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Me & Orson Welles - Christian McKay interview

Christian McKay in Me & Orson Welles

Interview by Rob Carnevale

CHRISTIAN McKay talks about to us about landing the pivotal role of Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s Me & Orson Welles, his love-hate relationship with Welles and why he’s become a staunch defender of co-star Zac Efron…

Q. Me & Orson Welles is a very emotionally involving drama… yet also uplifting…
Christian McKay: Well, you know it’s set in ’37 in a time of Depression and approaching war. [Julius] Ceasar was about confronting an audience with the onset of an age of tyranny. Norman Lloyd… the Norman Lloyd is a friend of mine, 95-years young, and of course Leo who plays him… I was at RADA with Leo. So, it’s a lovely kind of image. But that foretold the Holocaust. They were in a time of Depression; we, similarly, are in a war and in a Depression, so I think we need a bit of optimism and something that talks about the bright future. Richard [Linklater] calls this film a valentine to the future. Isn’t that a beautiful phrase?

Q. I read that you often got likened to Orson Welles in the school playground?
Christian McKay: Well, not really. I didn’t say that… honestly! I’m already learning lessons. Somebody, who was equally as large as me at RADA, said to me as a put-down that I had a resemblance to Harry Lime. I think our generation remember Orson as the massive, gargantuan, 350lb mountain of a man. So, when somebody said that I looked like Orson Welles, I thought they were having a go at my weight! I thought it was a put-down. When the idea of playing him came up, I’d never played a real-life person, so I thought it would be quite a wonderful acting challenge to try it. It would be different from creating a fictional character.

Q. Was it always Orson?
Christian McKay: No, when Orson Welles was suggested I said: “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m not that fat!” I said: “What about Richard Burton? [drops into note-perfect Richard Burton impression] You know, I’d quite like to do a bit of Richard, you know, that sort of thing…” They were like: “No, no, Orson Welles, you look nothing like Burton!” So, I said: “Well, what about Peter Sellers? [drops into Peter Sellers impression] Or Sir Alec Guinness? I might like to have a go at him, you know, something like that [again, dropping into impression]. Or even Winston Churchill?” But we eventually got to Orson Welles and the process started. The first thing I learned about playing a real person is that if you try and imitation, you’re dead. Absolutely dead. You can see it; it’s a Rory Bremner or something like that, an impression. All you have to reference is yourself. So, people keep saying: “You look like Orson Welles.” But I don’t really.

Q. Where did you look?
Christian McKay: I just listened… I’ve got about 250 hours of his radio shows. I listened and listened, watched the films and documentaries and everything I could lay my hands on. I became an absolute Orson Welles anorak. There’s a wonderful phrase of Conan Doyle who said: “The best way to play a part is to be it.” So, that’s what I tried to do – put him in the box once you’ve finished with him, but try that approach.

Q. Is it easy for them to say that?
Christian McKay: It’s easy because I’m a big lad. But I don’t actually look like him. If you look at the pictures, there’s a similarity perhaps. But I don’t even sound like him. Listen to him, I don’t. People who say that don’t really know him that well. You give a flavour of the voice… but it took me months just to find how he placed his voice. I’m like a baritone and he’s so different. Somebody said to me the other day: “Go on Christian, give me a bit of your Orson!” But I couldn’t. The physical voice that I chose to play him in isn’t there anymore. Audiences, of course, only know him from recordings. So, it’s a voice that’s been put through a microphone and it’s very difficult to find the flavour of that voice because it’s deeper than it was.

Q. You’ve also played Orson Welles before in the one-man show Rosebud?
Christian McKay: Well, that was different because then I was playing him from my age looking back at his early life. It meant putting on a fat suit and a beard and playing him up to the age of 70. It’s not really helpful for the film, apart from it started off my research. But, of course, to play him at 22 and on film was completely different. In a sense, I’m playing two different characters because you had to forget about the stage play, which occasionally didn’t have happy memories for me.

Q. Why?
Christian McKay: Well, we’d been to Edinburgh and had won some awards there. It got some really wonderful notices, such as “the uncanny return of Orson Welles” and things like that. People were very kind. But then we started touring and a lot of crap happened. I used it actually… I thought it was like, in microcosm, my own little Orson Welles moment. The play was taken off me… it was all my work. It was heartbreaking, especially as I was nursing my dying father at the time. I had my living taken off me. It just shows you how things happen for a reason. So, you know… school of hard knocks, I said to myself: “Forget it… I’ll do another one… something completely different.” So, everyone has the assumption that I’ve never stopped playing Orson Welles. But I didn’t look at it for a year and a half and had only done about 100 performances, which is nothing in the theatre.

