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Quint chats Orson Welles with Richard Linklater, Christian McKay and Zac Efron!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a nice, film geek conversation for you this fine Wednesday morning. I was lucky enough to get a chat with Richard Linklater, Christian McKay and Zac Efron when they were in Austin to premiere Linklater’s ME AND ORSON WELLES. In the film, a high schooler with aspirations to act on Broadway (Efron) gets a once in a lifetime chance to be a part of Orson Welles’ (McKay) company as they gear up to put on what would be one of the most famous interpretations of Shakespeare’s Julius Caeser in the history of theatre. I was quite taken with the film, which is just this incredibly solid coming of age tale told against the backdrop of a “puttin’-on-a-show” story. Efron is good as the wide-eyed innocent thrust into the cut-throat world of theatre, McKay is bombastic (as he should be) as Welles and Claire Danes plays a flirty young woman with her eye always focused on the next rung of the ladder. As you might expect when you get someone like Richard Linklater in a room the talk turns to vintage film pretty quickly, especially with McKay joining in the fray with his encyclopedic knowledge of Welles’ life. Efron was the quietest of the bunch, but came across as a nice guy, soaking up the knowledge of those around him. The below interview does cover a few plot points, so I’ve put a spoiler tag on this article. Enjoy!

Richard Linklater: How’s Harry doing?

Quint: Harry’s doing great.

Richard Linklater: Tell him I said “hi.”

Quint: I will. So I saw the flick and I really dug it. I’m a big fan of the “Putting on the Show” story anyway…

Richard Linklater: Yeah, yeah, the backstage stuff.

Quint: In a really odd way it kind of felt like… I know this is going to sound super crazy, but it felt like an eighties Woody Allen movie. Like THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO or…

Christian McKay: RADIO DAYS…

Richard Linklater: Yeah, the feeling he evokes when he does his period films.

Quint: Yeah and that’s something that I think you in your films, even in DAZED AND CONFUSED it’s kind of the same way where it’s totally the period, but it’s not kitschy and that’s what I felt about what you did in this film..

Richard Linklater: I hope not. You want to evoke a period, but I always say “No one lives in a period piece. It’s always people.” I find that so charming that you are just living your life at that moment. They don’t know it’s going to be… I think Welles might, but they know it’s going to be the most famous Shakespeare production in US history. It’s charming what Zac’s character says, “You can close Thursday, but it’ll be remembered in 50 years…” That was the extreme of his thinking, 50. That gets a little snicker from the audience who are like “70, 72 years… and going.” Zac Efron: Yeah, there were a couple of ladies at a screening that really got a kick out of that. She goes “Those shoes would not go with that dress!” What was that lady who came up to us and was all like “That was wrong!” Richard Linklater: Your Converse? Your Chuck Taylors? Not you. Zac Efron: Yeah, not me, but Claire [Danes]. They were really pointing things out. Christian McKay: Old people. Zac Efron: “Nope, we would never do that. Not those shoes!” It was really funny.

Quint: The chaos of the behind the scene stuff, especially leading up until the night before the show, I think gave the movie a lot of tension.

Richard Linklater: It’s a good narrative device. You can almost feel the clock ticking the whole way. It’s like “Okay, opening night (is coming). It’s Thursday and it’s now Saturday, Sunday…” You get the feeling like “Okay [Makes ticking noises].” It’s like there’s this big event coming and you can kind of feel the momentum. I always called this movie “on its feet.” Like “Let’s get this thing on its feet. Let’s start rehearsing on the stage.” By the time Zac’s character comes aboard, not only are they on their feet, they are sprinting around already. It’s the last week it’s all up and moving.

Quint: It’s like “A Day in The Life,” the Beatles song, where they have that big orchestral piece where it goes all crazy and everything is starting to…

Christian McKay: A musical orgasm.

Quint: (laughs) Yeah, and then it hits into this perfect note. That to me, for some reason, is what I felt.

Richard Linklater: I think that’s the magic you get in theater that you can’t ever get in films. Film is such a process, you get the eight takes or the twenty or whatever you need, but with theater you really can’t. The audience is here, the curtain and lights come down, and you guys (looks to Zac and Christian) get to experience that in theater, but you don’t ever really get that moment in that way.

Quint: Christian, let’s talk a little bit about the role. I’m sure with everyone the first question is about filling Orson’s shoes, as he is one of cinema’s greatest personalities and I have to imagine as an actor the challenge is going to be doing justice to what people’s impressions of Orson are without just mimicking his boisterous personality.

