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Me and Orson Welles: an interview with Christian McKay

From the pages of Emulsion Compulsion

Me and Orson Welles: all's Welles with Christian McKay.
Me and Orson Welles: all's Welles with Christian McKay.

Speaking with Christian McKay was the closest I would ever come to meeting Orson Welles in this lifetime. McKay (pronounced “Mc-KYE”) made his screen debut in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, a boffo pre-Citizen Kane biopic that takes place in 1937 and finds Welles staging a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for his young Mercury Theater. The British-born actor graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2001 and studied music at the University of York, the Royal College of Music and Queensland Conservatorium. “This was my first film,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had the confidence of ignorance, but Richard very patiently taught me how to play this larger-than-life theatrical animal.” Through the years, many have played Orson Welles on film. Jean Guérin (Heavenly Creatures), Vincent D’Onofrio (Ed Wood, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles), Angus Macfadyen (Cradle Will Rock), Liev Schreiber (RKO 281), Danny Huston (Fade to Black), Tom Burke (Mank), and even SCTV’s John Candy have all tried their hand at bringing the Master to life. But none came close to capturing the look and timbre of Welles quite like McKay. The interview originally ran December 11, 2009 on the pages of Emulsion Compulsion.

Hello, Scott, I’m Christian.

Hello, Christian, I’m Jewish. (Laughter.) This is a going to be a somewhat different interview for me because all I know of your work is based solely on one performance.

Well, after all this is my first film.

You had previously played Welles in a production of Rosebud. Was this on or off Broadway?

It was so far off Broadway it was practically in Canada. It was a tiny little theater on East 59th St. But you know Orson used to say… there’s a great Yiddish saying from back in the twenties, “A star is the man who owns the theater.” Well, there might have been only fifty seats, but this was my theater.

It was that small of a theater?

Actually, no. We got about 100 in and we were packed out every night which was just lovely. My wife produced the show and she ran the show, stage managed the show. We were just a one-man band, you know.

Is that how Richard Linklater found you?

Yes. It’s that wonderful cliché for an actor of being in the right place at the right time with the right role.

You went from playing a falsetto-voiced eunuch in Antony and Cleopatra to mimicking Orson Welles’ bravura pipes. That’s quite a stretch.

I was virtually in mezzo-soprano range when I was doing the eunuch. It was very funny. Then suddenly I had to go to the other end of the scale. I’m a kind of baritone. It doesn’t sound it at the moment simply because when I’m doing these press junkets… I don’t talk too much apart from on stage and my voice has got darker and deeper doing it. I suppose staying up partying with (co-star) Zac Efron doesn’t help, so it’s gone a bit lower. Usually I’m a baritone, and Orson, of course, is basso profundo. Without hurting my voice, I had to teach myself how to give a flavor of the man. It would have been death to give an impression or imitation. That would have been absolutely awful.

Legend has it that you are almost as prodigious as Mr. Welles.

Not true at all, my goodness me! I’m a classical pianist, certainly. I studied that before turning to study acting, but I always acted. In all honesty to you I can act a little bit — Orson Welles and eunuchs a specialty — but ask me to put in a new light bulb and I’m finished.

Could you tell me something about the play? Sadly, it never made its way this far west to the La Jolla Playhouse.

No. It didn’t make it very far at all. I was at a point and a time and friends thought it would be a good exercise for me to play a real life person and I thought that was quite interesting. A one man show is a rather cheap form of theater which allows you to show people what you can do. And they said, “What about Orson Welles?” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not that fat! Richard Burton. I might be able to do something like that.” And they said, “But you look just like (Welles).” It doesn’t matter that I don’t look like Burton, I’ll act it. “No, Christian,” they said. “Orson Welles.” I went “Peter Sellers. I can do Clouseau.” “No, no, Christian. Orson Welles!” I said, “How about Winston Churchill?”

Oh, sure. You and Winston Churchill. One face.

(Laughing.) Well, absolutely!

Rosebud was written specifically with you in mind, wasn’t it?

With me in mind? (Laughing.) It was my play!

That has to be one of the highest compliments anyone can pay an actor.

