Untitled Workplace Comedy
Most Texans like to blather—it’s drearily apparent in less than two seconds after touchdown on Austin soil. The Southwest Airlines pilot and stewardess, the fossil who can’t get her bag down from the overhead container, the two giddy girls at the front desk at the Mansion Hotel, the gangly bellboy who shows me to my room, the cab driver who maneuvers me to the Driskill Hotel where I’m to meet with Zac Efron—the young American actor, who, at the time of this writing, is currently residing in the Lone Star State capital, filming Peter Landesman’s JFK hospital drama
And yeah, I get it, these Texans are just being “Texan,” but I’m sicker than shit, I’ve got a fever and my whole body aches, and I feel like I’m expected to engage, to share the corny hell right you’re in Texas enthusiasm—and this cabdriver, this demented hippie driving me to meet with Efron, he is exceptionally Texan in this regard. “What’s that in your hand a cellphone, geeze, every kid got one of them in their hands now eyes glued looking down at their screens they damn never even look up when they’re crossing the street just the other day I about plowed one over I was like look up will ya haw haw, but man that’s just something you know now every kid has one I swear it’s amazing how fast times are changing, I mean Austin is changing man it is practically an entirely different city I’ll tell you that right now, when I first came here in ’69 it wasn’t even a city it was like a town but these people from California moving down here buying houses, whoops did I say California, haw haw, I meant never mind that, that there is our part of the Colorado River, haw haw, I was with about twenty or so buddies back in ’69 and there weren’t hardly anyone here then so if you wanted to get off the grid start your own self-sustaining way of life, man you could but I tell you I never say commune because people get to thinking you know they hear the word ‘commune’ but that was a lot of work that commune thing, that was a lot of work, and we only did last the year of it. But man, Austin, I guess that’s progress, all the Beatles are dead you can’t hardly understand a word Bob Dylan says people from California buying up the land over on the other side of the expressway building big old houses.”
I try to respond but instead start coughing like Jason Robards at the end of Magnolia. But whatever. Thanks pal for the most predictable monologue ever. I decide right then and there I’m not taking taxis in Texas anymore, even if I have to drag myself back to my hotel, sick and all. I enter through the side door at the Driskill to meet Todd, Efron’s assistant, and then Zac Efron himself—grinning and silent at a corner table in the cavernous but oddly crowded lobby. Todd introduces us, shuffles off, holding up his phone which means to call if we need anything, and I tell Efron I didn’t even recognize him.
There’re two things you have to consider when you begin looking into the Hollywood leading man (and by lead, we can safely say, any type of notable Hollywood actor whose presence in a film is in itself compelling) and the first is the lead’s iconic resemblance to an established version of themselves, their “narrative” character, so to speak. As an example, take Tom Cruise. It’s as hard to remember the names of the characters he’s played as it is easy to rattle off a certain number of Tom Cruise movies—Risky Business, Days of Thunder, Top Gun, and so on. These movies were not about characters or plots really—they were about a series of images of Tom Cruise doing Tom Cruise-like stuff: flying jets, wearing shades, playing beach volleyball, clenching and flexing his jaw muscles in thought, driving really fast, dancing in his unders. The substance of most Tom Cruise movies begins and ends with the fact that he’s in them. And they’re amazing. But Efron and I will both come to agree that Cruise’s best work (and by best work, Efron and I mean, when the character figures more predominantly than the actor’s persona) is the stuff Tom Cruise did that made you hyperaware of Tom Cruise, the simulacrum (his ladies-man with daddy issues caricature, Frank T.J. Mackey, probably being foremost—whose sexed-up huffing and puffing and wildly phlegmatic bedside weeping now seem preface to the bizarre Oprah appearance where the impish actor went full simian, hooting and jumping on the sofa before flinging dungwads about love and Katie Holmes into the pie-faced audience).