Christian McKay: You are dead if you do mimicry or an impression or an imitation. You can only give the audience a flavor, because he’s gone, but if it’s an impression then you need an impressionist. And there are impressionists who do his voice, but when you hear them you can hear the falsity. The false note rings straight away. The great thing about this character is everybody has their own take on him. I’ve got books and books on him and they all disagree with each other and he would love it like that. He created these myths and legends about himself right from when he was a child, he fabricated the truth and of course there are these apologists all over the world for him that say “He did that, because he was an artist! He’s got the artistic soul.” No, he lied! It’s just the truth! Richard Linklater: Whatever worked for him. Christian McKay: The lie is the nice way of saying “the myth.” Of course years later when he was struggling and couldn’t get financing for movies and he was prevented from creating all of these film ideas that he had, was because of the lies other people had told, so he was undone in a sense by his own myth. There’s kind of a morality tale in it, but I didn’t want to play him as an apologist. I wanted to know why he did that, but I’m good friends now with Norman Lloyd, 95 years young and still working, and he told me stories occasionally… He said “You play Welles as a monster.” I’ve heard stories about him that would make your toes curl that were much worse than anything depicted in the movie, all of which is based on fact. Every action he makes in the movie is based on fact as much as we could research it. They say how cruelly he treats Richard at the end and I said to him on the park bench “Give me tonight and tonight you can do whatever you want!” In other words, he’s sacked! [Everyone Laughs] Christian McKay: “I just want tonight.” People say that’s cruel. Yeah, perhaps it’s cruel, but in the world of the theater that’s nothing. Richard Linklater: There has to be a leader who can make that Machiavelli choice to… you know. I mean, I’ve had to get rid of actors before. It’s really painful. Christian McKay: Or great fun! (laughs) Richard Linklater: (laughs) It’s tough to do, but you have got to make a choice for the bigger picture. I don’t know what Welles’ bigger picture was, probably whatever his impulse was he figured was the right choice with everything he was doing. He’s not very conflicted about his choices. Christian McKay: There are those people and you know, he treated people sometimes in ways that later he… You know, he could justify everything to himself and that was the most important thing to him, but everybody else in the world might of seen it completely different. Richard Linklater: That’s one of his big themes, the unknowableness of a person. I think on one hand KANE was an obvious reference point, you know Welles himself said “You can be at once a great man and a mediocre individual.” Christian McKay: I think Welles is entirely a great man, but he is an entirely mediocre individual. As a man I wouldn’t like him very much. Richard Linklater: He said that as a guy at 24. He was aware of that. He didn’t have to wait to be an old man to be aware of these innate contradictions. Christian McKay: And my God, he fulfilled that prophecy, didn’t he? Richard Linklater: Yeah, he made a whole movie about it and that was just a part of him, but I think he was very generous too to those loyal to him. Look at the closing credits of KANE or AMBERSONS and how generous he is to his company and puts himself last. Christian McKay: The end of THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, I love that bit. (Welles voice) “And I did everything else.” (laughs) Richard Linklater: Right! (laughs) But he’s trying. There is in there a heart that wants to… Christian McKay: According to his contract he didn’t need to credit (Wolf) Mankowitz at all. RKO wanted it to be “produced, directed, written and starring.” Absolutely a quadruple threat. In his contract, and I have seen his contract, there was no mention of Mankowitz. He did that, because he knew he had gone a little step too far, I think, and he backtracked.

Quint: So you think it might have been political?

Christian McKay: No, I think ultimately it was emotional, but he didn’t have to do that.

Quint: So Zac, your character in the movie, I think, is a very tough one to play, actually, because as much as a tight rope as Christian had to walk, you have to represent an innocence without being precious if you know what I mean. How did you approach that?

Zac Efron: I thought a lot about my experience in the theater and the way that I kind of walked into this other world. I just connected with it, but at the same time it all felt so foreign and different. I sort of had a similar experience with my first production and there was this woman in the show who was an actress, but she was the most brilliant performer I had ever seen. I had never seen anything like her and she had this incredible voice and she really took control of the show. She was our point person and I remember being in awe of her and watching her from the wings. Remembering what that was like, I couldn’t get enough and school suddenly felt like this other world, so I think I have been there before. That’s why it felt right. Richard Linklater: Well you are right, with that part he could have faded away. That neutral guy in the middle who is the guy through which you are seeing “the great man” through his eyes. That’s why I wanted Zac, because he when this movie is over, it’s a failure if all you think of is Orson Welles. We have two leading men. Do you remember MY FAVORITE YEAR? It’s great, but I can’t for the life of me remember the lead character. I remember Peter O’Toole, but that other guy fades into the woodwork for me. I remember it being a charming story, but because he’s “the guy.” Fortunately Zac brings that leading man quality and you realize he’s making all of his own fate. There’s an interesting moment in the film when Orson realizes it, like “Oh, this kid… I have completely underestimated him. He’s behind the scenes, dating Sonja.” Christian McKay: (in Orson voice, with a sly smile) “Don’t worry about it, Junior.” Richard Linklater: It’s like “Oh,” because there’s a lot more there than you thought.

