Being Orson Welles

by Marshall Fine, Los Angeles Times

Actors Liev Schreiber and Angus Macfadyen each take a crack at playing a Hollywood legend. 

 Every so often, Hollywood spins out the kind of dueling duals that seem more than coincidence: twin asteroid movies one year, a pair of Wyatt Earp pictures another, a matches set of Christopher Columbus films before that.

But not since John Belushi faced off with Joe Cocker have we had anything quite like the dueling portrayals of Orson Welles presented in HBO’s ‘RKO 281’ (with Liev Schrieber playing Welles as he makes ‘Citizen Kane’) and Tim Robbins’ ‘Cradle Will Rock’ (with Angus Macfadyen as Welles in his pre-‘Kane’ New York Theatre period).

Having previously played Richard Burton in ‘Liz: The Elizabeth Taylor Story’ (1995) and Peter Lawford in ‘The Rat Pack’ (1998), Macfadyen was well acquainted with the challenge of creating a character who already is firmly etched in the public’s consciousness. He harbored no trepidation about portraying the most celebrated and debated filmmaker of all time.

“I’m stubborn and stupid so I jumped with both feet,” he says. “The thing about playing people who existed, who were established, is that there is so much research to draw on. I love that search into history.”

Not that Macfadyen is about to start doing his Orson Welles impersonation at parties any time soon.

“You try to avoid doing an impression,” he says. Schreiber concurs, “If you spend too much time doing an impression, it keeps the audience at arm’s distance.”

Schreiber was less sanguine than Macfadyen about the idea of playing Welles; though he had auditioned for the role in ‘Cradle Will Rock’ (losing it to Macfadyen because he looked too old, though Macfadyen is actually older than Schreiber), he initially turned it down when it was offered for ‘RKO 281’.

“He’s one of those characters who’s kind of sacrosanct,” says Schreiber, currently rehearsing ‘Hamlet’ at the Public Theatre in New York. “They’re big shoes to fill. I got nervous because I didn’t want to somehow disrespect the memory of the character.”

Yet, while avoiding caricature, it was important to simulate the Welles voice, so deep and commanding: “The voice he used in film and radio was his, but it was also put on for film and radio,” MadFadyen says: “I found this priceless piece of tape where he is rehearsing ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,’ and then he gets something wrong and his voice went up into this high, loud, anarchic rant as he berated himself. And it was a key to this quality of his Dionysian personality.”

In trying to create the character of Orson Welles, tyro film director, Schreiber focused on “how isolating it must have been, at the young age of 19, to be one of the most famous young men in America,” he says. “All he knew, all he had to live up to was this mantle of genius – at a great cost in emotional maturity and personal relationships. And all he really had to gauge reactions to what he was doing was the press, which is the most powerful mirroring one gets in one’s life.”

Macfadyen calls Welles a much tougher acting challenge than playing Burton or Lawford “because of the energy level. It was necessary for me to reach that level at all times. And to sustain it through 30 takes.

“With Welles, I found the root was his very powerful confidence, at times even a desire to dominate people. He was a bit of an alchemist. He caused a chemical reaction in the people around him. He caused things to happen.”

Like Macfadyen, Schreiber availed himself of the numerous biographies of Welles, as well as watching ‘Citizen Kane’ several times, sometimes with the express purpose of helping to re- create moments from that film in ‘RKO 281’ (which was the numerical production designation of ‘Citizen Kane’ at RKO pictures). He even looked at Vincent D’Onofrio’s performance in a cameo as Welles in Tim Burton’s ‘Ed Wood’. “For me, that’s just an actor thing – I love to see how other actors do things,” he says. “Some people are shocked that I would go see other ‘Hamlets’ before I played him. But it’s always interesting to see how other actors do a role.”

As a movie character, Welles has turned up before, usually in TV films. The late Paul Shenar portrayed him in 1975’s ‘The Night that Panicked America’, A TV movie that was more about the panic caused my Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’ radio hoax than about Welles himself. Edward Edwards played him in little more than a walk-on in 1983’s ‘Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess’. And D’Onofrio slipped in and out of ‘Ed Wood’.

But this is the first time Welles has been the focus of a film, feature or TV, and Robbins, who wrote and directed ‘Cradle Will Rock’,  has already heard some grumbles from those who hold Welles’ memory sacred. The muttering about Macfadyen’s dynamic, showy, occasionally boozy interpretation of Welles in ‘Cradle Will Rock’, misses two points, Robbin’s says: that this isn’t a film about Welles, and that Welles was hardly a saint.

“Welles was a provocateur,” Robbins says, “and I think Angus nails that. In nailing it, he’s made some people feel uncomfortable with that Welles. But I thought it was consistent: How does this guy do what he does? How does he have the brass at that age to do what he did?” 

For all the research the actors did on his life and all of the film available of his performances, Welles remained a fascinatingly enigmatic figure: “I read five biographies and got five different accounts of the same thing,” Schreiber says, “which in and of itself is very telling.”

“His work was all about studying the heart of darkness in man,” Macfadyen suggests. “So he did a ‘Macbeth’ with voodoo – and told people he believed he was possessed by the devil when he played Faust. In some ways he was making himself the study of his own films.”

And what would they say to him, if the late Welles were still alive?

Cracks Schreiber, “I’d say, ‘Can I be in your next movie?'”

HBO’s Party Beats Vanity Fair’s

Sunday, January 25, 2004
By Roger Friedman

Everyone from old-line stars like Al Pacino and Jessica Lange to new sensations like Jude Law and Maggie Gyllenhaal took over the Chateau Marmont last night and partied with HBO.

The cable TV studio’s gala was the place to be in Hollywood, far surpassing Vanity Fair’s wheezy deal for old fogies at one-time studio head Mike Medavoy’s house. 

