English actor Christian McKay is a gentleman. The verbose wit, incessant charm, and the elegant accent were apparent immediately when speaking with the multi-talented actor and pianist. McKay, who may be adding screenwriter to his resume’s bullet list in the future, spoke passionately about his debut film, “Me and Orson Welles”, which opened this Friday. In director Richard Linklater’s spirited opus about a young, gregarious Welles, McKay plays the title character with a kind of intangible mysticism; rolling his tongue with icy fervor, tearing cigars up with the ivory gears of his teeth, and boisterously commandeering his screen time, McKay looks and feels like the iconic film legend.
Christian McKay: Hi Robert, I’m Christian.
Robert Patrick: Hi Christian, how’re you?
Fine thanks. I’m afraid I brought the rain to Los Angeles.
Yeah, it’s raining down here, too. We get scared of it when it actually pours.
In San Diego, yes? Yeah, I have heard that (laughs).
First of all, I want to say that Your performance is phenomenal – award caliber even – how long did it take you to hone your craft of virtually becoming Welles?
Thank you, Robert. (laughs) That’s a hell of a start to an interview. I appreciate that. I’ve never played a real life character before, and the one thing I learned very quickly is that if you impersonate your subject you remove yourself from the character. I wanted to become Welles. And the other thing you can do is to reference yourself. I had to unfortunately remind myself of how arrogant and lost I was at twenty-two. I’m not nearly anywhere as talented as Orson, but at that age I was playing music so I took from that. Another important thing with Welles is to remove him from his pedestal, to look into the eyes of the man; if you play him as a genius or as a legend you’ll never get near him. When I researched him I tried to find things that I could identify with him. I tried to become him. Have you ever seen “F for Fake”, Robert?
Yes. It’s a fantastic film.
The marvelous thing of course in that it focuses on Elmyr de Hory who could sketch a pefect Matisse. When I saw him do that – you know, sketch a perfect Matisse – I thought to myself “I’ll try to forge Welles.”
And the end product was absolutely magnificent.. The Independent Spirit Awards nominated you for Best Supporting Male for your portrayal of Orson Welles. When you were filming this picture, did you feel that you had channeled something special?
No, I didn’t (laughs). It was my first film. I was totally and utterly committed to the work. I was trying my best, principally for Richard, because he showed so much belief in me by casting me. I experienced a unique thing for the first – and probably the last – time in my life. I was at the right place at the right time. I got to experience diabolical and divine good luck. I always wanted to please Richard [Linklater]. If he liked it, if he was pleased with my work, then I was on the right lines. I never thought to myself “oooh, oooh, I’m doing wonderful work here.” God no. I wouldn’t do that. (laughs) I’m glad that you like it though. You can help publicize the film. When people like your film it’s the cherry on top of the cake. But of course when you’re playing the role you’re just trying your best.
You’ve played Orson at all stages of his life, specifically in the theater production of Rosebud. which portion of his life is the most challenging or interesting to portray?
This portion in the film. In this time frame he is twenty-two, arrogant, and lost. You can see the real beginnings of his independence. You know that I found out he was doing radio commercials for wine, then pouring the money into independent theater? The Mercury Theater had no money. He was dynamite, much in the same way he was in the last twenty years of his life when he was selling photocopiers, dog food, frozen peas, and even wine before its time. Orson took the money and poured it into his independent films – there’s a matter of integrity for you. If he would’ve been a painter, he could’ve bagged groceries and earned money for his paints and canvas. He worked in a very expensive medium. You know he loved movies. He just wanted to keep creating masterpieces, to keep teaching us about our humanity and how to express it.
You studied piano extensively before your acting career. What prompted you to change career paths?
I didn’t really. I started off as a little boy playing in school plays, singing on stage and that sort of thing. I then went to a famous music school in Manchester named Chetham’s School of Music. I got this great professor, and suddenly the piano became the focal point of my life. The whole thing was a wonderful hobby, and I acted all the way through. I thought to myself that, before I get too old, I should see if I have any potential as an actor. My father didn’t want me to go to RADA (The Royal College of Dramatic Art) to train as an actor, but we made the deal. I was in RADA at seven o’clock at the morning and I’d practice for a couple of hours, then I’d do the classes. Suddenly, however, it was the acting that was taking over. But I did get a chance for a couple of concerts and a chance to do some recordings with the piano. Life is all about balance; I couldn’t give one up for the other.
