Gary Oldman (‘Mank’) on the ‘squandered life’ of Herman J. Mankiewicz [Complete Interview Transcript]

Gary Oldman plays “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in the new David Fincher film “Mank.” The Oscar winner has been nominated at the Golden Globes, Critics Choice and SAG Awards for his performance.

Oldman recently spoke with Gold Derby managing editor Chris Beachum about how thoughts on Mankiewicz himself, working with Fincher for the first time and his memories of winning his Oscar for “Darkest Hour.” Watch the exclusive chat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Gary, you’re playing Herman J. Mankiewicz. I think you already knew that. Just making sure the audience knew that. Famous screenwriter, co-writer of “Citizen Kane.” If you could have magically talked to him as you were preparing for this role, what’s something you would have liked to have asked him to get ready? 

Gary Oldman: Get sober (laughs). He had these aspirations. I think he wanted to be either a playwright or novelist and considered that high art, came out here to California and felt, really, that screenwriting was just beneath him. He could do it in his sleep. He once said that a final draft was what you put through the typewriter the night before. But I think he squandered what was obviously a great, great talent. I mean, [Orson] Welles gave him this gift at the end and one of the reasons why he wanted his damn name on it is because he was proud of it, and I think, “Here’s something I can be remembered for.” I think so much of his time here, as you know, I’m sure, he wrote many scripts that he didn’t have his name on. He wrote a couple of scripts for the Marx Brothers. He was very much a script doctor. People would say, “This script needs a little bit of a spark, we need to put some fairy dust on this, run it over to Mank and put it through his typewriter. I’m sure he can come up with some good stuff and get some gags,” and it was all fluff. He was making good money doing it and as the film shows, he invited all of his friends out. He really did send a telegram out that said, “Millions to be made and your only competition is idiots.” And a great many of them surpassed him. [George S.] Kaufman, [Charles] Lederer, [Charles] MacArthur, I mean, all these people went on to do great stuff. It was so part of the culture, wasn’t it, the booze? He obviously had a problem. Well, he had a problem with gambling, but he also had a problem with alcohol and I just see somewhat of a squandered life there. 

GD: Long before you took this role, I’m sure you’d seen “Citizen Kane,” maybe you were a fan of it. What were your impressions of that as a film in our American history? 

GO: Well, I revisited the movie, obviously, for this. I’ve seen it. I had seen it three times prior to rewatching it for “Mank” and it’s a little hokey, but still holds up. If you look at it in the context of how it was made and when it was made, by whom it was made, a 24-year-old coming to Hollywood, it is a remarkable piece of cinema. Has it aged? Yeah. But I think it’s still a great film. I’m a Welles fan. I love “Chimes at Midnight” and “Touch of Evil” is one of my favorites. So it’s in the canon, as it were. It’s not my favorite, but I could see why it was so revolutionary. 

GD: For your director, David Fincher, what did you know about him going into this? We all hear rumors about different directors and what they’re like and what their methods are on set. How did he meet or not meet your expectations? 

GO: Well, there’s, now we call it fake news (laughs). There’s a lot of stuff out there that’s written about David. I’ve known him for a long time. I never thought I’d ever tick the box and work with him. I’ve known him a long time. I’ve known him as a friend and socially and sometimes when you have that kind of relationship with a director, it doesn’t always work out. So I knew him but I’d never been on a set with him. He wants to utilize everything that he has and the actors, he wants you in front of the camera working and acting. He doesn’t want you sitting in a trailer. You begin the day early. Sometimes we were rehearsing at 5:45 a.m., 6 a.m., and then you burn from the first bar. You’re in. Now, we did three weeks of rehearsal going through the script and at times just forensically breaking it down and talking about the text, the character, the relationships between the people. So a great deal of that work had been done and you kind of have the bible going in. So once you start work, you’re solid on the text and then you have to bring your A-game. You’ve got to be totally and utterly committed.

Now, I’m not one of these people that can multitask. I don’t like that. If I’m working on a project, I like to give my full attention to it. So I was neck-deep. I was in. I was committed, ready to work. And you know what? You’re there, you’re hired, you go in, you want to serve the character and the story and the director and if a director wants to do 10 takes or 60, I don’t mind. They all have their own way of working. I mean, there are some directors who like to do two takes, and you have to really fight for a third. Joe Wright, on average, will do maybe nine or 10, 12 max. So you do get a bite at the apple with Joe. David works in a way where… now we got a lot of deep focus in “Mank,” because he was using the lenses. He was trying to transport you into that world of the ‘40s film and there’s a lot going on and a lot in focus. So I think that David, for the first four or five takes, was trying to get the whole picture and that meant a lamp in the background, a day player, whatever it is, even at times he would say, “Can you bring that up two stops in the back?” He’s getting the whole picture and then he focuses in on really what the actors are doing.

So the takes, they do get up there but I read somewhere that we were doing a scene and it was 100 takes. Well, I don’t think it ever reached 100, and also, if you take something out of context, we were doing the two big dinner scenes. There’s the San Simeon birthday scene and then the one where Mank arrives and he’s drunk going around that table. There’s a lot of moving parts to it and it is nine minutes long. So once you start changing the angles and the axis of the camera, the number of takes really get up there. But you really go in to work. He doesn’t settle. He will work on a scene, and at least at the end of the day, you come away and you think, “Wow, we really work that scene. We got it.” 

GD: Last question. We’re an awards website, so I want to go back a couple of years to your big win at the Oscars for “Darkest Hour.” You had won so many prizes leading up to that night, you had to have a feeling that maybe this is going to happen. So how did that night play out for you in terms of expectations and what you thought the night would be and what it actually was? 

GO: Oh, it was more than you could imagine. I had been a few years earlier nominated for Smiley, for “Tinker Tailor,” and I remember being at BAFTA and George Clooney came up to me and he said, “I’m really glad I’m here tonight, because I’m going to hear this place go fucking nuts when they call your name.” And they didn’t (laughs). And I thought, “Well, home turf, they gave it to ‘The Artist,’” so you got an idea of where that was heading and then, of course, at the Oscars, Clooney said to me, “Come and join us on the losers table.”

I had won pretty much… I think they were inventing awards to give me. They were making them up. Yeah, I did a clean sweep. But you never know in that final analysis with the Academy, and I was up against some real big hitters. I mean, I thought Daniel Kaluuya’s performance was really strong. You’re up against Denzel [Washington] and Daniel Day-Lewis, and they’re not chopped liver. But my wife said, “I think they’re going to call your name,” and then, of course, once they do and you’re up there holding the thing, it’s a great thing. It’s a great honor. What can I say? And to be one of only a few that have it, it’s a nice thing.

This whole year is very strange. I know my name’s being thrown around, but we’ve not had Telluride, we’ve not had Toronto, the Palm Springs Festival is virtual. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Globes. So it’s hard to really get a 35,000-foot view. How are you guys navigating it?

GD: Well, it’s been a tough year for the whole industry, so it’s going to be interesting to see. They moved the Oscars back to late April. So I don’t know if we’ll be fully up and running with actual award ceremonies and red carpets by then. But they’ve had some experience now with Emmys and other things that have been on TV. So hopefully, even if you have to be virtual and you get to sit there in your living room at home, it’ll be a really good experience for you and the people at home. 

GO: I think so. Are we expected to sit in our living rooms with tuxedos on? 

GD: Well, at least the top part. You can do whatever you want below. 

GO: (Laughs.)

GD: Gary, thank you so much. I do hope we see you again at the Oscars this year. 

GO: All right. Thank you very much. 

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