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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Out with the singing, dancing, goofy Zac Efron of old.
At 22, the tween heart-throb of Disney's bubbly "High School Musical" franchise says he wants to get serious, slow down and find out just what he's made of.
Efron takes on his most dramatic role to date by playing a young man tortured by his kid brother's death in "Charlie St. Cloud," which opens in U.S. movie theaters on Friday.
Based on Ben Sherwood's novel "The Death of Charlie St. Cloud", the movie sees Efron become a caretaker at a cemetery who plays catch every night with his brother's spirit -- who only he can see.
Five years later when a girl comes into his life, Charlie must choose between staying loyal to his dead brother, or moving on with his life and pursuing the girl he loves.
For Efron -- who found fame as the floppy-haired star of the "High School Musical" trilogy and went on to appear in the comedies "Hairspray" and "17 Again" -- working on "Charlie" was a chance to challenge his young fans to see him in a new light and attract new viewers "who weren't necessarily my fan base," Efron told Reuters.
But most of all, it was an opportunity for the actor to challenge himself.
"On 'Charlie St. Cloud,' I couldn't rely on things I did before," Efron said. "Because usually in between takes, I'm goofing off. I'm the guy who's looking forward to the ping pong game while the crew is setting up the lights. I had to leave all that behind and focus."
That meant inhabiting a character who spends much of his time grief-stricken, conflicted and emotionally damaged.
"There were real hard times that we had to get through; weeks of dramatic scenes every day," said Efron. "But I had something to prove to myself. 'Could I do this? Could I not just be a goofball all the time?'"
The film also proves to Efron that he should follow his gut instinct when it comes to his career. In 2007, the actor famously signed on to star in a remake of the 1984 classic musical "Footloose." A few months later, he just as famously dropped out.
"After 'High School Musical' and then with 'Footloose,' there was an opportunity to continue down that path," said Efron. "They said 'If you do this, you'll hit another home run. You can keep this incredible thing that's going on.'"
However, "this incredible thing" didn't feel so incredible to Efron. He felt the glare of the spotlight was coming on a bit too strong, making him wonder if the intensity of it was "going to be like this forever."
"There was a part of me that really wanted to slow down and take a step back," Efron said. "I said no (to 'Footloose'). because I can't do something I know I can do. I want to take a risk and try something new that may or may not work."
In February, the actor started his own production company called Ninjas Runnin' Wild. The company is already developing several projects for Efron, including an action thriller and a time travel story.
While some of his male counterparts are gunning to star in comic book adaptations such as "X-men: First Class," and the next "Spider-Man" movie, due out in 2012, Efron is the first to admit he doesn't yet deserve to be considered for those roles.
"All the guys doing comic book movies have already proven themselves in other genres, paid their dues and delivered on so many levels," said Efron. "I can't define what makes someone deserve it, but I feel like I'm not there yet."
But he certainly hopes to get there one day.
"I've got a game plan and I'm starting to figure it all out," said Efron. "I've got the production company and it feels like I have some control over it all. And any element of control in this business is very, very comforting."
Editing by Jill Serjeant