Only by extending the attributes normally assigned to the iconic Cruise does Cruise obliterate the icon of Tom Cruise. Acting then, in the successful Hollywood leading man sense, is about the leading man’s self-immolation, the defacement of his stature, if only to rebuild/resurrect a sturdier monolith in its stead (other examples, for my generation: Brad in Kalifornia, Gosling in Drive, and most recently Leo in Django (also interesting to note is the career of QT, whose filmography reads like an essay on Hollywood iconography).
The second aspect of the leading man is no more superficial than the first—but is perhaps the more important. Beauty—handsomeness—of such a prepossessing degree it is as though the entire audience is rubbernecking. Awe, rapture, whatever. Acting becomes secondary to the realer and more compelling drama of beauty’s existence in and of itself—and the forms and mediums the artist uses to arrest and capture its unmistakable appearance.
This is not merely about “good looks” and “hot bods.” There are plenty of devastating gents out there running around starring in movies—but they lack the talent of beauty. Brando had it—and so inspired insanity in Blanche DuBois and the rest of America. Leo in Titanic—icy-eyed and ever sinking to the bottom of the ocean, the boy equivalent of the rarest, most fictional diamond ever. Brad Pitt—the cowboy-hatted hunk of inevitability in whom a pair of suicidal dames seek solace. The leading man is why the caged bird sings. James Dean, Warren Beatty, Cary Grant, Errol Flynn. It’s why the Iliad begins with Achilles and not the cuckold Menelaus. An ugly man’s rage is a mass shooting or a Kevin James sitcom. But a handsome man’s is loaded with pathos, is epic and fated. What is beautiful is made pathetic by its death sentence, a punishment for being born in time, sad and vulnerable.
Shortly after High School Musical and Hairspray, Efron was supposedly cast as the Kevin Bacon part in the Footloose remake. The singing and dancing, and small town rebellion—this seemed perfect, the perfect continuation of a version of Efron that was well on way its way to becoming a mold he would later, and only later, as the narrative dictates, break. But for some reason—call it a moment of clarity, a flash of insight—Efron backed out of the film and instead hooked up with melodramatic madman Lee Daniels to make the swampy, lurid trash-ball film, The Paperboy—which is basically about a sheriff being murdered, an innocent but totally disgusting man on death row for the crime, the tawdry woman who falls in love with him, the journalists who are trying to help her get him free, and the journalist’s younger brother (Efron) who falls madly in love with the tawdry woman (Kidman). “I needed a shock to the system,” Efron tells me, which meant having this plumper and sluttier-than-ever-before Kidman squat over him to make a tinkle.
The Paperboy was booed at Cannes. Critics generally loathed it, and audiences, despite the cast, avoided it like it was capital “A” Art-house.
And it was absolutely the right role for Efron to take. He’d made himself vulnerable.
I begin our interview by telling Efron I’m not here to give him a handjob, though what I’m about to start telling him seems as complimentary and simultaneously rote as a backroom happy-ending. And what’s weird is, I’m being dead serious, and I mean what I’m saying—and I don’t care if I come across like a suck-ass. We both order tequila (“It helps with my flu,” I say), and then I launch into my spiel before Efron even has the chance to talk.
“I’m a sucker for melodrama,” I tell Efron. Then I describe how I left the screening of director Ramin Bahrani’s latest, At Any Price, in which Efron stars, genuinely shaken. Genuinely surprised.
“I guess I didn’t know what I was expecting,” I tell him, “but At Any Price was good. You were good.”
It’s an archetypal film but it isn’t conventional. It doesn’t really have a plot, but instead, it’s a film about something: as the title suggests, what people are willing to do to hang on in America. There’s the not-quite-above-the-board patriarch trying to maintain the family business (in this case a corn and seed operation in Iowa), and the indifferent sons he one day wants to pass it on to—one has decided to climb mountains in South America, and the other, Dean Whipple (Efron) would rather be a racecar driver. Other types abound. There’s a long-suffering wife/mother who knows more about the men than the men do themselves, an old family friend forced into an act of betrayal by financial circumstances. There are shenanigans involving cleaning seeds; doggy-style banging in a corn silo; fistfights; robbery; a big race. But it’s not about those things so much as it is the details, the cornfields and gravel driveways and pizza parlors where business committees click through PowerPoint presentations. It’s about Henry Whipple’s (Dennis Quaid) cheesy businessman grin and wave and the cooler full of Butterfingers he brings with him on his cold calls. “Can I offer you a Butterfinger?” Henry Whipple asks, flipping open the cooler. “Now, let’s talk about last season’s yields...”
