Among those who’ve worked with him, director David Fincher is known for long days of shooting until he’s gotten exactly what he wants in a scene. So it makes sense that actor Tom Pelphrey was game for whatever Fincher wanted to throw at him when he was cast as real-life filmmaker Joe Mankiewicz in Netflix’s Mank.
“He does do a lot of takes, but it makes perfect sense to me,” he says. “[With] someone like David Fincher, you spend so much time preparing and working and getting all these people together and rehearsing. And that so much effort and money goes into, that when you get there on the day, it’s like, yeah, let’s film until we have what we love, let’s film until it’s perfect.”
It took Pelphrey about six months—from May 2019 to October 2019—to film what was then the biggest role of his career, playing the unstable Ben Davis alongside Jason Bateman and Laura Linney on Netflix’s smash hit, Ozark. As soon as that job was wrapped—like, immediately after —Pelphrey was packing his stuff up for Mank.
The movie tells the true Hollywood story of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he finishes his draft of the movie’s screenplay while bedridden, thinking of his messy downward spiral of a past, and boozing a whole lot.
“Two days after I finished filming my last scene on Ozark, me and my dog, Blue, got in the Jeep and drove across [the] country to Los Angeles, just in time for my first costume fitting with [Costume Designer Trish Summerville] from Mank,” he says. “So there was literally not a day to spare in between the two jobs, which was pretty wild.”
Ozark fans may not even recognize that Joe is the same actor who played the unhinged Ben; his bearded face and long hair are replaced by a nice suit and a slick pompadour often hidden by a dark fedora. Where Herman’s behavior throughout the movie is erratic, Pelphrey plays Joe—an established director and filmmaker in his own right—as his straight man foil.
Pelphrey did his research before the four-month shoot on Mank—he looked up clips of Joe accepting awards, appearing on old game shows, and watched most of his films. But still, moving from one character to another so different with such a short buffer had to be difficult, right?
“Because the two roles were so divergent—like so completely different—it was actually kind of easy, which surprised me a bit,” he says. “I thought that not only were the characters so different, but that the styles of storytelling from Ozark to Mank were so different, it was so different. It was kind of easy to just give over to the other way.”
The ‘easy’ part of that might be underselling it; but when one of the best directors in the game is working you for near a hundred takes at a time, it probably feels seamless to a performer buying in on the process.
“It’s a sense of humor that comes from somebody who’s wildly intelligent, but when you’re on the level where what [Fincher’s] saying makes sense, you spend the whole day laughing.”
He also mentions an underrated Fincher trait: he’s funny. “He’s a funny dude. I spent most of my time around him laughing and having a good time,” he says.
This note reminded me of something that’s come up a few times over the last half decade; a story originating from the Gone Girl commentary track, where Fincher says that Ben Affleck refused to wear a Yankees hat, and as a result, production shut down for four days. Obviously this didn’t actually happen, but Fincher’s tone in delivering the line is so dry that some news outlets and online blogs ran with it as legitimate.
When I tell Pelphrey this we both burst out laughing.
“It’s a dry sense of humor,” he says. “It’s a sense of humor that comes from somebody who’s wildly intelligent, but when you’re on the level where what he’s saying makes sense, you spend the whole day laughing.”
Pelphrey hopes to keep his momentum going into (hopefully) better times in 2021; in the new year he’ll film a new Amazon Prime series, Outer Range, alongside Josh Brolin (“a beast of an actor” and “a really good dude,” Pelphrey says).
With a new project from one of the greatest filmmakers alive—and one with a track record of starmaking at that—on the cusp of release, a fan-favorite role on one of the biggest hit shows on TV, and an exciting project on the horizon, it might be hard for Pelphrey not to think about just how bright his future is. But he’s just happy to be doing his job for a filmmaker who seems to be operating at a never-ending peak.
“I mean, this dude is the fucking man,” Pelphrey says of his experience working with Fincher. “He’s one of the greatest filmmakers of our time and in my opinion, he is just at the height of his powers.”
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