WHAT A CHARACTER
Gary Oldman has played some of film’s most iconic characters, both real-life and fictional. In this wide-ranging interview, he opens up to Lucy Allen
olden Globe nominee Gary Oldman is tipped to land an Oscar for his portrayal of Hollywood screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz in Mank. In the film, directed by David Fincher, the British actor — who won the Best Actor Academy Award in 2018 playing Sir Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour — plays Mankiewicz as he wrestles with the screenplay for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane.
GIt’s finally Oscars month, delayed from February when it’s usually held. What’s it like to win an Oscar? Does it make you want another one?
Well, I’m looking for bookends! To win an Oscar is thrilling. When you don’t have an Oscar and you’re not in the running, it’s easy to say, “Ah, whatever. Does it really mean anything?” In the big scheme of things, I don’t know. It’s awfully nice to have one, to be recognised by the Academy, but no, you don’t think, “I’ve reached the summit” and “Oh, now I need two.” When you’re in the running it feels like it’s everything, it’s coming at you like an express train. It’s the air you breathe — it’s Oscar, Oscar, Oscar or the awards season or the campaign. Then it culminates in a big event and you pinch yourself the next morning when you see it sitting there. You go, “Cor blimey! I’ve got an Oscar!” And then life moves on pretty quick.
When did you get the call to do ”Mank”?
We started shooting a couple of years ago. It came through my producing partner, Douglas Urbanski, who was in talks with David Fincher. I’ve known David socially for over 25 years. I thought because of that relationship I might never get to work with David. But not only was this a great piece of material — one of the best scripts I’ve read in a long time — but it was with Fincher.
Are you an old Hollywood kinda guy or did you have to step into that persona?
Well, I’m 62 years old. I’ve seen a lot of movies in those years, a lot of them from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, so I’m familiar with that world, but I knew more about Joseph Mankiewicz [film director, screenwriter and producer], Herman’s brother. I only knew Herman from the Citizen Kane association. The script for Mank was written nearly 30 years ago by David Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher. Not only did Jack love movies, but he really did his homework and had captured the essence of Herman in the script.
How is it that the black and white, the short edits, work so well in the film?
We knew that David wanted it to be immersive — he wanted to transport the audience back to that era. He was going for a look that’s slightly film noir — he used a patina and did some magic with the soundscape. We had to consider the colours of the walls, the furniture, the clothes — there are certain colours you can’t use because they won’t photograph in black and white — you need different shades of contrast and saturation. He wanted to create the feeling that you were watching the movie in an old movie palace with voices bouncing off the back wall. Technically, the film went through a huge process and I’m saddened that not enough people will see it on the big screen. When I was in London it was showing at the Curzon cinema in Mayfair for a limited run, very close to my hotel. One night we snuck away during Covid to watch it. The cinemas were open but we were masked and there was social distancing. There weren’t many people in the audience but it was a treat to see it on a 40ft screen.
Herman Mankiewicz is pretty much the smartest guy in the room, but often also the “messiest”. You’ve played alcoholics and addicts on screen before. How do you find that balance of not just having a sloppy performance, because this is a meticulous performance, but you need to portray that inebriated manner?
The script was my map — emotionally, but also the way that it was structured, the
paragraphs, the sentences. The way that we spoke in the movie was on the page. Jack wanted to capture that old Hollywood feel. In terms of the drunkenness, Mank was either drunk or hungover. There aren’t many scenes actually where Herman isn’t either drunk or tipsy. But David would calibrate that and occasionally he’d call from the monitor, “Less drunk!”
Irving Thalberg [who co-founded MGM with Louis Mayer , played by Ferdinand Kingsley in this film] has a scene with you where he says, “Oh the things you could be if you got out of your own way.”
Yeah, Herman was in his own way. Like a lot of alcoholics, there’s got to be someone you can point a finger at and blame. Herman came to Hollywood and had aspirations of being a great playwright or novelist — he considered both an art form. At first he wrote the cards for silent movies — remember that the talking picture was in its infancy. Even by the time they made Citizen Kane, film wasn’t considered an art form. It was certainly beneath Herman. The money was terrific — it paid a lot more than you could make as a copyist, critic or journalist (he was a secondstring theatre critic back in New York). He really did send a telegram to his associates and buddies in New York saying, “Come out, there’s millions to be made and your only competition are idiots.” Ultimately Citizen Kane or American, as the original script was called, was his ticket to being remembered. He didn’t get his name on a lot of what he wrote. He wrote for the Marx Brothers and was influential in working on The Wizard of Oz. It was Herman’s idea to shoot Kansas in black and white and have Dorothy step through into Oz and go into technicolour. His name never appeared on that film. There was a lot he did that he never got credit for. He was happy to live the good life, boozing it up, earning an incredible amount of money. With Kane he felt, “Finally I can leave something behind that I can be remembered for.” He was proud of it.
Do you think he saw himself as a tragic figure? Does anyone, while they are living through it, particularly someone that smart?
