix. And in recent years, attempts to stay in the game, from a voice role in the mystery-solving dog cartoon “Scoob!” to the Stephen King remake “Firestarter” to Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book” follow-up “The Greatest Beer Run Ever,” have been met with mixed reviews.

“You can put your heart and soul into something, and it doesn’t work out the way you thought it would,” Efron says, “but the idea of giving up or quitting because of that — there’s just so much to be done.”

Taking on a daring role, one that allowed Efron to shoulder a daunting physical preparation period, made for a way to literalize getting back into the game.

“My goal is to make everything the best it can possibly be in any genre,” Efron says. “But a big part that clicked early on was that it’s been a priority to never do the same thing twice, to the point where it’s uncomfortable — to have to learn a new skill set, or transform, or be vulnerable.”

It’s this last point that perhaps distinguishes “The Iron Claw” and Efron’s performance within it. Efron, who is himself unmarried, with no children, is playing a husband and father in this film, and the shift feels defining: He’s put childish things away.

“Growing up young and in the industry — frankly, what you’re going through is of very little concern,” he says. “The goal is always the next mission, the next movie, making sure everyone else is very happy. It can be very lonely at times. But the process of taking your emotions head-on, sort of working with them, was a profound moment in my life. And it’s definitely taken me down a different road.”

What lies ahead for “The Iron Claw” is anyone’s guess; in a crowded best actor field, Efron is a dark horse. But as he figures out his next project, this movie serves as a calling card, proof that the former child actor has grown into his abilities. And even in the midst of a preparation that lasted until the film wrapped, Efron felt that rare thing for any actor, and especially one who’d been waiting to wrestle with tough themes for 15 years: secure. “On this set, more than anywhere in the past, I felt more comfortable,” he says. “I can take a breath now.”


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From Variety US