It was very difficult to play. It had a tortured history, really. These were my friends, the writer and director. We were setting out to tailor a show specifically for me. I collaborated on it. It wasn’t written for me, it was written with me. I did all the research and fashioned the play into how I wanted Welles portrayed. I never sought any writer’s credit or anything like that, but it was a happy collaboration.

I would assume that the most difficult part of the performance was capturing the voice.

That was the thing that stood out to me about him. When I found a range where I was comfortable with the voice…I mean (slipping into basso profundo) opening the voice…you see it’s a completely different sound than mine. Opening the throat and making the embouchure of the mouth like a cathedral to have the echo of the sound. Technical things like that…I found that helped physically with the bloody eyebrows when he was being sincere.

When you watch the finished product are there any moments that ring false to you?

Oh, yes. Of course. But I’m not going to tell a critic. (Laughing.) Being honest, the line “How the hell do I top this”...that’s me. In the radio studio, I don’t appear at all. That’s him.

Was there ever a moment where you decided to let the facts fall by the wayside in favor honoring the legend?

Oh, yes I’m sure, but he did that himself. He preferred mythology to history because history started with the truth then ends in a lie. Whereas mythology begins with a lie, and he told enough of them, and ends in the truth. I think personally that the myth killed him in the end.

That’s a great point. When you are 25-years old and make what many consider the greatest film of all time, how do you top it?

Well, you make a greater film which he did.

I agree with you.

The myth is what did he do after 25? Someone said to me recently, “Oh, how sad. He was selling wine before its time. How the hell could he do that, Christian? And he got fat. What a sad case.” I said, “Well, he was selling wine in the thirties to pay for his independence in the Mercury Theater.” At the end of his life he paid a hell of a lot more pouring that money into his independent filmmaking. That’s a man of integrity, that’s not a failure. That’s quite obvious to me. It strikes me as astonishing that somebody would call a man so successful…even if he made just one film and listened to Billy Rose, who said, “Quit, kid - you’ll never top it.”

For me, Citizen Kane is still the greatest movie ever made if for no other reasons than it is the first modern sound film and I don’t think there is another film that influenced more filmmakers.

I totally agree with you. Don’t you think also, within the studio system it is the one true independent film.

Of course. And another thing people fail to remember about Kane is that it’s the first film noir.

Hmm… let me ponder that.

And short of having a spaceship land, Kane touches on just about every genre known to man. When Jed Leland walks through the bar with the swinging doors, there is even an element of a western!

Welles claimed to have watched Stagecoach like 56 times to learn how to make a movie. Of course, every time he told the story it got bigger. “I saw Stagecoach eighty times…no, make that 100!” Wouldn’t you say that Fritz Lang made some film noir?

Film noir found its roots in German Expressionism. There’s also Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring 20s. There were elements of noir floating out there – don’t forget Josef Von Sternberg’s contributions – but I think it was Welles who put it all together. There’s also talk that Welles was the first person to include ceilings in his shots. That was not Orson’s invention.

He wasn’t the first person to use modern dress in Shakespeare, but it helps the myth doesn’t it? You know, I never thought about Kane being a noir, and I totally agree with you. It is sort of the first true film noir.

There’s comedy, romance, melodrama, a musical number, the reused sets from King Kong’s Skull Island… Kane houses every genre short of science fiction.

You know the story about Around the World in 80 Days, don’t you? I think they were opening in Philadelphia and one of the critics said, “Orson Welles throws everything in this production apart from the kitchen sink.” That night the curtain went up and there was a kitchen sink on the stage.

During your research, and I am assuming that a lot of legwork went into your performances, what Wellesian nuggets did you unearth?

There was a great journal he wrote when he was 16 in Ireland. It is extraordinary. You really see the man. He’s there on a boat or something sketching people and the sketches are absolutely fantastic.

Is this made available to the general public?

You can get it at Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana in Welles’ archive. I think (Simon) Callow quotes from it in one of his books. It’s a remarkable, remarkable document. There are so many things…All the (material in the) RKO archives about what happened with The Magnificent Ambersons and It’s All True. That was when I think the mythology turned against him. It was the end of his golden period. There was a kind of conspiracy almost – government, studio, Hearst – everything turned against him.

