We’re delighted to bring you this interview with the charming and wonderfully talented Ferdinand Kingsley, who plays Irving Thalberg in the latest masterpiece by legendary Hollywood film director, David Fincher.
If you’d rather watch the interview or listen to it scroll down to the bottom of this page for the full video interview or audio podcast.
Accomplished actor Ferdinand Kingsley, son of actor Ben Kingsley and theatre director Alison Sutcliffe, speaks directly to his fellow actors about how he carved out his own path in the performing world. It really wasn’t as easy as you may assume.
Ferdinand discusses the criticality of training, the difference between film acting and theatre performance, his childhood behind the curtain and his preparation process for playing a character with such a contrasting worldview and actions taken, such as, Thalberg. This highly accomplished MGM film producer, played by Ferdinand Kingsley, became known for delivering the world’s first mainstream “fake news”, disguised as service announcements and documentary-style clips in cinemas.
Irving Thalberg produced these “news” segments using out-of -work actors and they were played at the beginning of most of his blockbuster movies, in order to influence the vote of the masses towards the Republican party.
FF: So, Ferdinand Kingsley, can you tell us a little about your background?
FK: Well, I’m an actor. I grew up around acting and the theatre and was playing kid parts and would see all the grown-ups having a whale of a time thinking, ‘Why can’t someone who does that as a hobby make it into his job?’ Then, after some to-ing and fro-ing about what my path would be in life, I went to Guildhall Drama School in London, and that’s how it all got started professionally for me.
FF: Fantastic. So your parents, obviously, are very well accomplished. I’m guessing that also must have helped to inspire you in the sense that you knew it was a possibility. Because a lot of people, they’re told, ‘Well, you can’t be an actor, it’s too hard, there’s too much competition, it’s impossible.’ Whereas your parents had already done it…
FK: It kind of works the other way as well; they kind of showed me that there is a lottery involved, in terms of luck. I was made very aware, every day, that what happened to dad’s career was not what happened to most careers. That it takes a long time, you know, it took him years and years of working his way up. In fact, there was no illusion that it was easy.
The discussion was quite the opposite. Both parents were very much at pains to say, ‘Look, firstly, it’s incredibly hard to maintain consistency. Secondly, it’s quite a lonely job a lot of the time, it’s tough on the people around you. It’s tough on families, it can be financially tough.’ So it’s easy to imagine that it was just like, ‘Yeah, you can do it, so so can I’, but actually, it was more like, ‘Wow, you did it. So if I’m going to do it, I’m gonna have to do it on my own terms.’
FF: Obviously now you’re doing a lot of films, but you started with a really strong background in theatre. Can you tell us about some of the theatre projects that you took up and how that experience was for you?
FK: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, my heart is still very much there, it’s only sort of a coincidence that I’ve been doing screen over stage. At the time, certainly when I was at Guildhall, the training was very theatre orientated, because that’s how all drama schools operated up until the last few years. I mean, there was screen training, but it was pretty minimal.
So when I graduated, I felt very, very, very comfortable on stage and less certain of my craft on screen. When I left I did a year and a bit, all in one stretch, at the National Theatre which, when you’re 21/22 is amazing. You just feel like the absolute king of the world and they look after you incredibly well. It feels like your learning experience goes on because you’re so supported there.
With film and TV work, you’re more likely to be hired for being closer to what they want to come out on screen
So I did three plays in that stint there. One of which was Hamlet (2010 – 2011), and if I were to give one tip for every young actors’ brain, I would say: even if you never think you’re ever gonna play it, learn Hamlet. Or learn as much as you possibly can, because my brain stretched, my bravery stretched, I think my ability to think in normal life stretched, just through having to tackle that complexity, and that mass of thought and dialogue. Then I did some telly after that, but very much felt like I needed a lot of guidance, because I felt like I was shouting everything.
My first big stint in front of the camera would have been Victoria (2016 – ). I’d done a fair few telly jobs before that, a couple of films, and had been happy with my work on them. But on Victoria I had three years of one character to play with. Which is a real luxury, because it means that you can really take the pressure off going, ‘Right, I’ve got to deliver this in the next four weeks, or five weeks, or six weeks’, however long you’re doing a film or an episode of something for. You can take the pressure off and really explore your craft and your character.
