'Me and Orson Welles'

Zac Efron departs from stereotype in 'Me and Orson Welles'

Breaking the stereotype: Efron,
Breaking the stereotype: Efron, "High School Musical" star, was seeking a different role. (Mark Gail/the Washington Post)
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By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 29, 2009

It isn't those astonishingly blue eyes that stick in the memory, though they are admittedly striking.

It's not the fact that he actually, earnestly, uses the word "neat" in casual conversation.

No, of all the things observed during an hour in the presence of Zac Efron, "High School Musical" heartthrob and star of the new indie film "Me and Orson Welles," the one trait that makes the strongest, most lasting impression is this: his impeccable manners.

Leave a napkin on a table? Efron will pick it up and toss it in the garbage. Need to squeeze into an elevator? Efron will make sure there's enough room. And if several people happen to be heading toward a building entrance, the actor will dash several steps ahead of the pack just to hold the door on everyone's behalf.

All this may be testatment to his solid upbringing -- raised in Arroyo Grande, Calif., by middle-class parents -- or evidence of canny grooming by Efron's publicists, who earlier this month shepherded the star to Washington to talk up the importance of high school arts education in visits to Capitol Hill, the White House and this newspaper. (Accompanying him in that effort: "Welles" director Richard Linklater, perhaps best known for "Dazed & Confused" and "School of Rock," and co-star Claire Danes, who dealt with her own, decidedly more angsty version of teen stardom 15 years ago in the TV series "My So-Called Life." )

Still, such attention to etiquette is one clue that the 22-year-old Efron has made the leap from squeaky-clean singing teen to considerate, mature adult. With the new film, set in 1937, when Welles was mounting his version of "Julius Caesar" at New York's Mercury Theatre, Efron seems to be carefully steering his career toward meatier roles and away from "High School Musical," the unstoppably cheery Disney phenomenon that turned him into every tweeny-bopper's dream date.

But of course, don't expect him to come right out and say that.

For example, when asked what appealed to him about playing Richard Samuels, the teen in "Orson Welles" whose eyes are opened after a week of working on a Broadway production with the temperamental Welles and his manic troupe, Efron stops and starts before finally answering.

"It was the only opportunity that I had at the time that was . . ."

He pauses.

"I don't know, it didn't feel like . . ."

He pauses again.

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