How Mank’s Tom Pelphrey Approached Playing A Hollywood Icon Before They Became Iconic

When an actor is cast to play an icon in a Hollywood biopic, the general expectation is that said icon is going to be featured at the hight of their powers – with the movie presumably wanting to capture their life during the most compelling years. There are exceptions, however, with one being cases where an icon is featured only as a supporting character in another important figure's story. It's a strange situation, but also an interesting summation of the situation faced by actor Tom Pelphrey in the making of David Fincher's Mank.

In the new Netflix movie, the Iron Fist actor plays Joseph Mankiewicz, a man recognized as one of the all-time great American directors, but it also happens to be a story that is entirely set in the years before he took the helm of his first film. Instead, the feature puts all of its focus on Joseph's older brother, Herman Mankiewicz, and his journey writing the script for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, rendering the younger sibling a side character in the tale. It created a strange challenge for Tom Pelphrey, which we discussed during the Mank press day last month – our interview featured in the video at the top of this article.

For those who don't know about Joseph Mankiewicz, the filmmaker spent the 1930s as a studio screenwriter, but by the 1950s he became one of the most prominent directors in the industry. In 1949 and 1950 he became one of the only filmmakers in history to win Academy Awards in consecutive years – winning both Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director for A Letter to Three Wives and All About Eve – and he made two of the mid-century's most famous epics: 1953's Julius Caesar starring Marlon Brando, and 1963's Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor.

That was all big stuff that Tom Pelphrey had to put aside in his mind, however, because all of that happened after the time period captured in Mank – which primarily chronicles Herman Mankiewicz's Hollywood experiences during the 1930s (his first scene actually features another character remarking that they didn't even know Herman had a younger brother). Fortunately, Pelphrey wasn't left totally flummoxed by the situation because he was given proper resources, namely author Sydney Ladensohn Stern's book The Brothers Mankiewicz: Hope, Heartbreak, and Hollywood Classics. The actor told me,

There was a great book that came out a few weeks before we started filming, which was a biography of Herman and Joe and their life together. And that was super helpful because it started both of them as children and kind of brought you through, which I thought was useful because so much of what you can read about Joe is like the Joe that we all know, which is the multiple Academy award winning writer/director who's an icon of old Hollywood. And what I wanted to be able to get it into more as the actor was like the younger version of Joe. And what I found in the script and what I found in everything I read lined up perfectly.

It's a funny case of timing, as Sydney Ladensohn Stern's came out the first week of October in 2019, and Mank began filming almost exactly one month later – evidently providing Tom Pelphrey will all of the time he needed to learn about the pre-fame Joseph Mankiewicz – and it pays off in his performance.

If you haven't already had a chance to see Mank up on the big screen, the goods news is that it won't be much longer until it arrives right in your living room. Following its theatrical release last month, the David Fincher film starring Gary Oldman will be hitting Netflix at the end of this week – specifically Friday, December 4. Be sure to check it out, as it's one of the best films of the year, and stay tuned here on CinemaBlend for more from my interviews with members of the cast!

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.