Ironically, The Hotel Chateau Marmont in Hollywood has always been thought of as cursed. Built into the side of a hill and looking like a Spanish castle, the hotel is lodged in the minds of many as the place where John Belushi died among its various scandals. 

On Friday, famed photographer Helmut Newton added to the lore when he died of a heart attack as he piloted his Cadillac out the front driveway and slammed into the retaining wall a few feet ahead of the exit. The chain link fence there is now dotted with memorial flowers left by fans, and the red stop sign perched high atop a pole is tilted back from the impact of Newton’s accident. 

But on Saturday night, the curse was lifted, at least momentarily, as movie stars – barely giving a backward glance toward the trouble of a day earlier – gathered for HBO’s annual pre-Golden Globe party. The event was presided over by the cable studio’s recently-knighted impresario Colin Callender and his beautiful wife, Elizabeth. (“I was with Mick Jagger at the ceremony,” Callender said of being knighted. “He was very lovely about it.” Even Keith Richards might approve.) 

And what began as a huge, sprawling event that featured Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas, Pacino, Lange and Jacqueline Bisset grazing in the garden area, wound up as a wildly heady intimate party in the Chateau’s almost never used dining room. The space, at best only 20 feet by 20 feet, has its own haunted feel. In two decades, I’ve never actually seen anyone eat dinner in what was always a drab blue square dotted with uninviting tables. But the hotel’s owner, New Yorker Andre Balazs, has done a couple of things recently: He’s spiffed up the room and started dating, most publicly, Golden Globe nominated actress Uma Thurman. The combination was like a clarion call. 

By midnight Saturday rolling into Sunday morning, nominees “Cold Mountain’s” Law and “Mystic River’s” Tim Robbins were deep in conversation about the movies. Law, wearing a trim off-white suit, balanced his girlfriend, 21-year-old actress Sienna Miller, a petite blonde with a hearty laugh, on his lap. (The pair met while filming the remake of “Alfie,” due out later this year.) 

Robbins’s wife, actress Susan Sarandon, sat facing them, and to got know actor Angus MacFadyen (“The Rat Pack”). Pacino drifted through with his 14 year old daughter, Julie, while British actor Tom Wilkinson, looking spiffy in a soft shouldered designer jacket, chatted with Lange and other fans and friends. 

Earlier, in the garden, already working to keep the Chateau curse at bay, Banderas and the much altered looking Griffith waved to Kim Cattrall, of “Sex and the City,” and her colleague Kristin Davis. The actor Josh Charles, fresh from “SWAT” and the really good, but now cancelled TV show “Sports Night,” was there while original supermodel Janice Dickinson whooped it up with popular New York hair guru Edward Tricomi. 

“About Schmidt” director Alexander Payne and his wife, actress Sandra Oh, lolled around the small lobby, crushed into an area where new couple of the moment, hot young actors Peter Sarsgaard and Maggie Gyllenhaal, recounted stories of judging the films at the Sundance festival. 

All this time, there was vague talk of a party producer Mike Medavoy and publicity minded magazine Vanity Fair were having somewhere, but no one seemed to know much about it. “Who could be there?” someone said. “Everyone’s here.” 

Somewhere else, manager Benny Medina was celebrating the reclaiming of Jennifer Lopez from Ben Affleck – fiscally, not romantically – at a birthday party he threw for himself. Medina, Affleck’s rival for Lopez’s real attentions – booty, not bootie, if you know what I mean – has scored a Pyhhric victory, at best, and one of limited interest at best. 

But back to the Chateau, where “Kill Bill” director Quentin Tarantino blew into the room, devoured Thurman and Balazs, and then took up his own corner in the dining room with several beautiful young women listening like rapt film students as he launched into one of his beautiful, loud gesticulations on all subjects. 

“In America” director Jim Sheridan, looking dazed from all the attention (even after making “My Left Foot,” “In the Name of the Father” and “The Boxer”), talked about his next movie. “It’s really about America!” he declared. 

Luckily, there’s no smoking ban in Los Angeles because the wafting of white swirls gave the room the feel of an old New Yorker illustration or a William Hamilton cartoon depicting the crowd from a distant, boozy night. It was the kind of party where Inga, a blonde Tricomi hairdresser, felt comfortable enough to approach Pacino. 

“I can do ‘Scarface,'” she told him, and launched into an imitation of Tony Montana for Pacino who was even more wide-eyed than usual seeing a young woman channel his violent and profane former character. It didn’t hurt that Pacino – who seemed to be enjoying his status as a nominee for HBO’s “Angels in America” – was turned out like a wild version of Shylock, the Shakespeare character he’s currently filming, with his long gray hair tied into a pony tail and baggy clothes flowing in every direction. 

But there’s no question, as we surveyed the room and saw Colin Callender presiding over his kingdom (14 Golden Globe nominations for HBO), that Jude Law is the real star of the future. If he gets his Oscar nomination for “Cold Mountain” on Tuesday, and he very well may, Law will be on his way to a long, serious career as the big movie star/serious actor of this decade. He may replace Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise and Cary Grant as a double threat in comedy and drama. Almost done with a tricky divorce scandal from Sadie Frost, Law handled himself with aplomb. 

“Did you see me with Sarah?” he said, referring to the Duchess of York, who he’d run into earlier at a low-key tea for the British Academy Awards. “I couldn’t get away from her! Me and Fergie!” he said, with a laugh and a wink. 

And so it’s off to the Golden Globes next, and whatever may come after, including parties thrown by New Line, Miramax, Universal, HBO, InStyle magazine and Access Hollywood partnering with Target stores (I don’t know what that’s all about). And even later tonight, after parties galore, with Creative Artists’ Agency once again taking over the Chaya Brasserie for what should be the A-list capper of the night.