Indeed, Linklater loves the fact that, in addition to his acting prowess, MacKay is also a classically trained pianist and was a child prodigy. "It just means that he brings that whole experience to the mythology of Welles as a young genius," he notes.
The movie, which is based on a novel by Robert Kaplow, focuses on high school senior Richard Samuels (played by Zac Efron), who meets Welles and manages to get himself cast in the director's 1937 starkly modern, anti-fascist production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. "Since Zac is a triple threat -- an actor, singer, and dancer -- we tried to utilize as much of all that as we could," says Linklater. "But even though the story is told from his point of view, he still plays a guy who's playing a small role in a big production."
While Linklater is best known for such contemporary-set films as Before Sunrise and Dazed and Confused, he relished the opportunity to visit the 1930s. "I love this period -- the Mercury Theater, The Group Theater, the WPA (Works Progress Administration)," he notes. "We did everything we could to recreate the period on our fairly small budget."
McKay was discovered by Linklater while playing Welles in the Off-Broadway production of Mark Jenkins' bioplay Rosebud. "You know, Welles himself used to talk about starting at the top and working his way down," says MacKay in his own beautifully calibrated non-Welles voice. "And I'd already played the full spectrum of Orson both young and old [in Rosebud] on both sides of the Atlantic, so I thought I was about done with Welles. Then up popped a bit of divine and diabolical luck. I was in the upstairs theater pub one night after the show, sipping Rosebud cocktails and blithely nattering on to anyone who'd listen, while this friend of Robert Kaplow's waited an hour and a half for me to come down so he could tell me about the book and how they were going to make it into a film. And I thought, 'Yeah, right!' But he got Robert to come see me and Robert called Richard [Linklater] who, despite a sports injury, flew in on the last day of Rosebud."
The film mixes fact and fiction, with appearances from such real-life notables as John Houseman (Eddie Marsan), Joseph Cotton (James Tupper), George Coulouris (Ben Chaplin), and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill), as well as several fictional ladies including Welles' ambitious assistant Sonja (Claire Danes) and Gretta (Zoe Kazan), a budding writer. But it's the title character that's likely to garner much of the attention.
"I'm probably the only actor who ever had to lose weight to play Orson, but he was only 22 in 1937. So I dropped 2 stone [about 28 pounds] for the role," says McKay. "But in 25 years, I can gain it all back and then some. You see Richard and I have a retirement plan, where we'll make some sort of sequel about Welles' later years -- kind of like bookends."