This Friday, Universal will be releasing a remake of Firestarter, about a young girl, Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), with the ability to start fires with her mind. But what is perhaps most horrifying for viewers isn’t that conceit but the fact that Charlie’s father Andy is played by Zac Efron. To fans’ shock, the former High School Musical heartthrob is now old enough to be credible as a dad.
Wanna feel old AF?
Zac FREAKIN Efron will be playing someone’s DAD in an upcoming film.
— 👑 𝓔✨🇺🇦 (@blushingfiancee) April 30, 2022
Efron turned 34 in October, and Firestarter represents his first major dad role, which is a big deal in an actor’s development. (By the way, David Keith, who played the father in the 1984 Firestarter, was actually 30.) But because Efron has normally portrayed teens, frat guys and lifeguards, we’ve become accustomed to him being Perpetually Youthful. Nevertheless, taking on the role of protector of his troubled, powerful daughter, he’s clearly signaling a shift toward older, more mature roles. This pivot has been happening for Efron for a little while, of course — he played Ted Bundy in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and a desperate man trying to stay alive in the desert in Gold — but Firestarter is his first mainstream movie where he owns up to the fact that he, like the rest of us, isn’t a kid anymore.
He’s got more dads in his future — he’s attached to a Three Men and a Baby redo as well — but if Firestarter makes his fellow millennials feel old, take heart: Efron isn’t the only 30-something actor in recent years who’s stretched himself by playing a father. In fact, you might say he’s part of a proud tradition of leading men who showed off their dramatic chops by having kids on screen — and, quite often, rocking a beard at the same time to further highlight how grownup they now are.
For actresses, this leap to parenthood can be fraught — just more proof to a sexist industry that they’re no longer young and, therefore, bankable — but for men, hey, it’s merely a rite of passage to the next stage of their career. Here’s a quick rundown of some of Efron’s contemporaries who in their 30s also went from daddies to actual on-screen dads — complete with an assessment of how believable each of them was as a patriarch.
Pivotal Dad Role: Billy Hope in Southpaw (2015)
Does He Have a Beard?: Yes, or sometimes just a good amount of facial scruff
What Kind of Dad Is He?: Granted, Gyllenhaal’s closeted cowboy had a son in Brokeback Mountain, but since that boy wasn’t a pivotal character, I chose this inspirational drama about a boxer named Bobby looking for redemption, which was initially going to star Eminem. Instead, the part went to Gyllenhaal, who has never been shy about taking chances, transforming his body to look like an imposing pugilist who must raise his young daughter (Oona Laurence) all on his own.
Unfortunately, Southpaw strands Gyllenhaal in a predictable storyline in which his character needs to reclaim glory in the ring while proving he’s a worthy father. (If all that wasn’t enough, Bobby is also grieving the tragic death of wife Rachel McAdams.) Gyllenhaal deserves credit for diving into such a physically demanding role, but Southpaw wasn’t worthy of his talent, and his scenes with Laurence tended to be terribly emotionally manipulative. If you want to see him play a much more interesting, enigmatic dad, check him out in the far better 2018 drama Wildlife.
Pivotal Dad Role: Alexander Murry in A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
Does He Have a Beard?: Yes
What Kind of Dad Is He?: Pine played an uncle in People Like Us, but he really got to flex his paternal muscles in Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of the beloved Madeleine L’Engle novel. He’s not the central character in A Wrinkle in Time, but he may be the film’s emotional center: He’s Alex, a brilliant astrophysicist who inspires his daughter Meg (Storm Reid) to dream big, even though he’s been missing (and presumed dead) for four years.
Much of the movie concerns Meg’s journey across the universe to rescue him, and that quest narrative presents Pine as a sensitive, thoughtful father of nearly mythic proportions. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time in A Wrinkle in Time, but he makes the most of it, giving a performance of such gentle warmth that, along with his work in Wonder Woman and elsewhere, began to make the battle of the Chrises no longer look like a fair fight. A Wrinkle in Time wasn’t a hit, but it pointed the way for Pine’s transition away from Star Trek cutie to a more rugged, respected serious actor.
