If Christian McKay seems uncannily accurate in his riveting portrayal of Orson Welles, the legendary star of stage, screen and radio whose larger-than-life personality is as much a part of his mystique as the productions he so meticulously crafted, credit the man with doing his homework.
A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, McKay — who stars in Richard Linklater’s “Me and Orson Welles” — bristled the first time he was likened to the Wisconsin-born auteur, recalling not the handsome, electrifying youth who directed and starred in “Citizen Kane” at 25, but rather the bloated, weary pitchman of Welles’ later years.
McKay (rhymes with “pie”) assumed it was a knock on his weight.
Since then, McKay, 36, has learned to embrace the comparison. He has studied Welles exhaustively, reading nearly 100 accounts of his subject’s life and career.
His one-man show, “Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles,” earned rave reviews in both Edinburgh and New York.
Now, McKay is taking his famous alter ego to the big screen in Linklater’s comedy, which finds a 22-year-old Welles readying his landmark stage production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”
“It was an extraordinary challenge to portray Welles at the beginning of his career,” says McKay, a Lancashire native. “In ‘Rosebud,’ I played him up to the age of 70. I’m the only actor who had to lose weight to play Welles.”
McKay was recommended to Linklater by Robert Kaplow, the
high school English teacher whose best-selling novel inspired the film.
Linklater flew to New York to see McKay in action, then summoned him to Austin, Texas, for screen tests. He knew he’d found his Welles — the only challenge left was convincing his backers that the unknown actor was right for the role.
“I was given a list of American stars to look at, and I don’t want to single anyone out, but none of them was suited to playing Welles,” says Linklater, 49. “It’s a challenge to cast an unknown, but that’s where the magic comes from. By not knowing Christian, it’s possible to believe that you’re watching Orson Welles putting on ‘Julius Caesar’ in 1937.
“I think Christian has now scorched the earth when it comes to Welles portrayals. For someone to play him now would be like trying to play Ray Charles in a movie. He’s got that role locked down for a generation at least.”
IF YOU GO
Me and Orson Welles
Starring Christian McKay, Zac Efron, Claire Danes, Ben Chaplin, Kelly Reilly
Written by Holly Gent Palmo
Directed by Richard Linklater
Running time 1 hour 54 minutes