Since you’re an accomplished musician, would you ever want to score one of your own pictures?
You know I’d love to. That’s a fantastic question. I have some friends who are great film composers and it’s a rare, rare art. You know Norman Lloyd, a great friend who is ninety-five years young, was telling me about working with Bernard Herrmann. Now there’s the greatest film composer who ever lived. Norman was telling me stories about Bernard working with Hitchcock. Yeah, that was extraordinary. But I’d love to compose a score for my own film someday – if I make another film. Knock on wood.
For you, musically, which Welles picture had the most dramatic and well made score?
Oh my word, there are so many. I adore the score for “Othello”. Then again, how can you beat the score for “The Magnificent Ambersons” with Bernard Herrmann.
Having had played as Welles in a stage production, did you find yourself feeling like you could identify with the theater aspects of the film?
It was almost like a different character, playing him on stage and then portraying him on film. I never made a movie, so all I had to reference was the theater aspects.
The idiosyncratic tics that Welles had must’ve been difficult to recreate. But how about doing the Welles voice? How does one prepare for that?
Well, technically and musically. To give a flavor of it I didn’t have to do the Welles voice, I only had to give the audience a flavor of it. Sometimes my voice is baritone, but not at the moment because I’ve been speaking nonstop for two straight months. My dream job would’ve been an opera singer, but as a tenor. Welles, of course, is a basso profundo. To do Welles you have to open your throat, open your chest, and use your back to project the sound. You have to make the embouchure of the mouth and arch it like a cathedral. Now you Americans have that anyway. I suppose that’s a very boring and technical way to describe it, but that’s the way I could give the flavor of the voice (laughter).
We talked about you being nominated as a supporting actor at the Independent Spirit Awards earlier. If you are nominated in the lead category for best male actor at the Academy Awards – and I think you should be – would you feel that someone made the right choice in selecting you for a leading nomination this time around?
I don’t know how to think about that. I’m from the school of hard knocks, Robert. In England I’m used to people walking by me and kicking me. I come to America and I never hear discouraging word (laughter). And when my English cynicism kicks in, I was think “well this is wonderful, but when is the bad luck going to kick in.” To think about it the biggest accolade of my life was when Richard gave me the role. I was given the opportunity to show that I could act a bit and play this part. I wanted to give my Orson. The wonderful thing about playing this character is that I get to show Richard my version of this great man. Any speculation about awards strikes me as extraordinary, but right now I’m living my version of the American dream. That’s what I love about America: If I’m English and cynical, it’s immediately turned around by an American into a positive, and I love that. I used to disagree with my colleagues in the theater when they said “Christian, you don’t read you reviews, do you? I could never read my reviews.” But I used to take masochistic pleasure in reading them, because in the evening when you take the stage you can try to be better. In film it’s finished eighteen-months ago, there’s nothing I can do about it, and like Orson said “the secret is in the editing.” Suddenly thousands of reviews, before you know it, are on the horizon. If you read all of these you would drive yourself mad. Now I realize what my colleagues were going on about. A blogger was furious at me for screaming at her beloved hero Zac Efron – and she is entitled to her opinion – but I think if you pay too much attention to reviews and accolades you’ll drive yourself mad. As I said before, the journey itself has been remarkable enough.
I hear you take great interest in the prospect of playing Winston Churchill at some time in the future. Why this specific man?
I live near Chartwell, where Winston lived. There is a wonderfully romantic story about that. I took my wife to Chartwell and we were thinking about buying a rabbit hutch in London where we could live, but then I took her onto the balcony of the home and I told her that Clementine, Winston’s wife, hated the house where they lived – it was too expensive. The house took all of their money and it was too much work to run. I told her that he didn’t buy it for the house, he bought it so that he could bring her out here and say ‘I didn’t buy it for the house, I bought it for the view, Clemmy. It’s England, and I’d die for it.’ And when I told my wife this story, she said ‘well why don’t we live there, in that view?’ Isn’t that romantic? And that’s where we live now. But anyway, I wanted to have the opportunity to use the techniques I learned while playing Orson. I’m writing a screenplay for that right now – it’s fun to practice writing – and I wanted to reconstruct Winston as a young man of thirty-five, who is full of luster and arrogance. The best part is that we all know what will happen to him.