In Movie, A New Look At Orson Welles Filmmaker Richard Linklater is taking on another auteur for his latest picture, Me and Orson Welles. The movie targets Welles' early years with the Mercury Theatre. Linklater discusses that phase of Welles' career and the unknown actor chosen to play him, Christian McKay.
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In Movie, A New Look At Orson Welles

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In Movie, A New Look At Orson Welles

In Movie, A New Look At Orson Welles

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More than 70 years ago, another director took on the end of the planet. The radio production of the "War of the Worlds" made Orson Welles a star. But Welles had already been hailed as a genius a year earlier for a stage production. He was 22 years old and the newly founded Mercury Theatre did a groundbreaking adaptation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar." Here's Welles from a radio production.

(Soundbite of radio production, "Julius Caesar")

Mr. ORSON WELLES (Actor/Film Director): (as Julius Caesar) Brutus' love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.

SMITH: It's that Orson Welles that captivated modern day director Richard Linklater. He's the Austin-based (unintelligible) behind the films "Dazed and Confused," "School of Rock," and "Before Sunset." His latest is called "Me and Orson Welles," which takes place during that production of "Julius Caesar." It's about a teenage actor played by Zac Efron, who learns the ropes at the feet of the master.

(Soundbite of movie, "Me and Orson Welles")

Mr. CHRISTIAN McKAY: (as Orson Welles, Brutus) I know young bloods look for a time of rest.

Mr. ZAC EFRON (Actor): (as Richard Samuels, Lucius) I have slept, my lord, already.

Mr. McKAY: (as Orson Welles, Brutus) It was well done, and thou shalt sleep again.

Mr. EFRON: (as Richard Samuels, Lucius) Really. (Unintelligible).

Mr. McKAY: (as Orson Welles, Brutus) Lucius, I love you beyond measure. You're the one person in this entire company who doesn't need anymore rehearsal. You are what I call God-created actor.

SMITH: Richard Linklater, welcome to the show.

Mr. RICHARD LINKLATER (Director, "Me and Orson Welles"): Oh, thanks for having me.

SMITH: So this is set in 1937, and that's a year before Orson Welles�

Mr. LINKLATER: Mm-hmm.

SMITH: �produced "War of the Worlds." So, what attracted you to this early 22-year-old version?

Mr. LINKLATER: Yeah. Well, I think when most people think of Welles, they think, you know, they maybe start at "War of the Worlds" and quickly get on to Hollywood and "Citizen Kane." But at this moment in time, he and John Houseman have started the Mercury Theatre and "Caesar" was their first production. And it still goes down in history as, you know, the greatest Shakespeare production in U.S. history.

So it was fun to recreate this kind of vibrant moment in his life where he's kind of finding his own genius, and you see him so confident. You just see the Welles that you're going to see in "War of the Worlds" and radio and film. He's reinventing all - every medium he's touching at this point. So he's supremely confident.

(Soundbite of "Me and Orson Welles")

Mr. McKAY: (as Orson Welles) I am Orson Welles.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as Character) Selfish.

Mr. McKAY: (as Orson Welles, Brutus) And every single one of you sent here is an action to my vision. You want a career in the Mercury Theatre and in everything else I plan to do? Then remember one simple rule: I own the store. You don't like the way I work here? There's the door. Find somebody else to star you on Broadway. We open tomorrow.

SMITH: Now, you cast an unknown, or a relative unknown�

Mr. LINKLATER: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

SMITH: �at least in the film world, as Orson Welles.


SMITH: And that's Christian McKay, who did a fantastic job. This is the kind of role that I think a lot of actors would have loved to grab.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Did you think about going for a famous Hollywood movie star as Orson Welles?

Mr. LINKLATER: Yeah. Well, obviously, early on, it would maybe help the film get financed or made. And then you think, well, it just - remember like "Gandhi?" You know, no one knew who Ben Kingsley was unless you maybe knew East London, you know, stage or something. That was magical. You could say, oh that's Gandhi. I'm watching a film about Gandhi. My producer saw that as a plus. And, you know, every now and then, there's a breakout performance that excites everyone.

The key to his performance is actually, Christian, is a world class pianist. He traveled the world, you know, performing. He was told he was a genius from a very young age just like Welles. He kind of has this elevated spirit about him, big personality. So, the key to this performance is him bringing himself to it.

SMITH: Julius Caesar isn't the only dictator in the film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Orson Welles - is the first time, I guess, people have seen his style of work. How would you describe him as director?

Mr. LINKLATER: Well, first off, I mean, he's young, he's 22, but he is a genius. He has this concept. He's done an amazing adaptation. You know, he'd written books on Shakespeare as a teenager.

SMITH: But enough of the nice stuff. The guy was kind of a bully at times and emotionally manipulative?

Mr. LINKLATER: Yeah, he's a little overbearing at times. But if you see some of those arguments that he's having with John Houseman - and they notoriously yelled at each other a lot - there's a certain entertainment value to them. There's a wit. So, within all of it, I think he was probably a lot of fun to be around, as long as you could find your little subservient position within his genius that takes up pretty much the whole room.

SMITH: Well, did you direct actors the same way Orson does in the film?

Mr. LINKLATER: No, no. I might think some of the things he says, but I would never say them out loud.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Richard Linklater is the director and producer behind the new film, "Me and Orson Welles." It opened this weekend in New York and L.A. - more cities to follow.

Richard Linklater, thank you so much.

Mr. LINKLATER: Oh, nice talking to you.

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