If Ambersons had been released in its original form, I’m not sure that we’d still be talking so much about Citizen Kane.

I think it’s a greater film. This is a personal thing, but for me Kane has an icy heart. And I think that Booth Tarkington is an incredibly undervalued writer. He really should be up there with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain. I’m surprised that more of his books haven’t been made into films.

Have you ever visited San Diego?

No. Unfortunately not, but I hope to. I have a dream of driving around America and going to all these remarkable places. I’ve never been to Kenosha, Wisconsin (Welles’ birthplace).

We do have a bit of a Kane connection. I was in Balboa Park when I first moved out here having a smoke on The Prado.

Where are you from originally?

Chicago.

Chicago? All right!

I’m on The Prado looking at the building across the way and thinking, damn that place looks familiar. It’s Xanadu! In 1940, Welles sent a second unit crew to San Diego to Balboa Park and used the California Tower of the Museum of Man, the Botanical Building the San Diego Zoo and several other edifices as a stand-in for Hearst’s San Simeon.

You’re kidding. That was shot in San Diego?

There are probably over a dozen shots of Balboa Park in the News on the March sequence. I noticed that you lift a few lines from Kane almost verbatim in Me and Orson Welles.

You mean like (slipping into basso profundo), “I’m absolutely starving to death!” (Laughing.) I couldn’t resist that. That’s in the book as well, you know. That lovely line where Jack Houseman and I – Eddie Marsen, one of my favorite actors – we come out of the theater, hit the bell and Orson says, “We’ve heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” The idea when Houseman says good night as he’s walking away and Welles whispers “thank you,” that was my idea. Orson would never say it to his face, but he just might mouth it to his back. If they had stayed together we’d have perhaps had a couple more of those masterpieces.

That’s the most touching moment in the film and I think it reveals so much about Welles the man.

That’s how I saw him. The wonderful thing about this character is that everyone has a different take on him. This was mine and Richard Linklater’s take on Welles. It would have been so much easier for Richard to find a famous Hollywood star. He didn’t. And he had to teach me how to act on film. This was my first film. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had the confidence of ignorance, but he very patiently taught me how to play this larger than life theatrical animal. My word, he took his time. I think he began with the fact that we agreed how Orson should be portrayed. We are not apologists. One of my friends now is (Mercury Theater player) Norman Lloyd. Ninety-five years young and he plays tennis three times a week. “Why aren’t I working?” he says to his manager. He told me some stories about Orson that made my toes curl.

Is there a particular scene or moment in Welles’ work that you champion over all others?

Yes. (Quoting Chimes at Midnight): “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers!” That’s pretty much his greatest acting moment, for me.

From a purely cinematic point-of-view my go to shot is always the opening of Touch of Evil.

I adore that, too. (Slipping into Welles.) “It’s either the candy bars of the hooch.” It’s a personal thing, isn’t it? Like being asked what’s your favorite Welles film or your favorite Linklater film. They change. This is this week’s. It will change next week.

Sometimes they change while you’re watching them.

Absolutely. Of course you know the story about the actor who plays the border patrol (in Touch of Evil). He keeps forgetting his lines and you can actually see the dawn coming up! Welles said, “You mess this up this time and I’ll kill you!”

If you ever visit Venice, California you will see that some of the buildings still stand.

Somebody told me that the other day.

You can still see remnants of Touch of Evil to this day.

We have to preserve that. Did I tell you this morning we put up a plaque that Richard arranged, to the Mercury Theater at 110 W. 41st. That’s the highlight of my trip to New York. I stood next to Christopher Welles, his daughter, unveiling this plaque. They asked me to say something and all I could think of was, “How many ages hence will this out lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?” from Julius Caesar.

Critics keep referring to your performance as an impersonation. Does that bother you?

They’re wrong.

This isn’t something by Rich Little or Frank Gorshin. This is a full-blown performance, not an impression.

I think if they use the word “impression,” I don’t agree with it. I personally think it’s not. Of course, they are entitled to their opinion.

They use the term as a form of praise.

