Out on September 13th, Rush explores the intense rivalry between Lauda and James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), which culminated dramatically in the 1976 season. Brühl tells us about his own personal meetings with Lauda – and what the racer had to say of his performance. He also tells us which of the two F1 racers he is more similar to in personality – and who would win in a race between himself and co-star Hemsworth.
What attracted you to Rush and what were your first thoughts when reading the script?
Well, I grew up in Cologne, near the Nürburgring, so as a child I already knew about Niki Lauda, although he was not my generation. We were fans of Senna and then Michael Schumacher, obviously, but Niki’s always been a hero when I was in Germany. At first, my reaction was that it’s impossible to play that guy because he’s so different. I was quite restrained. But then I read the script and I was blown away because I think Peter Morgan is the best scriptwriter when it comes to stories based on real characters. And then I knew that Ron Howard was directing it, so I thought: “OK, let’s go to the audition and let’s try it.” But I was quite relaxed, so maybe that was a good thing, because I thought they wouldn’t offer it to me anyway. Normally, they let you wait two or three weeks and then they call you and say: “It was awesome but… somebody else is playing it.” Three days later I was on a motorway in Spain overtaking trucks and my girlfriend was screaming at me: “You are not a rally driver! You are not a good driver!” And that was the time when the phone rang and they offered me the part [laughs].
What did you say to her?
I am a good driver! Not that bad! I remember the first thing I did was a Formula 3 course in Spain, right after I got the offer, to get some experience in a race car. I like to drive fast. As you know in Germany we don’t have speed limits, so when I have my Audi on the Autobahn I like to drive fast – but that’s easy. It’s so different to driving a race car, even though it was just a Formula 3 car and not a Formula One car… but still. It’s quite fast and the sense of speed is so much higher. It’s loud and the car is vibrating, you feel the vibration going through your body, and it smells of gasoline. I felt the passion and the addiction for it after one lap. I could understand why young men want to become racing drivers.
Did you spend much time with Niki Lauda to prepare for the role?
Yes I did. That was the crucial thing to me, the most important part of the preparation, because I had so many questions. I was waiting for his call and he always wakes up very early. And then one day it was +43 on my phone, so I knew it was him, and I clearly remember the first conversation because he’s so un-diplomatic. He said: [In accent] “I guess we have to meet now…” And I said: “That would be good.” And he replied: “OK, come to Vienna, just bring hand luggage in case we don’t like each other and you can piss off!” So, fortunately, I had to buy some extra luggage in Vienna because I stayed there longer than expected. And it was brilliant because he even took me in his own jet and he flew it to Sao Paolo, to the Grand Prix, and he introduced me to drivers – Sebastian Vettel and Nico Rosberg. I could watch the race in the Mercedes pit and also get to know former drivers, Jackie Stewart and Nelson Piquet, and that was an incredible experience. I wouldn’t have got it if not for Niki and the doors he opened. I had this great experience. But also all the long conversations we had were great because he was very open and he would answer anything I would like to know, even delicate questions talking about the accident, death, and fear and overcoming fear and all of these questions that I had. He explains things very well but still there were some aspects that you can’t fully understand if you haven’t gone through something similar. So, then you have to find your own approach to get into his mind, or whatever. But it was very helpful to study his body language and his accent and the way he is. Partly, I envied him… his directness and straight forwardness. So often I thought if I would be able to solve a conflict like this… because he doesn’t lose any time. He’s so efficient. When we were shooting and I was upset with something… I didn’t like the food or something, I kept the Niki character, which was helpful. “The food is shit!”
Chris Hemsworth didn’t have the same luxury that you did of being able to meet the character he was portraying. So, did you ever share anything you were told about death and overcoming fear?
I kept that for me… Rivals! [Laughs] No, it was a very different preparation. I think you would need to ask Chris how he did it. We just talked about specific scenes and our relationship. The good thing was Chris is so different to me, as well, in real life. We’re completely different actors and we come from a different cinema and a different culture. He’s an Australian, relaxed surfer guy. I’m German… and Spanish but mainly German, so it was nice to see that difference and there was always mutual curiosity in each other and also respect, like in the movie. But we didn’t really talk a lot about what Niki had told me.
Have you heard what his reaction was to your performance?