Efron’s Dean Whipple, the reluctant heir, is laconic and spasmodically violent, and Efron keeps it tight, conveying little more than anger and impatience. Early in the movie, his father tells him, “You’re too dark. People like winners,” and Efron replies with the faintest of sneers, “Well I don’t want to be a part of this family.”
There’s no James Dean cool about Efron’s performance. His Dean Whipple is a member of the community and he’s certainly no more self-conscious than his peers; he’s just more ambitious and reckless than they are. But what makes him so damn compelling is Efron’s ability to convey Dean’s sense of frustration by merely being there. And this is no small feat for a character whose highest mode of articulation—Whipple’s “to be or not to be”—is jamming his foot on the gas. By the film’s close, when “not being” is no longer an option, pay close attention to Efron’s eyes. Whatever was “heart-throbby” and “pure” about them is gone. Instead they seem containers for a preternaturally blue sort of emptiness. As he tells the Whipple Customer Appreciation Day attendees he “knows what it takes to win,” Efron’s voice recedes into a wash.
And this happens so rarely with movies; they’re merely screens on which entertainment of some kind is broadcast, a mindless reprieve of a couple of hours. But the best ones force a formal and critical interplay of distance and recognition, where the audiences’ projections are as primary as the ones running the film stock.
And that shit happened to me with At Any Price. I wasn’t watching Zac Efron play Dean Whipple, rebellious would-be NASCAR driver in Iowa; I was watching me as Dean Whipple as played by Zac Efron. Sure, you often want to be Cary Grant, but rare are the moments when desire and being are experienced simultaneously (it’s a lot easier to do this with fiction, to become Holden Caulfield or Raskolnikov or Sal Paradise or Tommy Wilhelm or Adam Gordon).
That’s basically what I tell Efron when we begin the interview.
He seems shocked. It takes him a second before he thanks me and then says most interviews don’t start this way, that there’s “this skepticism critics and writers have. It was especially apparent when I was younger.”
I ask him to clarify and, consequently, we have to talk about what made Zac Efron famous in the first place: Disney’s High School Musical franchise, which I cop to never having seen (“I wasn’t really the demographic for it,” I tell him).
Obviously people didn’t take it for anything more than tween fodder. “But here’s the one thing about High School Musical,” Efron says, “that a lot of people forget or don’t realize. It affected a lot of people, its resonance, culturally, was massive... and at the same time, it was in every sense of it, the luckiest break in the world.” He pauses as a group of people walk by us and out the door. “The wrong thing to do—and that’s what all these interviews now are trying to get me to say—is to turn on it, to like shit on it, call it crap. But that’s insane. There are hundreds of people who began doing one thing when they were younger, who go on to develop and refine and shape their vision, as they get older, and other concerns—like fame, or money, take a back seat to other ones.”
“But it has to be hard,” I say. “I mean, like I had a chance to meet—and this was like the first time I’d really ever been star-struck, like I got all clammy and this whole wave came crashing over me—I met Stamos, Uncle Jesse. I wasn’t meeting a person, I was meeting my childhood, my sister and me sitting in front of the TV, I was meeting myself and my past and all these ideas, and you, you’re that thing for so many kids, it’s crazy. It has to be hard to move or sort of be allowed to move from that...”
This has probably occurred to Efron a thousand times. “It’s one of the most conflicting emotions ... it is such a great responsibility, not to be dramatic, but it is in some sense. So you’re right. That’s real. And I want to be there for all those people, and at the same time it feels impossible. A good buddy of mine always says it’s important to make sure, to realize. If you’d never done any of these movies, done any of these things, you’d still wake up in the morning, you’d still be yourself, and regardless of all this, all I can is, sort of, attempt this...”
