The Verge: Christian McKay


"The key to Christian McKay," says Richard Linklater, "is that he is that four-year-old who was told he was a genius." Perhaps that's how McKay (who studied to be a world-class pianist before making the switch into acting) was able to embody Orson Welles so fully in Linklater's upcoming Me and Orson Welles, and perhaps it's also why McKay is eager to return the favor by doling out similar compliments to virtually everyone he meets. On a recent day in Los Angeles spent promoting the film, McKay was so determined to flatter everyone who crossed his path (to a CBS reporter who preceded me, he exclaimed, "I must call my parents to tell them I spoke to CBS News! You have made my day!") that he left most reporters swooning.

In between blandishments, I talked to the breakout actor about his vocal technique, the line in the film he concedes is badly-acted, and the unexpected perks of playing one of history's greatest filmmakers.

It's interesting that you have such a strong musical background. I've long found that with very musical people, there's a facility for sound, voice, and mimicry that can only help you as an actor.

Totally. No, I totally agree with you, Kyle, I think everything is ultimately musical. Our voices, the sounds of the city -- everything's musical. An impression of Orson's voice is easy. To give flavor to it, to embody it was very, very difficult. It took me a long, long time.

What was hard about it?

That accent, that extraordinary voice. I'm a baritone and sometimes occasionally, a lower-range tenor, so I had to do it physically and learn to open my chest. You know, I did the same when I played a eunuch, I went very, very high, like a mezzo-soprano. It's technique, but sometimes you have to learn the technique.

It actually sounds like it could be physically painful.

This was eighteen months ago, but when I watched the film, I couldn't believe how low my voice was. I used a portion of my mouth as a kind of echo chamber and a totally open throat, but that actually helped the physicality of him. It's more difficult playing a real-life person than a fictional character -- you can go easy on yourself with a fictional character.

Now, you've played Welles before onstage. How much do you let your knowledge of--

God, you've got a great voice.

Hey, thanks.

No, really. Now, that's what I'm talking about! That timbre! That authority!

I'll lend it to you if you want.

[Laughs] Well, I've got a pretty good one myself.

Anyway, I was about to've played Welles from youth to old age in the theater, but in this film, you're playing a very particular moment of him as a young man. How much do you let your knowledge of his future inform your performance?

Well, you have to totally ignore anything that happens after. It was easier to play the old man at seventy, 350 pounds with a beard, than it was to play the 22-year-old.


Because I had to go back myself. I was 34 when I made the movie, so I was going back to when I was 22! I was playing Rachmaninoff then, at 21. I had to bring that into play, that bluster and arrogance, as far as personality is concerned. In terms of the film, it would have been dangerous to think, "In a couple of months, he was doing War of the Worlds." Then, lines like, "How the hell do I top this"...well, that's a very bad-acted line when I watch the film, because that's not Orson at all. That's me.

It's a wink at the audience?

It's just me, Christian. Orson's gone. I thought, "That's my line, not his." He went on to write Citizen Kane, War of the Worlds, untold masterpieces. No, I felt like that...after the film, what are the possibilities?

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