Interview: Richard Linklater and Christian McKay, 'Me and Orson Welles'

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Christian McKay and Richard Linklater on set of Me and Orson Welles

Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater and actor Christian McKay were recently in town for the regional premiere of Me and Orson Welles. This is McKay's first major film role -- he plays Welles, staging his now-famous version of Julius Caesar in 1937. Zac Efron plays a teenager who is pulled into the whirlwind of the stage production.

I managed to catch up with Linklater and McKay before the red carpet and talk about the film. Here's what they had to say.

Christian, you've done Orson Welles on stage, and now on film -- how do the two feel to you?

Christian McKay: They are completely different characters. On stage, I played him up to the age of 70  with a fat suit -- my dad used to say you don't need that -- and the stick-on beard. To play him right at the beginning of his career, at 22 starting out with the Mercury Theatre -- it's extraordinary, it's a brave time. To make such an astonishing success of it, that it is still considered one of the greatest Shakespearean performances in North American theatre history. It's just amazing and this is of course before War of the Worlds and Kane, to do all that by the time you are 26.

We see some foreshadowing of that at the end of the movie, the spark of brilliance: "What's next? How am I going to top that?"

Christian McKay: That's my line, not Orson's. It's in the script, but it's a very personal line for me.

How do you take on such an icon like Orson Welles?

Christian McKay: Don't think of him as an icon, whatever you do -- he's a man. Look him squarely -- as arrogant as that sounds -- this is how I did it anyway. Look at him in the face. Everybody has their own Orson Welles, everybody has an image of him. This is what he perpetuated, right through his life. This legend, it's the Rosebud, isn't it?

We're all around the table now, talking about Orson Welles. We all have a completely different idea of him -- who was this man? I'm fairly confident -- and I'm not confident about a lot of things -- that this is our Orson. But that's not pretending or purporting to be better than anyone else's Orson. I got the chance to work with Richard, who I admire enormously. I totally agreed with how he wanted to interpret Orson Welles, so that was an amazing start.

What had you heard about Richard Linklater? What are your thoughts on getting to work with him for your first time in movies?

Christian McKay: It was a huge honor, when he flew me in for my screen test, I was going to do an old-fashioned screen test. I came into Austin, and sat next to a lovely lady who was a biochemist. I asked her what she did, and she turned around and asked "What are you doing?" I thought this might be my only chance in my life to say it, "I'm coming into Austin to do a screen test." I rather enjoyed the ring of it, and she said, "Not with Richard Linklater?!" And she was chatting about Richard's films for the rest of the trip.

I was terribly nervous the morning (of the screen test), so I got up very early. I wanted to walk down Congress and have a  look around, walked up to the Capitol. I met a slacker, I suppose you'd call him. He's down on his luck, he was a lovely guy and I bought him some breakfast. So he said, "What are you doing here, man?" and I said, "Well, actually I'm doing a screen test this morning." He said, "What? With Richard Linklater?!" I thought, "Holy COW, this guy's FAMOUS here!" And then this man, I supposed you would describe him as down on his luck, sleeping rough -- he then spoke in such moving and personal terms about Richard's films, that had touched his life, that meant something to him. It was really extraordinarily moving, and he was brilliant. He was so eloquent about the films, he introduced me to a few that I'd not seen. 

Richard Linklater: He might have been in Slacker, in a scene.

Christian McKay: I'd not seen at that point Before Sunrise, and Before Sunset. I'd lived them, but I hadn't seen them. He was telling me about them and everything, so it was after that when I went back. So I always remember him, and that lovely biochemist on the plane.

Richard had to teach me how to act on film -- very, very patient, giving me the technique, I had no idea. He could have pricked my confidence and I'd have deflated. He's a great actor's director, he knows just what you need. It was one of the happiest experiences of my life. The lovely thing is that I might never make a film again, but this experience, the whole wonderful rollercoaster ride, I'll always have this ... magical.

Slackerwood: Would you consider another role on the screen, with your background acting onstage?