This is the great thing. They don’t really know who I am or where I come from or what I’ve done or anything. If they are seeing Orson Welles, then to them I suppose I can understand it. I wouldn’t choose to use the term “impression.” I think it’s the wrong word to use.

Perhaps if they watch your performance and see Orson Welles, that’s a great compliment.

If that’s what they’re thinking, yes, but they don’t know me from Adam.

I’ve always modified the line to read “imitation is the sincerest form of failure,” not flattery. What’s the point of taking to the stage merely to ape someone without putting your own personal spin on it?

It’s so boring. I was saying to his daughter this is a character I am playing, but that’s her dad. She gave me a beautiful book called In My Father’s Shadow. I read it very uncomfortably. He was an absent father and that must have been very tough. And she said to me, “He never treated actors like that.” I thought to myself, “He treated you pretty badly.” It’s one of those myths about Orson. People also ask me if I am worried about typecasting, and I say, “Bloody hell, I’ve only had one film. Give me a chance!” Then I thought, how marvelous if it means that I get to play Hamlet, King Lear, Falstaff, Macbeth and all the others, bring it on.

Just so long as you don’t appear in a remake of Necromancy or start doing celebrity roasts.

(Laughing.) That’s marvelous! Thank you for that well meant if somewhat pedestrian introduction. Honestly, I think he’s superb on those Dean Martin roasts.

There is a moment on one the Dean Martin roast of Michael Landon where Orson proclaims that Landon is to television what insulin is to the diabetic. Only Orson could get away with saying this and making it sound even remotely sincere. The man has never given a bad performance.

Of course not. Have you seen the footage of his last appearance on The Merv Griffin Show?

Yes.

It’s so touching. He’s still out there…that beautiful magic trick he does…and then he talks about Rita (Hayworth). Merv kids him about being a great romancer and my God, he was! I sat with an 85-year old lady in the theater once holding her hand. She started crying when she said, “You are so like him.” And I replied, “Oh, no, no I’m not. I’m just an actor playing a part.” She started crying and I thought, God…no…and she said, “He left me for Dolores Del Rio!” I sat next to her holding her hand and saying, “The son-of-a-bitch! I’d have never left you!” (Laughter.)

You do such a magnificent job of embodying Orson Welles, at any point during the production did you find your fellow cast members bowing and scraping to you in a manner befitting the great man? Did they treat you as though they were mere satellites in Orson’s universe?

No. Not at all. They were all my pals…it was a family. And I am not one of those…I had a ‘method’ moment. The first day was one of the happiest days of my life. It got to me. I’m watching (cinematographer) Dick Pope doing the lights and Richard directing these great actors…Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsen, Kenny Riley, they’re superb actors that I revere. Zac learning his loot, etc., etc. and I got overcome by an extraordinary wave of sadness. My wife noticed it. She knew what it was straight away. I went down to the restroom and locked the door and burst out crying. I cried my eyes out and I couldn’t understand it because I was so unbelievably happy. It was my first day and we got there through all the adversity. And Richard stuck with me and I realized that I was crying for those last 20 years of his life trying so desperately to get what I’d just been given on a plate.

There has been talk that Peter Bogdanovich has been able to put The Other Side of the Wind together and that it was supposed to have appeared on Showtime last year. If you think about it a third of Welles’ work will be completed and released posthumously.

(At this point, 50 minutes into a conversation that was originally slotted for fifteen, the PR rep interrupted with news that this was to be my last question.)

I’m sorry, Scott. Being new at this and talking to someone who knows about Welles, we could go on all afternoon. Getting back to Other Side of the Wind, my feeling is I hope they don’t. There is nobody in this world that could edit that to his specifications. I love looking at the incomplete footage. Let’s have that. Don’t try and make a patchwork quilt to put it together. No way. I saw Oja Kodar’s Jaded.”

So have I. And there’s that godawful recut Don Quixote de Orson Welles.

It’s based on a television program…the Italian thing he did where he didn’t even see a work print. Oh, my God!

This was a thrill for me. Continued success, Christian.

Cheers, mate!

