Hollywood's upperclassmen have shown how they feel about this freshman. Penn, upon meeting Efron, reportedly said exactly two words to him: Go skydiving. But Cruise recently flagged Efron down in the lobby of CAA. "You ride motorcycles?" Cruise asked him. Alas, he didn't. "You wanna learn how?" Cruise invited him out to his house, taught him how a motorcycle engine works, showed him the hangar with his dozens of pristine bikes—including the Triumphs he rode in the Mission: Impossible movies. Efron was allowed to ride a pedigree-less dirt bike. "He made so many great movies," Efron says of Cruise. "I get the feeling that he works really, really hard. It didn't come from swagger with him. It came from dedication, hard work. You see it in the way he physicalizes everything. You watch The Last Samurai and that's him! He's really doing that." I ask Efron why he supposes Cruise bothered reaching out to him. "I don't know," he says. "I don't even want to know. It's just so cool that he gave a shit, the fact that he cared at all. No one else did that."
Our waiter—a wavy-haired model type with a heavy South African accent—arrives to take our order. "You want to get a half-bottle of wine and split it?" Efron suggests. I convince him that tonight life shall be grabbed by the throat and the two of us will attack a whole bottle of whatever red the waiter likes and, if swept up in a Dionysian frenzy, perhaps we'll even finish it. The South African returns and uncorks a nice Napa Cab.
"Will you be having wine?" he asks Efron.
"Sorry?" Efron says.
"Are you old enough?" Invictus the Waiter asks.
"Yes, please," he says, motioning to his glass. "And I am old enough. But no worries, man—I get it all the time."
Invictus pours. "If you need anything, I'm Greg," he says. He and I shake hands, and then he extends his palm toward Efron.
"My man, I'm not going to shake your hand. I've got poison oak."
Gregvictus smiles. "No worries," he says, walking out.
As the door clicks shut, Efron looks across the table, clearly concerned, and so returns the Apologizer Bunny. "He heard me say that, right? He didn't think I didn't want to shake his hand, right?"
A couple of years ago, Efron and his father, David, set out to have an overnight on a friend's boat. David is an engineer who raced catamarans as a teenager. As usual on any trip, Zac grabbed a script from his messy car to read. On this particular day, the only script in his car wasn't exactly a hot Hollywood property. It was an adaptation of a 2004 novel called The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, about a man who can communicate with ghosts, a talent that serves him well in his job as a cemetery caretaker. On the water, Zac opened the script to the first pages, which depicted a race of 29ers, the high-performance class of skiff most often raced by young sailors. "We were out and the sun was shining and the wind was blowing, and as soon as I started to read the first couple pages the wind started to fill the sails," he says. "And I just remember the boat started leaning and all the docks started swaying, and I was reading the script and being like, 'Man, this is really cool.' If you ever get a sign, it must look like this."
Of course, it would take more than that to get Efron to sign on to a movie. The stars also seemed to be aligned when Efron and High School Musical director Kenny Ortega were set to reunite for a remake of Footloose. Paramount was gung ho, as were Ortega; Efron's longtime manager, Jason Barrett; and David Efron, whom Zac consults on every potential project. The sole holdout was Zac himself, who got a decidedly hinky feeling after reading the script. "All the things I loved about Footloose I couldn't find in the project," he says. "They just weren't there. I couldn't see myself doing it." During a series of phone calls, Ortega worked hard on him, asked him if he didn't think that what he was feeling was fear of failure and told him that on occasions such as this caution must be abandoned. "I was doing my very, very best to excite him and inspire him into wanting to do this," Ortega says. "I believed in my heart that we could do it together as a team, and I fought to keep him in the game." Efron finally called Ortega to tell him he was passing. "I love Kenny with all my heart," he says. "It was literally the hardest phone call I've ever made."