Christian McKay: I fell in love with making films, absolutely. Richard introduced me to this, I use Orson's phrase -- "The greatest electric train set a boy was ever given" -- and I fell in love with it. I've been studying films a lot, thanks to Richard who told me about directors I would've missed if I'd just been on stage. So long as I keep learning, I'd love to go back to the stage obviously, and play some Shakespeare or whatever, so long as it's creative. I want to do some writing, perhaps direct in the future, so long as I keep learning.

Richard, when you were reading the novel, what made you decide to want to adapt it for film?

Richard Linklater: It was a process. I like the novel a lot but it's not something I felt like "This will be my next movie."  It's a difficult movie to get made, in the current climate. No one wants to make this movie, no one wants to finance it so it was sort of a pipedream. I optioned the novel, Holly and Vince (Palmo) -- colleagues of mine -- did the adaptation, we worked on it and got the script in shape. But then it was, "Let's find Orson before we go a step further." We hadn't even introduced (the project) to the world yet, to try and get financing. But we found Christian -- an unknown actor, but the right Orson -- that gave me the confidence that I felt this was meant to be.

And then when Zac (Efron) came on board, it was like we had a certain momentum. We didn't have any money, but we had a momentum. Ultimately we're this kind of European/American indie hybrid that got financing over there. Even the Briitish government gave us some money -- we qualified for the UK Film Council because of the Shakespeare aspect.

Speaking of Shakespeare, is there anything left on the cutting-room floor of Julius Caesar?

Richard Linklater: Yes, quite a bit, actually. I kind of sensed that when we were doing it, but I felt it was good for the actors in just the scope of what we were trying to do, to perform a lot of the play. There's quite a bit, I think it will be a DVD extra. It was good stuff, but it was a fine line at the end, just how much of the play did you have to see to hopefully give the film audience the experience of what that might have been like. The whole thing is kind of a "The Making Of," but what was the right amount? I didn't know for sure until I really sat with the movie of a long time.

Slackerwood: No matter what period your films are set in, there's a creative vision in regards to the music. I noticed a lot of the music used in Me and Orson Welles wasn't stereotypical for that period. How much input do you have with that, or do you rely on your production staff?

Richard Linklater: I picked so much of this music right out of my own library, I have a real affinity for this period. I love the Thirties and the Forties, that's my favorite eras. I think that's when the best songwriters were at the top of their game.

It's a huge element of the movie, most people don't even mention it, 'cause it's there. It was fun, those are all original recordings. with one exception. "Sing, Sing, Sing" -- Benny Goodman's song, when he (Richard Samuels, Efron's character) sets off the sprinklers -- we went into the studio and re-recorded a little bit of that, with a big band and they had this great clarinet player and great drummer, and just 'cause we mixed that a little different in the surrounds, it had to be a little bigger. That was the only thing that we created, outside of the live performance in the movie.

Christian McKay: I think that Richard is a musical director -- everything is ultimately musical --  but that's something. Not only an actor's director, but a music director. (speaking to Richard) There's so many of your films where the music is the perfect choice, and also at the perfect tempo which is even harder. What we said about Benny Goodman then. You knew that it (the song) was perfect, but you just needed to elongate things just to fit, and tailored perfectly to the scene. It's great, because it's what Orson did.

Slackerwood: What's the buzz about your involvement with a DVD company?

Through the (Austin) Film Society, I've always wanted to help.  Part of our mission is to get films seen, we are big on showing films in the theater and everything. I don't think it's far outside our mission to get some DVDs out in the world, so that's been a long-time goal. Something maybe might pop in the next half-year, a couple of projects in particular.

Christian McKay: Make sure we get Disturbia in Britain, please.

Richard Linklater: It's not even available here.

Me and Orson Welles opens in Austin on Friday, December 11.

 [Photo credit: Christian McKay as Orson Welles and director Richard Linklater on the set of Me and Orson Welles, by Liam Daniel, Courtesy of CinemaNX Films One Ltd 2008.]