Me and Orson Welles is the latest film from director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused). Set in late-1930s New York, it’s both a nuanced, entertaining look at Orson Welles’s early career as founder of the Mercury Theater and a charming coming-of-age comedy about a stagestruck teen (played by Zac Efron) who ends up cast in Welles’s groundbreaking production of Julius Caesar. We posed some questions to Linklater regarding this somewhat unexpected new film, about his take on the genius at its center and the amazing acting discovery who inhabited him. Me and Orson Welles is currently playing in limited release, and coming to more theaters across the United States. —Michael Koresky
What led you to make a film about Orson Welles, and specifically about his early years with the Mercury Theater?
It’s become a fairly obscure moment in his career, given the ephemeral nature of the theater and the more notorious work in radio and film that was just around the corner for him. In that way, I always referred to this as a sort of Young Mr. Welles: everyone knows what’s coming in his future, but it’s interesting to see the seeds of all the greatness, as well as the traits that might cause him some trouble in the future—it’s all there to be reflected on. He’s only twenty-two years old here, and you can feel he is pushing his own boundaries, and maybe discovering he really doesn’t have any, both artistically and personally. More than anything else, though, I saw it as a wonderful story about youthful ambition and creating art in a collaborative environment. I don’t know if I’ll ever do a film about making a film, but making a film about a theatrical production is pretty close to home.
You have a very different filmmaking style from Welles. Your films often have a casual, almost real-time feel, whereas Welles is known for grandness, even ostentation. Yet I feel there are certain shots—during the staging of Caesar and the last shot—that go for a certain Wellesian flourish. Were you consciously trying to achieve this?
First off, you’d have to say that almost every filmmaker before or since has a very different style from Welles, not just me. Just watch Othello or Touch of Evil again, and you’ll always be reminded. One of the greatest joys and biggest challenges on this was the reimagining of the production itself. It was a lot of fun to attempt to re-create his very dramatic stage lighting. As I tend to bend toward the realistic, I doubt it will ever be appropriate for me to have such dramatic lighting in a movie of mine, but we were just taking our cues from what Welles had done in this production. There was the upward lighting from a series of holes in the stage, where he was trying to capture the feeling of a fascist rally, like something you might see in Triumph of the Will, or the way he flooded the audience with light from behind the conspirators as they each stabbed Caesar—very cinematic. We had some pictures and descriptions to go off of, but a big rule was to avoid any specific references to shots in any of his films—that was in his future, and wouldn’t have been appropriate. If you think about it, this movie is closer to a screwball comedy in its pacing and banter than a film Welles himself would have made or even appeared in as an actor. I don’t think he saw himself as comedic, but the largeness of his personality and the energy whirlwind around him actually lend themselves quite naturally to a more upbeat tone and tempo. On a historical side note, the story goes that Greg Toland saw this particular Mercury production of Caesar, and when he heard Welles was off to Hollywood to make a movie, he set up a meeting with him. He was so impressed with what Welles had done with his lighting that he said he wanted to work with him, so the greatest director-DP collaboration in film history really starts here.
The actors employed as Welles’s Mercury crew are each note perfect, but Christian McKay as Welles indeed towers over them. His embodiment of Welles is uncanny, even effortless. How did you find him?
It’s ironic that Christian was the actor with the least amount of film experience, and here he is lording over everyone else with such authority. Christian’s performance, when you think of what’s required and the degree of difficulty, is an utter wonder. You mention effortless, which in my book is the ultimate compliment to a performance, but Christian was pulling off a hell of a transformation. First off, if you saw him walking down the street just now, I assure you you wouldn’t say, “There goes Orson Welles.” When you’re looking for it, you see a resemblance, but every cast and crew member can tell you about the first time they witnessed this incredible transformation. Here’s this upbeat British gentleman at one moment; then the voice deepens and changes accent, the eyebrows narrow just a bit, the head turns at a slight angle to make a point, there’s a subtle, all-knowing, self-satisfied smirk. He really becomes this other person, and it goes so much further than mere technical imitation—it’s a full embodiment, which on paper seems nearly impossible when it’s Welles you’re trying to be. I mean, who the hell can believably be like that?
I think the key to Christian’s performance is that he brings himself to it, which any actor would try to do naturally, but what Christian possesses that so few have is the absolute self-confidence and elevated air of someone who has lived their entire life with an extraordinary gift. In Welles’s case, he was famously identified as a genius at a very young age and could never think of himself as anything else. Christian’s gift is musical—he’s a world-class pianist, traveling the globe, playing with various orchestras . . . He’s that good and always has been. He came to acting a little later professionally, and has been primarily a stage actor up until now. He’s an incredible talent, truly one of the most remarkable people you’ll ever meet, and I hope he gets his due for this performance.
Sorry for going on about him, but, unbelievably, as I answer this question via e-mail, I’ve been informed that he didn’t get a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Welles. All I can say to that is I feel he has a better chance of this kind of recognition when he’s being judged by actual critics, or in the case of the Academy, by other actors, who’ll be the ones actually nominating. If your focus is putting on a star-studded TV show to get ratings and placate distributors who are throwing a lot of money at you, that’s one thing. If you’re an actor evaluating his performance, you’re more likely to come to the conclusion that neither you nor anyone you know of could have remotely pulled off what he has. They’ve given out lots of statues for so much less.
Is there a particular film in the Welles catalog you feel the strongest affinity for—and why?
No one particular film, though if I could watch one right this minute, it would have to be Chimes at Midnight. It’s a CRIME that it’s not more readily available. Welles’s daughter Chris talks about how his performance as Falstaff brings tears to her eyes. In Me and Orson Welles, he’s Prince Hal—one wonders if he knew he would age into Falstaff. Anyway, there should be a cinematic mandate that this film be fully restored and available to all.
One thing I particularly loved about the film is listening to 1930s teenagers, played by Efron and Zoe Kazan, chatting about the music and culture of the day (their love of Porter, Gershwin tunes) like it was a living and vital thing. Do you see these characters in a pop-culture continuum with characters from, say, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise?
Sure. Even though the film is set more than seventy years in the past, no one ever existed in any other time but their own present, which inevitably is made up of plenty of minor details and immediate enthusiasms. It bugs me in period films when it seems like the actors are conscious they’re acting in a period film and everything gets so damn serious and important. Zac and Zoe’s characters are doing what young people have always tried to do, and that’s seize their moment. It just reminds you that no matter how crappy the world around you is, in the world of art and personal expression, there’s always plenty to be excited about.