Director Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise”) and stars Claire Danes and Zac Efron talked to a small group of reporters here in Washington DC about their new film, “Me and Orson Welles.” It is a fictional story based on the real-life production Mercury Theater production of “Julius Caesar” in 1937. Welles, then a theatrical and radio prodigy and general enfant terrible was a few years from making “Citizen Kane” but already considered both brilliant and impossible. In this movie, based on the book by Robert Kaplow, a high school student (Efron of “Hairspray” and “High School Musical”) almost accidentally gets a bit part in the chaotic production and falls for a young woman (Danes) working on the production. When we saw them, they had just come back from a visit to the White House.
Q: What got you interested in this script?
ZE: Rick talked to me about it and that was probably the most flattering thing in the world, I was kind of floored. Although it appears on the surface to be more serious or dramatic, I think for the kids who did see “High School Musical” and “17 Again,” for a younger audience, its an interesting transition. At a first glance theater in the 30s might appear a more stuffy, boring kind of story, but what the audience will find out is that it is every bit as fun as “High School Musical” and even more real world and practical. It doesn’t just have to be a fantasy land in which theater can be fun. It’s probably more exciting — the stakes are higher and it’s real.
Q: You just came back from the White House! What was that like? Were the Obama girls there?
RL: I secretly suspected that’s why we were invited but Sasha and Malia did not play sick. They were in school — Michelle would not allow it. We were meeting with the policy advisor on behalf of the Americans for the Arts. They’re hosting the screening tonight. It’s about arts education.
CD: We had our meeting in the “war room.” They do real things in that building!
ZE: It’s just a meeting room — no buttons to push! But it was still really cool.
RL: George Washington is on the wall — that war. It’s like Hollywood — all of the people are really smart! So how can they make such bad stuff?
Q: You created the tone of the book beautifully. Can you talk a little bit about doing a period piece because the details are so evocative.
RL: That’s the magic of cinema, you can re-create a moment in time like this. It’s November 1937, this theater, this stage design. But beyond the specifics, you try to create a mood, an atmosphere. That’s not just the history but also the genre. This movie has elements of screwball comedy, if you think of the films of the 1930’s, just in film history terms, to get that tone. This is a genre Orson Welles would never act in or make a film about! We put him in a film he would never put himself in for a fun ride through a week in his life. It’s one thing to make a period piece about something you remember intimately, which I have done. It’s another thing to go back in time.
Is there a politician you admire?
CD: Obama’s the man!
ZE: Abraham Lincoln!
Q: Did you grow up in homes where politics was talked about?
CD: I grew up in New York, we talked about politics. I am curious, but I do not follow it avidly. I am not a news or politics junkie like my husband.
RL: I admire anyone who has devoted their lives to public service. Someone who’s truly a public servant.
CD: We try to make movies that are going to influence people in positive ways. We want to entertain them but we also want them to empathize and understand themselves in a new way. It’s exciting to talk to people who are working on a more practical level.
RL: It is exciting to have a President who has such vast empathy. You can read his books and you can see he really has this bigger vision and really cares about people. You see how tough that job is and you have to be patient. But we felt like these people get it.
Q: How would you like to be remembered?
RL: We hope people will like it, we’d like them to see it in a theater preferably. There might be some kid who’s too young for it now but will catch up with it later on DVD. These stories travel.
ZE: Orson Welles was so ahead of his time and took a lot of risks, so unafraid. I think that’s something that is a great way to be remembered. He pushed mediums forward; he reinvented three mediums before he was 26 years old.
CD: I love that line of Bowie’s, “It doesn’t matter who does it first; it matters who does it second.” The innovators are often overlooked because they prepare people to appreciate that idea later on.
Q: You achieved such an authentic backstage feeling in the movie.
ZE: Putting on a play and being part of a show, there’s no way to explain or condense it. You live the highest highs and lowest lows. You feel on top of the world. It was interesting living in that world and re-creating the highlights of those moments, especially being directed by Orson Welles.
RL: But Christian McKay (who plays Welles) was the least experienced actor in the whole cast! He was the top dog but he would ask the most innocent questions.
ZE: He would even ask me questions!
RL: But it never seems out of the realm of possibility that even with so little film experience he would have a lead role in the film. That’s the Welles-ian element. And it’s not an imitation; it is a real performance.
Q: Did you do much research about Welles or the era?
CD: Like so many people, I discovered Welles in college, “Citizen Kane” in class. I definitely had an appreciation for him. And Rick made a care package for us of slang terms, a great compilation of songs from that time. I didn’t have to do a lot of research. My character was very relatable. But I was not the performer, more the Girl Friday, though she is starring in her own epic drama.
ZE: We had a pretty exciting time re-creating 1937 New York City in Pinewood Studios and we kind of felt we were living in that era. And we did talk about how my character would have admired Fred Astaire.