An unapologetic performance from an Inspired Newcomer
Christian McKay is a natural born storyteller.
The little-known English actor has had his fair share of intriguing anecdotes off stage, including walking door to door to posh London hotels as a classically trained pianist, selling office furniture to corporations, and working as a golf tourism marketing salesman.
However, even among these varied side gigs, his debut on the silver screen in Richard Linklater’s film, Me and Orson Welles, sounds a bit like a tall tale. Without any formal film training, this baritone-voiced actor stepped into the role of a young and mischievous 22-year-old Welles about to launch the Mercury Theater in New York City. McKay’s Welles is as ruthless as a tyrant, curt with his crew, a micromanager’s nightmare and utterly brilliant. The unapologetic performance carries the movie, which also stars Claire Danes and Zac Efron, with an Oscar buzz-worthy portrayal of the American icon. And while it is his first role in any film, McKay (who has a tendency to punctuate his sentences with words like “extraordinary” and “delightful”) finds that it is the little things worth discussing.
When asked what he would like audiences to take away from the film, he says, “I was talking to a 12-year-old girl the other day. She had posters, a duvet, calendar and DVD’s of Zac in her room. She was wonderfully precocious and said that she had just read Julius Caesar and was looking forward to watching Citizen Kane.” He adds, “The fact that Orson is being introduced to a new audience is extraordinary and I am delighted to just be a part of this.” He is the kind of actor that takes critical accolades with a grain of salt, and while he might not know what is next on the horizon, he lives by the motto that, “the future is out there and it is going to be good fun.”
I am sure it might be tempting to embellish about your life because there is not that much information out there about you.
Sometimes, I think that the truth is so much more effective and better than a collection of myths. I think with Orson Welles (who was a bit of a mess maker) it was the myths that destroyed him. People started creating their own myths and saying that he was difficult to work with and inefficient, when he was the most efficient filmmaker in the world.
What was your first impression of Orson Welles?
It was on a British television talk show with Michael Parkinson. I was young and I wondered, ‘Who is that very earnest and serious man stuck in that chair?’ He was just enormous. When it was suggested that I play him I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ I am nowhere as big as that man.
How much of the performance was what you read about Orson, and how much is your own interpretation?
I studied little tics and mannerisms, but you have to use your own experience. I wanted to avoid impression at all cost, because that will kill you. It’s just that magic trick, where someone will say, ‘Oh, he looks like Orson Welles.’ And the next person will say, ‘He does look like Orson Welles.’ The physical and vocal transformation was bloody hard work though.
How did you and Richard Linklater hook up?
Richard flew into town, and like a complete idiot, I gave him a list of famous Hollywood stars that could play Orson Welles. I thought even in my wildest imagination, that he would never cast a totally unknown English stage actor to play an American icon.
What did you take from him in your first role?
To be honest; Richard had to tell me how to act on film. I am a stage animal trained for the stage. He must be one of the most eclectic directors in the world, and yet he was very patient with me.
It sounds like he was convinced that you were going to be Orson.
Well, while he has never said this to me, I have heard enough rumors and I know that this film would have been so much easier for Richard—he could have gotten the money far quicker and made it in America—if he would have cast a famous Hollywood actor. But he stuck by me and he is in some degree my patron saint. It is the greatest kindness I have ever received in my professional life. I am from the school of hard knocks and I hope that I get a chance to repay his kindness with my performance.
Coming from the school of hard knocks, I have to ask, besides acting, what other jobs have you had?
I sold office furniture and worked in a bookshop. I had a job where I would try to find marketing for golf tourism. My main gig in London was walking around to the hotels and playing piano. I would play some beautiful Chopin number and somebody would come up to me and say, ‘Why are you playing that miserable music? Do you know the theme from Goldfinger?’
High School Musical is kind of like the elephant in the room. I was thinking maybe, with a bit of luck, you might be able to position yourself as a new international heartthrob.
[Laughs] That is the funniest thing I heard all day, but I’ll leave that to Zac. He’s much better at it and half my size.
I’m sure you have heard some naysayers out there regarding him as an actor.
Some woman said to me the other day in a really pompous manner [intones an old Monty Python English lady accent], ‘Mr. McKay, Zac Efron was surprisingly good in this film. Were you surprised?’ And I said, ‘Have you ever tried to dance with choreography, sing for a billion people and tried to act in front of the same number?’ She said no. To do one of those things well, requires an enormous talent. He’s learning his trade in front of the international audience, and to do it with such humility, grace, good sense of humor well that is the mark of a man.
- Patrick Knowles