His skeptical parents (his dad is an engineer at a power plant, his mom was a secretary there) gave him a year to make a go of auditioning in Hollywood. This involved a six-hour round-trip drive every time he got a call to read for a part. As he reached the end of his allotted year, he started to consider studying film at either UCLA or USC, where he’d been accepted. “And then,” he says, “there was one last small audition, for this little TV movie on Disney Channel..."

If Zac Efron sounds like Ren McCormack, the small-town boy in Footloose who just wants to dance, it’s probably no surprise that Kenny Ortega has been developing a remake of the hit eighties movie—with Efron, of course, as the new Kevin Bacon.

In real life, as in Footloose!, there are dark, cynical forces that conspire to prevent young men from just livin’ their dreams. Young men like Efron, and dark, cynical forces like, of course, the paparazzi—a scourge I ask about again despite Efron’s insistence that he doesn’t want to sound “ungrateful” for his fame.

With a bit of prodding, he finally lets loose on how the paparazzi get under his skin: “They use espionage tactics, and they’re malicious and relentless. Anything to get a reaction. Anything to get that frown, or a scream into the camera, or some kind of backlash. They’ve got that photo where all of a sudden, you know, Zac’s frowning—now he’s on crack! They shout things about your mom, about your family. It’s a weird industry that I’m still getting used to. But sometimes it just takes all your might not to literally swing at these guys.” Efron knows the game he’s being asked to play. “These days,” he says, “everyone is just waiting for me to fuck up. I’m not gonna give anyone the satisfaction of that.”

Almost immediately, though, he’s back on message as the gracious, appreciative, levelheaded teen idol: “I actually just got a really cool letter in the mail,” Efron says. “This girl sent a letter and a $10 bill. It’s a short letter—all she said was ‘Hey, since it’s harder for you to get out these days to eat without getting photographed, here’s $10 for a pizza. It’s on me.’ So I was like, Awww! She sent me money for a pizza, so I could eat in at home!”

Even when I bring up notorious “Queen of Mean” gossip blogger Perez Hilton, who is obsessed with insinuating that Efron—whom he’s nicknamed “Zacquisha”—is gay, Efron’s response is almost surreally nice: “I know it’s very addictive to read that kind of stuff. It’s entertainment. Perez has obviously struck a chord in the public eye. He’s doing something right. That deserves admiration—I think he does a great job. Um—” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “Honestly, if the worst he can say about me is that I’m gay, then I think I’ll be fine. I can handle it.”