x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The graduate

Zac Efron has moved on from his High School Musical days to tackle more dramatic roles in the likes of Me & Orson Welles. Is this the end of the teen idol days?

Zac Efron and Christian McDay star in Me & Orson Welles, about the 1937 production of Julius Caesar at New York's Mercury Theatre, which proved to be a milestone for Welles.
Zac Efron and Christian McDay star in Me & Orson Welles, about the 1937 production of Julius Caesar at New York's Mercury Theatre, which proved to be a milestone for Welles.

Zac Efron is in a buoyant mood, which is a touch surprising considering the lack of privacy he has been afforded so far today. Love-struck teenage fans wait patiently outside the hotel where he is staying, hoping to get a glimpse of their hero. Many an A-lister has bemoaned the constant attention, but the 22-year-old actor seems at ease with it. "Some fans are very committed. They wait around for hours! I'm very lucky, I guess." He will certainly hope this devotion translates into cinema attendance, as Efron is venturing somewhat into the unknown. Having left behind his role as Troy Bolton in the tremendously successful High School Musical series, the actor is going it alone and attempting to establish himself outside the franchise.

It's not an easy road for a young actor. For every star who achieves longevity, there is a list of people who could not capitalise on their early success. But is this a new path for Efron, steering away from Zac mania into something more dramatic and critically credible? What will it mean for the millions of fans who loved him in his previous role? The first of these new ventures is Me & Orson Welles, adapted from the Robert Kaplow novel and directed by the noted independent filmmaker Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock). While the story is fictional, the backdrop is real and takes place at an important moment in the history of American drama - the 1937 production of Julius Caesar at New York's Mercury Theatre, a milestone in the career of its director and star, Orson Welles.

Efron plays Richard, a 17-year-old high school student who is in love with the stage and by chance gets a small part in the production after a roadside audition in front of Welles (played by Christian McKay). However, just as his theatrical dreams seem to have come true, he falls for Sonja (Claire Danes), a beautiful and ambitious production assistant. Unfortunately for Richard, she also catches the eye of Welles. Thus the teenager finds himself in a love triangle with one of the most famous men in America and must decide between his new love for Sonja and his long-term love for acting.

The Mercury is certainly a long way from East High, and Efron is aware that some of the audience who have come to see him may not even be aware of who Welles is. "I hope it can introduce them to the genius that is Orson Welles," he says. "He's an icon of cinema, of acting. I think younger audiences may not have heard of him, but that's what's great about this movie. Even though the story is fiction, there are some great characters who were real people, who they can then go on to learn about."

Did he know much about Welles before the film? "I knew what everybody knew - the basics," he admits. "But the more I learned about him the more interested I became. There were these excellent films he made and then there was also the man, the character that everyone knew. Christian plays him really well in this movie. He really sort of transformed into Welles." The bulk of the production took place on the Isle of Man, just off the coast of Britain. "I was looking forward to the privacy," Efron says. "I didn't know much about it before I went and someone told me there weren't a whole lot of people there, which sounded good to me. But when we got there I saw that, actually, there were a lot of people there, and I think we met all of them. Everyone was very welcoming, but really we filmed all day in the theatre so we didn't get to go out much."

The road to superstardom began early for Efron. Starting his career in theatre, he made his small-screen debut at 14 in the cult series Firefly and subsequently appeared in the popular American TV shows CSI and NCIS. In 2006, he was cast in the production that would introduce him to the world - Disney's High School Musical. In this modern-day Grease, Efron landed the lead male role of Bolton, the basketball-playing heartthrob of the fictional East High School. Despite only being shown on the Disney Channel (it was later released on DVD), the first film was a huge success and spawned a 2007 sequel. In between the films, Efron also appeared in the musical remake of Hairspray, which was a critical and box-office success. By 2008, the HSM phenomenon showed no sign of waning, but the third instalment would, in fact, be the last. High School Musical 3: Senior Year was the first of the films to be released in cinemas and Efron went on a whistle-stop world publicity tour.

The cast members have differed in their approach to life since then. Efron's on-screen love and real-life girlfriend, Vanessa Hudgens, kept close to her previous work with the musical film Bandslam, while others took a different path, such as Lucas Grabeel, who starred in the Oscar-nominated drama Milk with Sean Penn. Efron appears to be taking a direction more in common with the latter, but he insists he has not turned his back on any genre. "There's no master plan," he says. "I'm very strict about what scripts I want to read and so I suppose in that sense there's some direction, but I would never stick to one type of film or anything like that. I'm very proud of the High School Musical films, and one day I might go back to that sort of film. At the moment I want to try new things, take on roles that present a challenge. But I never rule out doing another musical, or any kind of film as long as it's interesting to me."

Me & Orson Welles went to three festivals before it found a distributor. Preview footage at Cannes was met with high praise from critics, but the businessmen did not share that enthusiasm and so the film travelled to the Toronto International Film Festival, where it got its first full screening. Despite organisers predicting it would be one of the biggest successes of the festival, the movie again failed to find an American distributor. The breakthrough finally came after the film was shown at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

Efron, among others, felt great relief when the film was finally picked up. "If you make a good film, then you want people to see it," he says. "The people involved were confident that it would find a distributor, so I don't think there was any panic. I'm just happy it's out there now and audiences can enjoy what we did." Indeed, Me & Orson Welles has received positive critical reaction. It has been described as "one of the best movies about theatre" by the respected American film critic Roger Ebert, and many reviews have been complimentary about the maturity of Efron's performance and his ability to hold his own opposite older and perhaps more dramatically experienced co-stars. Unfortunately, the film was not given the wide release the filmmakers surely would have wanted. At its peak it played in fewer than 200 cinemas in the US. It enjoyed a better reception in Europe, where Efron's teenage following came out in force to support the film.

Next up for the actor is another literary adaptation. He will play the title role in The Death and Life of Charlie St Cloud, based on the book by Ben Sherwood about a boy who can see his deceased brother and keeps him company by working in the cemetery where he is buried. "I just thought it would be another challenge for me, an interesting part to play," Efron says. "There's so much to work with - grief, loyalty. The bond between the brothers in the book is very strong so I thought that would be a great part for me. I'm glad I got the opportunity to do it and I hope I can surprise audiences who maybe only know me for a certain type of movie."

It appears that being known for "a certain type of movie" will be Efron's biggest obstacle: how do you carve a new niche without losing the following that made you famous in the first place? It's a problem that has faced many young actors, and there have been just as many failures as successes. Fortunately, Efron need only look to the 1980s for inspiration from another young musical talent. Kevin Bacon initially struggled to break the teen-rebel stereotype thrust upon him after the success of the film Footloose (a role Efron almost played in a remake that never came to fruition). But Bacon soon went on to be one of the most versatile and prolific actors in American cinema. Only time will tell if Efron achieves the same heights, but he is confident about his future. "I'm enjoying what I'm doing right now, taking on new challenges and doing what I love to do," he says with a smile. "There's not a whole lot more you could ask for."