The star of “Me and Orson Welles” should be Zac Efron, the “High School Musical” heartthrob who makes his non-singing-non-dancing debut here. His Disney good looks have made him a star and he’s an agreeable presence on screen but he is overshadowed by another actor playing a man who died many years before the core audience of this movie was even born. Newcomer Christian McKay plays Orson Welles with such panache that Efron becomes a supporting player in his own movie.
Efron is Richard Samuels, a teenager with dreams of being on stage. So far it doesn’t sound too different from “High School Musical,” I know, but in this case the year is 1937 and the stage in question happens to be at the Mercury Theatre on Broadway. After an impromptu audition—he plays drums and sings a Wheaties jingle on the street in front of the theatre—Richard is hired as a bit player for Orson Welles’s (Christian McKay) landmark production of “Julius Caesar.” He is given little rehearsal and only one piece of advice; don’t criticize Orson Welles, ever. It is, he’s told, a privilege to be “sprayed by Orson’s spit” on stage. When Richard falls for pretty production assistant Sonja Jones (Claire Danes), however, he puts himself in the cross hairs of the temperamental Welles.
“Orson Welles and Me” is set years before Hollywood beat the stuffing out of Welles. Here he’s still a boy wonder—a maverick (before Sarah Palin came along and ruined the word for everyone else) and womanizer who financed his theatre company with the money he made as a radio actor. McKay is pitch-perfect in a role that has defeated other good actors in movies like “The Cradle Will Rock” and “Fade to Black.” The British actor, who played Welles in a one man show before making the film, looks the part and really gets inside the head of this brilliant but difficult man.
When McKay isn’t on-screen, however, the story tends to sag a little. Efron and Danes do some good work and director Richard Linklater dies a nice job of showing the chaotic week leading up to the opening night of “Caesar,” but when the story leaves the theatre it becomes much less interesting. The backstage machinations, on-stage work—we see a hefty chunk of the play during the film’s climax—and attention to period detail—people actually say “Yowza!”—elevate it beyond a typical coming-of-age story but it really only comes to life when MacKay is front and center.