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‘Promising Newcomer’ Christian McKay Channels Orson Welles

A conversation with the British actor who embodies the stormy auteur in “Me and Orson Welles”

It doesn’t look as if Christoph Waltz is going to have too many speedbumps on his road to picking up the Best Supporting Actor award at the Oscars … but if there’s any justice in Hollywood, which is admittedly a stretch, maybe a few voters will pause along the way to look at the remarkable work that British actor Christian McKay turned in as Orson Welles in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles.”

As the tempestuous wunderkind who revolutionized Broadway a couple of years before coming to Hollywood to make “Citizen Kane,” McKay makes an uncanny Welles, a roaring genius who doesn’t mind laying waste to everyone around him. Good-natured, charming and slightly bemused by the awards circus in which he finds himself on the periphery, McKay figures he has a miniscule chance of landing a nomination – a slightly harsh estimation that would change dramatically if enough members of the Academy’s actors branch took the time to see the movie. (That’s a hint to all you last-minute voters.)

A standard Q&A format does not do McKay justice; the man is a born storyteller, who speaks not in complete sentences or paragraphs, but in short stories and novellas. What follows is a significantly edited condensation of our lengthy lunch.

Christian McKayHow’s awards season treating you?
The first time somebody said to me, “What do you think about all this Oscar speculation?” I thought, what do you say? You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. But I remembered a line from when I played Schweyk in the Bertolt Brecht play "Schweyk in the Second World War": “Never count your chickens before you can stick a fork into them.”

Seeing all the massive studios, all the advertising and the power and the money, I do feel a little bit like David, with my little sling, against these extraordinary studios with their billboards. Having never done this before, I feel terribly ignorant. I imagine it’s a massive longshot.

You have picked up a few nominations, though.
Yes. Everybody has awards, don’t they? It’s extraordinary. I was at the British Independent Film Awards last month in London, slightly embarrassed to be a 36-year-old Most Promising Newcomer nominee. And thankfully, common sense prevailed and they gave it to the 16-year-old who’d been discovered on a station platform arguing with her boyfriend. [Katie Jarvis from “Fish Tank”] Isn’t that a beautiful Cinderella story?

But before that I was sitting there thinking, give it to the 16-year-old, and just enjoying seeing Michael Caine and Daniel Day-Lewis walk by. And then it was amazing how avarice overtook me. Because onto the stage to present the award for Most Promising Newcomer walked Sir Derek Jacobi with one of the world’s most beautiful women, Eva Green.

And suddenly, I wanted that award so much. Despite my being a very happily married man, this was a chance to kiss the hand of one of the world’s most beautiful women. I thought, oh yeah, I really want this now, and I forgot all about the poor 16-year-old girl. If it had been Elizabeth Taylor, I’d have jumped over the tables to get there.

 

Christian McKay

Richard Linklater saw you playing Welles in a off-Broadway show called “Rosebud” …
It was a tiny little one-man show that we first took to the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. I’d never played a real life character before, but the idea was just to do a one-man show, because it’s a cheap form of theater. And originally I didn’t want to play Welles at all, because I really thought when people mentioned I should play him, they were having a go at my weight. I was obviously very self conscious, so I said, “No, I’ll play Richard Burton, or I’ll play a young Churchill,” because Churchill is my great hero. But it kept coming back to Welles.

We won all the awards in Edinburgh, but the writer and director gave away the rights and I ended up working for these charlatans. And then some Americans got on board, and they wanted to get rid of the English guy and cast a fat American. So I didn’t play it for a year and a half, and I kind of blamed the old man for it: oh, this is part of your curse, and you’re the reason I’ve lost my living. So I was very anti him.

What brought you back?
I was coming to New York with a Welsh theater company, and my wife said, “You love the old man – why don’t we do it ourselves?” So she produced it, it got some lovely press, and it sold out. (laughs) Tiny theater, but it sold out.

How did Linklater find out about the show?
It was a string of strange things. A wonderful man waited for me for an hour and a half after the show to tell me that his friend Robert Kaplow had written a book about Orson Welles. I said, “Well, I’ve got 97 different ones.” But I didn’t have that one. He said they were doing a film from the book, “Me and Orson Welles,” and to pique my interest he said that Leonardo DiCaprio had just turned it down. And I said, “Well , if Leo turns it down, they usually come to me.”

Robert lives in New Jersey and didn’t want to come into Manhattan. Now, if he hadn’t have come, that would have been the end of it. But he comes, and he’s shaking after the show. He rings Richard. Richard’s got a sports injury, his doctor says don’t fly. But he sees a review in the New York Times, he gets on a plane, he sees the last performance. And like a complete imbecile, when I met him I started giving him the names of famous Hollywood stars who could play the role.

