HEAT VISION

'Mank' Star Tom Pelphrey on Saying One of Cinema’s Most Famous Words

Tom Pelphrey - Iron Fist New York Screening-Getty-H 2020
Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic
The actor also recalls flying straight from 'Ozark' to meet with David Fincher and Gary Oldman in an effort to get the role of filmmaker Joe Mankiewicz.

Until now, Tom Pelphrey had yet to realize the historical significance of a key scene in David Fincher’s Mank. Towards the end of the film, Pelphrey’s Joseph Mankiewicz visits Gary Oldman’s Herman "Mank" Mankiewicz to discuss his reaction to Mank’s Citizen Kane script, and as the two brothers carried on a conversation, Pelphrey delivered a line that included one of cinema’s most famous words: Rosebud. Now that he’s 9 or 10 months removed from the project, Pelphrey can finally see the forest for the trees.

“Oh my god. I didn’t even think about that. Wow. When you work on something like this, you really try to do your job to the best of your ability, and you really just focus on the task at hand,” Pelphrey tells The Hollywood Reporter. “You don’t really stop and consider the whole big thing — at least I didn’t. But you don’t want to get too swept up in that or get intimidated. You want to just come in, focus on your work and put your head down. And yeah, now is the time to sit back and say, ‘I got to say Rosebud on-screen with Gary Oldman, in a David Fincher film.’ Pretty cool.

When Pelphrey first FaceTimed with Fincher about the role of the younger Mankiewicz brother, he was shooting Ozark in Atlanta, and sensing that the role was still up in the air, he went to great lengths to secure it.

“It was sort of on the fence and we weren’t sure which way things were going. Then, I found out that David and Gary were meeting with some actors in Los Angeles,” Pelphrey recalls. “So on one of my weekends off from Ozark, I filmed Ozark until like 3 in the morning, but I had asked [casting director] Laray (Mayfield), ‘Do you think these guys would see me if I was there on Saturday?’ So they were kind enough to agree to the idea and Laray pulled it all together for Saturday. So I flew to L.A. for a day from Atlanta to go meet with them, and it really made all the difference.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Pelphrey also discusses Fincher’s insightful notes, his excitement over shooting excessive amounts of takes and if he’d still play Banshee’s Kurt Bunker in 2020.

So Laray Mayfield not only cast Mank, but she also cast Netflix’s Iron Fist. Did she grease the wheel at all as one might presume?

Yeah, I’m sure she did. Laray has worked with David for a long time now, and she’s just one of the all-time greats, for sure. I know that her and David work really closely on all casting decisions, so I’m sure she had a big part in bringing me to this adventure.

How long was the casting process?

Probably about a month. Maybe a month and a half. When I first put myself on tape for David, I was filming Ozark in Atlanta. And then a few weeks later, David and I did a FaceTime, and then a week after that, we did a second FaceTime to kind of get to work together. In all of that, I was still working in Atlanta. Eventually, it was sort of on the fence and we weren’t sure which way things were going. Then, I found out that David and Gary (Oldman) were meeting with some actors in Los Angeles. So on one of my weekends off from Ozark, I filmed Ozark until like 3 in the morning, but I had asked Laray, “Do you think these guys would see me if I was there on Saturday?” It’s hard to do Zoom acting. (Laughs.) Everything is on Zoom now, but back then, it just felt so weird. So they were kind enough to agree to the idea and Laray pulled it all together for Saturday. So I flew to L.A. for a day from Atlanta to go meet with them, and it really made all the difference. Getting to not only meet someone in person and be in the same room with them, but obviously playing the scenes off of Gary Oldman, is a whole different level. It makes you a better actor.

How was the good news delivered?

I got a call from Laray, which was pretty sweet. As you pointed out, I’ve known her for a few years now and she’s just a really good person, a really kind human being, who loves what she does. She’s one of the casting directors that really loves actors and really champions them. So yeah, it was a pretty good call.

During your first few days on set, was there a particular moment where you first realized why Fincher has the reputation of an all-time great?

