Zac Efron was turning gay heads way before director Lee Daniels stripped him to his skivvies for the pulpy, ’60s-set southern thriller The Paperboy, which steams up theaters October 5. The High School Musical heartthrob is finally ready to return the love in his first gay press interview, which even he acknowledges is long overdue.
It’s good to see you return to your dancing roots with Nicole Kidman in the trailer for The Paperboy, but your moves seem to have gotten wetter and more naked.
Believe it or not, that dance in the rain wasn’t planned. Nicole’s fun to work with because she’s very improvisational. She just started dancing with me, and we went with the moment.
Surely you knew that scene would attract some prurient attention.
With a scene like that, you just have to stick with it and see where it takes you. After the fact, though, I remember thinking, Oh, jeez, what did I just get myself into?
Matthew McConaughey, your Paperboy costar, helped design his thong for Magic Mike. Did you help select your white briefs?
I did, yeah. It’s a period movie, so there weren’t really a lot of choices. Initially, I wondered if my character would even wear underwear at all. But that would’ve been a very different movie.
You’ve worked with other gay directors, including Adam Shankman on Hairspray, but Lee Daniels has often spoken about how much his “gay sensibility” translates to his work. In fact, at a press conference for The Paperboy in Cannes earlier this year, Lee even made light of a connection between his being his gay and your being somewhat eroticized on-screen. Did you have any reservations or did you embrace Lee’s sensibility from the start?
I’ve always just embraced Lee as a brilliant artist, so I followed him blindly, trustingly, and wholeheartedly. He’s searching for beauty and truth in every scene, so I believed in him and always felt safe. I was a fan of Lee’s work — I thought Precious was so marvelous and real — and I knew that he had a lot to teach me. All he required of me was that I be fearless, and that’s something I’m really working on right now in my career.
Screen grabs of you in wet undies made quite an impression in the gay blogosphere, but your presence on gay blogs is certainly nothing new.
It’s very flattering. After High School Musical and Hairspray, I’ve always felt embraced by the gay community, and I feel incredibly grateful and honored. This is actually a very special interview for me. I’m extremely aware of the support I’ve gotten from you guys over the years, and it’s amazing that it’s taken this long to sit down and actually discuss it, but please know that it hasn’t gone unappreciated. I’m so excited to be talking to you.
I really felt that support after High School Musical. I think the gay audience related to my character Troy, because it really was a story of embracing who you are, no matter how different you might be, and not being afraid to show it. That’s a universal theme for everyone, but it specifically resonated with the gay community, and I felt very proud of that.
Do you remember your first interaction with gay people?
I started doing local theater so young — I was 12 — so to me, being gay was just another way that you can be. I never really had time to think about it or have any preconceived notions. I don’t judge anyone and I never have.
You’ve said in the past that the older college kids who performed with your local theater were your first role models.
Absolutely. I might’ve been less aware of it back then, but without question I had gay role models.
After your involvement in last year’s Footloose remake fell through, fans worried that you might be done with musicals for good. Do you see more musical theater in your future?
Without a doubt, I’d love to do Broadway. I actually can’t wait to get back to musical theater. There’s a part of me that wishes I could go do it right now, but there’s also a part of me that knows I need to tackle other types of acting opportunities first. I want to be a well-rounded, versatile performer. Until I master other things, it would be hard for me to get back to musical theater. But that will always be my home base and where I feel the most free, and it’s something I will definitely do again, even it it’s just for pleasure and personal fulfillment.
The Paperboy also marks McConaughey’s first gay role. Are you interested in tackling a gay character?
I’d never take a role just for the sake of playing gay, but I’m always looking for a role that’s challenging, different, and entails some risk, so there’s no doubt in my mind that one of those characters will be gay at some point in the future. It’s always interesting to delve into unexplored territory, and that would be a new avenue for me. I definitely wouldn’t be afraid.
Thank you. I don’t like to live in fear about things like rumors and backlash to begin with — that’s the way I was raised — but I just can’t see what’s so wrong about being gay.
Last year a number of blogs posted a picture of you wearing a FCKH8 T-shirt that read, “Some Dudes Marry Dudes. Get Over It.” Unfortunately, it was soon revealed to be Photoshopped.
Yeah, that picture was fake, but a couple days after it went around, a fan sent me a shirt identical to the one in the picture. So now I do own that shirt.
Have you worn it?
I’m sure I have and I’m sure I will. It’s still hanging up somewhere.
So what are your thoughts on marriage equality — and dudes marrying dudes?
It’s an issue that affects so many people in my life — a lot of my close friends and some of the most influential people around me. I just want them all to be happy. It would make me so happy to see them able to live their lives and do what they want to do.
The word on the street is that you throw a mean party. Do gay friends make the exclusive guest list?
[Laughs] You’re on for the next one.