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The Contender Q&A: Christian McKay

January 7, 2010 | 12:15 pm

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Few screen debuts in recent years have been received with such praise as Christian McKay's turn as legendary actor and filmmaker Orson Welles in Richard Linklater's "Me and Orson Welles." Rather than assembling a carbon out of Welles' distinctive characteristics -- the rumbling voice, the volcanic temper, the absolute surety of character and talent -- the British-born McKay brings to life the boundless energy and ego of the young, pre-"Citizen Kane" Welles as he struggles to launch the storied 1937 production of "Julius Caesar."

What is even more astonishing about McKay's performance is that "Welles" is his first appearance in a feature film; before that, he was a concert pianist and then a stage actor, best known for the one-man play, "Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles." Judging from the nominations he's garnered, which include the Independent Spirit and Critics Choice Movie Awards, it's unlikely that McKay will remain an unknown for much longer.

Christian McKay spoke to The Envelope via telephone from a snow-swept day in Kent, England, where he discussed the path he and Welles took from stage to screen and his disappointment in discovering that the great man's favorite Los Angeles haunts had disappeared.

You've been playing Welles for over six years now. What initially attracted you to his story?

Unemployment. I'm being absolutely serious. I was at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where I thought, in my naivete, I'd stay for the rest of my career. I'd thought I'd work up through the ranks and go from spear carrier -- or in my case, the eunuch, which was several rungs below the spear carrier -- to King Lear. [Laughs] That used to work in Henry Irving's day, which was unfortunately about 100 years ago. So when I finished my eunuch, which wasn't the enormous success I'd thought it was, I was faced with the same kind of snow-blindness that we have now in Kent, and my diary was empty. And I thought, "I've got to do something for myself." A couple of pals suggested that it would be a good acting exercise to do a one-man show -- a cheap but hopefully effective form of theater. 

They asked, "Have you ever played a real-life character?" And I hadn't. So I started thinking that this would be a wonderful exercise -- avoiding imitation and impression and give a flavor of the character. But who should it be? My friends turned around and said, "What about Orson Welles?"

Read more after the break.

What was the greatest fallacy about Welles that you came across while researching him?

The idea that he was a failure, as if the 11 masterpieces he left us were not enough. It's strange talking about a "what if" scenario, but it exists with Orson -- "oh, if he'd been friends with this studio or that money man, he'd have had the money for another picture." But he's gone, and what we're left with is his genius. The range of expression in his films is pretty extraordinary.

And his voice.

Absolutely. That incredible voice. One of the greatest voices of any century.

When you were cast in "Me and Orson Welles," did your performance change from what you were doing in the one-man show?

Oh, yes, my word. It was like playing a different character. In the play, I play him up to the age of 70, with a fat suit. Amusingly, as Orson himself said about [Charles Foster] Kane, it was far easier to play the older man than the younger man, and that's very true. Of course, in the movie, I'm playing him right at the beginning of his independence, with a new theater and his neck on the line. And it's all ahead of him.

The difference between acting on stage to acting on film, when you're playing such a theatrical animal, was such an extraordinary learning curve. The gestures on stage are entirely false on film, so I had to learn a completely new technique. And with this being my first film, I had the confidence of ignorance, because I'd researched the character a lot, but as far as the techniques required for filmmaking, Richard had to be extremely patient with me. I had a great teacher in Richard Linklater.

Richard is perhaps one of the most versatile directors working in the business -- what were your impressions of him, as a first-timer?

When I first met him, I stood there giving him the name of Hollywood stars, thinking that there's no way he could cast a totally unknown and rather pompous Englishman as this great American icon. And now, as people are being very kind to my performance in the reviews, Richard is, I believe, single-handedly paying for one of those "For Your Consideration" adverts. This is incredible. You know, Richard financed the project with his own money -- which is a very Wellesian thing to do. But there's no money for campaigns or things like that. So it's a wonderful gesture, and it tells you all about the integrity of that man. I can't thank him enough for everything he's done for me. 

You've described him as a great teacher. I'm wondering what was the greatest lesson that he imparted to you on this film?

There were so many, but first and foremost, it was the collaboration of the experience. He really involved me and taught me in that way. And also, whenever I was being very English and cynical and thought, "Oh, this can't be done," he would always turn it into a positive. Everything is possible. I think that as I get older, I've gotten more glass half-empty, but he's completely turned that on its head, not only by giving me the chance of my life but also in watching him work. He's incredibly optimistic. And that's the message of the film -- it's a valentine to the future. 

