orson welles

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?'”

Enjoying His Angus Beef

by Natasha Stoynoff, Toronto Sun 

For his upcoming role as Orson Welles in the Tim Robbins film, ‘Cradle Will Rock’ – which is in competition here – actor Angus Macfadyen put on 20 pounds the hedonistic way. 

“I ate three steaks for lunch instead of one, and two pieces of chocolate cake for dessert, and I didn’t exercise at all,” says the Scottish actor of his two months of force-feeding before filming began in New York last fall. 

But then, dear Angus, who played Robert the Bruce in ‘Braveheart’, discovered what most women learn early: “It takes a lot longer to lose it than to gain it,” he confided during a cocktail party at The Majestic Hotel, where he triumphantly turned his back on the fabulous and highly caloric dessert table. 

By the time he began shooting his next role in ‘Titus’, with Jessica Lange and Anthony Hopkins, he still hadn’t shed the extra beef. But that’s because they were shooting in Rome. And when in Rome: 

“You just can’t lose weight in Italy,” he insists. “The pasta, the bread, the wine.” 

The actor has a lot on his plate, professionally speaking, too. With both ‘Titus’ and ‘Cradle’ making appearances at Cannes this year, Macfadyen is bound for fame. 

Like most actors, he thinks he’ll never work again. 

“I’ve already had a three-month break,” he says. “So after Cannes, I have to go back to L.A. and look for another job.” 


The California sun. “I have a permanent suntan,” says the formerly pale Scot, “which is fine by me.” 

Angus Macfadyen: Delivering Truth Through a Lie

(Articles in this section were kindly donated by ‘Fritters’. Misspelled names corrected throughout by Deejay.)

by Christina Nunez 

Angus Macfadyen seems laid-back, on the surface. Although he is playing Orson Welles in Tim Robbins’ ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ and will be seen with Jessica Lange and Anthony Hopkins in ‘Titus’ later this month, his acting ambition is not all-consuming. “I’m not a workaholic,” Macfadyen claims. “I don’t like to work consistently, go from job to job. I like to have a lot of down time, and in that time I do a lot of writing.”

Sometimes he combines the two: The actor says that when a script is bad, he will rewrite all of his scenes. If this sounds troublesome, Macfadyen avers that his help was welcome on 1997’s ‘Warriors of Virtue’. “I had agreed to do this role so long as I was allowed to rewrite it. It was written as a bad James Bond thriller and I rewrote it as a Taoist villain, a character who spouted philosophy. …And it was welcomed, in a way, because it was an improvement on the material.”

Presumably, Macfadyen had less script doctoring to do on his two most recent projects. Though the films were radically different from each other; one a ’30s drama set in New York, the other a Shakespeare adaptation filmed in Rome with ‘Lion King’ musical stage director Julie Taymor; both featured directors who had written their own scripts.

“[For Taymor and Robbins] it was a very personal vision,” says the 36-year-old Scotsman. “Both of them had insisted on a three-week rehearsal period, which was incredibly necessary, considering the films were so technically complicated. So once we got going it was a question of relying on those three weeks in which we’d done a lot of character work, because there wasn’t much time for anything else with all the technical difficulties.”

Macfadyen concedes that the ‘Titus’ shoot was particularly tough, with an intense “heart of darkness of man” theme complicated by the project’s $20 million budget and technical ambitions. Though the Rome shoot stretched from three months into five, the actor says that just meant more time “soaking up the sights and sounds of Rome.”

He also credits Anthony Hopkins for off-camera entertainment. “There are actors, and Hopkins is one of them, who love to joke around. [He’ll] do his impressions of Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole, and you name it. He’ll do them all. Just to try and alleviate a bit of the pressure.”

Playing Orson Welles in ‘Cradle’ was a different kind of challenge. Macfadyen has built a good deal of his career on playing real-life figures: He was Richard Burton in the NBC movie ‘Destiny: The Elizabeth Taylor Story’, Robert the Bruce in ‘Braveheart’, and Peter Lawford in HBO’s ‘The Rat Pack’. But the actor says all of the research can help as well as hurt.

“You can sort of start drowning in it to some extent,” he notes. “…There’s got to be something, you know, like a key, or some little hidden piece of knowledge which you know, which is sort of the secret, out of which everything else sort of emanates.”

That key came a few days before filming, when Macfadyen unearthed a piece of ’40s rehearsal tape revealing Welles’ more playful side. “I was worried about [the role] for awhile, until I found that piece of tape. …At that point I had let go of anything I; I threw it all out the window and had fun. That’s what I heard: a scenery-chewing, intense, huge, generous spirit of Dionysian quantities.”

Macfadyen, who is single and plans to spend his New Year’s Eve on Scotland’s Isle of Skye in “the middle of nowhere,” is slightly more retiring but no less intense. He abandoned ambitions of being a diplomat when he realized “I wasn’t going to be able to go out and have to lie in the real world for a country when I’m sure it would have created some sort of moral dilemmas. So I chose something like acting; in a sense, telling the truth through a lie, through an illusion. The ultimate paradox of life.”

Macfadyen’s next projects are a play called ‘Back When/Back Then’ by Raymond Barry and the role of Zeus in ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, but he hasn’t given up the pen. “I do have my own voice, as it were, and vision of the world,” he says. “I have things I’d like to say about it. So it’ll lead there somewhere down the line, in the next few years.”


“Well, being a Westerner, I’m still prone to all the temptations and distractions which are provided,” admits Macfadyen.