So by the time I came out of Victoria (2016 – ), I felt like I had felt when I left drama school with stage work. I just felt like I wasn’t inhibited anymore and comfortable in my skin and on any set. That’s something that I feel really thankful for to have had a stint on a show where I got to stop worrying about the acting and just get on with it.
FF: Yeah, just be the character. What would you say is the main difference with approaching a role in film and television compared to theatre?
FK: I think the obvious thing that you miss – I mean if you’re really lucky you get it – but for the most part, when you’re doing a screen job, is rehearsal time.
A lot of your process happens on your own. There’s less of that camaraderie that happens in a rehearsal room for theatre where you are encouraged to make bad decisions, you’re encouraged to try stuff that isn’t going to be in the final version, you’re encouraged to make a mess so that something creative can come out of it. With film and TV work, you’re more likely to be hired for being closer to what they want to come out on screen, if that makes any sense. So I’d say that a lot of your work is done on your own before you get to work.
Once you’ve got a job on telly, it would be quite easy because there’s no one checking up on you to think, ‘Well, that’s me until I turn up at work’. I think, when you’re on set, energy management is one of the biggest things. One of my teachers at Guildhall said something which echoes in my mind every day on set: that when you’re doing a screen job, you’re paid to wait around and you do the acting for free. The time when you’re not acting is when you’ve got to think, ‘Right, this is why I’m earning my money. So this is where I don’t waste my energy. This is where I stay focused, stay aware of what’s going on around me, of who’s doing what, whether I’ve eaten at the right time, whether I’m prepared for the next three scenes, because the scene that’s three ahead might come six hours previously in the series that you’re working on’.
So the waiting around is where you’ve got to really conserve your energy because it’s really tempting to do your work in between action and cut, and then just go mental or just turn your brain off totally. So there’s a stamina element you’ve got to work on in terms of focus, really; you’re not going to get instant gratification from your performance like you would on stage. You don’t get the benefit of either a laugh or a curtain call.
Gary Oldman on set is kind of how I want to be on set if I manage to keep working for a long time, because he takes the work seriously, but not himself. He knows we’re there to do a job.
What you have to do is trust that there are really good directors and editors out there that are going to be putting the story together in a way that you don’t have control over beyond what you’ve delivered. When you’re working with someone like David Fincher, which is luxury of all luxuries, you do absolutely trust that. Because, firstly, you do about a billion takes. You’ll do 60, 70, 80 takes, which most people don’t get the opportunity to do. And secondly, you just trust that he and his editors have seen your work.
FF: Yeah, that makes total sense. Tell us a little bit about what you have coming out shortly, Mank (2020)…
FK: Mank (2020) is coming out imminently. It will be coming out as a Netflix original on Netflix on December 4th 2020. It is the story of Herman Mankiewicz, who wrote, or co-wrote, Citizen Kane (1941), and Mankiewicz, Mank, is played by Gary Oldman. The film is the 10 years around the writing of Citizen Kane (1941). So it’s the 10 years leading up to it being made. Citizen Kane (1941) was sort of infamously about, but not about, life in the upper echelons of media society in America at the time, which is very much the world that Mankiewicz moved in.
It’s a time that Hollywood was discovering that it could have power outside of its own bubble, that it could influence the world at large. This new industry was flexing its muscles, and deciding that actually maybe we, the producers, should be dictating how America is run.
I play Irving Thalberg who was the baby-faced, very young producer who co-ran MGM. He was running Metro Goldwyn Mayer with Louis B. Mayer. He had set up MGM when he was 23. So he was a massive overachiever. He was what was known then as a ‘blue baby’. He was starved of oxygen at birth, and so he had a very weak heart. He was told that he wouldn’t make it to adolescence, and then he was told he wouldn’t make it to 20, and then he was told he wouldn’t make it to 30.