I have great admiration for him, even with bias. I love his other films -- I love the eclectic nature of his work and his quest for knowledge and his abilities as a storyteller. And the one thing that he has that's very much in common with Orson is the great tradition of the American maverick. To define a generation as he did with "Slacker," which I adore, and also "Dazed and Confused," is extraordinary, and he'll do it again in the future. 

The one thing that I'm glad he doesn't have in common with Orson is that he can work beautifully as an independent but also within the studio system. When I came to Hollywood in March, I happened to have American agents who very kindly arranged for meetings at studios around town. Of course, my knowledge of Hollywood was from Orson's day -- when they said, "Where you want to go, Christian?" And I said, "Chasen's." "No, it's closed." "What about the Brown Derby?" No, closed. Everywhere I'd suggest was gone. But at every studio that I went to, everybody wanted to talk about Richard. I can't wait to see all the films that he'll make in the future.

When actors make a great impression with a first role, there is the occasional concern that they could be typecast as characters similar to that role. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, only because someone mentioned it in a previous interview. My immediate response was give me a chance -- I've only had one good role. On stage and now in film, the only great role I've had, I gave to myself, which was Orson. But I went away from the interview and thought about the question, and thought, "Well, I'm a character actor." But I didn't want to appear arrogant by saying, "As a character actor, there are plenty more where [Welles] came from." Rather, I thought, "If I were typecast, that would enable me to Hamlet, Lear, Falstaff, the Scottish King [Macbeth] -- some of the greatest roles in literature. In that case, bring it on!" [Laughs] I would be very happy with any of those. And I've got some projects on the go, ranging from an Eastern European mechanic to the greatest Briton of all time, Mr. Churchill. You see, now that I've played a real person, I'd like to take some of the lessons I've learned and play the part that I originally wanted to play, which was Winston.

Will we have an opportunity to see that in the near future?

Well, I have in my bottom drawer -- I hope to make it soon, in that great American tradition of the maverick.

And you have several projects in the pipeline. I read in an interview with you online that your shoulder appears in the next Woody Allen project. 

Oh, my God, did I say that? Well, I had the honor of having a few scenes in the next Woody Allen film, though I would have happily swept the floor or made coffee. That comment sounded awfully facetious, didn't it? I don't want people think, "What a cheeky bugger." But that was a great thrill, and I also have a dreadful failed spy in a film for Bernard Rose called "Mr. Nice," which was a lovely part -- he follows Daddy to MI-6 and thinks he's James Bond, but unfortunately, it doesn't turn out like that. 

You've been the focus of so much positive critical response and received quite a few nominations and awards to date for your performance -- how has it affected you so far?

I'm reminded of a wonderful line from Brecht that I said years ago when I was at university, and I lived by it: "Never count your chickens before you can stick a fork into them." To be perfectly honest, it is the most surreal in a series of surreal experiences. Privately, there's something incredibly vulgar in me thinking that way; for a first-time film actor, I personally feel that I've already been given the greatest award, which was to be given the part in the first place. 

93340475 You know, I'll be honest with you -- I've watched those award shows since being a little boy, and when someone mentions [being nominated], you think of the romance of it. And I think of Orson himself -- he was booed every time his name was mentioned at the Academy Awards in '41. And you think, he was one of the world's greatest actors -- never mind one of the greatest writers, directors, producers -- and he lost out to Gary Cooper [for "Sergeant York"]. Now, I adore Gary Cooper, but I've seen the film, and it doesn't compare to "Kane." But then again, it's so objective, isn't it? They ring me up and say, "Christian, you've won an award from the critics in San Francisco!" And I'll say, "You're joking." It's marvelous, but it's surreal.

-- Paul Gaita

Top photo: Christian McKay. Credit: Lisa Bowerman. 

Lower photo: Claire Danes, Richard Linklater, Zac Efron and Christian McKay. Credit: Getty Images.

More from The Circuit:

The Contender Q&A: "Food, Inc." director Robert Kenner

The Contender Q&A: Jackie Earle Haley

The Contender Q&A: Garret Dillahunt

The Contender Q&A: Anna Kendrick


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