Yeah, there were so many. There was one in particular during rehearsal and it was before we were even filming. David’s got such a deep understanding of that time period and what was happening in Hollywood on so many different levels. So as we were reading these scenes, he was really trying to flesh it out by giving you all the history on what was happening with Hollywood and with writers. But he was also helping you understand how the technology was driving what was happening. He’d explain how, all of sudden, films had sound and could capture what people were saying. So then there was a need for a different style of writing than what we were used to before. Enter Mank. But technology also changed with cameras. They got better, but they also got heavier. And because they got heavier, they were harder to move. And because they were harder to move, it meant more scenes where two people would stand and talk. Then the dialogue itself became something to enthrall. The writing itself became the focus. So you get so caught up in all that and you’re like, “God, guys, he understands so much. He understands so much.” And then he’d turn to me on a dime and give a note about Joe that was so insightful. It’s the kind of note that you’re not really used to getting from a director because even really good directors have so much that they need to focus on. So there are certain levels of notes where it feels like they’re coming from another actor. It’s a type of note from somebody who completely put their head down, completely dove into this character and saw how things looked. He turned to me and gave me a note like that after explaining all about the technology of the time and the history of Hollywood. I was like, “Wow, either this guy doesn’t sleep or he’s a genius.” It almost seems unfair that he could have such mastery of all the technical aspects on top of his mastery as a filmmaker. But to also be able to give a note that is empathetic and deeply insightful to the character, that is what separates him because he’s doing all of it at the top level.

Since everybody knows that Fincher loves to do an excessive amount of takes, did you do any sort of training in order to prepare yourself for the endurance needed on his set?

Oh hell no, man. I was so excited. I was like, “I’ll do 500 takes if David Fincher wants me to do 500 takes.” (Laughs.) For me, I couldn’t wait to get on set. I had endless energy when I was there because he is straight up one of the master storytellers of our time. So to get the opportunity to work with someone like that, I was like, “This is everything you hope for.” You have an amazing script. You have a great role. You get to play off of Gary Oldman, a childhood hero. I mean, when I started drama school when I was 18, I had a still frame of Gary and Sean Penn from State of Grace up on my wall. This job was a dream come true. And you understand that about David. You hear a lot about him. You see other interviews and you understand that you’re going to be there to work. And I love that. I’ve always loved that idea and that kind of approach. To me, there’s no better place to be working than with David Fincher. I knew that he was going to make me a better actor. So it wasn’t hard to keep my energy up. I was just excited to be there.

What scene of yours required the most takes?

Good question. (Pelphrey ponders.)

My guess would be the tie-in-the-coffee scene between Joe and Herm.

(Laughs.) That’s a good guess. I will say that most of the scenes were pretty thoroughly covered. I don’t know that one stands out as the long one, but Gary was pretty adept at the tie in the coffee. Gary was nailing the tie in the coffee, time in and time out. (Laughs.)

So I’m sure you played it cool around Gary in the early going, but did there quickly come a point where you couldn’t resist asking questions about the aforementioned State of Grace, The Professional or whatever?

Oh, for sure. And I really took my cue off of Gary for that. Obviously, we’re there to work and that’s the most important thing. So I would keep to myself, but I really didn’t know what to expect as we’ve all seen him do all these incredible roles over the years. He’s so mercurial as an actor. He’s so mysterious, weird, dark and brooding. So I had no idea what to expect from the man, but he was so soft-spoken, gentle, very witty, very funny and good-humored. He also had excellent stories and was very happy to share them. So once I understood that he was quite happy to talk and share, yeah, I didn’t leave him alone after that. (Laughs.) I had so many questions about the different people that he’s worked with, and what he was thinking when he did different things. He was always very generous with his time.

Did you watch all the available footage of Joe Mankiewicz, such as his Oscar speeches and Luc Beraud’s 1983 documentary, All About Mankiewicz?

Yeah, the documentary was really interesting. Joe’s speech cadence had become so pronounced by then. But it was tricky to watch this footage of the older, more established version of Joe, while keeping in mind that the film was exploring the younger, up-and-coming version. So you can start to see that evolution over time, and thankfully, there was a lot of great material on Joe. There was video to watch, and audio to listen to. And a few weeks before we started filming, they released a great biography on both Mankiewicz brothers that was really helpful in terms of the earlier years of Joe and his relationship with Herman [The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics]. And I have to say, the more research I did, the more things I read, the more I realized it was all in the script. The script really did an excellent job of illuminating the essence of what their relationship was.

