Exclusive: Christian McKay on Playing Orson Welles

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One of the things people will certainly take away from Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, now playing in New York and L.A. and opening in other cities this Friday, is how much fun it is watching a mostly unknown Scottish theater actor named Christian McKay playing the famed filmmaker during his early years as one of the creative forces behind New York’s Mercury Theater.

Welles is certainly an interesting character from cinematic history, but Linklater takes a view at his pre-“Citizen Kane” years though his turbulent production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” with Zac Efron of “High School Musical” fame playing a young, ambitious actor named Richard Samuels who gets thrown into the deep end as he’s thrust into Welles’ world. As much fun as it is seeing Efron bringing his charm into a theater-based period piece such as this one, there’s no question that McKay steals the show whenever Welles shows up… usually late.

When we got on the phone with Mr. McKay (last name rhymes with “sky”) last week, he had a lot of great anecdotes that he gladly shared about playing Welles and making the movie with Linklater.

ComingSoon.net As I told Rick the other day, I saw this at Toronto last year and I’ve been waiting patiently for it to come out so I could talk about it.
Christian McKay: Me, too. You and me both.

CS: I’m glad people are going to finally get a chance to see you do Orson Welles.
McKay: With Orson, you’ve always got to wait very patiently, but he’s usually worth the wait, but unfortunately, it does take quite a while.

CS: So it’s very appropriate that we waited a year to see the movie. I know the general story about how Rick found you for the part, but he told me that he probably wouldn’t have made the movie if he didn’t find someone to play Welles, and there are a lot of actors that might have been able to pull it off, but fortunately, he found you.
McKay: Yes, but of course, in terms of funding it, it would have actually been so much easier for him… when I first met, I was giving him names of famous Hollywood actors that could play the role thinking he’s never in my wildest imagination going to cast an unknown English stage actor as this great American icon. But thank God he did it. (chuckles)

CS: How did it first come about that you played Welles in the off-Broadway that he saw you in? That was a one-man show, right?
McKay: Out of total desperation, really. I couldn’t get a job. I was hit by a long period of unemployment and I thought that I had to do something for myself. I’d never played a real person before and I was rather intrigued by the idea, so Orson was suggested, and I said, “Look, I’m not that big,” because I remember he was this 350 lb. gargantuan mountain selling sherry and wine and appearing earnestly on talk shows. I didn’t want to play him, so I said, “How about Winston Churchill? I’m really interested in him.” (does his impression) “No, what about Welles?” “No, what about Richard Burton?” (does his impression) “No, no, no, you look nothing like Burton.” And I said, “But I’ll lose weight… Sellers! He was a fat man!” (does his impression)

CS: Who was the other person on the end of this crazy conversation?
McKay: Friends of mine trying to help me out. They kept coming back to Orson Welles. They showed me a picture, and I thought, “Why, that can’t be the same man.” It’s amazing how the consciousness works. I started reading about him and I started watching the films. I’d seen “Kane” but I couldn’t quite make the connection, and then I started studying him then it became an obsession. I did the play and took it to Edinburgh, and it got wonderful notices and won a couple awards. The writer and director, they gave away the rights, so after a while it was taken off me, because I got a very bad deal. I was treated as “the boy, the apprentice,” I had to do what I was told, and I’d done a lot of work for the show and I kind of resented it, so I thought, “Well, that’s it, I’m finished with Orson Welles.” Eventually, they asked me to do it again and I said, “No” several times and then I said, “Okay, I’ll do it again, if you let me do it myself. You let me produce it myself and put it on myself.” I was working at the time with a Welsh company directed by Terry Hands, who was one of the founders of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wonderful company called Clwyd Theatr Cymru, which is the national theater of Wales in all but name. I said to Terry, “When we go to New York with the play, you think I should ask if they want my one-man show?” And he said, “I’d expect you to do that,” so I did and they wanted it and they put me on in the attic, and that’s where Linklater turned up… and where I gave him the names of famous stars who could play the role. Actually, John Schloss, Rick’s friend who has been working with Rick for 20 years as a lawyer. This was my introduction to Hollywood really, because he put his arm around me and rather Louis B. Mayer-like said, “We have to decide whether we want to have a star… or whether we want to make a star.” Well, that frightened the life out of me! I said, “Get your hand of my shoulder, you creepy man!” He was just missing the cigar and the leather chair.

