This weekend Zac Efron goes head-to-head with Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne as the beefcake leader of a fraternity in the comedy Neighbors. But his post-High School Musical career really began with Richard Linklater's Me & Orson Welles, which screened at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival and was released in November 2009.
If anything's remembered from Me & Orson Welles, it's likely Christian McKay's performance as Welles, which was spectacularly dead on without being an impersonation. (McKay had played Welles on stage before Linklater cast him.)
Though Me & Orson Welles is a more adult film than any Efron had made previously, his character, Richard, has the similar earnestness that defined his previous parts in High School Musical and Hairspray. He even sings and dances a little bit. Richard is a high school kid with, naturally, matinee idol looks, who gets a small part in Welles' legendary production of Julius Caesar thanks to a bit of street-corner bravado. The rest of the film is a homage to the "the-a-ter" of yore, as Richard watches the production come together under the guidance of Welles' difficult genius, and falls in love with Sonja, Claire Danes' beautiful production assistant with David O. Selznick dreams.
There's nothing particularly spectacular about Efron's performance, and that's not entirely his fault. In some ways, Richard has to be the doorway into Welles' world. He's just a kid, the people around him are the stars.
Efron, even in his period-wear, sometimes seems too modern, especially alongside McKay's Welles and especially when trying to speak Shakespeare's dialogue. Lucius's song to Brutus sounds almost radio ready. Efron is best in the film when his character has to appear out of his depth, perhaps because the on-screen situation most resembles the real life one. He is convincingly heartbroken when Sonja ditches him to spend the night with Welles.
The movie is the first truly interesting choice Efron made: a low-key period dramedy from an interesting director, that seemed to imply Efron was interested in being more than just a heartthrob, teen or otherwise. The instincts that inspired him to tackle Me & Orson Welles also seemingly brought him to indie projects like Liberal Arts and The Paperboy.
In his review of Neighbors, for Vanity Fair, Richard Lawson highlighted an interesting darkness at play in Efron's latest work. There is really no such darkness in Me & Orson Welles; it's a lighthearted movie that appeals to suckers for behind-the-scenes stories about the glory of theater. (Read: yours truly) Still, the movie is Efron's first try at something genuinely serious, and he does an admirable job at it.