No, not a tragic figure. I mean, it’s no secret, because I don’t live anonymously in that sense, but I’m a recovering alcoholic and I’m celebrating nearly 24 years of sobriety. I knew I had a drinking problem when I was drinking. You know. He would have known. But there’s always an excuse. You procrastinate. He said, “A final draft is something you put through the typewriter the night before you have to deliver it.” You don’t necessarily see yourself as a tragic figure but you are aware that you’re not reaching your full potential.
There are so many great lines that Herman tosses over his shoulder and that he says through the side of his mouth past his cigarette. How many of those were documented and how many came from Jack Fincher?
Oh, there are a lot of funny lines that were written by Jack Fincher. But Herman was also a great one for the one-liner.
He says things like “The Wizard of Oz won’t work because the dog has a bad name.”
Oh yeah, now that would be considered unacceptable. It was a different age, a different era. We had two/three weeks rehearsal and meticulously went through the material doing character work and examining the script —
“Do we lose this? Does this make sense? Is there a better word? Can we get there, can we say that a little quicker?” We went through it forensically with David. I’d found some funny quotes by Herman and David said, “Bring them in, if we can find a place for them we can add them.” One of the ones I found was, “If I ever go to the electric chair, I’d like you to be sitting in my lap” — that came in late in the day. And when he says the Writer’s Guild is in its infancy, it’s in trouble, and Herman says, “You’re telling me. What screenwriter failed to notice Screen Actors’ Guild needs an apostrophe.” That’s a real Herman line. But Jack is a good writer, he can write a funny line. He captured an era, he captured a sensibility and a way of speaking.
The rhythms of the script sound like a musical. There’s a jazziness to the way the characters speak.
It was a different kind of acting, back then. It all changed with James Dean, Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando, that school of acting. They turned the evolutionary wheel a notch with their approach, although Stanislavski had been doing it that way for a long time. There was a particular style of acting, you can see it if you look at Cary Grant. I loved it as a kid. I still do. Edward G Robinson — heavens could he get through a sentence. I admired it so much. I had, not necessarily an advantage, but an understanding of it because I was classically trained. I was drama school trained and spent time on the stage. Amanda
[Seyfried] is luminous. She has that quality for nothing, but she has a very modern way of acting, so that rhythm, that way of speaking, was new to her. You don’t act around the line, you don’t act before the line and after the line. You do all the work on the line, and that’s what you see when you watch those old movies. They’re really sharp. It was a challenge for some of the younger actors because they’re used to a certain method or style of acting. David would always remind us, “Articulation!” He would say, “It’s the teeth and tongue in conjunction with the lips.”
You’ve been in popular franchises — Harry Potter and Dark Knight. Are there any characters you’d like to go back to?
I’d like to revisit [aging spymaster George]
Smiley from Tinker Tailor. He runs in many of the [John le Carré] books but there’s the follow-up, Smiley’s People. That would be a character to revisit. There are a lot of things I’d like to go back and redo if I could have another crack at it. But no, that’s my own insecurity, my own baggage, that’s nothing to do with the people who love those movies and like my performances. I once read that if John Lennon had his way he would’ve burned everything and re-recorded it. Thank heavens he didn’t do that! But I understand the sentiment. I heard that and thought, “Yeah, I could burn it all and start over.”
What about directing? “Nil By Mouth” [written and directed by Oldman] was such a personal film. Did you feel that was a movie you wanted to make but otherwise don’t have this burning need to be a director?
I’ve written many other screenplays and tried to get them made — unsuccessfully. I have one I’ve been working on for eight or nine years. I’m proud of it. It’s a period film — well, it crosses time — but it’s set in 1870. David tried to make Mank in ’97 but the studios at that time had foreign deals and there were restrictions on the delivery — it had to be under two hours and it had to be in colour. He’d always imagined the film in black and white. He put it back on the shelf. Then along comes Netflix who said, “What do you want to do next?” He gave them Mank and they said, “This is interesting” and “We don’t have a problem with black and white. Go for it.”
You’ve played Dracula, Lee Harvey Oswald, Sir Winston Churchill — is there any role that you’re still coveting?
I never knew Herman was out there until the role dropped in. A few people commented that I’m older than Herman. I don’t think David was concerned about height, weight, age — he felt I had the qualities he was looking for so he didn’t worry about the fact that I don’t look anything like Herman. But a few people mentioned it. They said, “Well Herman was 43 and you’re 60…”
It was a hard 43 though?
Yes! There’s a photograph of Herman with Orson Welles in 1941 — Herman looks 75. The booze had taken its toll. You know, scripts come in and you go, “Am I really right for this?” or “I’m too old for this” or “I can play it down but I can’t play it that far down.” This one wasn’t a worry. It dropped in and I went, “Ah, here’s another interesting person I can investigate and play.” So there’s no-one really. I think I had a good Hamlet in me but that door has closed. Maybe there’s something really interesting out there that will float my way.
’Mank’ also stars Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davis, Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, Tom Burke as Orson Welles and Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst. The Oscars are on April 25.