In Joe’s bathroom introduction, he seemed somewhat annoyed that he was the overlooked brother of Herman. Since he ended up winning four Oscars to Herman’s one, those early years of being the forgotten brother clearly became one of the key ingredients to his eventual success, right?

Well, it’s interesting. Something that I’ve really enjoyed about the script and about the relationship between these brothers is how clever, witty and humorous they both are. I really enjoyed how they like to take jabs at each other. I liked their verbal sparring and how they’d enjoy each other’s intelligence. So, to me, when Joe is complaining in the bathroom about being the overlooked brother, all of it is done with a bit of a wry grin. I didn’t believe that it was anything that really burned Joe or equally upset him. I think it was just another way in which they could bust each other’s chops as brothers. After reading some correspondence between Joe and Herman — and even just tracking Joe’s early years of following in Herman’s footsteps quite literally — I got the idea of a younger brother who is really quite enamored of his older brother. That was such a key to their relationship, and regardless of what was going on, Joe absolutely loved, adored and admired his older brother.

Fincher wanted the cast to speak in a way that was period-accurate, and that involved rising inflection or up-speak. While you touched on it earlier, did you need a coach for that, or did you take to it rather quickly?

Yeah, you take to it rather quickly. Fortunately, there’s a bunch of video of Joe speaking. It’s one thing to watch movies of the time. They’re obviously very stylistic, including the way the actors speak, and you’re like, “Well, that’s just the movies.” But when you really go and dig, I found some video of Joe on game shows at the time, and that was almost some of the most interesting footage because it’s a game show. He’s not giving an acceptance speech. He’s not doing a great roundtable discussion with Marlon Brando during the Civil Rights Movement, which was also really interesting. All those things are a little more studied and a little more self-aware that you’re speaking and that there’s attention on you. So it was really interesting to watch these game show clips and to realize that even on a game show, the style of speaking at the time was different. If we went on a game show now, we wouldn’t start talking weird, right? So that game show was a real interesting glimpse because it was the most casual version of Joe. Even then, there’s a different rhythm to the speech. It’s a different style of talking, so you just want to get that in your ear. You start listening to it nonstop, and then you start talking that way until you can speak without it feeling like you’re talking differently.

Have you wrapped your head around the fact that you got to say Rosebud on-screen with Gary Oldman, in a David Fincher film?

Oh my god. I didn’t even think about that. Wow. (Laughs.) When you work on something like this, you really try to do your job to the best of your ability, and you really just focus on the task at hand. And like I said earlier, when you’re working with one of the master storytellers and great directors of our time, you have the luxury of putting your head down, putting the blinders on, and running full speed ahead. You have zero concern about where you need to go because you know he’s going to help you get there. You know he’s going to take care of you and make you look better. He’s not going to let you run off of the edge of a cliff. That’s such a rare, rare feeling of safety and trust, and you have exactly that with Fincher. So when you’re going into a job like this, you don’t really stop and consider the whole big thing — at least I didn’t. But you don’t want to get too swept up in that or get intimidated. You want to just come in, focus on your work and put your head down. And yeah, now is the time to sit back and say, “I got to say Rosebud on-screen with Gary Oldman, in a David Fincher film.” (Laughs.) Pretty cool.

So I was your hype man as far back as Banshee, and I make sure to let Ozark fans know this every single chance I get.

(Laughs.)

Do you get the impression that more people are checking out Banshee because of Ozark or Iron Fist?

I’ve seen some people on Twitter that seem to be discovering Banshee for the first time. I couldn’t tell if it was linked to Ozark and Iron Fist, or if it was just a resurgence of Banshee somehow, but I have noticed that people are discovering it. Man, I loved that show. I just loved it. It was so much fun.

Banshee’s series finale was in May 2016, and the world has obviously changed quite a bit since then. When you consider what happened in Charlottesville in 2017, as well as everything this year, do you think you’d hesitate to play Kurt Bunker today? Or would you be even more intrigued by his atonement arc? [Writer’s Note: Kurt Bunker was a former neo-Nazi turned sheriff’s deputy.]

