Daniel Bruhl on Rush and playing Niki Lauda

Ahead of the release of F1 biopic Rush, we chat to co-star Daniel Bruhl about playing the legendary driver Niki Lauda...

Spanish-born German actor Daniel Brühl has been something of an indie cinema darling for a decade, now, following his breakthrough in the delightful Goodbye, Lenin in 2003. He came to the wider attention of English-speaking audiences with a superb turn in Inglourious Basterds, but 2013 looks to be the year in which he’ll announce himself as a major, and prominent, talent. Later this year he plays Wikileaks spokesman Daniel Domscheit-Berg alongside Benedict Cumberbatch in The Fifth Estate, and it’s also being rumoured that he’ll be appearing in Michael Winterbottom’s The Face of An Angel, based on the Amanda Knox murder trial.

Before all of that, though, comes his turn as 1970s racing driver Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s enthralling biopic Rush. Brühl’s performance is dazzling, at once an uncanny impersonation of one of F1’s most famous faces while also peeling apart the depth behind a complex character. We caught up with him for a roundtable chat prior to the film’s release in UK cinemas this Friday.

Can you recall any of your first conversations with Ron Howard or Peter Morgan about taking on the role?

Yeah… I did an audition here in London, it all started here. It was Ron, Peter and Andrew Eaton [producer]. We started off by talking about racing movies that I liked, I told them that I always liked Grand Prix, Le Mans, and we also talked about movies that are… not so good! And how it’s difficult to make a good racing movie, especially about Formula One. I loved Senna, I told them it was a reason why I’d got very interested in F1 again. And then I told them a bit about my background – I grew up in Cologne, not that far from Kerpen [Michael Schumacher’s “home” karting circuit] and the Nürburgring, so you know, as a German in general we’re close to cars. But I was never a Formula One fan particularly, but I always liked cars.

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And then I felt confident, and I realised that Ron liked me, I had half an hour with him that turned into an hour – and I became a bit cocky. I hadn’t prepared my Austrian accent, but I thought “They’re Americans and English, they won’t be able to tell the difference!” So I began to talk in a fake Austrian accent, to show Ron the difference – and Peter Morgan all of a sudden replies, in polished Viennese, that this is a bullshit Austrian accent!

I hadn’t known that he lived there, and that he had been in touch with Niki, and that they knew each other – but then I understood why the quality of the dialogue, and the script itself, is so good. You could tell that he had done his homework and his research. He captured so well how Niki speaks, what he says and how he says it. That made it easy for me, you know, because the script itself was quite perfect in the first place.

And then you come back from an audition, and they let you wait two or three weeks, and then they call you, and it’s always the same – they say you were awesome, but someone else is going to play it! But this time, I was on a motorway in Spain, overtaking trucks, and my girlfriend was screaming at me, “You’re not a rally driver! You’re not a good driver!” And that’s when they called me to tell me I had the part. So I said to my girlfriend, “You see, it’s not so bad!” 

Were you all in agreement about who Niki is, and how he was going to be portrayed?

Well, Peter made it clear to Niki that certain things were going to be dramatised – and Niki understood that. He’s a very clever guy, he understood the laws of making a fictional movie, and he was happy with the way he was portrayed.

Although he only just told me now, we were doing some interviews in Vienna a couple of days ago, and he said, “You know, I’m a bit older now, and… was I really that much of an asshole?” And I said, “Well, Niki, I met you a couple of times, and I think it’s quite accurate!”

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I think we all saw the same guy, because we had the luxury of having him around and supporting us, and visiting us – so we could always be reassured that what we were doing was right. And Ron and Peter gave me a lot of support. After one week of shooting, I asked Peter several times, “Will people have empathy with me, if I go on like this?” And he said, “Trust me, there is a sense of humour about it.” And of course, the character goes on a journey – and I love that scene at the end, by the plane, you know, because finally you understand both of the guys’ philosophy, and you like both of them. Or, well, you can side more with one or the other, but you understand both of them. The nice thing is that underneath that rivalry you have that mutual respect, and they like each other in a way.

So yeah, I hope the audience agrees with me that Niki’s okay at the end, you know! He’s likeable! He’s very straightforward, very undiplomatic – but to be honest, parts of me envy someone like him, because how often do I find myself in a situation where I think “I’m losing time because I’m a coward, because I don’t care to solve a conflict in a direct way, and say the truth to people’s faces.” And Niki just does that, and it’s fascinating.

I mean, our first conversation was so funny on the phone, because he said, “I guess we have to meet now? Just bring hand luggage to Vienna, so if we don’t like each other, you can just piss off!”

Do you think the narrative of the film is more Niki’s story than James’, because of the way we follow his development as a character a bit more?

Well, I always loved the James Hunt character. I was closer to Niki, that was the part that fascinated me more – maybe because I’m German, although we are quite different to the Austrians, they have more of that sense of irony and humour. They’re much funnier than us in Germany – which is not that difficult! But on the other hand, there is something similar in our cultures, or with Niki, because of the precision and that focus on things, that is something I could relate to.

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But I found James Hunt a fascinating character, too, and I think Chris did a brilliant job playing this flamboyant rock and roll star. But of course, for an actor, it’s a gift if you have such a dramatic journey, you have the accident, and these moments in the hospital, and he’s fighting his way back, and gets back to the car. I asked Niki several times how he was able to do that, because to me it seemed absolutely incredible, and I could not fully understand how he could do it.

He tried to explain to me several times how it felt, and we also talked about death and fear, and overcoming fear – and he said there were moments of fear. He was paralysed when he went back to Monza, and before the race he tested his car and was only able to go in second gear, then had a panic attack. But he said he looked around to see if anyone had seen him in such state – and then he left, went to his room, closed the curtains, and analysed his fear for an hour. And then he got it. And he went and did the race, and came fourth! And that analysing of fear is something that a normal human being like me just can’t understand.