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Me and Orson Welles: all's Welles with Christian McKay.
Me and Orson Welles: all's Welles with Christian McKay.

Speaking with Christian McKay was the closest I would ever come to meeting Orson Welles in this lifetime. McKay (pronounced “Mc-KYE”) made his screen debut in Richard Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles, a boffo pre-Citizen Kane biopic that takes place in 1937 and finds Welles staging a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for his young Mercury Theater. The British-born actor graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2001 and studied music at the University of York, the Royal College of Music and Queensland Conservatorium. “This was my first film,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had the confidence of ignorance, but Richard very patiently taught me how to play this larger-than-life theatrical animal.” Through the years, many have played Orson Welles on film. Jean Guérin (Heavenly Creatures), Vincent D’Onofrio (Ed Wood, Five Minutes, Mr. Welles), Angus Macfadyen (Cradle Will Rock), Liev Schreiber (RKO 281), Danny Huston (Fade to Black), Tom Burke (Mank), and even SCTV’s John Candy have all tried their hand at bringing the Master to life. But none came close to capturing the look and timbre of Welles quite like McKay. The interview originally ran December 11, 2009 on the pages of Emulsion Compulsion.

Hello, Scott, I’m Christian.

Hello, Christian, I’m Jewish. (Laughter.) This is a going to be a somewhat different interview for me because all I know of your work is based solely on one performance.

Well, after all this is my first film.

You had previously played Welles in a production of Rosebud. Was this on or off Broadway?

It was so far off Broadway it was practically in Canada. It was a tiny little theater on East 59th St. But you know Orson used to say… there’s a great Yiddish saying from back in the twenties, “A star is the man who owns the theater.” Well, there might have been only fifty seats, but this was my theater.

It was that small of a theater?

Actually, no. We got about 100 in and we were packed out every night which was just lovely. My wife produced the show and she ran the show, stage managed the show. We were just a one-man band, you know.

Is that how Richard Linklater found you?

Yes. It’s that wonderful cliché for an actor of being in the right place at the right time with the right role.

You went from playing a falsetto-voiced eunuch in Antony and Cleopatra to mimicking Orson Welles’ bravura pipes. That’s quite a stretch.

I was virtually in mezzo-soprano range when I was doing the eunuch. It was very funny. Then suddenly I had to go to the other end of the scale. I’m a kind of baritone. It doesn’t sound it at the moment simply because when I’m doing these press junkets… I don’t talk too much apart from on stage and my voice has got darker and deeper doing it. I suppose staying up partying with (co-star) Zac Efron doesn’t help, so it’s gone a bit lower. Usually I’m a baritone, and Orson, of course, is basso profundo. Without hurting my voice, I had to teach myself how to give a flavor of the man. It would have been death to give an impression or imitation. That would have been absolutely awful.

Legend has it that you are almost as prodigious as Mr. Welles.

Not true at all, my goodness me! I’m a classical pianist, certainly. I studied that before turning to study acting, but I always acted. In all honesty to you I can act a little bit — Orson Welles and eunuchs a specialty — but ask me to put in a new light bulb and I’m finished.

Could you tell me something about the play? Sadly, it never made its way this far west to the La Jolla Playhouse.

No. It didn’t make it very far at all. I was at a point and a time and friends thought it would be a good exercise for me to play a real life person and I thought that was quite interesting. A one man show is a rather cheap form of theater which allows you to show people what you can do. And they said, “What about Orson Welles?” I said, “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not that fat! Richard Burton. I might be able to do something like that.” And they said, “But you look just like (Welles).” It doesn’t matter that I don’t look like Burton, I’ll act it. “No, Christian,” they said. “Orson Welles.” I went “Peter Sellers. I can do Clouseau.” “No, no, Christian. Orson Welles!” I said, “How about Winston Churchill?”

Oh, sure. You and Winston Churchill. One face.

(Laughing.) Well, absolutely!

Rosebud was written specifically with you in mind, wasn’t it?

With me in mind? (Laughing.) It was my play!

That has to be one of the highest compliments anyone can pay an actor.