“But I’ve read you quoted as saying something like, looking back at yourself, it’s like you’re looking back at an asshole... ”
Efron jumps in, “I still think that, and I’ll... I don’t think I’ll ever shake that. But c’mon. How is any person supposed to look at that situation, at what happened, and not say, that guy just got a lucky break and why shouldn’t he fail?”
“That’s pretty depressing,” I tell him.
To our left is this kitchen area and I shoot a glance over in that direction, thinking maybe people are watching us. I’m pretty sure people are watching us.
“I know deep down that’s not something I’m gonna let happen.” Efron’s face assumes the same intensity as it does in the driving scenes from At Any Price. “But I think it’s just about taking your time. I know I’m not in this for the money...I’m...I’m trying to make something good, that I care about, and to make sure that it matters. But,” Efron pauses, “I’m not even sure it matters.”
“Do you think they say the same thing about artists, that it doesn’t matter? That it’s just lucky breaks. Or does talent—regardless of social circumstance—find its way?”
“Maybe. But that’s not really what’s important. I know what I need to do for me—right now. And maybe... maybe it’s not the most highly publicized thing, maybe it’s something else. The thing is, when you’re young—and if you’re young and you achieve a certain amount of fame—that is how you calibrate when you were happy with your success, that is the indicator, of when you kind of hit your stride. Albeit, maybe you didn’t do your best work then, but that’s still what you’re going by. And if you’re not mature about it, and you don’t have that indicator, you’re not going to keep going. You’ll breakdown. But there are others ... those who work despite the absence of fame. And I have that now, that sense that I’ll keep working no matter what. Because I know this too—if I ever really truly want to do something else, I can, like that, and it won’t be a problem.”
“And that’s why Dean appealed to you ... ironically. You can do anything you want with your life, but Dean is completely trapped. He feels trapped. When he looks at his dad, he’s looking at his death sentence. It’s almost like he can’t do anything but take over the farm, follow in his old man’s footsteps.”
“Well, yes, sure. But the major thing is, I’d seen one of Ramin’s movies before, Chop Shop, and formally, it felt new, like something only he could do. I mean, his mastery of cinéma vérité ... to get such raw, beautiful, unrehearsed performances ... I’d never seen performances like that, and I guess I was just curious to be a part of a movie like that—that seemed so different. Because I came from a different school of acting.”
At this point we’re interrupted by a group of girls who ask to have their picture taken with Zac Efron. Efron obliges and I snap the photo (if you Google image search “strangefruit”+”pr”+”efron” the first photo that comes up is the one I took, thank you) and when our conversation resumes, I inevitably steer it toward the antagonism of fame.
But Efron is resolute in this regard. “The bitchiness doesn’t do anything. It just puts you out there and it makes you look unappreciative to your fans. If I’m talking to my friends, or somebody important who can have some influence on or affect the situation, that’s one thing, but to bitch about attention while getting attention? I’d be doing it to the very people whose job it is to get that information—who are watching me and have control over that information. Therefore, it makes them upset, they read it like it’s hypocritical, and so they spread some bullshit. You should hear the chatroom shit that gets said every time you try to complain. So that’s why I’m not going to complain. I will do a lot of things in my life differently to make sure it’s not known or tweeted about or photographed. But it’s a complete day-to-day situation. I mean, I wish I could sit here and be completely honest—but I guess that’s an even bigger responsibility—and it’d take a more courageous man.”
“So then what’s the end goal for this?” I ask.
“This is the one thing I’m always thinking about. If I just woke up tomorrow and was completely honest about everything that’s going on. Would I just cause a little stir or could I become something like an outlet or a voice in our generation, that ...”
“I mean, it’s a real possibility.”
“But did you think that—when you sat down, that but I don’t know. I won’t be caught dead Tweeting. Nobody that I respect does that shit ...”
“I love Twitter.” I protest.
“But the people I respect, you don’t know anything about them. Privacy has become what fame used to be. You’re not interesting if you’re always being photographed like going to the store or eating a sandwich. There’s no mystery. But running and hiding sucks too. And here’s the line I walk, and it’s tricky, because I give a fuck. I think way too much and I care way too much and I want to—I mean, if I didn’t give a fuck, I would love it ... if I didn’t give a fuck.”
