Being Zac Efron: An On-Set Liberal Arts Body Double Speaks Out

Ed note: Dallas-native and former FrontRow intern Will Arbery is a writer, playwright, and actor who lives in Brooklyn. Liberal Arts is now open in theaters. To read our review, go here.

I just had to be Zac Efron’s body double.  I was working on the crew of Liberal Arts. Efron was on set for two days, but left before the camera team could shoot some over-the-shoulder shots. They needed someone to dress in his costume, learn his lines, and be him. I didn’t know at the time that I was only needed to dirty the frame with the blurred back of my head, covered by a red hat. So I told the second assistant director, Katie, that I wanted to be Zac Efron’s body double. She said (and I paraphrase), “whatever.” But I learned his lines. I put on his costume. I acted opposite Josh Radnor. I did all of this so that I could have the story. I did it so that I could tell girls at parties, and my sister Julia (a huge fan), that I was Zac Efron’s body double.

A year and a half ago, I was about to graduate from Kenyon College, and I had no plan. I was a beer mooch, chipping in only when I received one of my glorious, sporadic $67 dollar checks for my part-time campus job. Then Josh Radnor rolled into town.

Kenyon drama majors put their faith in a trinity of successful alumni: Paul Newman, who helped build our theatre, who has awards and scholarships named after him; Allison Janney, who ended up co-starring in Liberal Arts; and Radnor, the star of “How I Met Your Mother.” He was returning to his alma mater to film his second feature, and they were hiring students and recent alums to work on set. My friends and I sprung into action. We got jobs.

We quickly learned how fast-paced and highly-scheduled a film set is. But this set was considered luxurious, because we had an entire gorgeous Ohio town at our disposal and didn’t have to worry about permits, traffic, pedestrians, or any of the numerous headaches that accompanies a big city shoot. The crew seemed happy to get away, and they stayed in the dorms with the student workers. They were tattooed, friendly, hard-working, hard-partying people from New York City and Los Angeles who struck me as nomadic— taking jobs all over America and morphing with the essence of their location. I could imagine them going pure Creole if they were working in Louisiana, pure lumberjack in Minnesota. Here, they were back in college, and they drank and smoked and took midnight strolls through the forest. They showed me a Kenyon I had never seen before. I realized that I was looking at the place I’d spent the last four years, the place I was about to leave, through brand new eyes.

Meanwhile, my job was Extras Casting. I was tasked with filling a college campus in the middle of summer and in the middle of Ohio. The only students still around were a handful of “summer science” kids. I began networking with the central Ohio area, getting in touch with students from Ohio State University, Denison University, the ultra-Christian Mount Vernon Nazarene University, and more. I noticed that the students I found did not look like Kenyon students—they had more hair gel, more artificially tanned skin. But they did the trick. And word spread. E-mails flooded my inbox. Suddenly, I was the arbiter between these thoroughly Midwestern communities and a glamorous thing.

Getting people to show up was the easy part. The hard part was after they arrived. I would check them in, and then my responsibility became something which was excruciatingly painful to me: I would have to make them wait. In New York or L.A., those with my job sign people in and then leave, returning only to bring the “background artists” to set. I stayed with my extras and tried to get to know them. When they asked me when they would be needed, and I would answer, “I’m not sure,” I would feel as though I were letting down my friends. One day, they had to wait for eight hours, and even when they got on screen, they were barely visible.

During the two days we shot in Columbus, I had to find forty adult extras. I used Craigslist. The scene was “a Brooklyn bar.” My forty willing souls showed up wearing their best estimation of Brooklyn attire. The costume ladies gasped, and milled about trying to “hip” them up. Meanwhile, I talked to them. There was the old man who showed up because, years ago, he promised his mom that one day he’d be in a movie. There was the woman who started crying when she found out that I was a writer, and told me that she wanted to be a writer once and had a poem in the Library of Congress.  There was the adult man whose mother lingered near him the entire time. She was a tall silent woman in a striking green Native American dress. People would talk to me like I was someone, and being no one, I made sure to talk to them like they were someone. They were. I was their experience, and they were mine. Later, I discovered that the Brooklyn bar scene was cut.

Watching the film at IFC in New York, I found it difficult to concentrate on the story. All I could see were the extras. In one café scene, I noticed two women outside, seen through a window, in deep background, and a pang of remorse shot through me. Those poor women, employees of the school, were made to walk back and forth in the summer sun, just to be seen as a blurry moving shape. It’s almost impossible to really watch a movie you’ve worked on. Behind every scene is another story.

