Navigating the perilous journey from teen phenom to grown-up actor is a full-time job. But when we caught up with the star of ''High School Musical 3,'' he just wanted to take a stroll, impress some girls, and rock out

By Christine Spines
Updated October 27, 2008 at 04:00 AM EDT

Most teenage heartthrobs insist that it’s actually a drag to be craved, day in and day out, by millions of underage girls. If we were to listen in on a cross-generational pinup guy support group (think: Shaun Cassidy, James Van Der Beek, the brothers Jonas), the litany of grievances would likely include the obliteration of privacy, the lack of fellowship with other dudes, and, worst of all, the assumption that they’re all a bunch of talentless knuckleheads. But Zac Efron, the current crown prince of the Tiger Beat set, takes a different approach to the experience. For him it’s not just a job, it’s an adventure. ”I’m always bobbing and weaving through alleyways trying to get to meetings, scouting out and looking outside doors and running around like Jason Bourne,” says Efron, who has emerged as a prime target of both the paparazzi and love-struck tweens ever since High School Musical became an international obsession almost three years ago. ”I’ve always loved secret agent movies, whether it be James Bond or Bourne Identity. Now I’m kind of living it.”

He also seems to be kind of enjoying it. If you’re looking for the late-’90s model of reluctant teen idol hiding behind a half-grown beard, trucker cap pulled low, and a dog-eared copy of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell tucked into his back pocket, Efron’s not your guy. Instead, he kicks off an afternoon outing with a burst of goofball enthusiasm. He leaps at the opportunity to ditch the car and walk a few blocks to the local sushi joint to grab lunch, and does not seem the least bit daunted as he bounds up to a bus stop teeming with high school kids. With his shaggy surfer hair, peg-leg jeans, and skateboarder sneaks, Efron blends perfectly into the crowd. Then come the screams. ”Here we go,” says Efron, still grinning as a girl in braces throws herself in his path. ”You’re kidding me: You’re not really him,” she bellows, rhetorically. Efron laughs. ”I’m absolutely serious: It’s absolutely me,” he says, shaking her hand before ducking into the restaurant. ”It used to just be that I had to worry about elementary schools,” says the actor, scratching his head. ”But now…who knows?”

NEXT PAGE: ”I would love to just sit down and talk with Leonardo DiCaprio and Johnny Depp and pick their brains about their early careers,” Efron says. ”You have to have good foresight and be really careful. If you don’t adapt and learn at a very young age, you can really mess up.”