So why’d he choose you?
I don’t know. We became friends. He flew me to Austin to hang out, although I thought it was an audition. I sent him a very cheeky email early on telling him what I thought was wrong about the script, and he agreed with me.

And of course everybody, including the company that agreed to make the movie, came to him when we were ready to go and said, “Now, let’s think about casting up.” They were all terrified about me, which I can understand in hindsight. But Richard just kept sticking with me.

That “audition” must have gone well.
Well, we shot an old-fashioned screen test, but he says he never looked at it. I did, and it was atrocious. It was a really stark lesson, because it was so theatrical it shocked me how false it looked. That’s when I started learning about how to act on film.

 

Me and Orson Welles

What did you learn?
It’s that cliche that I had read about, that you have to bring yourself down, make yourself smaller on camera. Well, you’ve seen the performance – it’s not a small performance. How could it be, if you’re playing a larger-than-life, theatrical animal? So Richard told me about the shots, and showed me how to tailor the performance to the shots.

On the set, we had a sort of shorthand, where he’d catch my eye and make a hand signal that meant "bring it down a bit, go smaller."  And at one point he looked at me, and I said, "I know, go smaller, right?"  He said no, and motioned for me to go bigger.  And I thought, my God, I’ve gotten subtle!

You’re playing an imperious, egomaniacal theater director – and I hear that when you were studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, you had a run-in with just that kind of director.
Oh, he was a monster. He was about 72 at the time. He was a theater director who came to RADA. He’d directed Guinnesss, he’d directed Gielgud, he’d directed Olivier.

He was a complete bastard. What did I learn from him? Nothing. He said to me, “What are you doing, Christian?” I was playing the narrator in this play, and I said, “I’m listening.” And he said, “Then be so kind as to listen quieter.” I still can’t understand that. I was listening intently, but he said I was listening loudly.

He made one of the student, an 18-year-old girl, cry. And I stood up to him. I actually stood in front of the glass and said, “I was so looking forward to meeting you and working with you. And I’ve just seen you reduced to this pathetic little man.” And apparently when I left he said, “Well, at least one of you has a little bit of character.”

What caused you to enter RADA when you’d been studying piano at prestigious music schools, and performing as a concert pianist?
I’m told I was acting in school plays when I was a tiny little boy at the age of three, so they must have seen something then. And even when I was practicing piano eight hours a day, I was still doing school plays. And then right through university, where I was studying music, I played some great roles.

And the thing was, Jeremy Brett, who famously played Sherlock Holmes for Granada Television, was very kind to me. When he was filming at Granada in Manchester, he used to come to my concerts. And he said, “I don’t know much about music. You’re a wonderful pianist, but believe me, my darling, you’re an actor. Believe me, it takes one to know one.”

So when I finished at the Royal College of Music, when I was about 25, I felt, if I don’t see if I have any potential as an actor, I’ll always wonder.

So, do I have any potential as an actor? I don’t know. I’m still wondering. But acting has kind of taken over. Next year, I hope there’s a chance to do some concerts, too. Perhaps a recording. I want to record “Goyescas” by Granados, which has been a great love of mine since I was a teenager.

Have you gotten offers because of the film?
Actually, I’ve lost roles because of the association. I sat down with a director in London for a theater audition, and for 40 minutes all he wanted to talk about was Orson Welles. It was a wonderful part in a lovely play, and I thought, I’ve got this. And when I didn’t get the role I said to my agent, “You’ve got to find out what I did wrong.” The comment came back, it’d be too much having Orson Welles in this company. And I thought, well, you wouldn’t have had Orson. You’d have had Christian.

But you’re in Woody Allen’s upcoming movie.
I had a few very, very few scenes on Woody Allen’s next film, which was wonderful. I did a lovely little part in a film by Bernard Rose called “Mr. Nice.” And a little bit of television here and there. But nothing of significance. That’s why I don’t really expect anything from.

And I’ve got some pretty good roles to give myself that l’m writing and developing that. I’m working on a script about the first World War Churchill. And I have a piano-related film that I’m writing. And a black comedy about some eastern European mechanicals. All totally different.

So are you out of the Orson Welles business?
I’m finished with the old man for the time being. But I do have an idea for a bookend in 25 years. I can see myself, 350 pounds, gray haired, beard, getting ready for the sequel.

I’d love to write that script with Richard. I wouldn’t write him as a failure, but as the man still striving. It’d be interesting to see him at Ma Maison, lunching with Spielberg. It’d be a lovely bookend.