A little over a year ago, Zac Efron was riding high as "High School Musical 3: Senior Year" had made a boatload of money at the box office. Privately, Efron was no doubt thrilled his commitment to the franchise that launched his career was officially over because he'd already moved on to more serious and challenging work. In fact, less than six weeks before "HSM3" opened, Richard Linkletter's "Me and Orson Welles" made its debut at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival featuring Efron and a classy ensemble of actors including Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsan and Christian McKay on board.
A fictional story set during Orson Welles tumultuous rehearsal period for his groundbreaking staging of "Julius Caesar" in 1937, the dramedy finds Efron as a high school student dreaming of making it big on Broadway. With some luck and hutzpah he convinces Welles to give him a last minute part in "Caesar." Over the following week the audience follows his experiences dealing with the stress and drama of trying to get the show off the ground.
In all honesty, I was not impressed with Efron's performance when I first caught "Welles" at Toronto. He seemed miscast, a contemporary actor whose personality and charisma seemed out of place in the 1930s set drama. His co-star McKay who plays Welles was another story. The 36-year-old Brit played an older version of Welles in a well reviewed stage show (that's how Linkletter found him), but on the big screen he's spot on as the boisterous and cantankerous genius who still hasn't scared the world with his "War of the Worlds" radio show. It would be a crime if McKay didn't land a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance, but considering the film is being independently distributed it's entirely possible he won't. Unfortunately, that is the likely harsh reality during this year's awards season.
A strange victim of the current turmoil in the acquisition world, it's still shocking that Linkletter and his producers could not land a serious distributor in the U.S. for "Welles" especially after Efron's "17 Again" made serious buck this past Spring. At one time Sony Pictures Classics seemed to have a deal, then it didn't and "Welles" is opening this weekend under the banner of tiny distributor Freestyle with the producers covering the marketing costs. It's not included in the embedded interview with Efron, Linkletter and McKay, but I asked the "School of Rock" filmmaker about this curious situation and to say he dodged the question is an understatement. No doubt may studios were cautious of the positive but not euphoric reviews out of Toronto at the time, but ironically the "finished" film, as Linkletter refers to it now, drew raves from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the New Yorker and the Christian Science Monitor just to name a few. Who knew?
As for the ever-charming Efron, it's quite remarkable how grounded and open the 22-year-old still seems after living in such intense tabloid scrutiny over the past few years. He's always been self-deprecating in person and in this interview insists he could never be as cool as the character he plays in the movie. Efron isn't giving up on being a "serious" actor either having just finished shooting his most dramatic role to date in "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud" for his "17 Again" director Burr Steers. After (smartly) jumping ship from a remake of "Footloose" Efron is supposed to star in a new "Johnny Quest" but whether that really happens remains to be seen. In many ways, even with all his success where Efron finds himself in Hollywood is still somewhat of a mystery. Will his big screen career peter out like that of Chris O'Donnell or will he ease into more adult roles like Tobey Maguire or Jake Gyllenhaal? Your guess is good as mine.
To watch a larger version of the interview, click here.
"Me and Orson Welles" is now playing in limited release.
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