I wanted to have his feedback while we were shooting to be reassured that I was on the right path. So, after one week we’d already shot a tricky scene, which is the scene in the press conference, and that comes quite late in the movie so we had to anticipate the journey of our characters already after the accident, and he had seen the rushes and he called me, again very early in the morning, and said: “Yeah, good, good! But the ring is bullshit. The wedding ring… don’t wear it again. Tell the costume department to get rid of the ring! I never wore it.” He was obsessed with details. So, I said: “Yeah, the ring, but other than that? Was it OK?” And he was: “Oh, good, good!” He’s not a man who makes compliments, so I thought: “OK, a good, good is OK.” So, I continued doing my thing and he saw the film when it was finished before me and he was very moved and he was very happy with it. So, that was a big relief for me obviously. And there was another screening which meant a lot to Niki because it was in the Formula One world, at the Nürburgring ring actually, with Bernie Ecclestone and with various drivers, and Ron was there. I couldn’t make it because I was shooting another thing. But Ron was very nervous because it was the first time they showed the movie to the real people and there were standing ovations. And Ron called me right afterwards and said they were very moved and happy. So, it’s a good thing for us to know that the real Formula One world likes the movie… and also the action parts, that they’re so accurately done and shot, with so much patience and it’s so precise. And that’s thanks to Ron and thanks to Anthony Dod Mantle, who did a fantastic job as DoP, and costume and everything else… and also the make-up department, because it was really shocking. It was so real and it took six to seven hours, which made me angry sometimes. I’d wake up at 3am and be sitting there looking at the call sheet and it would say: “Chris is picked up at 10am and then James Hunt is making love in a plane and James Hunt is kissing a nurse! And then Niki Lauda is checking his tyres…” So, I was like [shrugs]. But it was worth it because it was so real and so well done that even sometimes extras didn’t know it was fake and they were in shock when they saw me, so that helped me to understand how it must have been for Niki. And even when the camera was so close you couldn’t tell it was fake make-up.
Were the cars you drove based on the originals or were they actually the original cars?
Both. They built Formula 3 cars with a chassis that made it look like an original one and then we had the original ones, and they got panicked when we came close to these cars. I think they were more concerned about the cars than us because they are extremely expensive and owned by, I don’t know, multi millionaires. But they really race them still.
Who is the better driver between yourself and Chris?
[Laughs] We did some testing but we were not so competitive. We were allowed to drive more than we expected. But still the dangerous stuff, and the actual racing stuff, was done by precision drivers. We did individually racing along and taking bits of it, and then driving in and out of pits and stuff like that. But they weren’t too concerned about us really actually raving each other, which was probably a good idea.
Niki is not the most likeable person in the world and yet you provoke a lot of sympathy from the audience. Was it a challenge for you to take someone who is quite pragmatic and down the line and make him empathetic?
Yeah, I talked to Peter Morgan about it a lot of times because he knows him quite well and it’s thanks to that relationship that I think the quality of the script is so good. I was so happy with my dialogue because that’s exactly the way he speaks – the staccato sentences and what he says and how he says it was very well captured. But still, after one week, I felt like I was giving Chris always a hard time, and being so cocky, that I said to Peter: “Will they like me? Will they like the character?” And he said: “No, no, trust me, do it like that. It will be funny.” And it’s true. But also talking to Niki… although he seems to be rude sometimes and un-diplomatic, there’s a sense of humour about it because we’re not used to dealing with people who are like that. So, if you find someone like him it’s funny too… although it’s hard, it’s charming at the same time, I think. And the nice thing about the script is that you have this nice journey of both characters really. I had empathy with both of them when I watched it. I love the scene by the plane at the end because you understand both of the guys’ philosophy, they’re very different, but underneath all that rivalry there’s respect and they like each other. I hope people like Niki in the end.
Where do you sit in between the two disciplines portrayed: discipline and daredevilry?
In between. I’m neither the flamboyant rock star, like James Hunt, and I’m not that precise and focused. I’m German. I mean I could understand what Niki was like, although he is Austrian and there are big, big differences between us. So, it was difficult to understand the Austrian, or Viennese mentality. In some aspects, they are closer to the English I think. Also, when it comes to sense of humour, they’re much funnier than us, which is not that difficult as you know. So, it’s hard for a German to understand that. But on the other hand, all that precision and that focus on things and efficiency, that’s also a pretty German thing. I think he was a very modern driver… he was a pioneer because nowadays most of the drivers are like Niki.
Rush is released on September 13th, and you can read our review here.