It was very difficult to play. It had a tortured history, really. These were my friends, the writer and director. We were setting out to tailor a show specifically for me. I collaborated on it. It wasn’t written for me, it was written with me. I did all the research and fashioned the play into how I wanted Welles portrayed. I never sought any writer’s credit or anything like that, but it was a happy collaboration.

I would assume that the most difficult part of the performance was capturing the voice.

That was the thing that stood out to me about him. When I found a range where I was comfortable with the voice…I mean (slipping into basso profundo) opening the voice…you see it’s a completely different sound than mine. Opening the throat and making the embouchure of the mouth like a cathedral to have the echo of the sound. Technical things like that…I found that helped physically with the bloody eyebrows when he was being sincere.

When you watch the finished product are there any moments that ring false to you?

Oh, yes. Of course. But I’m not going to tell a critic. (Laughing.) Being honest, the line “How the hell do I top this”...that’s me. In the radio studio, I don’t appear at all. That’s him.

Was there ever a moment where you decided to let the facts fall by the wayside in favor honoring the legend?

Oh, yes I’m sure, but he did that himself. He preferred mythology to history because history started with the truth then ends in a lie. Whereas mythology begins with a lie, and he told enough of them, and ends in the truth. I think personally that the myth killed him in the end.

That’s a great point. When you are 25-years old and make what many consider the greatest film of all time, how do you top it?

Well, you make a greater film which he did.

I agree with you.

The myth is what did he do after 25? Someone said to me recently, “Oh, how sad. He was selling wine before its time. How the hell could he do that, Christian? And he got fat. What a sad case.” I said, “Well, he was selling wine in the thirties to pay for his independence in the Mercury Theater.” At the end of his life he paid a hell of a lot more pouring that money into his independent filmmaking. That’s a man of integrity, that’s not a failure. That’s quite obvious to me. It strikes me as astonishing that somebody would call a man so successful…even if he made just one film and listened to Billy Rose, who said, “Quit, kid - you’ll never top it.”

For me, Citizen Kane is still the greatest movie ever made if for no other reasons than it is the first modern sound film and I don’t think there is another film that influenced more filmmakers.

I totally agree with you. Don’t you think also, within the studio system it is the one true independent film.

Of course. And another thing people fail to remember about Kane is that it’s the first film noir.

Hmm… let me ponder that.

And short of having a spaceship land, Kane touches on just about every genre known to man. When Jed Leland walks through the bar with the swinging doors, there is even an element of a western!

Welles claimed to have watched Stagecoach like 56 times to learn how to make a movie. Of course, every time he told the story it got bigger. “I saw Stagecoach eighty times…no, make that 100!” Wouldn’t you say that Fritz Lang made some film noir?

Film noir found its roots in German Expressionism. There’s also Raoul Walsh’s The Roaring 20s. There were elements of noir floating out there – don’t forget Josef Von Sternberg’s contributions – but I think it was Welles who put it all together. There’s also talk that Welles was the first person to include ceilings in his shots. That was not Orson’s invention.

He wasn’t the first person to use modern dress in Shakespeare, but it helps the myth doesn’t it? You know, I never thought about Kane being a noir, and I totally agree with you. It is sort of the first true film noir.

There’s comedy, romance, melodrama, a musical number, the reused sets from King Kong’s Skull Island… Kane houses every genre short of science fiction.

You know the story about Around the World in 80 Days, don’t you? I think they were opening in Philadelphia and one of the critics said, “Orson Welles throws everything in this production apart from the kitchen sink.” That night the curtain went up and there was a kitchen sink on the stage.

During your research, and I am assuming that a lot of legwork went into your performances, what Wellesian nuggets did you unearth?

There was a great journal he wrote when he was 16 in Ireland. It is extraordinary. You really see the man. He’s there on a boat or something sketching people and the sketches are absolutely fantastic.

Is this made available to the general public?

You can get it at Lilly Library in Bloomington, Indiana in Welles’ archive. I think (Simon) Callow quotes from it in one of his books. It’s a remarkable, remarkable document. There are so many things…All the (material in the) RKO archives about what happened with The Magnificent Ambersons and It’s All True. That was when I think the mythology turned against him. It was the end of his golden period. There was a kind of conspiracy almost – government, studio, Hearst – everything turned against him.

