Richard Linklater cast himself as the first person who appears onscreen
in his feature debut, Slacker (1991), and shot a scene in Before Sunrise
(1995) near Harry Lime's door. But aside from a singular, personal
artistic touch in all his films, that's about all he has in common with
Orson Welles. Linklater's smooth, almost observant style and preference
for ensemble casts contrasts with Welles' centerpiece role and showy
cinematic angles. Welles completed and released only thirteen feature
films in his career, and here is Linklater with his thirteenth feature
film, Me and Orson Welles. Though, happily, Linklater shows no sign of
slowing down. And then there's one other major difference: Zac Efron.
It may seem like a cruel irony to make a film about the greatest
director in the world, and then cast the bland, pretty star of the
inane, highly marketed "High School Musical" in the pivotal role (the
"Me" role, not the "Orson Welles" role). Efron plays Richard, the
"passive observer" character who enters Orson Welles' world, witnessing
the 1937 Mercury production of Julius Caesar, and learning some
important life lessons. He meets two women, Gretta (Zoe Kazan), who
exists outside the theater world and wishes to be a writer, and Sonia
(Claire Danes), who exists in the theater world and wishes to use her
connections to move up, no matter what that may entail. It might even be
logical to assume that Linklater accepted Efron as a concession in order
to raise the money for the film. But Linklater, who recently visited San
Francisco and sat down with GreenCine to discuss his new film, defends
"He was the first guy I met for that part," Linklater says in his
slight, laid-back Texas drawl. "I sat down with him and about ten
seconds in, I was like, 'This guy's Richard.' I just knew it. He had
that innocence and he's really smart. He's the sweetest kid. He's a
thoroughly decent guy. Zac's a poker player. He's always a step ahead. I
would say that it's the same in life. If you underestimate Zac or think
he's anything less than... in a poker match, he will have taken your
Linklater was also aware of the trappings of the "passive observer"
character and made sure to write something with a little more heft:
"You've got to give that guy a lot to do. You've got to make him
aggressive. He makes all his own fate. He wasn't just plucked off the
street; he's working. He's a smooth operator. He goes over to Gretta and
starts talking. He's not just some innocent, neutral doe-eyed guy. Orson
likes him: 'kid's got balls.' A hustler can appreciate another hustler.
And so Zac had all that. He's really charismatic. He's a leading man. If
you cast somebody who's a little more dorky or a little more neutral, he
disappears from the movie. All you would remember was Orson Welles. I
needed someone formidable."
Whether or not Efron works in the role is up for debate, but the
verdict is in on British actor Christian McKay, 36, who portrays Orson
Welles at age 22. Most reviewers are proclaiming him the best Welles
since Welles. McKay accompanied Linklater for the conversation, and the
resemblance (especially the commanding voice) is remarkable. McKay tells
the story of how he first made the connection between himself and
Welles. "I was unemployed after eight months of lovely employment at the
Royal Shakespeare company at Stratford-Upon-Avon in the West End," he
says. "A friend of mine suggested: it would be very interesting to do a
real-life performance. That might be a very interesting acting exercise.
It's a cheap form of theater: the one-man show. You can take it
everywhere. And he said, 'Now what about Orson Welles?' And that was the
first time it really registered. And I was immediately on the defensive:
'I'm not that fat.' I was totally and utterly insulted."
Now, however, McKay has accepted his connection with Welles. "I was
in Morocco last year, and this ancient Arabic woman started shouting at
me, and I thought, 'what have I done?' And a friend said, 'This lady
here says you look like Orson Welles.' And she said, 'Orson came here.'
And she just took me in. It was the shot set in the Turkish bath in
Othello. And I walked in and I couldn't believe it. It's exactly as it
was. When he walked in there, he must have thought, 'this I can use.'
The natural sunlight is just absolutely beautiful. The way he used it,
though with the reflection, all that water is in there. It was
Sad but true; an entire generation grew up knowing Orson Welles only
as a kind of oversize icon on television, doing wine commercials and
other nonsense. "Who knew what he did? He was just Orson Welles,"
Linklater says. "He was a voice and a big guy. I remember seeing him on
Merv Griffin, or Mike Douglas, one of those talk shows. And the guy was
going, 'Oh and you narrated that Nostradamus. He predicted all this
great stuff." And Welles, was: 'It's all a bunch of rubbish.'"
So both McKay and Linklater threw themselves into Welles lore. "The
best way to play a part is to be it," McKay says. "When you start
reading about him and watching the films and listening to those
incredible radio plays that still stand up now, it's like an education
in itself. It just leads you onto other things. I love Spanish culture;
it's one of the things I had in common with the old man. I've always
thought: you've got to sit down and read Don Quixote. And I've never
done it. And then suddenly you read it, and the themes seemed so
relevant. It was like I went to the university of Orson Welles."
Thankfully, Linklater decided not to emulate Welles' style in the
making of the film, mainly because the idea didn't really fit the
material; in 1937, Welles hadn't yet become a filmmaker. "He was
certainly cinematic. He was thinking of films, and he had made a short
film," Linklater says. "But I thought it would be a huge non-starter, a
huge mistake to do Welles. In fact, I saw this in a completely different
genre: there's a little whiff of screwball comedy. I mean, you can't
really remake a screwball comedy, and we weren't trying. It's not that.
But there's just an air, vaguely like that. I thought it was fun to put
Welles into that setting, because he never would have put himself in
there. He never would have directed or appeared in a film like this. But
his own life must have been the stuff of great comedy."
It's easy to be inspired by Welles, and enthusiastic about him, but
very hard to emulate him. How, then, to guide McKay's performance? This
Welles is boisterous, monstrous, brilliant and commanding. But where is
his humanity, and the all-important flaws? To solve the problem,
Linklater and McKay decided to let Welles drop his armor in a few
crucial scenes. "I love the parts where he could take down the mask, and
he always did it with Richard. Because Richard is no threat at all to
him, until he realizes late in the film," McKay says.
Linklater continues: "We kind of graphed out how much he's acting and
performing. There were the two parts: reading Ambersons in the
ambulance, and then on the park bench. Maybe we see the soul of the man.
Or do you? How do you know he's not acting to some degree? I think
Welles was always performing. He was a showman. Everyone around him had
to be enthralled and entertained at all times. He was very aware of his
myth as the greatest filmmaker. What a burden to operate under! I think
people just wanted more. Why didn't he have John Huston's career? Or
Billy Wilder? He was of that era. He could have had a great 1940s, '50s,
early-to-mid '60s. That was the heyday. But he was never, ever going to
fit into that system."
The real Welles is gone, of course, but McKay has all but resurrected
him for a brief time in Me and Orson Welles. There have been a few
re-creations of Welles over the past few decades, in films like Heavenly
Creatures (1994), Ed Wood (1994), Cradle Will Rock (1999), RKO 281
(1999), Fade to Black (2006) and Man in the Chair (2007). It's a
performance that deserves to re-kindle an interest in the great artist's
career, as well as earn some accolades for McKay. "I think Christian has
kind of scorched this territory for a generation," Linklater says. "It
would be like someone playing Ray Charles right now. Who's going to be
able to pull this off again anytime soon?"
December 1, 2009