Yeah, I think I would be as intrigued as I was back then because what are we doing? What is the opportunity that we have when we get to tell these stories? When I got the chance to play Bunker back on Banshee, I read a lot of different books by former neo-Nazis, and some of those books are pretty horrifying. They’re hard to read, heartbreaking and scary, but you realize that some of these people are just so completely misguided and ignorant. They’re unexposed to other people, other ideas and other ways of being. So you have an opportunity to potentially shed some light on something that needs some awareness, and for me, personally, as Tom, I love a good redemption story. I love the idea of getting to explore a character that realizes what they’ve done wrong or realizes how far they’ve fallen, and takes action to correct themself or redeem themself. I think that’s powerful. I think redemption and forgiveness are something that we could all use a lot more of, especially right now. So yeah, I would play him today.

I realize you had just joined the show the season prior, but was the final season’s location change a tough pill to swallow for the cast? A small-town location often functions as another character, especially on a show like Banshee that’s named after its fictional location.

Well, it was interesting because when we got to Pittsburgh, there was a town [Vandergrift] that really felt like we were driving through Banshee. Maybe my view on this is skewed because I only got to spend half a year in Charlotte, and I was there full time in Pittsburgh. So for my experience with the show, when I think of Banshee, I think of Pittsburgh and the locations and sets there. But strangely enough, I think Pittsburgh was closer to what they had in mind when they created the show because Banshee was always supposed to be a small town in Pennsylvania. So being in Pittsburgh, seeing that landscape and just being around that energy, it was actually closer to the essence of what they’d always wanted from an actual location for Banshee. Although, Charlotte was also pretty perfect, and it had that Cadillac dealership that they converted into a police station with the half-broken, half-lit Cadillac sign. (Laughs.) That was pretty great too.

After Bunker, I expected the industry to steer you towards more tough guy, action roles, but you instead ended up with Iron Fist’s Ward Meachum and Ozark’s Ben Davis, who were very complex characters, psychologically speaking. Did the industry try to push you in an action direction? Did you have to make a point early on that you wanted complexity?

I never felt like I was getting pushed in one way or the other. To just try and keep it as simple as possible, it’s all about the writing for me. It’s about the script and what speaks to you, and then you go from there. Obviously, you have some jobs like Ozark and Mank where you’re really getting the best of all possible worlds. There’s great writing, excellent directors, excellent actors and blah, blah, blah. I’ve never sat down and planned out or charted out what I want my career to be or how I want it to look. I’ve never said, “I’m going to do this and then this and then this.” I just focus on the job-to-job, script to script approach. What do I respond to? What moves me? What gets me in my heart when I read it? And what people respond to me? Even if I respond to something, it’s not always the case that I’m going to be the right fit for the story that they’re trying to tell. Over the last five, six or seven years in particular, I’ve really just let go and gone along for that ride, and it’s been a pretty beautiful experience where it’s ended up taking me. Each next move feels so perfect, and if I tried to plan it out ahead of time, it wouldn’t have looked that good. So it’s really been a matter of staying open, staying present, following your gut, following your heart and going where it’s meant to go. If I said, “I’m going to be this kind of actor and I’m going to do these kinds of things,” then I’m trying to plan it or muscle it. It’s like, “Let’s just see what comes. Let’s just see what happens.”

In regard to Ozark, Ben Davis’ first scene in the classroom was one of the most memorable character introductions in recent memory. I hope you only had to do that a couple times.

Yeah, I was pretty pumped when I read that. We did it a few times, but nothing crazy, though. Jason’s (Bateman) really good about knowing what he wants and getting in and getting it. Yeah, that character, from start to finish, was pretty much a dream come true. Everything you could want in a role and in a job was right there in Ozark and Ben. So yeah, it definitely was a pretty good character introduction.

Since Covid has rescheduled everybody’s calendar, are you still working with Josh Brolin coming up?

Yeah! We’re still scheduled to start in January. It’s a series called Outer Range.

***
Mank, which is now available in select theaters, streams Dec. 4 on Netflix. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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