So, he always had this ticking clock, really… He sort of saw himself as a time bomb, because he knew that he could drop dead at any moment. So in the short time that he was alive – it was a painfully short time, he died when he was 37 – he produced 400 films, which is insane. His films…they’re Grand Hotel (1932), Ben Hur (1925), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), King Kong (1933). They’re big, big, big films. He sort of revolutionised how filmmaking worked. He came up with the idea of writers’ rooms, he came up with the idea of reshoots, of test screenings. Things which we take for granted as being part of the Hollywood infrastructure now were his innovations.
The time when you’re not acting is when you’ve got to think, ‘Right, this is why I’m earning my money. So this is where I don’t waste my energy.
He was also – I swear we don’t align – rampantly right-wing and absolutely hated unions and everything they stood for. And anything that even sniffed of socialism. So he would set about doing everything he could do to crush that wherever he saw it, which is a big part of the film.
He created a really early example of what we now call ‘fake news’. He filmed a load of fake documentary footage, staged interviews, actually using extras that were out of work because of the depression, extras from MGM, pretending to be members of the public voicing their opinions on electoral candidates, Republicans and Democrats. But he did it very cleverly, so that it sort of pretended to look vaguely even, but was actually steering everybody towards the Republican candidate. He played them before every single MGM movie in this electoral race as news, so people go to the cinemas thinking they’re watching news, and then they come out being massively influenced by it. Of course, he totally staged the whole thing. And I think that’s something that is, if not exactly parallel with what’s been happening recently, it’s pretty flippin’ close.
FF: I was gonna say that it’s a conspiracy theory that has been used, definitely.
FK: Yeah, it’s been used about protesters, hasn’t it?
FF: It’s been interesting seeing people popping up in different videos. I don’t know if you’ve seen any clips like that?
FK: Yeah, totally. That’s part of the film – like, Mankiewicz is listening to the radio and goes, ‘I know who that member of the public is.’ I think it’s absolutely fascinating that somebody’s just going, ‘I know what I believe in, and I believe in it very strongly. And I have the capacity, I’ve got the kit, I’ve got the ability to make a difference. So why wouldn’t I?’, is his argument and he sort of says to the world, ‘You’d do the same for your side, if you could, but you can’t, and I can. So suck it up.’
FF: It’s really interesting, but also quite scary… One, how easily the masses can be influenced, and two, who’s doing it and why they’re doing it.
FK: Totally. If you frame yourself as trustworthy, as the voice of reason and you say, you know, just before you watch this film: there’s some news, just watch this newsreel – it’s nothing to do with us. We’re just delivering to you because we’re responsible. If you get to set that agenda, then you’ve got limitless power.
FF: Absolutely, yeah. It’s a really interesting character to play. How did you approach getting inside his head?
FK: It was not an unpleasant job, because of the world that the film’s about. I started by frantically reading. There’s a book by Mark Vieira about Irving Thalberg (Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince), which really had more insights into him than I found anywhere else about sort of his inner journey and his personal journey. So I read that, and then, the really tricky bit, I watched a lot of his work. I just watched loads of old movies that he produced, and looked at the script notes where they’re available. I visited his house, I studied maps and ground plans, floor plans of the old MGM Studios where he worked because everyone, when they talk about him, talks about how that was his home, really, he was more at home there than in the home he built.
So, I didn’t want it to feel like I was just sitting in a set. I wanted to feel like I knew where every door led, and I knew where every chimney pot came out. Because I thought how often do you get an opportunity to do something like that? To shoot a film about old Hollywood, in Hollywood, on some of the old lots and some of the old stages that they used with probably my favourite director in the world and some of the best actors.
Preparation was a joy, because it was watching a lot of movies, reading a lot of books, and we did have, very luckily, three weeks of rehearsal. So that’s what I was saying earlier: very occasionally you do get some. But it was sitting around David Fincher’s office table, his conference room table, just reading the scenes over and over again, changing a word here, a word there, working out what we were trying to do every moment;1 he was rewriting little bits.
Actually, this film, the subject being what it is, a lot of rehearsal was sitting around with people sharing stories of the era, things that they’d learned, things that they’d heard. David [Fincher] would tell stories about other films he’d worked on that would have parallels to the one that we were working on, or the stories within the film that we’re making. So it was just a case of immersing.
FF: Yeah, absolutely. Can you tell us who else was involved in the film? I know you’ve mentioned one or two.
