Zac Efron © Freestyle Releasing
Zac Efron © Freestyle Releasing

After a slew of successful movies including Hairspray and High School Musical 2, Zac Efron could sit back and wait for the musical scripts to flood in – that’s what his fans expect. But the young actor is more courageous than that – he wants an eclectic career – and so he chose to star in this small-budgeted drama which tells the story of the legendary actor/director’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Mercury Theatre in New York in 1937.

Efron plays Richard, a young man just passing by the theatre, when he is approached by Welles to play a role in the production.

Why this film? You probably didn’t have any shortage of scripts and this is so different from anything you’ve done so far.

Zac Efron and Claire Danes © Freestyle Releasing
Zac Efron and Claire Danes © Freestyle Releasing

Yeah. You know we tried to do the musical version but we couldn’t get the rights [he laughs]. It was different and it was a very unique opportunity for me at the time and still is.  I think it was something that didn’t seem so cut and dry.

It wasn’t an obvious decision and, even I was a bit surprised and that’s very cool. I hope I can continue to maintain that and have those options. That’s why we do this, to grow and try new things and that was exactly what this movie represented for me. It came at a perfect time.

And it seemed ambitious to me about Orson. Rick [Linklater, the director] always says we made a screwball comedy at times about Welles which is something he would never have done himself, so we put him into a movie that he never would have been a part of.

Were you a fan of Orson Welles’ work?

Yeah. Definitely

What was your first introduction to Orson Welles and when?

I was probably 16 and I had worked with a director who said his favorite movie of all time was Citizen Kane and, as a wrap gift, he gave me the DVD and I was definitely fascinated by it and thought it was an incredible movie but was probably too young to fully appreciate it at that point.

Richard has to learn a lesson about dealing with Hollywood-type egos. Have you had to learn any lessons like that?

I think things have changed a little bit. I’ve never had an experience quite like that. I’d say it was reminiscent of a lot of my early theater experiences. It’s pretty cutthroat and there was always another kid to pull from the sidelines ready to take your place. But, I’ve never experienced a guy quite like Orson.

What kind of research did you do? Did you read the original book?

I read the original book. For my age, I pretty much had the standard [Welles knowledge]. I studied him in high school a little bit before that and was familiar with a lot of his work. Coming into this, I thought I was pretty well-read on Orson and then immediately found out that I hadn’t even scratched the surface on this guy.

Rick was the one who really filled us in and supplied with endless literature, the articles and old photos. I think I’ve seen every picture of Orson that ever existed.

Your character Richard is based on a real person. Did you get to meet him?

No. He’s based on a real person but Rick was very hands on in trying to get as much of his story as we could.  All the stuff with setting off the fire alarms was real.  Other than that, he steered pretty far away from the real guy.

How was it rehearsing with Christian McKay, who plays Orson Welles

Zac Efron and Christian McKay © Freestyle Releasing
Zac Efron and Christian McKay © Freestyle Releasing

Originally, he alluded to the fact that he was a bit nervous coming in with very little experience on film and I just remember that from the get-go, from the second I heard him speak and hung out with him and saw his personality I never felt more confident in a lead actor, a leading man.

He’s very intelligent and a very quick study. Me and Claire [Danes], we sat in the room on the first day of rehearsals when he read his lines for the first time as Orson. I was shocked. I was floored.

He exceeded our wildest expectations. Like I had any expectations, but it was absolutely incredible and even better just to be with him, just to hang out.  He definitely deserves all this.

Does it give you a sense of accomplishment that, because of your participation in this film, you’re going to have a lot of young people out there meet Orson Welles who maybe never would have?

Exactly. People say, ‘What about Orson Welles is going to attract a young audience?’ but what I’m hoping is that the audience that does come is able to enjoy this experience with such an iconic guy.

Hopefully, it’ll spark their interest and they’ll be able to learn more and go and find out about Welles and his amazing, very interesting roller coaster career.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.