He's smaller in person. They always are. You've heard the gleeful gab about how tiny Tom Cruise, Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone are in the flesh.
Zac Efron — a wisp.
The full-blown heartthrob — 22 and a magnet for tweeny, "Twilight"-ly calibers of hormonal hysteria — stands next to Austin-based director Richard Linklater and actor Christian McKay. Like that, he is dwarfed.
The trio has gathered to chat briefly about their new movie, the affable period piece "Me and Orson Welles," which opens Friday. Efron plays the "me" in the title, while McKay (pronounced "McEye") plays, to mythic and frightfully persuasive effect, Orson Welles. Based on the novel by Robert Kaplow, the film was written by Austinites Holly Gent Palmo and Vince Palmo.
Back to Zac. (Patience.) He wears slim designer jeans, a checked Western shirt and shiny, pointy, laceless black boots that make him appear even more elflike. His feline face bears patches of unshaven flesh, as if he's trying, really trying. Gone is his once longish hair — the rounded swoosh he sports as Troy Bolton in Disney's "High School Musical" trilogy — in favor of something more bedheady.
As he enters the room, Efron peeks at his iPhone and we see that the wallpaper is a vintage photo of Bruce Lee, shirtless, sweaty, in fighting stance. Explain, please.
"He's been one of my idols since I was little, and his films are one of the ways I got into watching movies," Efron says.
The actor, also sporting a silver St. Jude medallion that he wears in his next movie, "The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud," is fond of a Bruce Lee quote that sounds like a career credo: "Success comes from dedication and self-knowledge."
"I think that's pretty cool," says Efron.
Dedication and self-knowledge might be part of why Efron chose to star in "Me and Orson Welles," a low-budget, light but invigorating depiction of the mammoth ambition and talent that swarmed inside Welles' legendary Mercury Theatre in 1930s New York. Efron plays Richard, a teenager aspiring to stage glory who stumbles into Welles' company and lands a small part in the actor-director's revolutionary production of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." While Efron is the lead here, it's safe, if a wee bit rude, to state that McKay as Welles blows the young performer away.
As it should be. McKay, a relative unknown from England, incarnates Welles' volcanic bluster and bravado, spewing megalomania with a paradoxical mix of insinuating charm and purring seductiveness. His vocal and physical likenesses to the young Welles stagger.
With a tip-off from novelist Kaplow, Linklater found McKay in a 2007 Off Broadway production of the one-man play "Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles." A critic at the time wrote that McKay "gives us the great man's soul \u2026 you will feel as if it is Welles, himself."
Same goes in the movie, which Linklater, McKay and Efron, sitting together, talked about last week in Austin before the film's local premiere at the Paramount Theatre.
American-Statesman: (To Linklater) What specifically attracted you to this movie?
Richard Linklater: I don't really have a film about making a film — I don't have my "Day for Night" at the moment — but making a film about putting on a play is the same stuff. It's actors, the different points of view, creating art in an ensemble environment. All of that is very personal to people who do theater or film. That was close to home. And the idea of historically re-creating this moment in time with a lesser-known Orson Welles, when he's 22, was a great challenge.
There must also be the draw of making a movie about someone who became one of the greatest filmmakers ever, sort of like making a movie about Alfred Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin.
Linklater: That's the scary part. It's like, how do you do it? It's very daunting. In fact, it's dual daunting: You have Welles and Shakespeare. And you're trying to replicate not just neighborhood Shakespeare, but the greatest Shakespeare production in North American history. It's good to be attracted to things that scare the hell out of you. But I wasn't going to do it unless we found Orson. Before we tried to get financing or even put (the project) out into the film world, we decided to get our Welles first. I didn't want to proceed unless we could portray our Orson Welles accurately and respectfully. The planets were aligning when I got an e-mail from (author) Robert Kaplow telling me to check out this guy in a New York play.
(To McKay) How unnerving is it playing such a bombastic, larger-than-life character as Welles?
Linklater: No problem for Christian. (They all laugh.)
Christian McKay: Well, if you're intimidated by the role and you're going to look up at the pedestal constantly gawping at it, then you don't play it. ... I had to find out a lot about the man, what made him tick, things that I could empathize with and allow me to look him in the eye rather than see him as this untouchable genius. I referenced myself at 22. I'm afraid I was as arrogant and lost as he was at that point. It's a wonderful phrase from Dylan Thomas, "I'd rather be what I was, arrogant and lost, than what I am, humble and found." I was playing the third Rachmaninoff concerto at that age and I was walking that particular tightrope, which is pretty high. And I did it with the confidence of ignorance. Then, of course, to play Orson as your first film role, I tapped that confidence of ignorance.
Linklater: You wouldn't want a Welles who wasn't that confident. The key to Christian's performance is he really brought a lot of himself to it. He's being modest.
McKay: No, I'm not. Really, if it was me playing myself or an extension of myself I wouldn't have got out of the hotel room. But if I'm playing Orson Welles, then great!
Linklater: Christian, like Welles, was told he was a genius from a young age. He's being modest. He's a world-class pianist who toured the world. So he brought that kind of elevated \u2026
McKay: Arrogance and bluster!
Linklater: No, no, just a kind of (worldly confidence), that it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that you could be the star of a movie.
McKay: I do believe in fate and I do believe getting this role was the destiny moment. I'd been through hell with Orson on the stage. But what I found onstage was that even though you occasionally would like to put his head through a television screen, if you wait with him and wait for him — be patient — he will reward you with magic. And he always does.
How did Zac come into the picture?
Linklater: After Christian, the most difficult part was to find who can pull off the part of the young Richard.
Zac Efron: I already knew all about Rick and his work and I was extremely excited that he had this part for me. I was shocked. Having just finished everything I had, this was a very unique experience. It seemed, like he said, that the planets were aligning. It felt perfect. I knew it was going to be a little bit different and more of a challenge.
You've said that Richard is the character you've played who's closest to who you really are. Is that because of your theatrical background?
Efron: Absolutely. I can relate to everything Richard goes through. This is a grand version of real theater. All the best moments of my 10 years in theater are summed up in this movie. It wasn't as concentrated in real life, but it's all there and it's all real. You're sucked into this world, including the romances. Every single show I did, I fell in love with one of the actresses. You can't help it.
McKay: It's like Sodom and Gomorrah, really!
Would you consider a smaller, independent film like this something of a departure or breakout for you into, say, serious cinema?
Efron: I'd like to think so. I think what we did on this film, in this climate and industry, is different.
Linklater: This was kind of a hybrid of an American indie and a European film — low-budget and tight schedule. We got the financial backing in Europe.
In the movie, the bustling theater company strikes a real family aura, with all the joy and drama that entails. How hard was that to orchestrate as a director?
Linklater: I think the family atmosphere came really naturally. Actors kind of fall into that. Especially since we were all huddled in that theater for so long and staying in the same hotel almost next door. So we were living, breathing it. The Mercury Theatre vibe really took hold. Every movie seems kind of crazy, and then you get closer to it and it's just one little thing after another. Everybody's focused on what they have to do. Here, it was a little self-reflexive. You have actors playing historical actors playing a part in a theater production. So it was a bit of a hall of mirrors. But you just jump in and it's kind of magical.