Me and Orson Welles: Casting the Legend

Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles Me and Orson Welles

“So we had a script and were really excited about it,” says Linklater, “but I said, before we start doing budgets and schedules and trying to go further, let’s get an Orson, because we are not going to do this thing at all unless we can get the right guy to play him.  To me, that was the biggest piece of the puzzle that had to fit, before it even had the possibility of moving forward.  We thought of all the usual Americans, but we weren’t really getting anywhere. And I remember theorising, ‘you know who our Orson Welles is? He’s in London right now, probably doing Shakespeare. I bet that’s where he is – or there’ll be some great unknown British actor who kind of looks like him’.

“A few months later, Robert Kaplow sends me an e-mail saying that there’s a guy performing in New York at this 50-seat theatre I had never heard of, performing a play called ‘Rosebud: The Lives Of Orson Welles’ for just a couple of weeks. And so I flew to New York and went straight to the play. I’d just had shoulder surgery and I had this brace on, I could barely move, it was really uncomfortable. My only test was, do I believe this guy is Orson Welles? Christian McKay just had that kind of Wellesian manner and he had clearly studied him closely. So I talked to him after the show and I got back to Austin just thinking about him and felt ‘let’s take this to another level’. So I flew Christian to Austin and we did a sort of old fashioned screen test.

“We did three scenes from the movie: I cast some people, did period wardrobe, we had an old car and we did a scene in the back; Christian came in and we worked together and hung out for a couple of days. After that, I didn’t even need to look at the footage. I just knew the kind of guy he was and thought the film Gods were making a very special offering, as they sometimes do. And I remember telling him we don’t have money, we don’t have anything – it may never happen, but we’d try. We started sending the script out and the good news was many seemed intrigued by it, but one of the stumbling blocks we had was a Welles who was unknown. Can you get a bigger name to play Welles?  Ours was always the same argument: no, this is Welles!”

Christian McKay, graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and accomplished concert pianist, is an established theatrical all-rounder, but has been aware of his resemblance to Welles since his student days.  “People said that I resembled him a little bit.  I only remember Orson as this big, gargantuan iceberg of a man and at drama school, whenever they said ‘you look a bit like Harry Lime’, I really though they were having a go at my weight!  So I’d be very anti-Orson – I used to think ‘I’m not that big….’  Mind you, I must be the only actor who had to lose weight to play Orson Welles!”

“Christian’s performance is a revelation,” enthuses Marc Samuelson. “He’s a sensational actor, enormously talented in many different ways and it’s a fantastic, delicious secret that nobody knows about this, but they’re all going to.  He’s not only a fantastically good, properly trained, really serious actor, who could do anything, but he is an absolutely extraordinary musician and he’s also an unbelievably intelligent person.  He’s a great writer – it’s nauseating – but he’s a terrible dancer, which is good to know. Seriously, I think he’s going to be one of the great discoveries.”

Fellow producer Ann Carli agrees: “We did a reading in London, just so we could hear the script with actors. And it was also a way to have Christian interact with some of the other actors who have a lot of film experience.  So we’re all sitting around the table and here’s this guy, an unknown British actor – how did he get this plum role?  You can just feel the other actors thinking that.  And then he gets into character and the room is mesmerised.  It’s like… ‘holy cow, that’s Orson Welles’!”

Dialect coach Judith Windsor is full of praise for the newcomer: “Christian is an extraordinary man and an extraordinary actor and it’s been a great, great pleasure to meet him and to work with him and to envisage what his future may be.  He may develop into, or may very well now be, what Welles said of himself – that he was a ‘king’ actor.  A great deal of Christian’s performance comes from his musicianship.  The fact that he is such a glorious pianist is a great help to him vocally in shaping the line and in getting the way Welles uses phrases and, of course, in terms of Welles’ very specific accent.”



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