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So, Why Does Bill Nye Play Upton Sinclair in Mank?

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

One of the big surprises of David Fincher’s Mank is that it turns out to be just as much about Upton Sinclair as it is about Herman Mankiewicz. In this version of Hollywood history, Mankiewicz was spurred to write Citizen Kane due to his guilt over the Hollywood dirty-tricks campaign that sank Sinclair’s 1934 campaign for governor of California. The Jungle author makes a brief appearance at a rally in Mank, at which point we get another of the film’s big surprises: Sinclair is played by none other than Bill Nye. Yes, the Science Guy. It’s unconventional casting, but it works. Stripped of his lab coat and bow tie, Nye is a little hard to place. He comes off as an avuncular, trustworthy orator; it’s only afterward when you realize, Wait, was that Bill Nye?

We naturally had some questions about how the whole thing came out. Luckily, Nye was happy to jump on a Zoom call and discuss the story behind his cameo.

You’re someone who’s very well-versed intellectually. I’m curious what your background was with Upton Sinclair.
I’d been exposed to him in high school, but that’s really the extent of it. I was thinking back about this. I went to Cornell, which was a clerical error by the admissions department. It has something called the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations. I remember a lot of the guys in my freshmen hallway went there. There was a cafeteria that had this fantastic hamburger, and I would see those guys, and they would talk about Upton Sinclair. But not in a way that I thought about. I didn’t even think about that until long after my bit on this movie.

You understand, I went to an audition to get this part?

I was going to ask.
My agent at UTA said, “Do you want to do this?” I said, “Heck yes.” [I had to use] my old skills. [Back in the 1980s] I moved to Seattle, I quit my engineering job, and I was trying to make it as an actor. I did local TV ads. You gotta audition! The [Mank] gal, the casting director, said, “Wow, you learned the lines.” She said a lot of the other guys hadn’t, but I don’t know, maybe she said that to everybody. I did my best: “Food is rotting on the ground. Vegetables are being tossed in the ocean.” I got the part, which was just amazing to me.

Did you ever learn why they wanted you?
I met with [Fincher]. He’s got big-time real actors in that movie — well, I’m a real actor — but anyway, he took the time on a Saturday to meet with me for an hour and a half. We talked about the importance of Citizen Kane in the history of cinema. We talked about the current administration, everybody’s frustration with it. He said, “We wanted you for your reputation for factual presentations, science, respecting the facts.” It was really cool.

Then we shot it on the 31st of January, right before the pandemic. The stage direction was “Monotone.” This is my side of the story, so-called selective memory, but it looks to me like the two takes he used were the ones where I said to him, “Hey man, I’d like to rev it up a little bit.” I’m trying to get this crowd excited. It’s a campaign rally. It looks like he used at least one of them. That was very gratifying.

Did Upton Sinclair really speak in a monotone voice?
I looked for samples of his voice online. He was a regular speaker, kind of a Charlie Rose type of guy. It occurred to me, should I have some sort of Boston accent? You know, smaht, pahk. But looking back, I think they wanted my voice to be recognizable. I also reread The Jungle, and watched Citizen Kane again before the night of shooting.

What did you get out of watching Kane again?
That I wanted to be part of it, I guess. Everybody talks about Citizen Kane. That shot where they’re coming up from below to make Kane look like this big [figure] where they cut a hole in the floor? It’s amazing. The first movie ever to show the ceiling. That kind of thing.

The other thing is the seriousness of it. The movie was so influential, and clearly, Fincher wants this movie to be influential. I would show up reading the ad for the stereo company with a lot less preparation. “We’re having a gigantic sale — Sony, Hitachi, Toshiba, all on sale.”

Before this, when was the last time you had to audition for anything?
A long time ago. It was when I was in Seattle. It might’ve been Mallon Ford in Tacoma, Washington. Or the Washington State Lottery. Now looking back, I’m not a fan of the lottery; it’s a tax on people who don’t understand algebra. But it was a job. I was young.

You started as a stand-up comedian, which then led to the persona of the Science Guy. Do you consider that acting, or is it something different?
Well, it has a lot in common with acting. I’d love to give you an earful about the two unions, AFTRA and SAG. When I was coming up, the screen actors I met felt that they were real artists, and that what they did was very special.

As opposed to what AFTRA members did?
Reading radio ads, “Sunday at Seattle International Raceway …” was not the same. Now they’ve merged. I’m very happy about that. I used to pay dues in both unions, and I felt like I was doing the same work for both unions. In Mank, Mankiewicz pooh-poohs the Writers Guild. Boy, that changed.

Anyway, in my opinion — which as you know, is correct — whatever the show is, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel, Chelsea Handler, it has to be an extension of that person, because television is so intimate. This guy or gal is in your freaking living room, talking to you, taking up your time. If that person is not authentic, or if he’s acting, or she’s not being herself, you can tell, and you don’t want to watch it. Is it acting? Kind of.

