Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, and Charles Dance break down their Old Hollywood epic Mank.
Credit: Netflix

There's a moment in Mank, David Fincher’s incisive portrait of Herman J. Mankiewicz, where the irascible Hollywood genius is weighing the task before him. Already an accomplished screenwriter, Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) has been tapped to script Orson Welles’ first film, an ambitious screenplay about newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst — the basis for Citizen Kane, now widely considered the greatest film of all time. “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours,” Mankiewicz muses. “All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”

It’s an apt commentary on Hearst and Kane, of course — but it’s also a mission statement for Mank itself: How do you tell the story of one of the greatest storytellers in Hollywood history?

Fincher’s sweeping black-and-white epic attempts just that, starting with its stylistic homage to the era. The long-gestating script, by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher (who worked as a journalist and died in 2003), follows the acerbic and alcoholic screenwriter throughout his career. And it was up to Oldman to breathe life into Mankiewicz’s story. “There is not a lot to work with in bringing Herman to life,” Oldman, 62, says. “However, we knew two things: We knew what he did, and we knew what others thought of him. Here was a man regarded as the smartest, the wittiest, and the best writer by the most notable writers of his day.”

Mank follows its protagonist as he struggles to complete what would become his Oscar-winning magnum opus, assisted by stenographer Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). As he writes, he reflects on his career throughout the 1930s, with flashbacks detailing his meetings with Hearst himself (Charles Dance) and Hearst’s longtime mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

Playing Mank was a departure from Oldman’s usual preference for extraordinary transformation. As Darkest Hour’s Winston Churchill, the role that won him an Oscar in 2018, he immersed himself in historical research and wore thick prosthetic makeup; for Mankiewicz, he had little to guide him. “This may sound hard to believe, but it actually may have been the hardest role I ever tackled,” Oldman admits. “We all agreed early on that there would be no special makeup or prosthetics — I called it ‘Gary au naturel.’”

Although Mankiewicz may be the heart of the film, it gives significant attention to the people who helped shape his life and work — like his British secretary Rita. Oldman and Collins first met when she was a toddler: He was filming Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) on the same backlot where her father, Phil Collins, shot his role in Hook. Here, she plays the no-nonsense pragmatist to Mank’s impulsive creative. “Those scenes between Rita and Mank are the opportunity for us to see his inner thoughts and his insecurities and his doubt and addiction,” Collins, 31, explains.

Credit: Netflix

Also weighing on Mank’s conscience is his friendship with the actress Marion Davies, who has long been an object of Hollywood fascination, from her storied showbiz career to her open love affair with the married Hearst. Seyfried was initially nervous to tackle the role, hoping to portray her not as an untouchable star but as a thoughtful, complicated woman.

“I really did go into this the most insecure I’ve been in years because there are stakes,” the 34-year-old actress admits, adding that she extensively researched the role. “I don’t want to show up with anything less than 100 percent of what I have to give because no one else is — especially David. I can get lazy sometimes, and there was no room for that. I knew that, and I rose to the challenge myself. I was able to prove to myself that I can show up, that I’m better than I’ve given myself credit for in a lot of ways.”

Another added challenge for the actors was Fincher’s notoriously grueling filming process; one sequence, where Oldman delivers a drunken speech at Hearst Castle, took many hours. “I watched in awe as Gary kept his energy level up the whole time,” says Dance, 74, who also appeared in Fincher’s first film, 1992’s Alien 3. “There was only one point I think when Gary said, ‘David, we’ve done this scene a hundred f---ing times.’ To which he replied, ‘Yeah, I know. This is 101. Reset.’”

Mank ends on Kane’s screenplay Oscar win, fitting since Fincher’s lush love letter seems destined for an even warmer awards embrace. And if the film doesn’t fully encapsulate Mankiewicz’s turbulent life, Oldman hopes it captures the right impression. “[We wanted] to run it all through a filter of an alcohol-soaked, self-destructive mind, while at the same time being irresistibly vulnerable — lovable, even,” he says. “[It was] a lot to chew off. A lot.”

Mank hits Netflix Dec. 4.

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