Quint: The casting in the movie as a whole is great. I was actually really blown away by James Tupper as Joseph Cotten.

Richard Linklater: Thank you. Yeah.

Quint: He was a complete surprise to me, because I had heard so much about both of your performances going into the film, but…

Richard Linklater: But real film people get the detail, like “Oh, you got the right Cotten. You respected Cotten enough,” because he’s iconic in his own ways, not as big as Welles obviously, but for film lovers Cotten is Joe Cotten! You had to get that right. Again, the planets just kept lining up for us. We were starting rehearsal and we didn’t have a Cotten. I just could not find Joseph Cotten anywhere and sure enough when he showed up it was like “Wow, finally someone…” He was the same height and his favorite actor is Joe Cotten, he’s got that little hair… It’s like “The film gods have given us Welles and Cotten! We can make this film now!” Christian McKay: And we got on great. Right from meeting him. Richard Linklater: He’s a great guy, but you know how you would think Cotten would be, like the fun guy who has got a little shit going with everybody.

Quint: He also seemed to kind of represent Orson’s heart in a way. To me how it came across in the film was that he was the heart of the company and Orson was the brain.

Christian McKay: Yes. Richard Linklater: Yeah, he was older with a bit more experience and I think he understood Orson in a way that no one else did. I think their life long friendship proves that. Zac Efron: Then he fired him in HORSE EATS HAT. Richard Linklater: He could fire him, but he understood him. Christian McKay: And he fires him, of course, in KANE as Jedediah when he finishes off the reviews. That is very interesting. Richard Linklater: But there they are all the way through their lives together. Christian McKay: And Orson was proofreading his autobiography towards the end and he lost it. He actually lost Cotten’s biography…

Quint: He literally lost it.

Christian McKay: When Orson died Joe Cotten’s on the phone saying, “I’m sorry about Orson… Could you look in his belongings and try to get me my manuscript back?” He had no other copy of it. They had no other copy of it. They got it back eventually, but my theory was that Orson was like “You are going to talk about that…?” Richard Linklater: “Oh, you’re going to bring that up, Joe?” Because Welles famously didn’t write an autobiography. He might have taken an advance on one, but… Christian McKay: He didn’t know what was truth and what was fiction probably.

Quint: That would have been fascinating, though.

Richard Linklater: The closest you can get is maybe from those long interviews with (Peter) Bogdanovich, but even then you feel like… Christian McKay: He wrote for Paris Vogue about his father and mother, which I actually think is the best writing he ever did. It was really beautiful. “My Father Wore Spats” it’s called. And it’s a complete and utterly made up fictionalized account of his mother being a crack shot with a rifle and you name it. “She led the Suffragettes in Chicago” and just this nonsense. It really is. Extraordinary. His father invented the motorbike lamp. He actually invented the thing that when you rode your bicycle, that thing that generated the lamp? Orson Welles’ dad invented that and also the kit for the soldiers in the first World War, that collapsible kit. Orson Welles’ father. They were very, very rich. Very rich.

Quint: It’s so weird though, because you have that kind of outlandish stuff that could just as easily be fake as well.

Christian McKay: Sure, but don’t you find that the truth is always, almost without exception, the truth is always more interesting and that’s what I can’t really understand. I found a couple of things and then heard the true side of the story. Richard Linklater: But it’s a personality thing, hiding behind the myth and the falseness might be a safer place for some people. Christian McKay: Yes, indeed or creating something that’s seemingly more spectacular to your own mind. Richard Linklater: It’s more interesting for the creator.

Quint: “Print the legend!”

Christian McKay: Yes, of course! Absolutely! Richard Linklater: Welles lived by that, obviously.

Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about Claire, too since we are running out of time and she is such a big part of the film as well. This is a movie about gray area, I think. There are all of these gray characters. You can love Orson or you can hate him. Claire is almost the same way. She is not cruel, but her actions are.

Richard Linklater: It’s a hard thing to pull off and that’s what I think Claire brings to it. She is so grounded in a reality I felt she could do these things that are hurtful to the guy we have poured our heart into and that you would at least understand her and recognize the painful element to that, but everyone’s got their reasons. If you backtrack, she kind of warned him and she is just being who she is. Zac Efron: There’s a whole other side of the industry that doesn’t make sense when you are a kid. When you’re seventeen you can’t quite… Richard Linklater: This is Richard’s “Welcome to the adult world” where everyone has got different motives that aren’t necessarily fair and democratic, the way you were taught in school is like “Everybody gets a turn.” No, he owns a theater. No, she’s got her own agenda… Zac Efron: You have these concepts of what’s fair and right. Richard Linklater: “Welcome to adulthood.” Zac Efron: That’s not at all how Orson operates. Richard Linklater: That’s not how the world operates… Any hierarchical system or business it’s always like that.