“What would you be doing if you didn’t give a fuck?” I ask.
“If I didn’t give a fuck in this interview? I’m halfway there right now in this interview.”
The conversation dovetails into artistic integrity. Because that’s what it seems like we’re talking about now and the people who mistake wildness or bad behavior for “authenticity” and the problematic nature of Hollywood in general. So much money is at stake and the studios have two objectives 1. To make money, which means making movies people go and see and 2. To make good movies. These often feel like competing ends and Efron feels himself right in the middle of it. “It’s really tough. I feel like I’m in the trenches with them. It’s really hard because I respect these people so much. And they are some of the smartest people I’ve ever met. And they struggle more than I can even comprehend with the problem at hand—the dichotomy—the challenge of making good movies and making movies that people want to watch. And right now, being me, I personally know which ones I want to be in. I feel like the other way. Shit, I feel like I can be effective in one.”
The waitress brings us another round and we cheers. Then Efron says, “I hope I’m telling you something interesting, that you might not know,” and I look at his face and it’s almost like he’s pleading.
It’s a genuinely world-famous face that, only ten years ago, was completely obscure—but it’s hard to imagine the cultural landscape and our ideations of beauty without it.
Efron turns his head slightly as he awaits my answer, and the light in the Driskill seems to shift with his movements, catching his features as though this were orchestrated. His good looks seem set softly on his skull, like a table napkin, and they correspond with what we, as a public, think of broadly as innocence—the dainty nose between the intensely blue eyes, beneath eyebrows set just so—and what we already know about Efron, the person. That he questions himself, that he doesn’t feel like he’s had enough experience, and he’s trying damned hard to overcome what will always precede him: his beauty. But overcoming it seems the wrong approach. His beauty is so untough and refined it seems to exist in the same unreality as Uncle Jesse—and we want it to engulf him, to stoke the flames of some kind of physical madness. But it’s this sort of madness that will serve him best going forward, should he continue to explore the terrain between physical being and identity.
Near the end of At Any Price (and this is a major spoiler, by the way) Efron’s Dean bashes a kid’s head in with a hammer, and as he sits near the body, realizing what he’s done, his good looks assume such an alarming aspect I can’t help but think of these lines from Rilke:
For beauty is nothing but
The beginning of terror,
That we are still able to bear,
And we revere it so, because it calmly disdains
To destroy us.
I get the sense that once Efron steps outside of himself, really lets himself go, and just roars (think of Gosling’s face when he stomps that dude’s head apart in the elevator in Drive) there’s really going to be no stopping him. But he has to realize this—realize he possesses the talent of beauty, and be willing to exploit its burden mercilessly. Otherwise, he’ll fade like the rest of them.
Efron is still waiting. He still wants to know if he’s said anything I haven’t heard.
“Do you wanna hear a truth?” I ask him.
“Yeah,” Efron says, “of course.”
“I know all this, obviously, everyone knows this. It’s not all that complex. But I’m sitting here listening to you like I’ve got no idea. I feel like a corny Texan. And it’s the same with everyone else. We keep watching it all play-out like we’ve never seen it before, and this is the dumb contradiction of the American people. We’re savvier than we’ve ever been and are the dumber for it.”
Efron laughs. “I mean, I haven’t told you anything you haven’t heard before?”
“You’re not telling me secrets are you? I mean, have I asked you anything you haven’t been asked before?”
“I don’t know.” Efron’s face assumes a troubled expression, as though he’s realizing the format of our interaction. “What I do know is it’s hard telling you this shit, because I don’t know where you’re going to go with it. But when you’re in my situation, you don’t have anybody you can talk to about it, except a select group of friends, and sometimes you get the sense like they don’t care.”
