Christian McKay on playing Orson Welles – Part III
The members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have voted on this years nominees, and Christian McKay's performance as Orson Welles has not been nominated.
This is not really too much of a surprise, since there was absolutely no support for the film in terms of trade ads, or given the fact that everyone at Russell Schwartz's Anemic Marketing screwed things up so badly. Pandemic Marketing can now be branded as the Peppercorn-Wormser of this decade. A crew of publicity hacks who know next to nothing about the work of Orson Welles! I'd like to suggest that all independent producers hire them for their next project, especially if you want to have a huge failure!
Meanwhile, getting back to the actual Academy Award nominations, I found the selections to be quite interesting, especially since from my own ten-best list, every one of my choices received one or more nominations, excepting of course, Me and Orson Welles.
However as Christian McKay recently wrote to me, "the work is it's own reward." It certainly should not be based on the baubles and trinkets of getting any kind of award after the fact.
That may be true, but I still hoped Christian McKay would get nominated. I even thought I might bring him some good luck, because I had talked extensively with Martin Landau before he won the Oscar for playing another actor in Tim Burton's Ed Wood. I also spoke to two-time supporting actor Peter Ustinov, when he visited San Francisco during the restoration showing of Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus and he explained in great detail what happened on the night of his first Oscar win in 1960.
In any event, the Academy did nominate the great Canadian actor, Christopher Plummer, after 52 years of being in the wilderness. Ironically, Mr. Plummer's movie debut came in the same year as Welles's Touch of Evil, for playing the early environmental crusader Walt Murdock in Nicholas Ray's Wind Across The Everglades. Of course, neither Touch of Evil or Wind across the Everglades was nominated for a single Oscar in 1958. Gigi, however, won (at the time) a record nine Oscars that year. Which is why nobody I know really takes the Academy Awards very seriously.
Christopher Plummer, it should be noted, was a big fan of Orson Welles, although they never got to work together on a movie. But in 1967, after Welles met Plummer on the set of Oedipus Rex, in Greece, he asked Plummer to play Marc Antony in a proposed film version of Julius Caesar, with Paul Scofield as Brutus and Welles playing Caesar. Of course, that project never happened, but Plummer would have been a ready and willing participant to appear with Welles, even if there was no money to pay his salary!
Naturally, the money never did appear, and a few years later there was a terrible movie version made of Julius Caesar. It featured several actors Welles knew and had directed beforehand, including Charlton Heston, John Gielgud and Christopher Lee. Ironically, both Heston and Gielgud were great fans of Welles work as a director of Shakespeare, so one has to wonder why they didn't try to get Welles to direct this awful film version of Julius Caesar, rather than Stuart Burge!
Since Christopher Plummer was such a great fan of Welles, I find it especially interesting that he should be nominated this year for playing the great genius of letters that was Leo Tolstoy. Here is what Plummer told Susan King at The Los Angeles Times, about playing Tolstoy:
CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: How do you play a genius? It's impossible. And how do you write a script about a genius? Since you can't play a genius, you play absolutely the opposite, and that's what I tried to do with Michael (Hoffman's) encouragement. Playing great people or greatly fascinating historical figures, the way to do it is to play against it.
Now with Leo Tolstoy as a prelude, here is part three of my talk with Christian McKay about playing another genius of the arts...
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Did you use anything you learned from other directors you worked with for creating the role of Orson Welles as a stage director?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: No, because I have never worked with a director who came anywhere near the Old Man. Richard is the closest. He carries the film in his head like Orson, but is very different in personality.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: You've also played a stage director before this in the play Memory, which was seen off-Broadway.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Yes, and perhaps I will be a director of actors someday. I hope my little production company, Atomic80, can put on my revised Orson Welles play, Moby Dick Re-Rehearsed. Norman Lloyd wants me to play in Galileo, by Bertold Brecht, which he produced with Jack Houseman, that was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Charles Laughton. Norman has also suggested a marvelous Chekhov short story as a one-man show for me and I would love to direct Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. There are lots of possibilities, but first things first and this year it is my Goyescas documentary.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How much attention did you give to creating a suitable version of Welles distinctive speaking voice?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: As a musician the placing of the voice is very important to me. I knew from training that I would have to be very careful going from baritone to basso profundo. It took quite a long time to evolve. I remember, I couldn’t hear him or find his embouchure. I learned very early on that if you impersonate, imitate or mimic, the character will remain at one-remove. I wanted to become Orson, my version of him. Interestingly, the speech patterns helped the physicality – those bloody eyebrows. It took me an age to find his laugh and then for a certain period I completely lost my own laugh.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: There are fascinating layers in your part, because you are playing an actor, who is also playing the part of Brutus on stage, so you have to play Brutus as Orson Welles would play him.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Yes and I would play Brutus differently; it would be faster for one thing. I agreed with Welles’ interpretation of the character more so than say, his Falstaff or Shylock, or even Lear, although how Orson’s Lear might have evolved is one of the many ‘what ifs’. I loved his film proposal for King Lear, especially the part where he gives up any payment for his services.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Would you like to play Brutus, Macbeth, Othello or Shylock?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Yes, most certainly and you haven’t mentioned Hamlet, Lear, Bottom or Falstaff.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Richard mentioned that you worked out a chart to determine when Welles is telling the truth or is lying.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Well it was more to map out the emotional journey of the character -- a device used by Richard’s friend Ethan Hawke -- it was very useful.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: I love the scene where you start talking about The Magnificent Ambersons in the taxicab. You get a real feeling of nostalgia in your voice and then start improvising lines during the radio show, which actually you probably had to rehearse very carefully.
