Zac Efron understands that he may be the luckiest teenager on the planet right now.
He's certainbly among the most adored, judging by the flock of teenage girls that showed up outside the Charles Theatre for Wednesday night's Baltimore premiere of Hairspray. Those who managed to get close to Efron, or steal an autograph, or maybe even (sigh!) say a few words to him -- they counted themselves among the truly blessed.
Efron, 19, laughs dismissively at the suggestion that he's anyone's idol. "It's a blessing," he said Wednesday afternoon, telephoning from a train heading out of New York. "I'm very lucky right now, I can't for the life of me figure out how I came to receive such fans. They come out and show their support every chance they get."
In the fleeting world of teen heartthrobs, where last week's teen dream is often next week's Where Are They Now? contestant, Efron's staying power remains to be seen.
But he's been riding the wave for about a year now, ever since the 2006 release of High School Musical, the Disney Channel's teen song-and-dance phenomenon that became the most-watched made-for-cable movie ever.
And his star turn in Hairspray, where he plays Link Larkin, the teen dream pined for by the film's hefty heroine, Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), is a revelation that should make everyone happy.
"The character of Link really intrigued me," he said. "Those Elvis-type characters always stole the show for me, being a young boy. I was very eager to jump in and bring that cool '60s vibe to the film, if I could. I prayed that I could."
Efron's young fans will get to see plenty of him, while skeptics will see proof that there's genuine talent and charisma behind those baby blues.
"He is wise enough to know that being a teen idol could be a dead-end street," said John Waters, on whose 1988 film the Broadway and movie musicals are based. "I think he's quite smart about it. He will be one of those teen idols who, with fair ease, will move on to good adult roles and have a good career.
"I've gotten to know him a little bit. He's at the point in his career where Johnny Depp was on 21 Jump Street. ... He takes his career seriously, but, at the same time, he winks at his teen fabulousness in a good way."
A native of San Luis Obispo County, Calif., Efron knocked around Hollywood for several years, getting bit parts in network series (ER, CSI: Miami) and made-for-TV movies (Miracle Run, where he played an autistic child) before landing the role of Troy Bolton, the basketball-playing, big-man-on-campus in High School Musical. The role led to lots of teen adoration and adoring Web sites, helping him become the first cast member to have a career outside the film.
"Yeah, it's a nice thing to have on my resume," Efron said, "especially for teen-movie auditions."
Which is not to say he's turning his back on what made him famous. On Aug. 17, High School Musical 2 premieres on the Disney Channel, with Efron and the rest of the cast reprising their roles.
"We've got brand new original music to promote for the movie," he said. "We've got the same great cast, and we brought back our same director, Kenny Ortega. I'm really looking forward to premiering it. I think kids will enjoy it."
For now, however, Efron is basking in the excitement -- not to mention the glowing reviews -- being generated by Hairspray. He was especially lucky, he said, to be working alongside John Travolta, who knows something about being a teen idol -- and surviving the process.
"That's one of the main things I learned from working with John, that it's not just about talent in this business," he said. "Although he's extremely talented, he is also a very personable guy and such a pleasure to be around on the set. It shows that it's really about personality, and the way you carry yourself and how professional you are when you work. I really will value that for the rest of my life."