CS: That’s a very Hollywood thing to say actually.
McKay: Absolutely. He said, “Don’t even tell that story, Christian” and I noticed at the Woodstock Film Festival, he told that himself, so it’s really his anecdote but I thought, “Well, it’s a good story, so…”

CS: That was actually a very Welles-like thing to do and say also, very similar.
McKay: Yes indeed.

CS: I’ve spoken with Michael Sheen over the years and he’s played a lot of known people…
McKay: He’s an incredible actor, too.

CS: He always tells me that he’s not trying to do an impression that he doesn’t do impressions…
McKay: He’s a perfect example, because there is never a hint of impression or imitation and that’s death to a role. You’ve only got yourself to reference after all the research, and you can give the audience a flavor of the man, and if it works, the audience will do the rest of the work for you. It will ignite their imagination and they can relax and go along the journey with you. If it was an impression, they’d think to themselves, “Well, that scene didn’t go very well. That wasn’t very Welles-like” or Blair-like or Proust or Kenneth Williams or whoever else he’s played

CS: So when you played Welles on stage or in the movie were you bringing parts of yourself to it as well.
McKay: Yeah, totally, it’s mostly myself, because he’s gone. I’ve only got to reference myself. Like if I was playing Hamlet. I lost my father, too, so I reference that. Orson at 22 with that arrogance and bluster which is very well documented, how do I do that? The only person I could think of was me at 22 playing the 3rd Rachmaninoff Concerto with all the arrogance and bluster.

CS: It’s pretty amazing for him to have accomplished so much at 22 and be running this show like that.
McKay: Not just for theater, I mean it’s incredible, absolutely unbelievable, and to think of the cauldron of New York theater. Everyone thinks, “Oh, that’s lovely, he put on a thing.” Oh, my word, the pressure he was under. Talullah Bankhead’s version of “Antony and Cleopatra” that was at a budget of $100 thousand dollars. It closed in three days and they’d spent all the money, but Orson had a shoestring and he was going off playing to CBS (Radio). “What do you want?” “I want a 5-year-old Chinaman, Orson.” “Fine” then he was taking the money and putting it into theater. He was subsidizing his independent artistry right from the beginning. People seemed to think of him of independent only after Hollywood closed the door on him but it’s not true. It started right here and that gave him independence on radio and that gave him independence on “Kane.” “Kane” is an incredibly independent film. He had a great benefactor in George Schaefer at RKO and he had that contract, so when the executives came around, they were on orders from Orson, to drop tools and they started throwing around a ball. “Orson, we were just watching you work” and he was like, “No, read my contract. You can’t watch the rushes and you can’t watch me work.”

CS: When Rick proposed this to you and you agreed to do it and you got the script, did you find that Orson in the movie was similar to the one you were doing on stage?
McKay: No, nothing like it. Like two different roles. Of course, on stage I played him up to the age of 70, his old age, ranging from 30 on, so this one, to play 22. It’s an absolutely true story. I’m the only actor who had to lose weight to play Orson Welles. I was getting very big, and I dropped 28 pounds because I thought I would look more youthful, because I had the babyface naturally, so it did make me look much younger. Things like that.

CS: I was surprised his age was never brought up in the movie because he’s only 5 years older than Richard so it’s so strange that he would seem that much older. I guess because it was 5 years of success.
McKay: But Houseman was older than him, and Orson treated him like a kid. He did that with people, always did. Called people by “Boy” and he used to say to the company, most of the actors whom were more experienced than him and older, he used to call them “children.” “Now then, children…” and he got away with it.

CS: I’m just amazed that all these seasoned actors would put up with it. You figure one of them would say something.
McKay: Yes, especially dear old George Coulouris. (Puts on his own voice like the famed actor) “Do you really have to do that, Orson? I mean, I’m exhausted.” I’m having lunch with Norman Lloyd today, the real Norman Lloyd, not my friend Leo who plays him in the movie. George Coulouris gave him the worst career advice in his life. He turned 95 last week, 95 years young, and Coulouris said, “Oh, don’t wait around Norman.” Orson had asked him to wait around off-pay for six weeks just after “Smiler with a Knife” fell through and “Heart of Darkness” fell through. “Just give me six weeks.” They’d all been earning a fortune. They were living in splendor in L.A., all enjoying themselves. Of course, most of them stayed but Norman had a job in New York, so he took it. He had a young wife. But Coulouris giving this advice, of course they all stayed and made “Kane” and Norman… there was no doubt he would have been in “Kane.”

