Director Richard Linklater had a dilemma, when you’re about to shoot a movie called Me and Orson Welles, where on earth do you find an actor to play the famous larger-than-life actor/director Welles?

As Linklater says ‘the film gods’ shone down on him when a friend told him about British actor Christian McKay who was in New York doing the one-man play Rosebud: The Lives of Orson Welles. The director was blown away by McKay’s performance, which is now reflected in this movie.

The movie, based on real events, is set in 1937 Manhattan, when a young Orson Welles is directing his unique version of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the famous Mercury Theatre.

I spoke with Christian McKay about this turning point in his career.

Please tell us about getting the role.

Christian McKay © Freestyle Releasing
Christian McKay as Orson Welles © Freestyle Releasing

There’s this wonderful eccentric man called Mark Landsoff, and he waited for me after my first show, and he said, ‘I have a book on Orson Welles I want to give you.’ And I said, ‘Well, I have 96 books on Orson Welles. I might have it already.’ And he said, ‘No, this is a slight fiction called Me and Orson Welles.’ I didn’t have that one and I’m a bit of a geek, so I went, ‘I have to have it.’ And he said, ‘They’re making a film of it, and they want Leonardo DiCaprio to play it, but I don’t think he’s gong to do it.’ He made that up; this was just him trying to scare the life out of me. So I said, ‘Well, if he’s going to turn it down it will come to me. When Leo turns down a role it usually comes to me.’ He went, ‘Really?’ I said, ‘No, I’m just joking.’

So I didn’t think much of it, but suddenly I got a script from Detour Films. Then Richard Linklater turned up and I was giving him names of famous Hollywood stars who could play the role, because there’s no way they are going to cast an unknown English apprentice stage actor as this great American icon. That was beyond my imagination, never mind reasonable, sane people.

Richard told us that he couldn’t get the financing because they wanted a name for Welles.

That’s typical Richard not to tell me as to not throw any pressure on me. And I think he knows me well enough that if he had told me that story I would have said, ‘I don’t want to do it. Not because of that, but please get your film made.’ It was that wonderful, diabolical stroke of luck that I never thought I’d have, because I’m used to the knocks, and the failure.

You do look amazingly like Welles.

Ben Chaplin and Christian McKay © Freestyle Releasing
Ben Chaplin and Christian McKay © Freestyle Releasing

People said that I resembled him a little bit [when I was at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art]. I only remember Orson as this big, gargantuan iceberg of a man and at drama school, whenever they said, ‘you look a bit like Harry Lime,’ I really thought they were having a go at my weight. So I’d be very anti-Orson. I used to think, ‘I’m not that big!’

You have a nice story about Zac Efron when you were shooting in the theatre on the Isle of Man.

These young girls were outside, screaming like banshees and he stood up and said, ‘I’ll go out there.’ I said, ‘You’re going out there? It’s terrifying.’ But later, when I went outside, there was this 10 year old who had met her hero and the great things was, her hero had turned out to be everything that she wanted him to be, and she’ll remember that for the rest of her life. He’s like that with everybody.

If you were asked to play Orson Welles again would you think about it?

Christian McKay and Zac Efron © Freestyle Releasing
Christian McKay and Zac Efron © Freestyle Releasing

No, this is it. That was my Michael Jackson moment!

Actually, there is one other time in about 20 years I’d love to revisit it, but only with Rick. It’s when he’s failing, when he’s hustling. There were two questions I wanted to answer for myself, what did he do after Citizen Kane and how did he get fat? That was his barrier to the world for me, I might be completely wrong, he might be like me and love chocolate cakes. I’m the only actor in the world to lose weight to play Orson Welles. But for the sequel you drop me at Sweet Lady Jane’s and just bring the chocolate. That would be the greatest preparation for a role.

Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.