You’re “on,” but you’re still you.
If you watch somebody who presents the weather, she or he gets there at 3:30 in the morning and starts looking at all the weather stuff. You don’t know what’s happened to her: Her dog threw up, or her car broke down, or her mother’s having some medical issue. But she gets on camera, and she shows you today’s katabatic winds, and in the Great Basin there’s going to be snow coming. That’s not that easy, man. When the person on camera is natural, that’s when the show has a chance. I say all the time: You don’t hate anyone more than you hate somebody on television. If that guy or gal does not appeal to you, man, you’re ticked off. You start yelling at the television.

I was looking through your IMDb page, and most of your roles have been, if not playing yourself, at least a version of the Science Guy.
When I worked on the comedy show [Almost Live] I played Speed Walker. I played the guy that gets dumped all the time by a woman called the Worst Girlfriend in the World. I was the guy in the ad for the Kicker, instead of the Clapper. That’s acting, but it’s on a comedy show. The other thing that has been so cool for me is the show Blindspot, where I’m playing myself, but I’m not myself. I have a daughter, and I have an international network of friends, and I have Bitcoins stored someplace. I knock a guy out with a fire extinguisher. I defuse bombs. I don’t normally do a lot of that.

Is playing these more heightened characters something you’re trying to get into at this stage of your career?
Sure. Hit me the ball, man. It’s David Fincher, for crying out loud. He is — as the kids say — kind of a big deal. I really wanted to do a good job for him.

For the last ten months, I’ve been wondering if my scene got cut. I didn’t even see the whole script, they only sent me my stuff. That was part of the master plan of the movie, to have it surprise people: the cue marks, the black-and-white, the chiaroscuro lighting. Scientists talk about that when they look at the dark area of the moon. They talk about chiaroscuro.

Worlds colliding for you, a little bit.
Yeah! We shot it in Pasadena, next to the City Hall. They wet down the streets. They had the vintage vehicles. I felt the pressure, man. I better not blow it.

He’s famous for doing a ton of takes. Was that your experience?
He did a lot of takes, yeah. Because we did so many takes, you get really comfortable with it. This guy is going to heckle me, then that guy is going to heckle me, and this crowd’s going to come towards me. You get used to that. Then I negotiated. I said, “I’d like to take it up a little bit.” He was great about it.

Also, if you watch it, I’ve got my hand doing this [makes a chopping motion] in the silhouette shot. He told me to pull back on that, because it looked like Ultraman. David Fincher just got to me, just like that, with one sentence.

What sort of other notes do you remember?
There was a lot of, “Face this way. Face that way.” Also, looking back, he had me do it monotone, then do it a little in between, and he had me be more passionate, more Bill Nye-ish. I’d call it “Bill Nye vs. Tucker Carlson.” I’m working for him — he wants to do 20 takes, let’s do 20 takes. After a while, I got confident that I wasn’t screwing it up.

Another thing we messed with: We tried saying “Warner Brothers” and “the brothers Warner.” Also, there’s a quote from Jefferson, “Truth has nothing to fear from error when reason is there to correct it.” The word error was used differently in the 18th century than we use it now. I’ve done some reading about the word. It’s not literally a mistake; it has agency. You might argue, the attorney general of Texas is erroring. He’s screwing things up on purpose. So he had me not use that word, then use that word. One of the background actors came up to me, “What does that mean?” I said, “As far as I can tell …”

Did you get to meet anyone from the cast, or was it just you and the extras?
Well, there’s two guys that David Fincher hires all the time. These guys are yelling out, “Hey, is it true they’re moving to Florida like everybody says they are?” We spent time in the makeup trailer. But Gary Oldman didn’t get to meet me. That’s a joke.

By the way, background actors are actors. I describe myself all the time as part of the OCD, the “On-Camera Department.” When you download a call sheet, it says “camera,” it says “director,” “assistant director.” Then it says “talent,” but that word kind of bugs me. On the Netflix show, I insisted: On-Camera Department.

I [have a] little thing about what I call the black-collar workers. If you ever work on a television show or a movie, everybody wears black so that you don’t reflect light onto the scene. What I still love about the whole thing is it’s handmade. As crazy as the electronics are, as sophisticated as [the CGI is], it’s still a bunch of people, the On Camera-Department and the black-collar workers, getting together to tell a story. I love that. David Fincher and I definitely talked about that, the handmade quality of it.

That’s a lovely note to end on.
One last thing: People complain all the time about Hollywood. If you think you want to come to Hollywood and live the dream, keep in mind, it starts at a 12-hour day. That’s where it starts. Then it goes 14 and 16 quite often. These people work very hard, and their attention to detail is amazing. It’s not for the faint of work ethic. If you want to be part of the black-collar team, you better be ready to work hard, and I’m not joking.

It’s crazy to me when conservative people attack the movie and television industry. Everybody agrees, on both sides of the aisle, that the United States is certainly the world’s most influential culture. It may not be the best culture, but it’s the most influential. That’s because of the work of Hollywood.

So, Why Does Bill Nye Play Upton Sinclair in Mank?