CS: Has he seen the movie yet?
McKay: He hasn’t yet. Not yet.

CS: Will he be going to the movie’s premiere?
McKay: I don’t know. It’s amazing, but he’s my friend and I think at the moment he’s thinking… well, he said this morning on the phone, “This is your time, Christian” and I said, “Don’t be ridiculous!” And he said, “No, no, no, I’m absolutely looking forward to seeing it, but no, we must get this open.” Isn’t that lovely? And of course, this was a very very important moment in his career, so I’ve told him what we’ve tried to do and of course, he understands dramatic license better than anybody after working with Hitchcock, Kaplan, Renois and all the rest of them, Brecht, Lawton. My God, the list just goes on and on, and he’s one of the most fascinating men I’ve ever met.

CS: Having played Orson on stage throughout his life and knowing all of his history after the Mercury, how hard was it not to have that stuff inform playing him younger?
McKay: Oh, I completely forget all of that, forget “The War of the Worlds.” There’s a lovely few glimpses, but I hope they’re subtly done, about the future. Hearing the bell and saying, “We’ve heard the chimes at midnight…” Things like that, they were kind of suggestive, but he did things like that.

CS: Most of us know everything after that. Not that many people know so much from the Mercury Theater years, which makes the movie so interesting I think, seeing this early version of him.
McKay: Yes, indeed.

CS: The cast is very mixed and a bunch of them had a theatrical background like you, others didn’t. Did you find there to be a lot of similarities between making this movie and doing something in the theater?
McKay: Oh, indeed. It was absolutely magical. I heard Norman’s stories about the Mercury Theater as it was. We were the New Mercury; we bonded like a theater company. We looked out for each other, we were pals, we were a band of brothers. We really were like that and with the crew and everybody, and of course, it helped enormously that we were on the Isle of Man, marooned in a sense in the theater which was so close to the comedy theater, the Gaiety, which was right next door to our hotel. So we moved from the hotel bleary-eyed in the morning to the theater, so it was a wonderful family of theater really, but I imagine all of Rick’s film sets are like that.

CS: I get the same impression. Were you familiar with Zac Efron’s work before working with him?
McKay: No, I’m afraid not. I didn’t, but there’s a lovely story I tell about that, about my introduction to that kind of celebrity. Rick told met hat he’d cast Zac Efron and I said, “I’m afraid I don’t know who he is.” He said, “Oh, you will.” He didn’t say anything more. That morning on breakfast television, he was being interviewed. We went into London, my wife and I, and a bus came past with his face on it. We went to buy a newspaper and there were candy bars and stickers with his face all over it. We went to buy some groceries and there was a cake which I bought. (laughs) Calendars, posters, CDS, books… as I was getting in bed that night with my new Zac Efron duvet cover, I knew who he was.

CS: Hopefully, someday we’ll have similar Christian McKay Orson Welles memorabilia. So after playing Welles for so long, do you have any idea what you might do next? I’m sure you’ll be happy to play someone else.
McKay: I haven’t really played Welles for so long. You see, I did a couple of performances with the one-man show and then would leave it to do something else. There were lots of breaks. Because I started the play in 2004, the impression of course was that I’ve been playing him for years, when in actual fact, I did a little bit in 2004 and then didn’t touch it until 2006, end of, and then 2007 I finished, so it’s been that little tiny bit… and then the film.

CS: What have you been doing otherwise since finishing the film?
McKay: Well, I’ve done a film with Bernard Rose called “Mr. Nice” with Rhys Ifans, and I did a few days, it was quite an honor, in a tiny little part in a Woody Allen project, and I’ve been busy writing some nice roles for myself and busy practicing my piano.

CS: Super. Hope to see you in one of those movies soon.
McKay: Well, yes perhaps, or I can perhaps do some theater for you, play the piano, something like that.

CS: Okay, then next time you’re in New York, I’ll take you up on that.
McKay: Oh, bless you.

Me and Orson Welles is now playing in New York and L.A. and it opens in more cities on Friday, December 4. Also, check out our interview with the film’s director Richard Linklater.