Pivotal Dad Role: Lee Abbott in A Quiet Place (2018)
Does He Have a Beard?: Yes
What Kind of Dad Is He?: Technically speaking, the former Office star had played an expectant father previously in The Hollars, but A Quiet Place was where Krasinski really got to showcase his grownup bona fides, directing and co-writing this sleeper hit that was his first commercial smash after helming a series of unsuccessful indies. Playing a dad wasn’t really an acting stretch for him, though — in fact, this sci-fi/horror film’s theme of parenthood hit close to home. “We just had our second daughter about three weeks before I read the script,” Krasinski later said. “And so I was already in the state of terror of keeping this girl safe … and whether or not I was a good enough father.”
With A Quiet Place, gone was goofy, fun-loving Jim — in his place was a stoic dad and husband trying to protect his family in the midst of an alien onslaught. The film gave him a chance to display a little gravitas and to shed the impression that he was just a dramatic lightweight. Some actors might be self-conscious about being old enough to play a patriarch — but for Krasinski, it’s given him a second act.
Pivotal Dad Role: James Lort in Honey Boy (2019)
Does He Have a Beard?: No, but he has wild long hair
What Kind of Dad Is He?: Perhaps no recent actor took on his first father role with as much anguish as LaBeouf, who wrote the script for Honey Boy, a fictionalized account of his own complicated upbringing as a child star whose dad was a former rodeo clown who pushed him to stardom. Working on the screenplay during a rehab stint, LaBeouf didn’t want to act in the film until director Alma Har’el suggested he play the father. “I thought this is the part that he’s been preparing for his whole life when I read it,” she later said. “The character kind of jumped out of the page and really hit me hard. It just seemed like something that has to be on-screen and not stay in the therapy room.”
Indeed, it’s fascinating to watch LaBeouf work through his trauma by portraying a dramatized version of the man who inflicted that trauma on him. (Lucas Hedges and Noah Jupe play, respectively, the adult and child versions of the fictionalized LaBeouf.) But the results, like with many of LaBeouf’s attempts to stretch himself as an actor, often come across as tortured and self-indulgent rather than cathartic. (And the abuse allegations that have surfaced against him since certainly haven’t engended any good will toward him.)
Pivotal Dad Role: Charlie Barber in Marriage Story (2019)
Does He Have a Beard?: No
What Kind of Dad Is He?: Driver was already one of his generation’s most acclaimed actors when he earned his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for Noah Baumbach’s bittersweet portrait of a failing relationship. But before Marriage Story, he’d mostly played free spirits, poetic souls and, in the case of Kylo Ren, a Jedi with major daddy issues. As Charlie Barber, a driven theater director going through a divorce, Driver tapped into a tenderer, more emotional register, portraying a decent guy whose marriage hadn’t worked out but who’s determined to still be a good father to his young son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
Baumbach’s comedy-drama is resolutely fair to both parents — there’s no bad guys here, just irreconcilable differences — and Driver has rarely been so lovely, unashamedly portraying Charlie as someone who tries his best as a dad but fouls things up nine times out of 10. Among the recent transitioning-to-dad-roles actors, Driver uniquely demonstrated just how frustrating fatherhood can be, how your good intentions kept getting sideswiped by an unruly child or impossible circumstances.
Where most actors tackle father roles to show off their serious side, Driver (who’d already done plenty of dramatic work) used Marriage Story as a way to reveal a newfound vulnerability that was incredibly touching. It’s perhaps no surprise that his dad was the most complex and fully realized of the bunch — setting a high bar for Zac Efron and anyone else to follow.
Tim Grierson is a contributing editor at MEL. He writes about film and pop culture for Screen International, Rolling Stone and Vulture.