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Gary Oldman knows Mank and those drinking issues: ‘I used to sweat vodka’

Gary Oldman stars in the David Fincher-directed film "Mank."
Gary Oldman plays early Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s “Mank.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A year after he won the Oscar for his electric, persuasive portrayal of Winston Churchill in the 2017 biopic “Darkest Hour,” Gary Oldman began to feel twinges of insecurity about his work in the movie, and that soon turned into a black hole of self-doubt. “Was I any good as Churchill?” It’s a question he asked his wife, art curator Gisele Schmidt, who listened patiently — and regarded him like a madman. “What are you talking about?” she replied, ticking off all the awards Oldman won leading up to the Oscars, adding that they were practically inventing honors to bestow upon him by the end.

“I wasn’t fishing when I asked that,” Oldman says, insisting that he always feels “less than,” particularly when he’s about to start a new project. Oldman tells me this from his home in Palm Springs, where he moved with Schmidt and her 12-year-old son, William, two years ago from Los Feliz because he grew weary of the traffic and how a trip to “pick up some milk and the dry cleaning would turn into a three-hour adventure and just kidnap your day.”

Oldman’s anxiety reached new depths as he was preparing for “Mank,” David Fincher’s look at writer Herman Mankiewicz and the creation of “Citizen Kane.” Mankiewicz, the first theater critic for the New Yorker, came to Hollywood as the silent-film era was ending, working for studios as a script doctor. He was an alcoholic, a functioning, charming drunk with a quick wit and sharp tongue, the town’s “resident loser-genius,” in the words of Pauline Kael. With “Citizen Kane,” he finally found something worthy of personal investment. He and director Orson Welles shared the Oscar for original screenplay, the only Oscar the film won.

When Oldman saw the cast that Fincher had put together for “Mank,” he had just one thought: “God ... and I’m going to be the one to come and f— it up.”

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“I tell you, the rubbish that goes through your head,” says Oldman, 62. “I know what kicked in my insecurity initially — it would have kicked in eventually anyway — but I’m reading this script, and Mank has all these one-liners he throws out, and you have to infuse them with enough charm to make them palatable. How do you make this guy likable and not this grump, snarky drunk? That was the challenge.”

Known for movies about crime and chaos, director David Fincher delivers a personal tale with “Mank.”

Fincher tells me he never doubted that Oldman could pull off Mankiewicz’s charm. “Plenty of actors could,” he says. What Fincher needed was someone willing to delve into the writer’s demons, the self-loathing and the alcoholism. “You can’t just load a character up with all the best quips. You have to understand why people are frustrated with him.” Oldman, he adds, is almost “obscenely honest.”

Oldman himself was a functioning alcoholic for the first two decades of his adult life, though there were plenty of times when he wasn’t functioning particularly well. After two stints in rehab, he got sober, taking his last drink nearly 24 years ago.

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“When I was drinking, I was working and I was remembering lines, so you feel you’re getting away with it, though, deep down, beneath the denial, you know,” Oldman says. “Herman, with that self-effacing humor, he was at lunch, drinking with a friend, who said, ‘Why don’t you go home sober for once?’ And he answered, ‘What? And have [wife] Sara throw me out as an impostor?’ I did the same thing. I would sit down and tell the waiter, ‘I’ll have a large vodka tonic. And can you bring it now because I’m an alcoholic. I need it quicker.’”

“People romanticize it, and even I romanticized it,” Oldman continues. “All my heroes were drinkers or opium addicts, and you get all misty-eyed about these poets and playwrights and actors who were big drinkers. That great line, Dorothy Parker: ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.’ I think it may have been Brendan Behan who said, ‘I’m an alcoholic with a writing problem.’ Now that’s witty. Great lines. But you can’t separate the two. Scott Fitzgerald said, ‘You take the first drink, and the drink takes you.’”

Oldman pauses, lost in memory. “I used to sweat vodka. It becomes such a part of you. My tongue would be black in the morning. I blamed it on the shampoo. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, to be in the grip of it. It’s hell. And that self-effacing humor? That’s just there to mask the inadequacy.”

Fincher pitched Mankiewicz to Oldman as a “lying-down part,” since the writer, recovering from a broken leg, spends much of the movie laid up in bed. What Fincher didn’t tell Oldman was that he’d be in nearly every scene of the movie or that the days would often begin before sunrise.

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“I’ve never actually acted at 5:45 in the morning,” Oldman says, chuckling. Now that he’s tried it, would he like to do it again? Oldman thinks about it. “7 a.m.” He smiles. “Chris Nolan. I thought that was early,” he says of the “Dark Knight” movies.

Oldman is preparing to return to London, where he’s filming “Slow Horses,” a series for Apple TV+ based on Mick Herron’s spy thriller. He plays Jackson Lamb, a brilliant spy exiled with other MI5 agents considered washed up. Oldman describes the character as “rude, flatulent, knocking on the door of alcoholism, a smoker, not PC, overweight, no real dress sense, greasy hair, bad teeth ...”

“He’s fabulous,” Oldman says, laughing.

And because “Slow Horses” is the first of seven books (so far), he could be a character that Oldman will inhabit for the next few years. If that’s the case, he says he’s going to try to lose the 15 pounds he gained for both “Mank” and “Slow Horses” (“I killed two birds with one stone”) and have the wardrobe department construct a little padding for his clothes. “At my age, the doctor would appreciate that,” he says.

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COVID shut down filming on “Slow Horses,” providing Oldman with an extended holiday break. He spent most of the time enjoying the quiet and the “big sky,” though he did also participate in a livestream concert tribute to his friend David Bowie the day after what would have been the late singer’s 74th birthday. Oldman performed the Tin Machine song “I Can’t Read,” which he says may have come from a story he told Bowie when they were sailing around Mustique, looking for the perfect cove so they could drop anchor and take the dinghy to the beach to grill lobster.

“The story was about a guy who asked for directions, and I said, ‘Oh, you follow the signs to the roundabout,’ and he said, ‘I can’t read,’” Oldman remembers. “Now, David was a ferocious reader, and he was struck by this story. ‘Oh, my God. Can you imagine if you couldn’t read?’ And he took that and made something from it.”

“Having been in recovery,” Oldman continues, “one of the most profound lines is ‘planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do.’ That is it right there for me. There’s nothing I can do. That’s the thing where you sometimes drink because you need something habitually. You’ve got to clear the fog. And finally you go, ‘There’s nothing I can do about that. No matter what I feel, a drink’s not going to do it.’ Such a wonderful, simple line. David was a poet. Not a day goes by when I don’t miss him.”


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