Christian McKay in Me & Orson Welles

When they came back to me and said they’d recovered the rights, I said: “Yeah, fine… find another fat bloke to play him!” I was very anti it. It was a bitter pill to swallow and I’d moved on. But they kept asking me, so my wife eventually said to me: “You love the old man; don’t let all that’s happened cloud your memory of him.” But of course you do. I blamed him. I thought: “You cursed old sod, you’re not going to ruin my bloody life as well!” I suddenly sided with all the people that went: “He’s a failure!” I really took it out on him. And this was a little one-man show, pure and simple… me and a cigar. Eventually, I was going to New York with The National Theatre of Wales in all but name and the guy who was taking us said: “Christian, you won’t remember me, but I saw your show.” So, he’d seen Rosebud and said he’d like me to bring it to New York as well. I wasn’t sure but he insisted and I got to thinking. So, once I persuaded myself to do it I applied one condition: that they give me the rights back and have nothing to do with it. I intended to set up my own production company, Atomic 80, and produce it myself.

So, my wife produced it and ran the show… And then, of course, there was Richard Linklater. It was the most divine and diabolical luck. But I reckon he [Orson] owed me a break! So, I got the part. I’d read about being in the right place at the right time, but I’d never experienced it. And yet everything was against this happening. I was being denied my own work. And I used that, so when I played him in New York it was the best time I ever played him, because I brought it all with me. There was an edge… a bit of life experience I was able to use. But then I had to forget it all for the film to try and play a jolly Orson at 22 [laughs]!

Q. Richard flew you out to Austen for a screen test, didn’t he?
Christian McKay: But he never watched it. I’ve seen it, but he said he didn’t need to. I’m so glad he never saw that screen test because it is such a stage performance. Richard had to teach me how to act on film. He’s very modest about it… but he did. I wanted to retain the largeness. But I didn’t know how to do it technically because it was my first film. By the time we got to filming, he’d occasionally look at me and [gestures a sign to take it down] which just meant to reign it in slightly. It was wonderful.

Q: Funnily enough, Zac’s character in the film has to audition in the street in the film. What’s the worst audition you’ve ever done?
Christian McKay: Oh, there are so many and mostly in Soho. I remember coming out of RADA and doing an audition, one of those dreadful auditions for adverts – I think it was for IKEA furniture. And I walked in and I had to attack a purple blow-up sofa. I didn’t get it. At all. There are so many. Painful to think about. But I like the notion of failing – I think that’s incredibly important to any artist. You know, walking along the tightrope, it’s vital that you learn to pick yourself up and learn from your mistakes and get back on the tightrope, but you’ve got to fail, absolutely, because how will you learn otherwise?

Zac Efron in Me & Orson Welles

Q. And how was working with Zac Efron?
Christian McKay: Well, it was a pleasure. I get very evangelical about Orson. But there was a woman while I was doing a Q&A who said [puts on posh accent]: “Now, can we talk about Zac Efron because he’s surprisingly good in the film…” But I asked: “What’s surprising about it?” She alluded to his High School Musical films and I said: “He’s 22 years of age and you’re putting him in a pigeon hole?” I asked: “Have you ever danced intricate choreography? Have you ever sung lyrics while you’re dancing the intricate choreography? And have you ever acted in front of a billion people?” She replied “no” to them all. But I said: “Not that my opinion counts for much, but it takes a hell of a lot of talent to do one… to do three is extraordinary.” And to serve his apprenticeship in front of the world’s media, and to do it with such humility, it’s incredible.

I found myself in the pulpit defending Zac and Orson. But at 22 I didn’t know how to blow my nose, so to be able to do that… the guy has such potential. And we should be rejoicing in that. We should be happy. What’s he going to do next? This is different for him… the next one is different again. He’s developing muscles now, so he’ll probably become an action star. I hope to do some Shakespeare with him… he doesn’t know yet, but I do! He’s a lovely guy and it was an honour to work with him.

Q. You also get to appear alongside Eddie Marsan, another great British actor…
Christian McKay: I revere him. He’s so great in every role… and they’re all so different. I aspire to follow him… not as that kind of talent but to try and be a character actor like him. I want to wipe Orson away clean and try something totally different next. But Eddie was so supportive of me… he became my mate. He once asked me a technical question, saying: “Do you know what the camera is, Christian?” He wasn’t trying to catch me out or anything, but I said that I didn’t have a clue. A week or two later, he said: “Where’s the camera, Christian?” And I replied: “Well, it’s coming in on a Micky Rooney shot… we’re in a type 2 but don’t worry I’ll give you room.” And he replied: “Oh, we’re learning about film quick here!” [Laughs]

Eddie also asked me if I watched myself on playback. I said I didn’t but then he taught me something. He said: “Just look at it technically.” So, we both went over and had a look and we just learned some things. So, now when I watch, instead of pulling myself apart, as Rubenstein used to say when he was playing: “Now, I’m going to take my lesson.”

Read our interview with Richard Linklater