Some of Efron's caution might have originated with Barrett, who has hammered home to the young star what agents call "the power of no"—i.e., pass on enough Marmadukes and you'll eventually be perceived as desirable enough for The Departed. Barrett and Efron look at every big move he makes in political terms, endeavoring to convert the undecideds while also playing to Efron's young female fan base. Even sticking to this formula has its risks. A movie like Me and Orson Welles might have allowed him to work on interesting material with an esteemed indie director like Linklater, but since it bore no similarity to HSM, it wasn't deemed a good commercial bet; Efron's presence didn't help in finding it a major American distributor. "Even when Zac came aboard, they weren't interested," Linklater says. "They said, 'Well, he's playing out of his type.' I was always kind of like, 'Uh, he's playing a teenager who's in theater. Is that really far out of what his "audience" might like?'"

Charlie St. Cloud will be Efron's biggest test to date. The looming question is whether audiences will accept an actor who has only ever played well-adjusted young men as the town weirdo in dire need of sun and Lexapro. There's a scene in which Charlie walks into a store and is given the once-over by his romantic interest and her friends, who whisper that he's way too odd and dark for consideration. Your eye searches the screen behind Efron's gorgeous face, trying to locate the Eddie Munster lurking in the shadows. Surely they couldn't be talking about Zac.

• • •

"," Efron says with a gasp. "It's like the best...orgasm...ever! And I just keep coming!" Efron and I are in the Soho House bathroom after a pee, and he's lingering at the sink, letting the water pour over his diseased wrists. When he got up to head to the john, I noticed that his pants were fully unbuttoned and unzipped. "I'm just airing it out," he'd said. "It just itches too much." Discipline and doctor's orders had kept the impulse to scratch at bay.

Here in the bathroom, the topic of other bathrooms comes up, specifically the Japanese one at the famous Los Angeles sushi place Matsuhisa, which has a bidet-like contraption that will essentially shampoo your anus. "Yeah, Vanessa has one of those," he says, speaking for the first time of his girlfriend of five years, High School Musical costar Vanessa Hudgens, who had dropped him off tonight. By now the Lakers are well on their way to winning the game and the bottle of Cab is gone, not more than a quarter of it consumed by Efron himself, which may explain the coarse phrasing of my suggestion that now might be the time for him to immerse himself in the company of more than one lady friend. "Bathe in pussy?" he repeats. "Yeah, everyone tells me that. I think a lot of guys would enjoy that. But I'm not really like that." I point out that he does not know if he would enjoy this or not, since he has never been famous and single. "Believe me," he says. "I rack my brain thinking, 'Why am I not out there playing the field?' One of my buddies was like, 'You have no idea what's going on right now. You're peaking on Ecstasy and you're watching TV.' But it's not in my heart." In person, by the way, nothing about Efron merits even flipping on the gaydar, and those rumors—that his relationship with Hudgens is a business coupling, with Mickey Mouse presiding over the union with a shotgun—seem particularly absurd. "That's just fucking insane," he says. "I've never even heard of that happening. I don't even know who I would have been around who would have thought that was even a good idea. It would have been so much easier to call it off a long time ago." Efron sees it as just wishful thinking by an avaricious gossip industry. "They want you to believe it, and they hope they'll influence you to break up by making you seem insane for being in it. And then you'll play the field, and then they can write about you a shitload, make shit up, and speculate about everything. Right now they know exactly what's going on and it's not very interesting and there's no money to be made on it. It's exactly how it should be. It's real."