“Well, let me tell you a secret. Nobody is going to read this. Say whatever you want. I’m a rascal. I’m going to write a wild, stupid article and everyone is just going to look at your pictures and talk about how hot you are. And this is why it is amazing that you were in Paperboy. This is why it’s amazing you finally brought the hammer down and killed someone on screen. The same sort ridiculous way a bunch of kids break out into song while they’re sitting in class seems no different than if everyone pulled out guns and started blasting one another. The exuberance and suddenness is the same, and so vastly different it feels like the same again. If there’s anything you should realize, it’s this: it’s that people are going to adore you, no matter what. They’re going to want to watch you beat people to death, or get pissed on, or dance around happily laughing and singing. They’re going to adore you despite your talent, despite the movies you’re in—they could be complete shit, it wouldn’t really matter—they’ll still be there in their seats because you’re beautiful. There’s that part in Me & Orson Welles, which I really liked. When you ask Claire Danes what it’s like to be a beautiful girl. I feel like I’m asking you that. But I’m like shouting at you. What’s it like to be a beautiful man, Zac Efron, what’s it like? Except I don’t really wanna ask you that, because it’s an impossible question to answer. And I don’t even want an answer. Just asking it is sufficient.”
“Well, let’s team up here,” he says, leaning in, “and say there’s this person, and there’s this person, and there’s Art and Truth, and we’re talking about the struggle to negotiate between the two.”
“Yeah, you’re a cool guy, you’ve got it, so whatever,” I tell him.
“And I’m getting fucking drunk man,” he says.
“Yeah I guess that’s ...” but I trail off. I feel like I’m sitting in an exceptionally large seat, but the focus of the world has come down to this very specific point.
Outside, it’s completely dark. There are people shouting.
Efron seems relaxed, the sympathy and intelligence in his expression is remarkable. “I feel most coherent with a few drinks in me and a good person to talk to,” he says.
“Me too,” I say, “but then afterward, it’s the worst, I’m like, goddamn, everything I said was idiotic.”
“No, yeah, totally, I get that.”
“Like I’m not going to read this interview again after it’s printed,” I say.
“It’s the same thing with me, like with my work. I don’t go back and watch any of it, I can’t. All of it’s a lowlight. There’s always this sense that something’s wrong with it, and I just can’t bring myself to watch it. I can’t watch my shit twice.”
It usually doesn’t go like this with other actors—and so it suddenly occurs to me we might be having a genuine conversation and we’re on the same page. “But that’s what it’s like with anything,” he says, “that work then, that was honest for you at that moment. That was you then. But now,” Efron says, trailing off ...
“And this gets into that whole other thing, we were talking about, about moving on, Disney ...”
“Right, right ... not that you’re really rejecting the past. But that ... it’s just not you anymore,” he pauses and rubs the back of his head. “I wish, man, that sometimes I could go back and listen to what I’ve been saying, if it’s true, and figure something out. But even if I were able to go back, I’d probably just realize the whole time, it’s not really there, and I’ve really just been holding myself back. That’s what recording can’t capture, but something that a good director like Ramin can is subtext. What’s being said without actually having to say it ...”
The conversation turns. We talk Hermann Hesse, Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages. We look up Efron’s IMDB page and we talk about his production company (Ninjas Runnin’ Wild) and the movie they’ve just wrapped shooting in New York, Are We Officially Dating? (at first I think it’s called Untitled Workplace Comedy, which I think is a great title. Efron disagrees, “That’s the worst title for anything. Those could not be more unattractive consecutive syllables. I mean I agree with it, I get it, but there’s no ring to it.”). Efron tells me Dating is about “three guys being best friends. We don’t go to Vegas and get wrecked. It’s different. It’s just about being best friends. And I don’t think we’ve seen that since they did it in the 80s with The Goonies and Stand By Me. Where’re those movies for our generation?”
“It doesn’t take place at work?”
“It’s really just about guys, man, trying to survive and fall in love. And as much as it is a romantic comedy, I think people are going to be surprised.”
Another round and the conversation turns again, and we’re into spirituality, our parents, our fathers and baseball try-outs the beating heart of every middle-class kid’s existence in America.
