Interview: Gary Oldman Discusses Mankiewicz, Fincher, and ‘Mank’

Gary Oldman is Herman J. Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s MANK — Courtesy of Netflix

Gary Oldman has become a legend in his own time, with such iconic characters as Lee Harvey Oswald, Dracula, Sirius Black, and Commissioner Gordon. Since the early days of his career, Oldman has embraced a wide range of parts, has played in every imaginable genre, and has become one of the most recognizable actors in the business, even with his chameleon-like ability to disappear into every new role.

In 2011, Oldman received his first Academy Award nomination for his leading role in the John le Carré adaptation, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Six years later, he would win the Oscar for his captivating performance as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour.

One of the busiest actors working today, Oldman has added nearly a dozen more credits to his filmography since winning his first Academy Award. In his most recent release, Mank, he stars as Herman Mankiewicz in the story of how one of old Hollywood’s most reliable script doctors would eventually go on to write one of the best films of all time.

This week, we sat down with Gary Oldman to talk about Herman Mankiewicz and working with David Fincher.

(L-R) Tuppence Middleton and Gary Oldman star in MANK — Courtesy of Netflix

Karen Peterson/We Live Entertainment: I’m delighted to talk with you today about Mank. How did this project come about for you and what interested you about playing Herman Mankiewicz?

GO: I knew very little about Herman Mankiewicz. I knew that there was an association with Citizen Kane. And that is really about it. I mean, you literally could put it on a postage stamp. I knew more about Joseph Mankiewicz because of this illustrious career that he had. My producing partner, Douglas Urbanski, was approached by David Fincher, and they do what they do behind the scenes. So it was brought to me fully baked, in that sense.

I had known David for a very, very long time, socially and as a friend, but thought I might never tick that box of working with him. And it came in, and it was one of those where you’re walking along, singing your song, and suddenly something drops from the sky. And you go, Wow, David! And, why, that would be thrilling to work with Fincher. And then of course the script, the character. Just imagining how he was going to tackle this sort of golden era of Hollywood. [It was] one of the best scripts I’ve read in a long time. It was instant. Yeah, I’m in. I’m committed.

KP: You’ve played so many different types of characters, fictional, literary characters, real people, and you won your Oscar for playing Winston Churchill. Is there a difference for you in how you approach a fictional character versus someone who actually lived?

GO: I think you have a responsibility to the family members who are still around. I feel that you have more of a responsibility to that than you would with a character that you’re just making up. It’s still a work of fiction as such. It’s all hearsay, isn’t it? I mean, you can read books. And I felt that any other work that I did outside of the script matched very much with what I was reading on the page. I felt that Jack Fincher, who’s David’s father, who wrote the screenplay, had really captured an essence or the spirit of Mank on the page. A lot of my work was done for me.

But we don’t know what those conversations were really like. So you are playing someone. You’re not playing someone as iconic as Churchill. That was a bigger challenge because just his silhouette is so well known. And the hundreds of books that he — you know he wrote 50 books himself — or the hundreds of books that are written about that time and Churchill. So you feel that you’ve got added sort of weight on your shoulders, because the character is so famous and so iconic.

I had a little more leeway with Mank because he’s not as well known. But you still have family members that still are around, and so you can’t really can’t take too many liberties. With a fictional character, it’s anyone’s game really.

KP: As you got to know Mank, this version of him and who he was to his family, what are some of the things that you really admire about him?

GO: He really stuck it out. He came to Hollywood very early on and he was writing cards for silent movies. And we have to remember that when he’s writing Kane, talking movies, they’re still relatively in their infancy. There’s a quote by Mank, and he said, “It’s such a shame, you spend your life doing something you hate. And then one day you wake up, and you turn around, and you’re an old man.” I think he felt that writing — until Kane — that writing for the screen was beneath him. But he had a family, and was a husband and a father. And he was he was taking care of them.

Really, it’s not so much a movie about the arbitration on a credit as much as it is a film about a man who is not living up to his potential, and then gets an opportunity to leave something behind. And that’s why I think he was so adamant that he wanted his name on it. That for the first time in his life, or for a very, very long time, here was something that he was writing. He was writing something from the heart, and it was working. Rather than being a script doctor, or, you know, he wrote a couple of films for the Marx Brothers.

He was so funny and so witty, Mank. He could literally do that stuff in his sleep. I mean, his idea of final draft, he said, is what you put through the typewriter the night before. (laughs) I mean, he was really sort of knocking this stuff off. But I admire the tenacity of him to stay in there.

And then along came Welles. And really, as he says early on in the movie when he’s drunk, and Sarah’s putting him to bed, he says, “Give me a sign, o Lord. I am your servant.” And he jokingly says to her, “If the bush in the front yard catches fire tonight, you will let me know.” That bush, that’s Welles, at the end. You know, that’s his sign. And he really left something behind that that he was proud of. I mean, I said I knew nothing about Herman, but I knew that he had written Citizen Kane. That much I knew. So you know, he’s left us with that.

KP: What a gift it is. Can you talk a little bit about working with David Fincher and and how he helped you get to where you needed to for this role?

GO: He wanted to capture that quality those actors had. We’re looking at an era before James Dean, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando. There’s a different style of acting. And if you look at Cary Grant in those early movies, or Edward G. Robinson, you just wind those people up, man could they get through dialogue. And David wanted something that was crisp and sharp and unfussy, and in the style of a less contemporary way of approaching the material.

Now, the job was half done for you because the way that Jack had written the script, he himself had captured an older nuance or tongue in the material. So it’d give you enough rope in the earlier takes, but then David would come in and adjust. And it’s living in the word, live in the line. So you don’t act before the line, on the line, and after the line. It’s a different type of delivery. And simpler. It’s just not as fussy, as naturalistic acting can be.

We had three weeks of rehearsal and we went through the script. We talked about the characters, we talked about the relationship of the characters, we went through specific sentences and paragraphs and made changes where he felt that we needed to, literally down to sometimes, “What’s a better word? What’s the word we’re looking for? We need to change that word.” So he was very forensic-like on the material before we even started shooting. And once we started, that was the Bible. That was it. We had done that work. And he loves to shoot. He doesn’t want you hanging out in your trailer. He wants to really utilize the time he has with you.

We would like to thank Gary Oldman for speaking with us.

Mank is now streaming globally on Netflix.

Written by
Karen Peterson is the Awards Editor for We Live Entertainment. She previously worked as the Assistant Editor at Awards Circuit, now owned by Variety. Her work can also be found at Citizen Dame and at the Watch and Talk podcast. Her non-awards season hobbies include Angels baseball, taking pictures of other peoples' pets, and tweeting about The Bachelor franchise.

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