Zac Efron Graduates From 'High School Musical' to 'Me and Orson Welles'

Teen heartthrob flexes acting muscles in new movie "Me and Orson Welles."

Dec. 5, 2009— -- Tween heartthrob Zac Efron can take on any man -- just ask People Magazine who dubbed him one of the 100 Most Beautiful People in 2007.

As "High School Musical's" Troy Bolton and captain of the basketball team, he left his competitors in the dust. As Hairspray's Link Larkin, girls sang odes to him and "heard bells" when he kissed them. But he may have met his match in Christian McKay who portrays Orson Welles in Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles." Efron and Linklater sat down together with ABC News Now's "Popcorn with Peter Travers" to promote their new film.

"I play Richard. It is a coming of age story about this guy who talks his way into an adaptation of Orson Welles' 'Julius Caesar' at New York's Mercury Theater. It's a look in the life of Orson Welles at that moment," said Efron. Based on Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name and set in 1937, the movie focuses on 22 year old Orson Welles, who by then had already reinvented theater and radio. Welles' radio broadcast of H.G. Well's "The War of the Worlds" was only a year away and then he was off to Hollywood to ultimately make "Citizen Kane."

"Welles was the full on showman creating vehicles for himself. He was aware of his performance at all times. He was a chaotic person. He was there to wow us. The week of his 23rd birthday, he was on the cover of Time Magazine looking like he was 73," added Linklater.

Period pieces, with the exception of "The Newton Boys," are not Linklater's forte, who is known more for more contemporary fare such as "Slacker," "Dazed and Confused," "Before Sunrise" and "School of Rock." But this was a labor of love.

Making the movie was not easy recalled the director: "The industry said who cares? Who's going to see this?"

However, he persevered and obtained financing from Europe. "That's all Hollywood does now – remakes and tent poles. Our movie is an endangered species!" he exclaimed.

The book and the movie blend fact with fiction. Efron's character, 17-year-old Richard Samuels, is mostly fiction although according to Linklater there was a similar teenager in Welles' life at the time. "I talked to him on the phone," affirmed the director, "So much of this did happen. It's based in history but technically fiction." Welles meets Samuels and offers him a small part in his adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, which the real Welles actually produced. His play, subtitled Death of Dictator, was turned into an allegory of Mussolini and fascism. While in Welles' orbit, Samuels is introduced to Sonja (the fictional production assistant), portrayed by Claire Danes, and a love triangle ensues. Danes is no stranger to Shakespeare as she starred in Baz Luhrmann's 1996's "Romeo + Juliet" with Leonardo DiCaprio.

Linklater cast Efron immediately; "15 minutes after meeting him, I knew he was the right guy," he said. The director said he needed a leading man who could stand up to Christian McKay whom he described as "a big British Welsian figure." Linklater recalled how Efron described Samuels' character as close to his life since he had personally experienced "the backstage stories, the egos and the hierarchies that develop when creating art as an ensemble." "That was very much my life for five or six years when I was young – all the crazy things that ensue in the final week of rehearsals," confirmed Efron.

Linklater credits "Julius Caesar" with revealing his true métier. When he was twelve years old at Huntsville Intermediate School in East Texas, he was asked to participate in "Julius Caesar."

"I pulled the teacher aside and said I wanted to work with actors on costumes. It seemed to me that I should be in control and helping, but not on stage," he said. Unlike Welles, Linklater did not achieve fame until much later. "When I was twenty two, every day I wasn't working, I would watch four films a day. I was dedicated to film, living alone and living cinema - pretty pure. I was living a life of passion. That's what it was about and I'm still in the vein of not having a real job," he noted.

Unlike Linklater, 22 year old Efron earned his big break at the age of 19 when he starred in Disney's "High School Musical."

"I think it's given me a lot of opportunities," Efron said of his Troy Bolton role, "I've come beyond what I ever dreamed I could accomplish. I feel like I'm just getting started." While Linklater is wary of early stardom -- "You are sort of penalized if you are successful when you are young. It's like you have to double prove yourself" – he also found Efron to be a "natural performer."

Both Linklater and Efron are spellbound by film. "I love the magic of writing a story or finding a story. It's like being pregnant with a movie. I love that feeling when you are getting closer and it's starting to work," explained the director. "You get to play in a big sandbox. It's not really your birthright. You have to earn it and maintain it," he emphasized. "We are still pinching ourselves all the time," agreed Efron. " I'm still trying to figure it out. I don't know what IT is. You never can be the best. There's always a different interpretation. I know I like to work in that environment."

Linklater channeled Welles while directing the movie. "I do scream," he admitted, saying his favorite catchphrase was "You are all here as adjuncts to my vision!"

"Me and Orson Welles" is currently playing in theaters.