Mank seems like something out of prestige cinema mad libs; a movie about Old Hollywood by and for an industry that pays so much attention to its own navel—even while turning the audience’s attention to the screen. Mank concerns the making of Citizen Kane, by many accounts the greatest film ever made. It stars Oscar-winner Gary Oldman. It’s in black and white for purely stylistic reasons. It’s not only directed by superstar auteur David Fincher, it’s also his passion project: decades in the making, based on a script by his late father.
And in the middle of it all, staring down his bow-of-a-battleship nose, is Charles Dance.
Dance, who plays publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst—the model for Orson Welles’s titular Kane—has been busy as of late. He recently completed a two-season run on The Crown as Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India and mentor to both Prince Philip and Prince Charles. And early next year, audiences will see Dance in Matthew Vaughn’s The King’s Man, in which he plays another British officer and statesman, Lord Kitchener. Dance describes himself first and foremost as “a working actor,” and he’s rattling off a run of important supporting roles. But as a character actor, he’s transcended the “Hey, It’s That Guy” status that swallows whole the likes of David Costabile and Reg E. Cathey and Judy Greer.
Instead of “Hey, It’s That Guy,” it’s “Hey, It’s Charles Fucking Dance.”
Prior to 2011, Dance, a Royal Shakespeare Company veteran, had been a fixture on British TV since the mid-1970s. He crossed the Atlantic every so often for supporting roles in Hollywood films, like Alien 3, or Last Action Hero, or Gosford Park. But the vehicle that thrust Dance from That Guy to Charles Fucking Dance was, of course, Game of Thrones, in which he appeared 27 times as the (at the risk of being unkind to Niccolò Machiavelli) Machiavellian Tywin Lannister.
There’s a truism about Shakespearean actors being well-suited to sci-fi and fantasy roles; Patrick Stewart once articulated it thusly: “[T]he experience that we get in making a 400-year-old text work is exactly what you need for giving credibility and believability to fantasy, science fiction, and the like.” Dance brought those qualities to his performance in Thrones. At 6-foot-3, with a weather-beaten baritone voice and severe features, Dance conferred authority and authenticity upon a show that, for all its prestige credentials, frequently veered into the ludicrous.
His was by no means a revolutionary performance, but it was one of the show’s most indelible. From stomping through the throne room to his epistolary puppet mastery to his eventual death on the toilet—a death made all the more shocking because it was the first evidence of Tywin’s vulnerability—Dance commanded the screen, just as Tywin commanded his empire.
Particularly in its early seasons, Game of Thrones drew its repertory company mostly from the ranks of fairly anonymous European TV actors—That Guys, at best. And many of the show’s stars have since returned to those ranks, having failed to capitalize on their moment at the center of the television universe. Dance, however, has parlayed his turn on Thrones into a successful late-career renaissance.
At 74, he’s too old to take on traditional leading-man roles, but he’s brought that intimidating and genteel presence to everything from The Imitation Game to The Crown to (for comedic effect) Big Fat Quiz of Everything. None of those roles are necessarily career-making or award-inviting, and dozens of actors could probably have played them competently—but nowadays, producers show they’re serious by hiring the genuine article. Dance has become the archetypal patrician patriarch, from his height to his voice, even to his name, which sounds far more elegant in a non-rhotic RP accent (ChAHls DAHnce) than it would on the lips of a flat-voweled Michigander.
Just as Patrick Stewart explicitly spelled out the synergy between Shakespeare and sci-fi/fantasy, so too did he help blaze the path that Dance is traveling post-Thrones, as Dance’s breakout parallels Stewart’s on Star Trek: The Next Generation some 30 years ago. Stewart turned Jean-Luc Picard into a beloved and even aspirational figure and one of the most enduring TV characters of that era. Picard became a father figure not just to the other characters on the show, but, as The Next Generation lived on through syndication and streaming, to pretty much every TV viewer in the English-speaking world. Since the show went off the air 26 years ago, Stewart has reprised his role in four films and a spinoff, and built upon that persona during a 17-year run as Professor Xavier in the X-Men films. He’s parodied it more times than one can count, and played against it for dramatic effect in Green Room and Charlie’s Angels.
When Dance first played Tywin, he was 18 years older than Stewart was when he first set foot on the U.S.S. Enterprise, so it’s unlikely that he’ll have a second role as enduring as the archvillain of Westeros. But Tywin, the diplomatic mastermind, the remote but loyal patriarch, was a sort of evil Picard on a show that was as cynical and dark as Star Trek: The Next Generation was optimistic and tidy. And just as Stewart’s spent the second half of his career playing (or playing off) Picard, Dance has done the same with Tywin Lannister.
It’s a good niche to carve out, from a professional perspective. There’s never been a shortage of parts for older British actors who can play a disapproving grandparent convincingly, particularly if said actor looks good in a military dress uniform. That latter point could prove significant; as World War I is now more than 100 years in the past, Hollywood has renewed its interest in dramatizing a conflict that was big on human misery but low on drama. The King’s Man, like Wonder Woman, is taking a fantastical alternate-history approach to the topic; Dance’s character was the British Secretary of State for War at the outbreak of the conflict.
But in spite of his age and relatively recent rise to international stardom, Dance’s cultural footprint is lasting—and growing. Surely there will be more uniforms to fill down the line, more Edwardian drawing rooms to inhabit, more patrician dinner tables at which to sit.
And who better to fill, to inhabit, to sit, than Charles Fucking Dance.