The English actor has attracted the attention of Hollywood thanks to his superb debut turn as Orson Welles.
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29 Jul 2010 - 10:50 AM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2014 - 5:11 PM

Soon after Richard Linklater's latest feature Me and Orson Welles debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 2008, there was a flurry of Oscar talk for actor Christian McKay. In the film, a back-stage coming of age romantic comedy set in the last week of rehearsals of Welles' legendary 1937 New York Mercury theatre production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, McKay, a thirty-something British actor, plays a 22-year-old Orson Welles.

One contemporary account of Welles at the time described him as having a “preposterous energy, pulsating through everything he did.” Even though this was before Hollywood, before Citizen Kane (1941) and before his startling radio version of HG Wells' The War of the Worlds (1939), Welles was heading toward worldwide fame. Only a few years earlier he had directed a 'voodoo' MacBeth, set in Haiti, with an all African American cast in New York's Harlem. He had not turned 21. Tall, handsome, slim and possessed of a voice that curled, stroked and thundered, Welles was dubbed notoriously 'difficult' by friends, enemies, and colleagues.

This was partly because, as far back as he could remember, Welles had been called a “genius”. By his middle-age Welles was fond of telling anyone who would listen that as a youth he felt compelled to live up to the claim. “I never heard a discouraging word for years,” he told a TV audience in 1982, in a tone of self-mockery he often adopted when discussing his legacy, “I didn't know what was ahead of me!”

Anyone familiar with the actor Welles from Kane, or The Lady from Shanghai (1947) will recognise McKay's portrait in Linklater's likeable film. McKay nails all the 'externals' with an uncanny precision; the curling eyebrows, the rolling walk, the cherub grin, but he insists that the portrait, sympathetic but not sentimental, has nothing to do with “an impression.”

“It's amazing when people talk about actors doing an 'impersonation'”, McKay told SBS. ”If you do an 'impression' then the character will be at one remove from you; if you do that you'll never embody that character.”

McKay, a graduate of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, explained that Linklater had 'discovered' him after reading a review in the New York Times of the actor's one-man show Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles while preparing the film in 2007. “The review was bad, but they liked the performance,” he says with a chuckle. Me and Orson Welles was McKay's first film, and he says Linklater was both director and film 'teacher'. “It was a great help that no one had actually heard of me,” he says. “So, they're not distracted by any 'persona'. People say I look like Welles and sound like him, and in life I don't at all. People will project their own image of Welles onto the performance, if they have one already.”

McKay says that, in developing his one man show, he had been a Welles obsessive; he watched all the films and read over 100 books.

What he found was a conflicted legend. For some historians, Welles, radio star, theatre impresario and innovator, and brilliant filmmaker, never quite lived up to the promise of say Citizen Kane or Julius Caesar.

In the movie, which has Zac Efron as a high school kid landing a gig on Julius Caesar just as the production enters its last frantic week of rehearsals, Welles is a whirling dervish; sometimes monstrous, sometimes charming, manipulative and demanding the best of everything and everyone. McKay says that the key to the portrayal was a special emotional candour, which puts the 'legend' into a unique perspective. “Well, you hear stories about Welles being terrible to this person or that, and there were a lot of revealing anecdotes we just couldn't put in the movie.” One such moment, not depicted in the film, was during dress rehearsal. McKay says that once the curtain fell, there was no ovation. A Mercury colleague, a man called Hank, approached Welles backstage, stunned: “Orson, they're not clapping, we got nothing!”

“Welles stood there and after a beat spat in his face,” tells McKay. “Hank went to take a swing at him and Orson yelled back, “spit at me! Spit at Me!” He says that even though Welles was only in his early 20s he was still the boss. “He was the CEO, the ultimate authority.”

Linklater depicts Welles' Julius Caesar as monumental, original, its making chaotic and its debut earth-shattering. And McKay says this is, even with some dramatic license, no exaggeration.

As faithfully depicted in Linklater's picture, Welles' Caesar was a modern dress version that tapped the popular fear of Fascism. At this time the media was full of news about Hitler's growing power. “Even though there had already been a modern dress version of Caesar, there had never been anything like this,” says McKay. Welles and designer Same Levene stark set was a parody of the Nuremberg Nazi rallies – great columns of light in the dark.

“The most famous scene in that production,” says McKay, “is when Cinna the Poet (Norman Lloyd in the original), an innocent, is murdered by the mob.” In this chilling piece of stage business says McKay, Welles foretold the horrors of the Holocaust.

McKay says that Linklater wasn't interested in buying into the stark and unkind versions of Welles' legend: “He was a kid himself and the film is a coming of age story for him and the Mercury.”

As to what happened to Welles after Caesar...“I think the prevailing myth about Welles as some kind of failure is ludicrous,” McKay says.

Welles arrived in Hollywood aged 24 in 1939 with the kind of contract that became the envy of everyone in show business – basically, he could do whatever he wanted. People in LA started to call him 'the Boy Genius' sarcastically. To them he was an arty, bohemian New York actor.

He made his feature film directorial debut with Citizen Kane, widely praised, even then as a masterpiece (and some decades later it began to top critics' and pundits' polls as the greatest sound film ever made). But, since the film was in part a parody of the life of media magnate William Randolph Hearst (who had conspicuous power in Hollywood in the early '40s) Welles was branded a 'rebel', a 'maverick'. Kane performed poorly at the box office (fearing Hearst's wrath Hollywood's studio heads offered to buy the print off RKO and destroy it!). Still, many masterpieces followed for Welles: Touch of Evil (1958), Chimes at Midnight (1965), F for Fake (1973), to name just a handful. But Welles had angered 'Hollywood' and the mud stuck.

Welles was fond of saying that he liked Hollywood “very much, but the feeling was not reciprocated.” He may have been thinking about what happened after he left Hollywood. RKO, the studio that had signed him originally, issued, according to Welles, some special stationary the year after his second picture The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), for many another masterpiece, had flopped. RKO's slogan that year was 'Showmanship instead of Genius'. But it's McKay's feeling, one shared by many of Welles admirers, that here was a genuine American artist who deserved a better legacy than fat man jokes.

“When people say Welles did nothing with the last 20 years of his life it's completely wrong,” says McKay. “It was, in fact, one of the richest times his life. He would turn out scripts that no one wanted to make and so he would go out and write another one.”