FK: It’s what we call an ensemble cast. So at the very top is Gary Oldman who’s basically in every shot; he’s definitely in every scene! He is a master as far as I’m concerned. Gary on set is kind of how I want to be on set if I manage to keep working for a long time, because he takes the work seriously, but not himself. He knows we’re there to do a job. He’s curious about everyone else. He knows that even though the film is orbiting around him, everyone else’s work is as important as his own. So Gary’s fantastic.
Then you’ve got Amanda Seyfried as Marian Davis. She glows out of the screen, she’s phenomenal. Arliss Howard who plays Louis B. Mayer, is my ‘partner in crime’. Just sitting with Arliss was enough preparation for me, because he’s been there and done that and seen everything. For every crappy anecdote I tell about some play I did, or some TV job I did, he’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah. And then, of course, when I was having an argument with Stanley Kubrick about this’, and I would be like, ‘Okay, Arliss, right, I’m gonna sit and listen to you now!’
Then there’s a load of Brits in the film, which is always nice. So there’s me, Tuppence Middleton, who plays Sarah Mankiewicz, Herman’s wife. There is Sam Troughton, who plays John Houseman who produced Citizen Kane (1941). There’s Tom Burke, who’s playing Orson Welles who is startlingly similar to Orson Welles on screen. Charles Dance stars as William Randolph Hearst.
So, it’s pretty good company to be in. You’re on your ‘A’ game when you go to work, not in an oppressive, pressured way, you just go, ‘Everyone here is at the top of their game, they’re working as hard as they possibly can, from Gary to the crew’. The crew were as inspirational as the actors in terms of the commitment. So you think, ‘If I don’t put everything I’ve got into this, in terms of commitment, then I’m just going to regret it. Also, I’m going to probably have a bit of a miserable time because I’m going to be feeling like I’m playing catch up all the time’. You can either go, ‘They’ll carry me’ or you can go, ‘Right I’m gonna stay fit’. Like you’ve been in training at the gym and go, ‘Now I’m actually running the race. So I’m gonna run with them, not behind them’.
FF: That totally makes sense. I also do acting as well [Aiysha Jebali], and I do find that when you’re working with people who are really good it just inspires you. It’s not a competitive thing, it’s a collaborative thing. It just inspires your performance.
FK: Totally, because it feeds you, doesn’t it? I do think you’ve got a choice to either, especially in an environment where the work is quite intensive, you either go with it and you tire yourself out, but you get something from it, and every day at the end of work you feel a little bit better and fitter, or you if you don’t buy into it, then you just have a crap time, I think.
FF: Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on. Are there any final tips that you’d like to give to any aspiring actors?
FK: I would say make sure there’s nothing else that you can do. Make sure there’s nothing else that you can forgive yourself for doing if there’s another job that you can see yourself doing, do it. If there is no other job you can see yourself doing – be an actor, because it’s not easy.
Equally, know that if you’ve got something in you that needs to tell stories and needs to connect to people and needs to share stuff with an audience, that your voice is really valid. I think at the moment, with the world in its pandemic state and various economies on the brink, The Arts can be chucked under the bus, and I think are being chucked under the bus by people who see them as a luxury to be enjoyed in the good times and discarded in the bad times.
But I think it’s the opposite. I think art is absolutely fundamentally necessary. I think people are going to need art more than ever when we come through this. Because there’s gonna be a lot of people in a really bad way, emotionally, obviously financially, but there’s going to be a mental health crisis if there isn’t already, which I think there is. We’re going to need theatre, film, music, performance, dance, all sorts to help us through that. To get us out of our own heads, to help us express things that we’re trying to process.
So, I think to anyone who is having a tough time at the moment, firstly, you’re not alone, and secondly, no matter what messages you’re getting from up top, you’re valid and your voice is important and valid. So trust it.
Media: CLD Communications (Ferdinand Kingsley headshot), Netflix (Official trailer and stills of Mank)
Interviewer: Aiysha Jebali
Transcription: Ben Kelly
Editors: Keren Davies, Richard Williams
Video and Sound Editor: Olly Lambert
Visual Effects: Richard Williams
Scottish Tunisian actress. Yes, that’s a thing. BAME. POC.