Zac Efron refuses to shake my outstretched hand. "Oh, dude, I can't," he says. "I've got a bad case of poison oak." I immediately assume this is a new no-shakes-allowed alibi for the celebrity germaphobe. And at first glance, as I stand here shoulder-to-shoulder with him, at the grand host station of West Hollywood's Soho House, it does occur to me that perhaps Efron has taken a Howard Hughes-ian turn; although he's not shuffling around with tissue boxes on his feet, he is sporting a homeless-urban-ninja look, with a black Lacoste T-shirt under a black hoodie pulled over his head. He's got only one arm through the sweatshirt, and the other sleeve hangs slack like an elephant's paralyzed trunk. Frankly, he looks kind of nuts.
It's just before 6 p.m., and we've arrived to watch Game 3 of the NBA Finals, which is taking place in Boston, meaning we won't be sitting in Efron's regular courtside seats at the Staples Center. Efron's publicist has supposedly arranged a private dining room in which we can eat and watch the game, but the club's hostess is clicking around on her computer, unable to find the reservation. "Oh, maybe it's under my name," he offers meekly. "I'm Zac Efron."
She beams at this lack of presumption. "You're cute," she says.
If the mild presentation downstairs doesn't exactly trumpet this particular 22-year-old actor's position in the Hollywood food chain, the Penthouse Dining Room speaks for him. The room is palatial—we sit near the flat-screen TV at one end of a monstrously long table, with 20 place settings and 20 red club chairs, surrounded by meticulously curated modern bric-a-brac. Through the wall of windows, there are sweeping, unobstructed views down into Beverly Hills and Century City, where at that very moment inside CAA's headquarters, someone is surely invoking Efron's name, plotting to turn him into the next Tom Cruise and prevent him from becoming the next Chris Klein. Shaking his head uneasily, Efron, for the first time today, apologizes for something that doesn't merit an apology. "Dude, I gotta be honest," he says. "I gotta be up-front. This is not how I roll. I really don't get private rooms at the Soho House. I've never heard of anyone doing this before. This is...unusual." He also frets about his black Vans, which, by the way, look perfectly fine. "I shouldn't be wearing them to Soho House," he says. "They have holes in them."
As some singer named Monica belts out the national anthem on TV, Efron apologizes that our initial plan—to go sailing together—got scuttled at the last minute. "Yeah, sorry about the sailing thing, dude," he says, gingerly removing his arms from the sweatshirt. The tops of his wrists finally become visible and there are two large, angry-looking patches of red, scaly, bumpy skin: The poison oak was no lie after all—the one-armed-hoodie look was an attempt at relief, not some retard-o generation-specific trend. Then I notice the plum-size patch of skin on his cheek that's been clumsily painted over with calamine lotion. "I went backpacking over Memorial Day weekend and I just got the worst poison oak, bro," he says. "It was my first time getting it. Dude, it's, like, everywhere. Everywhere. I can't even begin to show you, 'cause you'll get so grossed out. I look like a zombie from Dawn of the Dead." Coaxing commences; negotiations occur. "Okay, I'll show you my back, but the front's pretty gross, man," he says, then lifts his shirt. Above the bunched-up waistband of his underwear (boxers, Hanes, blue plaid), half of his back has been taken over by a crust resembling swollen cornflakes. "This spot just popped up this morning. Don't touch it!" Efron is under the erroneous impression that anyone who touches him will catch his cooties—and maybe even develop a taste for brains.
There's something oddly portentous about how he contracted poison oak. Efron is, of course, the handsome young actor who is still best known for starring in the trio of High School Musical movies, films that were made for pocket change and lint—and reportedly generated more than a billion dollars for Disney. The final installment was shot in early 2008, and Efron's acted in only three movies since then, which is certainly not for a lack of offers. Is the pace so slow because he's choosy, or is it because he's paralyzed by fear that one wrong move will squander his huge store of celebrity capital? "Indecisive, for sure" is how he characterizes this state. A smart, highly disciplined kid who grew up three hours north of Los Angeles with parents who are, by all accounts, the anti-Lohans—concerned, reasonable people who tried to prepare their elder son for almost certain failure in show business and at one juncture, at least, tried to dissuade him from acting altogether in favor of college—he's acutely aware that his fame has far outpaced his body of work and his abilities. (Care to see him squirm? Ask him if he enjoyed recently being honored for his oeuvre at the Maui Film Festival.) Efron's also aware that although there are scores of young girls who will, for the moment, buy tickets for any project he does regardless of its quality, there are at least as many guys, like my thirtysomething movie-junkie friend, who had a hard time accepting Efron in arguably the best movie he's made, Richard Linklater's Me and Orson Welles, because they found themselves wanting to "punch his pretty fucking face in."