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The Sober Gary Oldman Talks About Playing a Drunk in ‘Mank’: ‘I Do Know About That’

In his portrayal of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the actor never minded director David Fincher's endless takes: "I'm there to serve the director."

Mank

“Mank”

Netflix/screenshot

Gary Oldman is coming up on 24 years sober. “But I remember,” he said in our telephone interview. That helped him to play notorious alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s biopic “Mank.” “It’s a chamber piece, a character piece more than anything else. I think it’s about alcoholism. I do know about that.”

In the ’30s, people who drank too much did not have the resources for recovery that exist today. “‘Drink responsibly,’ what do they say in this day and age?” said Oldman. “Now we have Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s a legitimate movement. We have rehabilitation and interventions, all of that. All they had was temperance societies. AA was formed the mid-30s and became a fellowship in 1946. Drinking was looked upon just as an everyday thing. A friend of Mankiewicz once said to him, ‘Why don’t you go home sober for once?’ and he said, ‘What? And have Sara throw me out as an imposter?'”

Sara (Tuppence Middleton) was Mank’s anchor. “Sara was very tolerant, he absolutely adored Sara,” said Oldman. “She was his rock and sounding board. He had great respect for her. Maybe he did not always treat her respectfully. She allowed these platonic relationships with these women.”

In the script by Fincher’s father, Jack, fact and fiction blend. The heart of “Mank” is his connection to movie star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who was the trophy San Simeon hostess for William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). “It’s alcohol,” said Oldman. “It takes one to know one. They bonded in that way. The old man used to go to bed early when they had parties there. I do know she had hidden gin in various spots in the garden, because Hearst abhorred alcohol.”

But Mank’s real relationship to Davies may have been fleeting and superficial. “That was speculation on Jack Fincher’s part,” said Oldman. “We read stories about Hearst going to bed and everybody having fun in the house. The mice play while the cat’s away.”

As ever, Oldman dug into researching the screenwriter and his milieu. One thing that Mankiewicz did do was send the famous telegram begging his old Broadway and Algonquin chum Ben Hecht to join him in Hollywood:

Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures. All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around. — Herman Mankiewicz.

Gary Oldman in “Mank”

Netflix

“He’s sort of a lovable rogue, a despicable rogue, with a heart,” said Oldman. “He hated most of what he worked on. Screenwriting was beneath him. His dream was writing the great Broadway play and novel. A great deal was expected of Herman and his brother Joe by their intellectual parents. He ended up in a town he didn’t like, hating what he was doing, in an industry he despises. He was raking it in. And one is charmed by him.”

Mankiewicz’s extraordinary collaboration with Orson Welles on “Citizen Kane” was his greatest success, even if who did what remains in dispute (thanks to critic Pauline Kael). “Mank played a critical role in moving the films from the silent era into the talkies,” said Oldman. “Film was still relatively new, only nine or 10 years old. He wrote many of the wonderful, wisecracking, fast-talking comedies from that era. His names were not on them. Most of the work was written and handed off to someone else.”

Mankiewicz contributed, for example, before he was removed from the project, the black-and-white Kansas prologue for “The Wizard of Oz.” He argued for the “need to establish these characters and Kansas before we move into the magical fantastical world of Oz in technicolor.”

Herman Mankiewicz (right) with Orson Welles, ca. 1940s

Orson Welles with Herman Mankiewicz

Courtesy Everett Collection

Oldman, who is 62, had no concerns about playing a character 20 years his junior. “When I saw a picture of Mank with Orson Welles in 1941 [when he was 43], he looks about 70. People have that gravitas in that era, they seemed to look so much older.”

What did give him pause was that Fincher wanted him to play the role, unlike his Oscar-winning “Darkest Hour” Oscar-winner Winston Churchill, without prosthetics. “David wanted no veil and no stuff between the audience and the performance,” he said. “It wasn’t really David, it’s my baggage, my anxiety. I thought I was pretty naked up there. ‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘That’s what I want. No schtick. No stuff. I want you to be as naked as you’ve ever been.’ I resisted momentarily. Once we started, the only thing I did was to put on a few pounds to get that alcoholic whiskey tummy. Of course, I did  none of that for Churchill. There I was on the phone with Christian Bale, ‘What was your diet when you did Dick Cheney?’ Churchill was such an iconic figure. He looked so particular. With ‘Mank,’ I didn’t have the same kind of pressure on me, and so after a week into it, I relaxed, he was right, to just say, ‘Don’t worry about that.'”

Mank Netflix

“Mank” costume party

Netflix

Fincher’s exacting day-for-night sequence walking outside the Castle Zoo with Seyfried required special sun-blocking contact lenses so the actors wouldn’t squint. Unlike Dance, Oldman didn’t mind the director’s finicky attention to detail. One sequence that took three or four days to complete, with multiple setups, was the drunken costume party scene at Hearst Castle, complete with dinner guests.

“If you look, there’s coverage,” said Oldman. “David didn’t do 100 takes on me. We had many multiple angles on the scene, which was eight-nine minutes long, many people in the room. It’s nice to get a bigger bite of the apple. Many people don’t have the budget that David enjoys, but they spend months and months in pre-production — beautiful sets, elaborate costumes — and then you get in front of the camera, because now you’re working against the clock with budgetary restrictions, and you get two or three takes and move on. I am always struck by the madness, with all this detail, you put all this work in, and you only get a couple of goes at it.”

"Mank"

Gary Oldman in “Mank”

Netflix

Oldman relishes having the chance to try again and again. “As an actor, you are contracted,” he said. “You are work for hire. You have a 12-hour working day, you come in, and if the director wants to shoot it 10 to 60 to 250 times, I’m there to serve to the character, the story, and the director, and until I clock off, if that’s what someone wants to do, I’m happy to be there. But he’s meticulous. He’s looking for perfection, and that means the performance might be great in particular, but you didn’t move your head far enough around and the key light didn’t hit you. He wants all the elements to work so he has it in a master, in a medium close-up, and he has it in close. There’s a freedom in trying different things. Once the performance is there for David and he gives a thumbs up, he then comes in and gives notes between takes, and he’s looking for all the elements working. ‘We’re going again because this or this was great, but we need that to work now.’ He’s looking at the whole thing.”

The final results are worth the trouble, he said. “It’s one of the few pictures I’ve done that is so transportive. It’s a luxurious thing to watch, even though I’m in it. I can get lost, it puts you in bit of a trance when you’re watching it. I’m amazed.”

Someday, Oldman will direct a follow-up to 1997’s “Nil By Mouth.” He’s pursued many things. “Every time I get an idea,” he said, “I put it out in the market. But there always seems to be a seismic shift that happens in the industry, that particular thing goes out of vogue.”

He’s been raising money for a  project he wrote 10 years ago. “I know how long it takes,” he said, “how many days I need, how much it would cost. I had an opportunity to do it half-budgeted, and it would be so many compromises. I just said ‘No, I’ll do it how I want to do it.'”

Even Fincher couldn’t get “Mank” going for 25 years because “no one wanted to do it in black and white,” said Oldman. “All kinds of obstacles. That’s why it sat on the shelf. Along comes his Netflix relationship, they didn’t flinch and said ‘OK.’ “It is because of that we’re here talking about ‘Mank.'”

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