If Ambersons had been released in its original form, I’m not sure that we’d still be talking so much about Citizen Kane.

I think it’s a greater film. This is a personal thing, but for me Kane has an icy heart. And I think that Booth Tarkington is an incredibly undervalued writer. He really should be up there with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain. I’m surprised that more of his books haven’t been made into films.

Have you ever visited San Diego?

No. Unfortunately not, but I hope to. I have a dream of driving around America and going to all these remarkable places. I’ve never been to Kenosha, Wisconsin (Welles’ birthplace).

We do have a bit of a Kane connection. I was in Balboa Park when I first moved out here having a smoke on The Prado.

Where are you from originally?

Chicago.

Chicago? All right!

I’m on The Prado looking at the building across the way and thinking, damn that place looks familiar. It’s Xanadu! In 1940, Welles sent a second unit crew to San Diego to Balboa Park and used the California Tower of the Museum of Man, the Botanical Building the San Diego Zoo and several other edifices as a stand-in for Hearst’s San Simeon.

You’re kidding. That was shot in San Diego?

There are probably over a dozen shots of Balboa Park in the News on the March sequence. I noticed that you lift a few lines from Kane almost verbatim in Me and Orson Welles.

You mean like (slipping into basso profundo), “I’m absolutely starving to death!” (Laughing.) I couldn’t resist that. That’s in the book as well, you know. That lovely line where Jack Houseman and I – Eddie Marsen, one of my favorite actors – we come out of the theater, hit the bell and Orson says, “We’ve heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.” The idea when Houseman says good night as he’s walking away and Welles whispers “thank you,” that was my idea. Orson would never say it to his face, but he just might mouth it to his back. If they had stayed together we’d have perhaps had a couple more of those masterpieces.

That’s the most touching moment in the film and I think it reveals so much about Welles the man.

That’s how I saw him. The wonderful thing about this character is that everyone has a different take on him. This was mine and Richard Linklater’s take on Welles. It would have been so much easier for Richard to find a famous Hollywood star. He didn’t. And he had to teach me how to act on film. This was my first film. I didn’t know what I was doing. I had the confidence of ignorance, but he very patiently taught me how to play this larger than life theatrical animal. My word, he took his time. I think he began with the fact that we agreed how Orson should be portrayed. We are not apologists. One of my friends now is (Mercury Theater player) Norman Lloyd. Ninety-five years young and he plays tennis three times a week. “Why aren’t I working?” he says to his manager. He told me some stories about Orson that made my toes curl.

Is there a particular scene or moment in Welles’ work that you champion over all others?

Yes. (Quoting Chimes at Midnight): “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers!” That’s pretty much his greatest acting moment, for me.

From a purely cinematic point-of-view my go to shot is always the opening of Touch of Evil.

I adore that, too. (Slipping into Welles.) “It’s either the candy bars of the hooch.” It’s a personal thing, isn’t it? Like being asked what’s your favorite Welles film or your favorite Linklater film. They change. This is this week’s. It will change next week.

Sometimes they change while you’re watching them.

Absolutely. Of course you know the story about the actor who plays the border patrol (in Touch of Evil). He keeps forgetting his lines and you can actually see the dawn coming up! Welles said, “You mess this up this time and I’ll kill you!”

If you ever visit Venice, California you will see that some of the buildings still stand.

Somebody told me that the other day.

You can still see remnants of Touch of Evil to this day.

We have to preserve that. Did I tell you this morning we put up a plaque that Richard arranged, to the Mercury Theater at 110 W. 41st. That’s the highlight of my trip to New York. I stood next to Christopher Welles, his daughter, unveiling this plaque. They asked me to say something and all I could think of was, “How many ages hence will this out lofty scene be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown?” from Julius Caesar.

Critics keep referring to your performance as an impersonation. Does that bother you?

They’re wrong.

This isn’t something by Rich Little or Frank Gorshin. This is a full-blown performance, not an impression.

I think if they use the word “impression,” I don’t agree with it. I personally think it’s not. Of course, they are entitled to their opinion.