CHRISTIAN McKAY: The radio show is my favorite scene in the movie, because I can’t see myself in it at all. It was the accumulation of all the work we had done. You know how Orson says, “If I had to offer up one film to get into Heaven, it would be Chimes at Midnight.” On a much more modest level, if I had to offer up one scene from the film that I thought sums up what I was trying to do, it would be the radio scene. It spoke of the loss of my own father and my own Before Sunrise moment with the pretty girl. The great shame about the scene in the taxi was it was done on the last day of filming and they had spent all day shooting the beautiful people from every conceivable angle in the music shop (with Zac Efron and Zoe Kazan). People were saying we’d have time to do it, but I waited all day to do it, and we were two hours in overtime, with everybody waiting at the wrap party. I got into the back of the cab to do it, and it was the last scene we shot for the movie. My own feeling was that it wasn’t as good as I could have done it. I put enormous pressure on myself, because the cab scene was what I had done for my screen test and for me, I thought it was a key scene in the movie. I would have liked to been able to do it again the next morning, because it was a chance for Welles to let down the front. You see, he’s not at all concerned about Richard. Sacking him means nothing to him. He is not challenged at all by Richard, but is more intrigued by him, because he can perhaps see his own kind of brashness, like when he was at the Gate Theatre. It allowed us to take his front down and show some of his vulnerability. I thought it was a key scene, but as it turned out it wasn’t as important as the scene on the park bench, where he talks about acting. Although I think that’s a self-observation that Welles at that age would have been incapable of. It actually speaks more of the later Welles, disappearing into a character, because sometimes he could be absolutely on the surface of a character, but sometimes, he had every layer of the character. Like Falstaff, or when he did Shylock on Dean Martin.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Would you agree with the observation Welles makes in the movie about disappearing into a character, in your own work as an actor?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I certainly aspire to the sentiments of becoming a character, but I don’t feel the need of a miraculous reprieve from being myself. It’s the only thing I can use!
LAWRENCE FRENCH: Orson Welles is famous for his long takes, and there are also some long takes in Me and Orson Welles: Walking into the radio studio with Zac Efron with a lot of lines and business to handle. How difficult did you find it sustaining those long scenes?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: Coming from the theatre I find it easier and more helpful than some of the shorter takes. The radio scene was meticulously planned and beautifully shot, but there was within the form a wonderful freedom for improvisation. All the greetings are spur of the moment; Richard and I imagined colleagues from The Shadow or The March of Time, an old girlfriend, a new acquaintance. Michael Brandon playing Les Tremayne is one of the greatest storytellers on earth, so I remember it being an absolutely joyful day. In terms of the shoot, I would describe it as the top of the mountain day.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: On the other hand, some stage actors find it less satisfying to act when everything is broken into separate shots and out of sequence. It’s harder to give an overall arc to the performance. Was this where Richard became helpful for you?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I enjoyed the short takes too. Richard had prepared me so well in rehearsals that I knew where I needed to be in any given scene. This is the benefit of a director placing such emphasis on rehearsal! It was a great shoot and we all tried our best. We became the Mercury and attempted to pay a loving homage to one of the most talented troupes in American theatre history.
LAWRENCE FRENCH: How was your recent stay in Hollywood?
CHRISTIAN McKAY: I just returned home to a rather overwhelming celebration of my portrayal, with nominations for the BAFTA, Evening Standard Film Award and the London Film Critics Circle.
Then, thanks to Richard’s friend, Scott Alexander (who co-wrote Ed Wood), I was invited to Orson’s last home, 1717 North Stanley Avenue. I recognized the various locations of The Dreamers. It was in the master bedroom that Welles undoubtedly died, valiantly ascending the stairs slowly and carefully, leaving a message for Henry Jaglom enquiring about his mother, and then typing the next day’s schedule. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Our revels now are ended. It was a most fitting place to bid farewell.