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The man who was Orson Welles

Exceedingly Welles-read British actor fits into role

December 05, 2009|By Roger Moore
  • The actor attends the art party for the Cinema Society screening of "Me and Orson Welles."
The actor attends the art party for the Cinema Society screening of "Me… (Theo Wargo / Getty Images )

Christian McKay didn't like the comparison the first time he heard it. The words "You look a bit like Orson Welles" could send any young actor screaming back to his personal trainer.

"It was at RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art], and I was incredibly upset," the British actor recalls. "My generation remembers the older Orson being interviewed on ' Merv Griffin' and 'Parkinson' [a long-running BBC chat show]. And selling sherry. And being enormous, 350 pounds! I thought anybody seeing a resemblance was having a go at my weight."

Perhaps they were. Or perhaps, as McKay (pronounced "Muh-KYE") would learn, they were paying him a compliment. After doing a little research, McKay was flattered.

"In 1940, Hollywood had welcomed him as a new Tyrone Power!"

McKay, 36, made Welles something of an obsession -- reading the many biographies and critical studies of the man. When he brought the late actor, radio, stage and screen visionary to the stage for a one-man show, McKay was fully prepared to play the lean, hungry young hero of 1930s New York theater, the radio "War of the Worlds" prankster, but also the bloated, aged Falstaff of Welles' "Chimes at Midnight," the actor by now a tragic figure who peaked in his 20s.

When director Richard Linklater set out to film the Robert Kaplow novel "Me and Orson Welles" -- capturing the young Welles as he was about to set New York theater ablaze with his adaptation of "Julius Caesar" -- he dropped in on McKay as he played Welles off-Broadway.

"There's that luck-of-the-draw DNA resemblance," says Linklater ("School of Rock," "Dazed and Confused"). "But he has to arch his eyebrow, cock his head and give you that twinkle in Welles' eye. Everyone on the cast and crew can tell you when they saw that first transformation. You're talking to this very charming British actor. Then the voice lowers, the eyebrow goes up, the head turns slightly and that twinkle in the eye appears. Everybody on the set would go, 'Oh my God!' Talk about goose bumps."

Linklater, "like every filmmaker," is a Welles buff -- knowing the contours of the "Citizen Kane" director's career. But in meeting with McKay, Linklater realized he had done much more than complete the triangle at the heart of his film -- Zac Efron, Claire Danes and McKay. He'd hired himself an on-the-set Welles expert.

"I felt I knew a lot about the guy, but Christian is the man who read all 96 books about Welles," Linklater says. The actor knew, chapter and verse, what Welles was about in those heady early days. He didn't just look and sound like him. "He brought himself to Orson Welles, the outsize personality, the sheer bigness, the storytelling charmer, the confidence."

The confidence of the character spread to McKay himself.

"People say, 'You're new to film, weren't you intimidated playing opposite Zac and Claire and Eddie [Marsan]?' Not at all. I was playing Orson Welles. If I was playing myself, well, sure. Cloak yourself in a character like Orson Welles and his confidence becomes your confidence."

Moore writes for the Orlando Sentinel.

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