Quint: So did you guys have to work on keeping that groundedness or was that all naturally Claire? To me, if that hadn’t worked then all you would have been left with is the show and that could have been good, but it would have been a very flawed film. If you had hated Claire at the end of the movie I think it would have derailed the film.

Richard Linklater: Yeah, if you didn’t feel some sympathy… I think it’s a lot how Zac plays it though, because at the end it’s like “Good luck. I wish you luck.” You kind of come to your own painful recognition.

Quint: You also give it a safety net a little bit with the girl in the museum, too.

Richard Linklater: “There’s always Greta,” but he doesn’t know that opening night. It’s like a little gift. Christian McKay: I think the audience will be thinking Greta is the one… Richard Linklater: Yeah, they share tastes.

Quint: And we see them meet first and so naturally it’s like “This is where the young love is going to come in.”

Christian McKay: But you are going to have to go a long way in your movies to beat five of the worlds most beautiful women, Zac. It’s more than James Bond has managed in the last two movies! That’s the record I’m setting: five. (laughs) And I’m not counting the ballerinas, either. I have that fictionalized in my mind. (laughs) [Everyone Laughs]

Quint: Oh yes. You have got to start the legend now.

Christian McKay: I’m talking about my character! (laughs) Richard Linklater: That was the subtext of everything to the part where Orson does The Shadow… the girl on the radio… Every female he encountered… we had back stories…

Quint: My favorite Orson Welles performance is THE THIRD MAN, what about you guys?

Zac Efron: Everyone was telling me about THE THIRD MAN... Christian McKay: But how many scenes is he in? Just a few. Richard Linklater: It’s just a good example of… Cotten is the lead in that, but you come away with Welles.

Quint: True, he’s not in the movie all that much, but Harry Lime is felt in every frame of the film.

Richard Linklater: Yeah. And the greatest entrance you could ever give an actor.

Quint: Criterion put it out on Blu-Ray, but it just went on print, so if you can find a copy, now is the time. [Laughs]

Christian McKay: Did it really? Richard Linklater: That was quick. Christian McKay: In 1950 whenever he walked into a restaurant, café, pub, or bar or even just walking down the street, anybody with a musical instrument began playing the Harry Lime theme. He said he hated it! (laughs) He said it was like Japanese water torture. But I think for me it’s Falstaff. That’s his greatest performance. Richard Linklater: I like his Charles Foster Kane. I keep coming back to that having seen it more than any of the others. I love his Othello, too. If I could see one Welles movie right this second I would watch CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT/FALSTAFF, because it’s not out there. There’s not a good looking (transfer). That film should be revived. There are some estate issues. Christian McKay: Especially in this country. It never got a fair release in America. Richard Linklater: It never did, but I showed a 16mm print like 20 years ago… Some lawyer had a print, someone in the estate, but that’s about it. In the early nineties OTHELLO got beautifully restored and that has to happen with FALSTAFF. Christian McKay: They rerecorded the music, because that music is one of the most beautiful soundtracks on a film. Richard Linklater: It was an incredible performance. I think his performance in KANE is only overshadowed by his directing, but it overshadows an incredible performance. Christian McKay: Just consider that’s his first film performance, not counting THE HEARTS OF AGE, which I have sat through, which is wonderful. Richard Linklater: That’s his little short. You have seen that, right? His little short he made in like 1934 or 1937, really early as a teenager he shot some film. It was this thing that they were doing at this summer… Virginia Nicholson is in it, his future wife. Christian McKay: My wife plays Virginia in the movie. Richard Linklater: And Chris Welles, who was en utero in the film, came to a screening. We had a screening in New York the other night and she came to it. Christian McKay: I got to hang out with my 72 year old daughter! (laughs) Richard Linklater: Great talking to you, man.

Quint: Definitely. Thank you guys so much. It was really a pleasure.

Zac Efron: Thank you very much. Christian McKay: It was nice to meet you!

There you have it. I’ve been asked to hold my Peter Jackson interview until early January, but the newsiest part of it I already ran with. It’s a good chat, but you can wait until 2010. I’m going to try to get my chat with Bobcat Goldthwait posted before BNAT to mark the DVD and Blu-Ray release of his twisted black comedy WORLD’S GREATEST DAD. Keep an eye out for that! -Quint Follow Me On Twitter

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