Saturday, December 3, 2022 Dec 3, 2022
63° F Dallas, TX

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

After graduating from Kenyon College, Will Arbery suddenly found himself casting extras on a movie set – and standing in for superstar.
By Will Arbery |

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)