They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes as you’re liable to discover they have clay feet, rarely living up to one’s expectations. Me and Orson Welles (2008) explores the good and bad aspects of hero worship. Based on Robert Kaplow's novel of the same name, the Richard Linklater-directed film chronicles the eventful week in a life of teenager Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) who finds himself cast in a minor role in Orson Welles’ (Christian McKay) legendary stage adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1937. The aspiring, 22-year-old wunderkind set the play in modern times as a bare-stage production with comparisons to the rise of Fascism in Italy and Nazi Germany.
By chance, Richard stumbles across Welles attempting to put on a production of Julius Caesar and impresses him with his drumming and singing (a jingle for Wheaties no less). He appeals to his vanity while also showing his knowledge of theater. Richard soon finds himself immersed in the sights and sounds of the Mercury Theater with Sonja Jones (Claire Danes) putting him to work immediately, answering phones. He finds himself drawn to her only to find out that every man in the company is pursuing her with little success. Claire Danes is fine in the role and Sonja is nice enough but the actor does little to suggest why all the men in the Mercury Theater lust after her.
Zac Efron captures Richard’s earnest romanticism that comes with youth and a lack of worldly experience. This lack of knowledge gives him the courage to approach Welles in the first place as he has nothing to lose. He’s hardly an innocent, though, as he goes in on a bet with two other actors to see who can bed Sonja first and, later, sets off the theater sprinkler system, sabotaging the play and then refusing to admit he did it when Welles confronts him. Richard is a rebellious teenager that doesn’t know any better.
His wholesome aspects come out in Gretta’s presence. Zoe Kazan’s natural charisma and her character’s playful zest for life are infinitely more interesting than Sonja’s seen-it-all attitude. It is obvious right away that Richard and she don’t have the same kind of easy-going connection that he has with Gretta. While Richard is physically attracted to Sonja, it is with Gretta that he connects with on a more meaningful level.
Me and Orson Welles started out as a young-adult novel by Robert Kaplow. He had been inspired of a photograph he had seen of 15-year-old Arthur Anderson playing a lute, cast as Lucius in Welles’ production of Julius Caesar. Kaplow sought out Anderson, found out that he was still alive and living New York City, and based much of the novel on the man’s recollections from that time. Richard Linklater was so taken with Kaplow’s book that he paid for the rights and made it independently. Linklater identified with Welles as a fellow indie filmmaker: “He was doing in the 40s and 50s what everyone else was doing in the 80s and 90s.”
“You know, sometimes you remember a week for the rest of your life,” Richard says partway through the film. In his brief tenure with the Mercury Theater, he does a lot of growing up, learning important lessons in life courtesy of Welles. Some of Richard’s mistakes can be attributed to his young age and his lack of life experiences as well as immaturity. He’s a hormonal teenager ruled by his libido. It is Gretta that keeps him grounded and the film ends on a wonderfully optimistic note as she and Richard are reunited. What will happen to them? Who knows but as she tells him, “It’s all ahead of us.”
Brooks, Xan. “Richard Linklater: ‘I’m not like Orson Welles. I’m a quiet director.’’ The Guardian. November 30, 2009.
Byrnes, Paul. “Me and Orson Welles.” The Sydney Morning Herald. July 31, 2010.
Dawtrey, Adam. “Director P.O.V.: Richard Linklater.” Variety. October 16, 2008.
Lim, Dennis. “Citizen Welles as Myth in the Making.” The New York Times. November 20, 2009.
Richards, Olly. “Claire Danes, Me and Orson Welles. Empire. February 1, 2008.