Tuppence Middleton felt very much at home in old Hollywood, where she spent three months filming Mank, director David Fincher’s masterful homage to celebrated screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (a magnificent Gary Oldman).
Each morning she’d draw back the curtains in her room at the fabled Villa Carlotta, nestled beneath the Hollywood sign, and gaze out at ‘all the landmarks we’re referencing in the film’.
Mank tells the story of Mankiewicz and his complicated collaboration with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane, which many consider one of the finest pictures ever made. Middleton portrays the writer’s long-suffering wife Sara.
Legend has it that Villa Carlotta, built in 1917, was financed by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (played by Charles Dance in the film), on whom Kane was modelled.
Tuppence Middleton and Gary Oldman in Mank, a Netflix film being released December 2020. Mank is director David Fincher’s homage to celebrated screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz
Sara Mankiewicz often accompanied her husband to swanky, star-studded parties at Hearst Castle, the Press baron’s palatial home on his San Simeon estate. There, she’d bump into the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Hearst’s paramour Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Davies was often on Middleton’s mind — not least because, at Villa Carlotta, ‘there was an old black and white photograph of Marion Davies above my toilet’. ‘Every morning I’d say: “Hi, Marion!” ’ she joked.
Growing up in Somerset, Middleton dreamt of Hollywood, even though ‘it felt so far away from West Country village life, when you’re young and want to be an actor.’
At junior school she adored Elvis Presley movies. Then she became ‘intoxicated’ by Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn. Now, she marvels at her good fortune to have been part of a project celebrating the magic of the movies of the late 1930s.
Middleton attends the Downton Abbey World Premiere at Cineworld Leicester Square on September 9, 2019 in London
I was lucky enough to see Mank on the big screen, just before the second lockdown. And it looks sensational: shot in shades of black, white and shadowy grey, and anchored by an outstanding performance from Oldman.
The action switches back and forth in time, as Fincher relates how Mankiewicz risked all — his liver, mainly; but his general health, too … the man had his leg encased in plaster after a car accident — to write what would become Citizen Kane.
And while it’s Oldman’s film, the camera keeps drawing us back to Middleton.
There’s a moment where she’s at a Hearst soiree and her face tells us all we need to know about her relationship with her husband. ‘She was the type of woman who takes on a man like that and sticks by him,’ she said.
Sara came from a relatively modest Jewish family in Chicago. ‘Then she marries this outlandish, outspoken, witty guy who’s the life and soul of the party, who drinks to excess, is hugely ambitious and lives to be social.’
She was the voice of reason ‘who brought him back down to earth,’ the 33-year-old actress told me.
Off screen, she and Oldman had fun with the other Brit actors. ‘Gary works really hard,’ she said, ‘but he’s really up for a laugh between takes. We spent a lot of time writing limericks.’
Gary Oldman attends The Laundromat premiere during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival at Princess of Wales Theatre on September 9, 2019 in Toronto
More importantly, ‘he loves a cup of tea’. And beans on toast. ‘I told him and his wife one day that I was missing beans on toast,’ Tuppence said. The next morning she woke to discover a can of Heinz baked beans outside her door.
Shooting on Mank was completed just before the first lockdown in March. Since then, Tuppence has kept busy, writing a short film — ‘a coming of age, revenge story about a 12-year-old Swedish boy’ — which she’ll direct.
Ahead of Mank’s release on Netflix on December 4, she can be seen in Brandon Cronenberg’s chilling sci-fi thriller Possessor (available digitally from today).
As a counterpoint to that, she’s hoping the Downton Abbey film sequel will go ahead next year. In the last Downton movie we saw her character Lucy (Imelda Staunton played her mother) take up with Allen Leech’s Tom Branson.
‘There seems to be no middle ground,’ she sighed, from her home in London. ‘Wholesome drama, or really disturbing sci-fi.’ Luckily Middleton can play both sides of the coin — and succeed whichever way it flips.
Why Georgie loves her Tudor tales
This isn’t a spoiler, but Henry VIII’s sister Meg Tudor — aka Margaret, Queen of Scots — played by Georgie Henley, will get to keep her head when the gripping 16-part Starz television drama The Spanish Princess ends its run on Sunday.
But the stakes are still high for Meg, whose conflict with her husband, James IV of Scotland, ‘is down to the bone’, as Henley put it. ‘Everything is on a knife edge. If you cross Henry VIII, you might get your head chopped off, even if you’re his closest friend — or closest family!’
Well, Meg lived to be 50 — a ripe old age for Tudor times. (In the historical thriller, Henley plays her until she’s 30.)
Henley, 25, (pictured) and her university friend Emma Corrin (Princess Diana in The Crown) are often begged by fans not to ruin the suspense by telling them what happens next. ‘People keep telling her not to give away spoilers and she’s like: “Well, it’s history…” ’
Georgia Henley, 25, (pictured) and her university friend Emma Corrin (Princess Diana in The Crown) are often begged by fans not to ruin the suspense by telling them what happens next
A lot of the success of The Spanish Princess is down to its fascinating female characters led by Charlotte Hope’s Catherine of Aragon, Laura Carmichael’s Maggie Pole, Stephanie Levi-John’s Lina de Cardonnes and Harriet Walter’s Margaret Beaufort.
‘There were so many of us! A real sense of sisterhood,’ Henley told me. The show had explored the ‘concepts of gender and power’, with many of the women, if they survived, fighting for their freedom.
The themes of motherhood have also been as powerful as the all-action moments. ‘My character wants to be heard politically, but because she’s a mother, she’s instantly placed in a box and told her opinions don’t matter.’
Henley attends the Stardust Opening Film & UK Premiere during the 28th Raindance Film Festival at The May Fair Hotel on October 28
Completing the second batch of eight episodes came down to the wire, with final scenes being filmed just before the first lockdown. Georgie raced from her London flat to her family home in Ilkley, West Yorkshire.
In between writing scripts she spent the first weeks hunkered in her parents’ bedroom, recording additional dialogue. ‘You’d be on Zoom with the director and sound engineers and you’re responsible for the recording. The pressure!’
The task required absolute silence; so Georgie used bedding as soundproofing (she got the award for ‘best duvet fort’).
To relax, she indulged her twin passions: high-brow films and low-brow TV. She’s part of a WhatsApp group which discusses American reality TV hit Real Housewives. ‘But now there’s tension, because some of us are on Real Housewives of New York, and some of us are on Beverly Hills. The group’s in disarray!’ Her goal, she says, is to spot a Real Housewife ‘in the wild’.
Till then, she’s keeping her fingers crossed that a new film she’s signed on to will be able to go ahead next year.
■ The Spanish Princess is available through Amazon Prime and AppleTV+.