Director/Producer Richard Linklater brings the audience a new and refreshing view of the legendary actor/ writer/ director/ producer. Based on real theatrical history, the movie tells the story of Welles’ re-imagining of Julius Caesar at his newly-founded Mercury Theatre in New York City in 1937.
How did you find Christian McKay; he is so brilliant as Orson Welles?
[Christian was] performing a play called Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles for a couple of weeks [in New York]. And so I flew to New York and went straight to the play. My only test was, do I believe this guy is Orson Welles? Christian McKay just had that kind of Wellesian manner and he had clearly studied him closely. So I talked to him after the show and I went back to Austin just thinking about him and felt ‘let’s take this to another level.’ So I flew Christian to Austin and we did an old fashioned screen test.
Did you think you’d died and gone to heaven when you found him?
Yeah, but I actually fell out with the producer. I thought, ‘Oh we can make the movie now.’ And the producer I was working with, he goes, ‘Good, not great.’ They wanted a bigger name. So I was like, ‘No, don’t you see, the magic is to have an unknown and then it’s the magic of thinking you’re hanging out with the real Orson.’ It didn’t help us get financing. When the main person in your movie is Orson Welles and no one knows who that is. But for the future viewer it’s good for the film.
Did you have to change his performance of Orson Welles for your movie?
He had an element of it down, but [the play] was a different point in Welles’ life. That play is really Orson as an older guy in a fat suit. It started at War of the Worlds, but it’s him looking back. And so this was a whole different thing entirely. It was also a big theatre production. So it was just working with Christian in the boundaries of film. We worked together a long time, but it wasn’t me instructing him exactly how to play Orson, he had that to such a large degree, it was just answering all his questions and making him feel comfortable in the ensemble.
What was it like on the set? Did he go in and out of character or did he stay as Welles throughout?
Oh no, in and out. The Brits aren’t mad, that would be crazy. He just turned it off immediately and he was friendly. The irony being he was probably the least experienced film actor. He’s Welles, he has command of the whole thing, and then we’d cut, and he’s like, ‘What was that?’ He didn’t know a lot, but he belonged there, no second did he think he was a fish out of water and not worthy. You want a Welles who it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility for him to be a lead in a big movie. That was okay with Christian.
Zac Efron plays the young kid in the production, did you audition him or just hire him?
Once I had Christian, I said, ‘I need a Richard,’ and someone mentioned Zac. I was like, ‘I’ll meet anyone.’ I sat down with him, and 15, 20 seconds in I was like, ‘Oh, this kid’s great.’ Zac is a leading man. The movie is told from his point of view, so I didn’t want him to fade into the background. I wanted to have a guy who could really go toe-to-toe with the biggest personality of the 20th Century, Orson Welles. You needed a leading man who had that charisma and that’s Zac.
What about the challenges of the period and how difficult was it to get all the details right?
That’s kind of the fun and the magic of filmmaking to try to recreate that period, but it was a huge challenge. We were lucky, I had the original stage drawings, I had the original score to the play, I had the text, Welles’ adaptation of Caesar, we had some photos that really informed our costumes and our lighting of the play itself.
Considering Zac Efron’s fans probably don’t know who Orson Welles is, did you feel pressure at all to include Zac in a lot of the promo shots and scenes?
I never really thought about it. The movie is unique in that it appeals to a wide audience. Old people like this movie, and young people like it too. I’ve run into a lot of older people, if they don’t have a grandkid or someone who informs them, they don’t know who Zac is. I’ve had old people going, ‘Who’s the kid. That boy’s great.’ And then I have kids going, “I love that movie, who’s Orson?’ They’re intrigued with Orson. I’m happy that neither [generation] is hitting the off button.