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For his Oscar-nominated performance as Herman J. Mankiewicz, the Academy Award-winning co-writer of Citizen Kane, Mank star Gary Oldman collaborated with fellow nominee David Fincher (who has earned his third nod for best director). To achieve the Netflix film’s re-creation of the golden age of Hollywood, the director at times had his actors performing the same scenes over a hundred times — at one point taking nearly a week to capture a scene.
But for Oldman, who earned a best actor Oscar for 2017’s Darkest Hour, those countless takes are simply part of the job. “All directors have different ways of working,” Oldman says. “If I’m committed to a project, I want to serve the character, the story and the director. And if they want to do 10 takes or they want to do 60, I’m on the clock, from this time to this time. And I’m there to serve in that sense.”
But Oldman doesn’t portray Fincher as a brute force commanding his players to perform for hours simply for the fun of it, but rather a perfectionist who is at the helm of a large production of countless moving parts. “David, first of all, is watching everything,” Oldman adds. “He’s sort of like a conductor of an orchestra. Maybe you’re in five or six takes, and he’s not really focusing on you yet.”
The actor compares the experience to other roles in big productions where he might only get one or two takes in before moving on to a new scene. But for Fincher, getting the perfect footage on-set is the priority — and the work is worth it for the end results. “I think he just wants you to get to a point where he’s worn you out, and then you find that second wind like a runner — you get that stitch, and you’ve got to go through the pain barrier … and come away feeling that you’ve really examined the scene. So much of the time you turn to another castmember and go, ‘Did we get that? I don’t think we got the scene.’ With David, you feel we’ve really worked the scene. It’s like a dog with a bone: He will get the scene.”
Ben Affleck, star of Warner Bros.’ The Way Back, also experienced Fincher’s infamous perfectionism while starring in the director’s 2014 thriller Gone Girl. “I can imagine it being very frustrating if you were working with somebody who you thought had no idea what they wanted,” says Affleck, who has won two Oscars, for Good Will Hunting (best original screenplay, shared with Matt Damon) and Argo (best picture). The actor recalls Fincher being very specific in his goals and process, which benefitted the actors who were eager to get down and dirty with their own process. “Like [Gary] said, I’d rather be shooting the scene than sitting in my trailer. I don’t want to sit there and watch people light or move [equipment]. He [does] very few setups. And it really is a pleasure to get to keep playing the scene. … You do it so much that you actually forget that you’re ever going to move on.”
For Sacha Baron Cohen, a double Oscar nominee this year for his supporting role in Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and for co-writing the screenplay for Amazon’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, getting a scene done quickly and precisely is more his speed. A Borat movie, in which an often-disguised Baron Cohen shares a scene with an unwitting participant who doesn’t know his real identity, requires the actor to get as much out of one take as possible. “There’s one time to get it right with Rudy Giuliani or Mike Pence or [protestors at a] gun rally,” Baron Cohen says.
Borat’s appearance at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference may have lasted just minutes in the film, but it required 11 hours of prep. “Getting up at one in the morning, driving to a hotel, having a prosthetics team turn me into Donald Trump, then smuggling into CPAC and getting past Secret Service, ending up hiding in the bathroom for four hours,” Baron Cohen remembers. “Eventually Mike Pence comes on, and you’ve got one go, you do your speech, you improvise a bit, and then you’re surrounded by Secret Service and you have to avoid being thrown in jail. Once I go to Aaron Sorkin and he says, ‘You’ve got two takes on a small budget,’ I’m fine!”
Watch the Actor Roundtable in full below:
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