For example, there’s a part in the movie when Efron’s character, Nat, shouts “Be love!” to Radnor’s character. I was suddenly reminded of Jon Marro, my friend on the set, and Radnor’s friend from California, who may have been the inspiration for Efron’s character. Just like Nat, Jon was the kind of guy who embraced you without much analysis. He was on set for ambiguous reasons, but nominally to document the process. He and I would drive around in a golf cart, taking pictures of the crew. Sometimes we would stop at his request, to photograph fireflies. He, too, demanded that I “be love.”

When I moved to New York, I tried to continue working on sets. I worked for two days as a production assistant on Blue Bloods, a CBS cop show shot on the streets of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. My job was to keep unwanted pedestrians out of the shot, which meant that I had to talk to a lot of angry strangers. This did not suit me at all, and I was yelled at for two straight days. I realized that this was not the life for me, and I reset my focus to writing and theater.

The story isn’t that I was Zac Efron’s body double. The story is that every movie set is its own world, is a condensed experience of dedication, stress, joy, and most importantly, people. Perhaps I’ve neglected to give you the “dirt.” As in any environment, there was dirt and gossip, cruelty and pettiness, frustration and jealousy. But I feel nothing but gratitude for those six weeks. I learned more about my school, more about filmmaking, more about human beings. From the stars to the electrical grips to my extras, everyone shared a desire to touch the glamour of movies, and to leave with a story.

Chalk it up to my three hours as Efron, or my conversations withOhio, or my golf cart rides with Jon Marro, or Radnor’s optimistic movie, but now I feel that I must say, that I have the authority to say, because why not, I was there: be love.

Image: Will Arbery as Zac Efron (Photo by Jon Marro)

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Comments

  • Bill Ahrens ’85

    Nicely said, Mr. Arbery! Kenyon produces great writers. You are one of them!

  • Dorothy (grateful extra)

    Will I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to exchange more than a few words. All I can tell you is another big thank you for allowing me a few hours on the set to walk around the Science Quad over and over again, ignoring the ache that was taking over my feet in the wrong sandals, and yet I was having one of the best days of my life! I have done community theater for 15 or so years, but none of it will compare to the experience of being an extra, and being seen on screen for about 4 seconds, now and forever!

  • Will

    Thank you Bill! And Dorothy, so good to hear from you again! You were such a trooper and I’m glad you made it into the movie! I’m the one who’s grateful.

  • FOB W

    Several years ago I found myself in rural Central Ohio to offer my older brother Jim comfort and companionship after the passing of his wife. I had just entered something called “semi-retirement” which for me meant that I had plenty of time on my hands but had retired without enough of a financial parachute to live a life of leisure. I stayed on in Ohio even after Jim felt well enough to go back to his full-time job but still feeling very much alone. During the hours Jim was at work I scanned Craigslist for money-making opportunities, part-time temporary things like mowing lawns, Mr. Fix-it stuff even a couple dog-walking gigs. I made enough money to pay my own way at Jim’s place, even enough to flip Jim a few bucks now and then (which he refused to accept). One day I stumbled across a Craigslist ad seeking “movie extras”. I figured it was a total scam but it didn’t ask for money so I went ahead and did as the ad requested and sent off my info, mostly just my age and if I would be available in Columbus for up to 12 hours. And oh, I wouldn’t be paid a cent. But my due diligence informed me that this was a real gig as a real extra in a real movie with real Hollywood stars! So when Will Arbery sent me an email saying I’d been “selected” and to come out to Columbus for a day of shooting a scene which was to take place in a Brooklyn “dive bar” I went out and bought myself a new pair of New York dive bar pants! To this day I have no idea why I thought pants were so important, but what the hell, I was going to have a chance to finally fulfil a promise I’d made to my late Mom that someday I’d be in a Hollywood movie! Well, you know the rest of the story. I was picked to be the bartender in the dive bar, a role maybe just a tiny tad above blurry background pedestrian and my scene was shot 3 or four times until Josh Radner thought it was right. At one point he even came over to me and gave me some Director type direction. The whole thing ate up about 12 hours of my time but Will Arbery made certain I felt as important as the big stars working in the film. Heck, we even ate in the same temporary “commissary” as the stars! And even though my scenes were deleted (available on the Blu-rat release) It goes down as one of the best days of my nearly seven decades of life. And Will Arbery, a true gentleman and professional, deserves all the credit for helping an old man keep a promise to his Mom.