THE RAKE – Zac Efron has a cold. O.K., he doesn’t, but I must admit that as I prepared to interview him, I sensed I was having a Gay Talese moment, and so I couldn’t help but start this piece by evoking Talese’s famous 1966 profile of Frank Sinatra. Like Sinatra, Efron is monumentally well known — facially, anyhow. Hollywood is a magnet for opinions, the public has been thirsty ever since the lights to the iconic sign were switched on, and while technology and the media have changed how information is digested, curiosity and gossip have only intensified certain aspects of the human condition.
One of Zac’s admirable qualities is that his trajectory to (stratospheric) stardom came, unlike Sinatra, from a very young age, where the cultural tendency is for the general public to demand every detail of a performer’s private life and to obsess over his or her ups and downs. And yet, as a result of what I can only assume is an abundance of prudence — a mature head screwed firmly onto young shoulders — precious little is known about Zac, his passions, his personality, and his private life. The phenomenon that was High School Musical turned the then-teenaged Efron into an instant pin-up, vulnerable to all of the as-yet-unaddressed dangers that young stars face when a press corps and a screaming fan base stare back.
At this point, I want to settle nerves about the subject matter. This story does not spend the next however-many words delving into cheap gossip or (frankly unworthy-of-The Rake) hearsay about private matters, but the context in which Zac and I talked — notably the limitations of the actors’ strike in the U.S., which was ongoing when our interview took place — meant that I was able to dwell on Efron the man, and his motivations. In his journey so far, a king has emerged from a pulchritudinous harlequin, and his place now is as the sensitive hero, statesmanlike and dignified.
In his new movie, The Iron Claw, we learn lessons about how dedication, both physical and mental, helps develop a character on screen and off. Zac plays Kevin Von Erich, one of the Von Erich brothers from a famous wrestling family in the era of professional wrestling that preceded W.W.E. The film follows these young men under the whip-hand of their pushy father in a story that ultimately becomes a Shakespearean tragedy, and farce rolled into one. The Iron Claw is the name of the finishing move the brothers use in the ring, but the metaphor of a father’s vice-like grip on his children and their choices does not go unnoticed.
So the film is about the boys, but it is also about the responsibilities of fatherhood and what it means to push or control your children, knowing that children are wired to want your approval and to love you despite the harshness, almost to a farcical extent. Of course, as we view the film through a contemporary lens, we do so understand more about what kind of behaviours are or are not toxic and how our environment affects us. The movie also comes wrapped up in 1980s hairdos and a Rush soundtrack.
Efron says: “Very specific to the Von Erich brothers was this ride to peak stardom in pro wrestling. They really created a dynasty of the best pro wrestlers if not in Texas then maybe ever on camera, especially in this era. Initially they were outsiders who worked their way in, and a lot of it was because of their father, who was a ruthless albeit effective coach to them. He had a style that was — if you look at it by today’s standards — it would probably be too much to handle. These guys were training like monsters to essentially live up to their dad’s hopes and dreams.”