They use the term as a form of praise.

This is the great thing. They don’t really know who I am or where I come from or what I’ve done or anything. If they are seeing Orson Welles, then to them I suppose I can understand it. I wouldn’t choose to use the term “impression.” I think it’s the wrong word to use.

Perhaps if they watch your performance and see Orson Welles, that’s a great compliment.

If that’s what they’re thinking, yes, but they don’t know me from Adam.

I’ve always modified the line to read “imitation is the sincerest form of failure,” not flattery. What’s the point of taking to the stage merely to ape someone without putting your own personal spin on it?

It’s so boring. I was saying to his daughter this is a character I am playing, but that’s her dad. She gave me a beautiful book called In My Father’s Shadow. I read it very uncomfortably. He was an absent father and that must have been very tough. And she said to me, “He never treated actors like that.” I thought to myself, “He treated you pretty badly.” It’s one of those myths about Orson. People also ask me if I am worried about typecasting, and I say, “Bloody hell, I’ve only had one film. Give me a chance!” Then I thought, how marvelous if it means that I get to play Hamlet, King Lear, Falstaff, Macbeth and all the others, bring it on.

Just so long as you don’t appear in a remake of Necromancy or start doing celebrity roasts.

(Laughing.) That’s marvelous! Thank you for that well meant if somewhat pedestrian introduction. Honestly, I think he’s superb on those Dean Martin roasts.

There is a moment on one the Dean Martin roast of Michael Landon where Orson proclaims that Landon is to television what insulin is to the diabetic. Only Orson could get away with saying this and making it sound even remotely sincere. The man has never given a bad performance.

Of course not. Have you seen the footage of his last appearance on The Merv Griffin Show?

Yes.

It’s so touching. He’s still out there…that beautiful magic trick he does…and then he talks about Rita (Hayworth). Merv kids him about being a great romancer and my God, he was! I sat with an 85-year old lady in the theater once holding her hand. She started crying when she said, “You are so like him.” And I replied, “Oh, no, no I’m not. I’m just an actor playing a part.” She started crying and I thought, God…no…and she said, “He left me for Dolores Del Rio!” I sat next to her holding her hand and saying, “The son-of-a-bitch! I’d have never left you!” (Laughter.)

You do such a magnificent job of embodying Orson Welles, at any point during the production did you find your fellow cast members bowing and scraping to you in a manner befitting the great man? Did they treat you as though they were mere satellites in Orson’s universe?

No. Not at all. They were all my pals…it was a family. And I am not one of those…I had a ‘method’ moment. The first day was one of the happiest days of my life. It got to me. I’m watching (cinematographer) Dick Pope doing the lights and Richard directing these great actors…Ben Chaplin, Eddie Marsen, Kenny Riley, they’re superb actors that I revere. Zac learning his loot, etc., etc. and I got overcome by an extraordinary wave of sadness. My wife noticed it. She knew what it was straight away. I went down to the restroom and locked the door and burst out crying. I cried my eyes out and I couldn’t understand it because I was so unbelievably happy. It was my first day and we got there through all the adversity. And Richard stuck with me and I realized that I was crying for those last 20 years of his life trying so desperately to get what I’d just been given on a plate.

There has been talk that Peter Bogdanovich has been able to put The Other Side of the Wind together and that it was supposed to have appeared on Showtime last year. If you think about it a third of Welles’ work will be completed and released posthumously.

(At this point, 50 minutes into a conversation that was originally slotted for fifteen, the PR rep interrupted with news that this was to be my last question.)

I’m sorry, Scott. Being new at this and talking to someone who knows about Welles, we could go on all afternoon. Getting back to Other Side of the Wind, my feeling is I hope they don’t. There is nobody in this world that could edit that to his specifications. I love looking at the incomplete footage. Let’s have that. Don’t try and make a patchwork quilt to put it together. No way. I saw Oja Kodar’s Jaded.”

So have I. And there’s that godawful recut Don Quixote de Orson Welles.

It’s based on a television program…the Italian thing he did where he didn’t even see a work print. Oh, my God!

This was a thrill for me. Continued success, Christian.

Cheers, mate!

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