It’s a fascinating life. And in the interviews, they asked how he felt about the movie, and he said, “I didn’t do anything for the movie. They did it all. I just organised the barbecue!” 

The impersonation of Niki that you do in the film is pretty uncanny. How important was it to really get the mannerisms and voice dead on, rather than just getting the sense of his character across?

That was really crucial to me. Because Niki really is a fearless man, and I wanted to get this across. I didn’t want to play that part with a handbrake on – I just wanted to do it full on. And it wasn’t easy, because if we Germans speak with that accent, it can easily sound very funny. If you don’t get it right, it sounds like a caricature, and you can never go back to Austria! So I wanted to get the accent right, because it adds that extra portion of irony, arrogance and cockiness – we don’t have that in our German accent, as you can tell, it’s boring! And also the body language – because he’s so present still, on TV, people who are interested in F1 would know what he looks like, how he moves, how he talks.

Then of course there are the extra things that you can’t understand, or that are different from the real life Niki – these are the things you have to create for yourself. But this is an interesting process, to find the right the balance, not just to imitate the person, but to understand them, and then to fit it with things that come out of yourself. It was a great process, and I enjoyed every single moment playing that part, I must say. And what I’m proudest of is that when I see it, I can see that I enjoyed it.

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What was your relationship like with Chris off-set while making the film? Did you spend a lot of time together being friendly, or did you try to keep apart, to help keep up the on-screen tension?

We didn’t keep a distance on purpose or anything – we met up, and we liked each other. But the thing is, we are so different, like both characters in the movie. We come from different cultures, he’s a laid-back Australian surfer guy, I’m half-German half-Spanish. As actors we come from completely different planets and movies. But I liked his humbleness, and also his sense of humour, and in-between takes we always invented our very own relationship between Hunt and Lauda, which would be more… a comedy! A romantic comedy!

Working with Ron, how was that different from working with someone like, say, Quentin Tarantino?

Well, the interesting thing about Ron is – and it might be a reason why he’s still so enthusiastic, and fresh – he always seeks a completely new challenge. He’s the kind of director who always jumps from one genre to another. Other directors – like Tarantino – have found their own universe and film language, then they move around within that universe. But Ron has done it all. And he said to me the other day that this is one of the most complicated movies for him, because he’s not European, he didn’t grow up with F1, it’s a sport that was unknown to him. Also the characters are not typical for an American movie, because you don’t have the hero and villain – both guys are the heroes, or the anti-heroes, and the villains!

So it was a tough process for him, and it was such a relief when he went to that screening at the Nürburgring – which Niki had organised for Bernie Ecclestone and various drivers – and there were standing ovations! And then Ron realised that we had done a good job, because the Formula One world accepted and liked the movie! So he was very moved, and it was a very reassuring moment for all of us.

And also that Niki liked the movie, and my performance – because he’s so undiplomatic, that if he didn’t, he would just have said “You shit! Never come back to Vienna!” 

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Of course, though, that Formula One crowd – and even Formula One fans – is such a small audience compared to a worldwide film audience. What components in the film do you think appeal to the breadth of an audience?

Well, after the screenings, Ron told me that women, for example, loved the movie. And most of the women said before watching it that they hated Formula One, and weren’t interested in it at all – but they really loved the movie. Now, it might be because of me… but I think there are various reasons. It’s not only a one-dimensional racing film, just focused on the racing and the action, but it is a real drama. It has depth, it is a clever story, and you get to know two fascinating, very opposed characters – and their relationships, their romantic relationships with the women. And what makes it so dramatic is that back in those days, you could die every weekend. So not only how did it feel for the driver himself, but also how did it feel to love someone who could die in a second?

And the general feel and glamour of the 1970s set in this world is something that people seem to like. Also, for me, it was great to dive into that period – because I haven’t lived the 70s and I envied my parents’ generation who lived that time. It was fun to listen to that music, to wear those costumes.

What do you think set apart the drivers of that era, from the ones of the present day?

Well, you could say that Niki was a bit of a pioneer – he seems to me more like the modern drivers nowadays. But James was a typical driver of the 70s – that decade was wild in society in general, but especially in that sport. Today you wouldn’t find a driver who smokes a joint, has a drink, has fun with a girl, and then drives at 300km/h, you know?

Niki took me to a grand prix in Brazil after my first meeting in Vienna, and he introduced me to drivers like Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg, and also to former drivers. He was sitting with Jackie Stewart and Nelson Piquet, and when they started talking you could tell the difference. The professional, focused drivers nowadays, and the whole Formula One world which became very sterile and professional in general – and then you had the wild guys from the 70s. Different times, you know? 

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Did you meet Kimi Raikkonen, at all?

I didn’t, but according to Niki, he is the only one who could be a driver from the 70!

Did you get to do much driving for the film, and how much training went into that?

Way more than expected, yeah! Way before the shooting, right after I got the offer, I did a Formula Three course in Spain, which was a really good experience because after just one lap I could understand the passion for the whole thing, for the racing. And then Chris and I did some other courses, which was fun – because it was difficult for Chris to get in and out of the car, they had to make a special car!

And I had an accident, when I first tried my fake Ferrari – a wheel came off! And I made a spin, and for one or two seconds I felt a bit uncomfortable, because it was really difficult to get the car under control. It wasn’t too fast, but still. And then after that, I thought… did they do it on purpose, so I could get better into the Niki part? Did Ron fix it…?

Daniel Brühl, thank you very much.

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