“My dad was a pretty intense dude, who used to actually spend time with me in the backyard, you know ... playing catch ... and we both knew that I was short, I was a small. But I was athletic, and I always felt like I was smarter than everyone, even the adults in the room, but my size held me back. So I just got better than everyone else, by working at it. I would throw the ball harder and faster than everyone—go harder—because I was smaller.”
“You’re an intense, aggressive person. This sort of outburst stuff, it comes out in Paperboy and At Any Price ...”
“No, yeah, I am intense. Very much so,” he nods, “and so, when we, my father and I, went out to tryouts, for little league, it was one of the most nerve-wracking, intense moments of my life. And I can remember it perfectly, the chain link fence, standing in line with everyone else, my peers, all of whom are taller than me, all from the various schools around town, and one of the guys behind me, I knew him, but he was slightly older, two years older than me ... And I did look up to this kid, he was funny, like the class clown type. And so I say to him, ‘What are we going to do when we walk out there.’ And it was like a fucking Hunger Games scene, you walk out there, beyond the chain link fence, and suddenly you’ve got a bat in your hand and you’re staring down this machine and this machine is whipping balls at you, and you’ve got to hit them, and then run around the bases. That was the task at hand. Then I ask him if he has any advice for me, and he goes, ‘Yeah, man, like honestly, nobody cares. It’s the try-out. Nobody cares.’ And I’m confused, I say, ‘Nobody cares?’ and he is like, ‘Just go out there, hit the pitches if you can, then run around the bases and then they’re gonna put you on a team.’ And I say, ‘So I don’t have to ... I thought it was going to be hard.’ And he’s like, ‘No, man.’ And I look up and there’s a kid just jogging around the bases. So I go out there and a fucking ball comes speeding at me, pretty quick. I foul it off. Another ball comes at me. I miss it. Another ball comes at me. I think I ting it over the pitchers mound but it still lands in base. And then the fourth pitch comes and they say, ‘Now run the bases after this,’ and I hit the ball and it is a low grounder to third base. And I hear this kid’s voice in the back of my head saying, ‘You don’t really have to try,’ so I’m just jogging around the bases. I jog in, I get back, everyone is saying, ‘Cool, cool, good job,’ and I think everything went great. But then I walk out to my dad’s truck and I see his face. He’s not mad, he’s not pissed off—he’s just—not—emoting. He’s so shocked and disappointed he can’t figure out what to do with his face. I mean, if his anger were to come out of him, it was going to pour out of his eyes. He’s never been that ... I have no idea what. And he doesn’t say a word to me. So I say, ‘How’s it going?’ because I still have no idea how to read his expression and he turns around, like he’s going to snap in half, and he’s like, ‘Goddamnit, that was a try-out, and you didn’t even try. What were you doing?’ And I say, ‘Well, Brandon said all we had to do was run around the bases,’ and my dad goes (Efron claps his hands together), ‘Who the ffffff- is Brandon? What are you doing? Why did—we did—I did—ahhh,’ and he doesn’t know how to be anymore honest with me at this point, so he just goes quiet, and we don’t talk the rest of the ride home. It’s at that point, in the back of the truck, when I sort of realize I’m never ever not going to give everything of myself ever again.”
I laugh, I mean I really laugh. It’s such a ridiculously regular story it’s heart breaking.
Eventually we shut the recorder off. It’s pointless. We wander outside, into Austin. I’m blathering like a Texan now, while Efron tells me about brain surgery and the stock market. There’s something to say about mystery and beauty and acting and art and capitalism and doing whatever it takes to stay on top of your game or to control your little segment of your reality or whatever else that’s going on. But it’s a line, a line from some poem, that I’m trying to think of. We pass an empty bar and I take a photo of Zac giving a thumbs up to a mechanical bull. The line is, what is it? It was in some movie, damn it, man, you were in it, do you remember it, the poem, not the movie, the poet, Keats, I think it was Keats, he’s talking about a jar, or is it an urn, it doesn’t matter, what’s that thing they put your ashes in ... I take a cab back to my hotel and lean my head against the window while I check my notes. It’s the most silent and wonderful cab ride ...