Efron grows with 'Orson Welles'
Orson Welles is a name that is synonymous with brilliance. The acclaimed director, radio show host, producer, writer and actor was once the king of the entertainment world with famous radiocasts like “War of the Worlds” and the groundbreaking film work, “Citizen Kane.” Director Richard Linklater’s newest film, “Me and Orson Welles,” delves into the man behind the magic (in an outstanding debut performance by Christian McKay) through the eyes of an up-and-coming actor (played by Zac Efron) who gets sucked into the business as they attempt to put on Welles’ rendition of “Julius Caesar” at the Mercury Theatre.
The story, based on the book by Robert Kaplow, follows young actor Richard Samuels as he lands a role in “Caesar” after a chance encounter with Welles. Samuels is quickly pulled into the drama of the theater and is fascinated by Welles as he is taken under his wing, rapidly learning the ups and downs of theater and life.
“[Welles] was so ahead of his time, and took a lot of risks, ultimately — just so unafraid,” Efron said in an interview with The Eagle. “I think that’s something; that’s a great way to be remembered.”
Though some might think of Welles as an inimitable person, McKay plays him brilliantly in both his uncanny physical resemblance to the star and his captivating performance both on and off stage. Though certainly the standout character in the film, most of the general crowd’s curiosity to see “Welles,” an indie movie lies in Efron’s seemingly surprising involvement. Though his detractors may expect the worst, Efron plays his character with ease, channeling the naïveté of a 17-year-old trying to make it big, while simultaneously — and believably — charming Welles and his older crush, Sonja (Claire Danes).
Efron said “Me and Orson Welles” seemed like a natural role to pick, especially because of Linklater’s involvement in it.
“[When] Rick [Linklater] talked to me about it — that was probably the most flattering thing in the world,” he said.
“Me and Orson Welles” marks a turning point in Efron’s career. Known best for his song and dance routines in films like “Hairspray” and the “High School Musical” series, “Welles,” though not lacking its own small musical performance from Efron, takes him out of the comfort of the teen films he has starred in so far.
“Though it appears on the surface to be a bit more serious or dramatic [than my other films], I think that for a younger audience, you know, who did see ‘High School Musical,’ who did see ‘17 Again,’ it’s an interesting transition,” Efron said. “I think that at a first glance ... a theater in the ‘30s might appear to be a bit more stuffy, sort of boring kind of story, but I think the audience will come to soon find out is that it is every bit as fun as ‘High School Musical,’ and probably more real world and practical.”
One of the troubles in making the film was creating a realistic physicality to make sure it actually looked like it was taking place in the ‘30s. Linklater — director of such films as “Before Sunset” and “Dazed and Confused” — said making the film was akin to a “historical re-imagining.”
“That’s kind of the magic of cinema — when you’re recreating a moment in time like this,” Linklater said. “We’re trying to, as physically possible, recreate November 1937... Beyond the physics, you’re really trying to create a mood, an atmosphere.”
The impact of Welles’ career is not lost in the film. The audience gets a backstage look at Welles’ Type-A personality as he takes over everything he has his hand in, changing Samuels’ life in a second before spinning it around again. One scene in particular allows the audience to get a peek at the genius in action, as Samuels accompanies Welles on a trip to the radio station to watch him broadcast. Welles begins improvising to the shock of his cast mates, showing why he was considered a brilliant man as he improved others’ work at his own leisure.
“I love that line [in the film]: ‘It doesn’t matter who does it first, it matters who does it second,’ in that... the innovators are often overlooked because they kind of prepare people to appreciate that idea later on,” Danes said.
“Me and Orson Welles” is a unique look into Welles’ mentality as he changes Samuels’ life with one opportunity. Though the film had trouble being picked up for distribution despite its warm reception at places like the Toronto International Film Festival, Linklater is hopeful that as long as the film touches people, it will reach beyond box office numbers.
“[Cinema] is a powerful medium,” he said. “It travels, it communicates. That’s what we’re all trying to do here — share our passion [and] tell stories.”
“Me and Orson Welles” opens in D.C. on Dec. 11.
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