Theatre in Film: Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

January 10, 2017

Welcome back to Theatre in Film, our weekly featurette on a film that showcases a life in the theatre. In Part VI of Theatre in Film, we focus on films from 2003 to 2008 that feature characters overcoming internal and very personal struggles to find their happiness in a life of theatre. This week, we feature Me and Orson Welles, the 2008 film about a high school student who gets a big break on Broadway…only to be beaten down after his first performance.

Me and Orson Welles (2008)

Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Christian McKay, Kelly Reilly, and Ben Chaplin

What happens:

In 1937, young high school student Richard Samuels (Zac Efron) heads to downtown New York and stumbles upon an acting troupe waiting for their director — Orson Welles (Christian McKay) — outside the Mercury Theatre. They are in rehearsals for Julius Caesar, and after testing Samuels’ musical abilities, casts Samuels as Lucius, the lute player. A few weeks into the production, Welles tells Samuels that he’s worried about the production — he hasn’t had any pre-show bad luck yet, “the bad luck thing,” the kind of bad luck that makes the production go well. Days later, Samuels accidentally sets of the sprinklers during one rehearsal and blames it on the “bad luck thing” Welles talks about.

The day before she show opens, the production is in shambles. Scenes are cut, actors are berated, and the set designer is threatening to tear up the stage after he’s not credited. The producer ensures the cast that the show will be brilliant, but they’re not convinced…until opening night receives a standing ovation. However, promptly after the show is over for the night, Samuels finds out the Welles has fired him. The kid returns to his school the following day and recites Shakespeare during a lecture on Julius Caesar. He is met with a round of applause from his peers.

Why it matters:

Instead of focusing on the romantic sub-plot involving Claire Danes’ character, Sonja Jones, the most important theme to concentrate on is the panic that most of us feel just prior to opening.

Whether or not we’ve worked with directors who insist on cutting, over rehearsing, or re-blocking entire sections of the script just before opening night, we can all get behind the notion that when we feel unprepared to perform, we’re going to feel terrified to open a show. The next question we ask ourselves is, “How do we overcome this fear?”

In Samuels’ case, there’s not much he can do except learn his lines, his blocking, and his song in preparation for his performance. But for others it’s not so easy; George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin) works himself into a panic attack before the curtain rises, and Welles has to venture backstage to convince Coulouris that he’s good enough to do the role. After having a drink (forced upon him by Welles) and a good cry, Coulouris sets himself down privately and gives himself a good pep talk, reminding himself that he’s the man for the job. It’s moments like Coulouris’ that actors experience on a day-to-day basis; we’re backstage where audiences can’t see our fear. In those moments, it’s up to us to convince ourselves that we can influence the success of the show by taking responsibility for our roles. Through that ownership, we make the show the best it can be.

This film is the fifth film in Part VI. See below for the films in Part VI.


Want to start with Part I? Begin with 42nd Street (1933).
Miss Part II? Check out The Band Wagon (1953).
Need a refresh for Part III? Start with our feature on All That Jazz (1979).
How about a recap from Part IV? Jump into A Chorus of Disapproval (1989).
Check out Part Vand start with An Awfully Big Adventure (1995).

Ashleigh Gardner received her AA in Theatre/Drama/Dramatic Arts from Valencia College and her Bachelors Degree in English Literature and Masters Degree in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, an actor, and’s Editor. 
Thumbnail image from Me and Orson Welles. Copyright Warner Bros., 2008.