“I was a little bit on my own,” Zac Efron tells me when I speak to him at the Meridien Oriental hotel in New York.
This sense of loneliness, isolation and abandonment that possesses child actors usually stems from the intense public adoration placed on them and the high expectation for them to do well at work and be a role model in life. Sadly, in many cases the adults in their life, including parents and agents, who are supposed to protect them, add to their stress by pressing them to keep taking the next part to ensure the stream of huge earning. Many of those young stars succumb to the pressure and resort to drugs and alcohol for salvation.
“It was a period of time when I was feeling down,” Efron reflects. “I thought it was the work that was driving it. I’m unhappy because I’ve been working too much. I had a lot of relationships with older people, mostly directors; that was from set to set. It was a transient time for me. During that time I think I made probably more films consecutively than have ever, so I just can only really think about the work.”
Born in 1987, Efron rose to fame and became a teen idol after his lead role in the Disney Channel Original Movie High School Musical (2006) which he followed with movies such as Hairspray (2007), Me and Orson Welles (2009) and The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud (2010).
Some child stars, like Jodie Foster and Natalie Portman, took a respite from acting and sought out higher education in prestigious universities, which connected them with their own generation, expanded their horizon, shielded them from the hazards of their fame and equipped them with the wisdom to deal with it when they resumed their career. But with no college education or other qualification and hobbies to lean to when his mind was unstoppingly sinking into a mental void, Efron, like other hapless youngsters before him such as Corey Haim, Lindsay Lohan, Drew Barrymore and Robert Downey Jr., found a friend in drugs and alcohol, and soon became an addict.
Some young addicts, like Corey Haim, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger, paid the ultimate price: their life, and the price for others, like Lindsay Lohan, Haley Joel Osment and John Connor, was their career. But Efron was one of the lucky ones. When the work stopped for a couple of weeks, and he wasn’t feeling any better, he decided to do something about it. Last spring, he entered rehab for an addiction to alcohol and drugs.
“That was a big journey,” he says. “It was bigger than expected. I didn’t even think it was what it was. It turned out to be sort of a combination of things that I was able to really focus on, like what do you want to do and where do you want to be and how to feel comfortable in this moment, and meditate on a couple of adjustments I was able to make that have really panned out well.”
Ironically, the first job he was offered after his rehab was playing a debaucherous, drunkard, drug-abuser leader of a college fraternity group, who turns the life his neighbours into hell in the new comedy Bad Neighbours.
“It was like a nightmare sometimes, but pretty easy to do,” the 26-year-old laughs. “I think I knew the authenticity of the finer points of what it’s like to be you so I was able to draw on it for something so it was nice. I think at that moment I was grateful for it.”
Relaxed and beaming with life, Efron is in a good place these days. He eats healthily, goes to the gym and hits the sack at 9pm. He has also embarked on connecting with his fans via social media, opening accounts on websites including Facebook and Twitter.
“At one point I was really opposed to it,” he says. “I was afraid of it, but now, as it’s evolving, its proven to be like a really useful tool for me to communicate with fans, and that gives me the chance to tell them things that they might want to hear and hear back from them and get feedback.”
In spite of his ordeal, Efron doesn’t regret any of his action, insisting that it was an edifying life lesson that helped him grow, but he doesn’t recommend it.
“I learned to take myself a lot less seriously and that was a pretty valuable lesson,” he smiles.