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Best Enemies: The Search for Hunt and Lauda
Through his lead role performances in Thor and The Avengers, Australian actor Chris Hemsworth has shot to stardom within the last few years. With the versatility he's shown in movies from The Cabin in the Woods to Snow White and the Huntsman -- not to mention his movie-star wattage -- Hemsworth was a natural for McLaren driver Hunt, whom Howard describes as "a rock star on wheels."

"James was famous for being a ladies' man, famous for epitomizing the spirit of the '70s with a very free lifestyle," Howard says. "But he was incredibly competitive. He represented the idea that you can be great without making it a business, that a vocation could be some wild form of expression, not just a job. Chris' performance captures that."

Howard had not met the actor before casting the part. "Chris won the role with his fantastic audition," he says. "I'd seen him in Thor and in Star Trek. I met him, I liked him, but I had no idea if he could be James Hunt. He convinced me and everyone involved with the tape that he made while he was on location doing The Avengers. It was remarkable. There was nothing more to say than, 'Please, sign that guy for the role.'"

While that sort of audition wasn't remotely what Hemsworth had in mind, he didn't want to miss the opportunity. "Normally, I wouldn't have done that unless it was something like this project and for someone like Ron, a director I've wanted to work with for years," says Hemsworth. "He's one of those people who is as good a person as he is a director. You want to work for Ron because you know every time you hold back a bit, he's there to challenge you. He knows he can squeeze something else out of it."

Naturally, performers hope to wrap themselves around a character, but that wasn't always easy for Hemsworth. Although he and Hunt share the same blue eyes and swagger, there was more to melding the two. "It was interesting to try to pin down exactly who James was," he says. "In reading different biographies, watching different interviews -- depending on what mood he was in -- and then speaking to people who knew him, there are varied opinions. I think that's why it was so fascinating to be around him: He was incredibly passionate, outspoken and a great amount of fun. But he also had a side to him that was bottled up, a sort of dark side. There were contradictions, which make for an interesting character."

Hemsworth learned that Hunt's duality was never more obvious than on the track. He provides: "I spoke to one of James' teammates, and he recalled a conversation he had with James where he said, 'God, James, those first two laps of the race you were all over the place!' And James just said, 'You know, I can never remember the first two laps.' He had that much adrenaline flowing, and we get all that in the film. He threw up before races and would work himself into a heightened state of tension because he believed that was where his best performance came from."

The more Hemsworth delved into Hunt's backstory, the more he was hooked. He says: "The best stuff I found was in the archive footage, little snippets before and after the interviews, when no one realized they were rolling. There are flashes of who James was. There was such fascination in his eyes, a thirst for life. Everything caught his attention. He was like a little kid. They own the environment they're in and have a need to explore the world and to be indulgent." Hemsworth pauses: "He didn't want to drive for second or third place. It was win or nothing. After James won the championship in 1976, he pulled back from it all. I don't think he felt the same passion."

Hemsworth wasn't sure if all of the tales of the infamous playboy were fact or lore. "In Hunt's biography, it says he'd been with 5,000 women," he notes. "There's a classic story in which all the flight attendants who came into Japan were staying at the same hotel James was. This was just before his big race at Fuji for the World Championship. He spent the night with each of them at different times...or at the same time."

The performer's research into Hunt's life -- not to mention the sets, costumes and vehicles -- made his transformation into 1970s Hunt a comfortable fit. "The period certainly suits my character," he says. "James belonged in that era. Everything was passionate and indulgent. As Ron kept saying, it was a time 'when the sex was safe and driving dangerous.' Now, it's the other way around. Everything has become so censured and sanitized. It always helps an actor when you're not trying to convince yourself who you are in that world, when everything around reminds you of it."

Captivated by the contrast between Hunt and Lauda that Morgan underscored in his screenplay, Hemsworth grew to understand what drove them both. He notes: "There was a bit of yin and yang going on with the two of them. I think they brought out the best and worst in one another. They forced each other to look in the mirror and think, 'Am I approaching this the right way?' Today, Niki will say James was one of the people he respected the most."

When trying to dissect the character of Lauda, Howard was surprised by the memories that process evoked. "Niki reminds me of the astronauts who I worked with on Apollo 13," he says. "He is very scientific, technically astute but with just enough sense of adventure, a willingness to risk everything and push it to places others didn't. In a lot of ways, Niki represented a new breed of professional athlete. He made it a business, yet the competitive fires were clearly there."

As news spread among the acting community of Morgan's script, Lauda was asked who might portray him in the film. He dryly quipped to Oe3 public radio: "Everyone who has had his right ear burnt off can already start making plans." Jokes aside, the sports legend voiced his approval of German-national and Spanish-born Daniel Bruhl as his on-screen persona, especially after meeting the actor in Vienna. "I liked the guy from the first day," commends Lauda. "He was down to earth and a real talented guy."

The multilingual Bruhl is an emerging presence in European cinema and television who received raves for his international breakthrough role in the 2003 Golden Globe-nominated Good Bye, Lenin!. He made his English-speaking film debut in 2004's Ladies in Lavender and came to international attention with his performance of German sniper Frederick Zoller in 2009's Inglourious Basterds.

For Howard, Bruhl's casting was also a simple choice. "Daniel's done a lot of movies that I've seen, and Peter had known his work for a long time," the director says. "When I met him, he was clearly that kind of actor-chameleon who loves to create a character. I knew he'd do a great job with an Austrian accent, and physically, with a little makeup work, I knew he could easily resemble Lauda. Getting Daniel and Chris to play these roles was a spectacular break for a director."

Bruhl admitted some trepidation in portraying a racing legend. "I thought, 'How could I possibly play Niki Lauda? That's a tough part.' He's a guy who's so different than me, and he's still very present in Germany because he is a commentator on Formula 1 broadcasts," the actor says. Still, he went to the audition with no expectations and was thrilled when he learned that Howard had offered him the part.

With his desire for total preparedness, Bruhl fell in step with the Rush team. "At first, I watched a lot of foot- age and interviews," Bruhl says. "There's so much you can see about him. The production company de livered all the material I needed, and I read his autobio graphy, which is a real page-turner."

Then came the prospect of a personal meeting with Lauda. Naturally, Bruhl was nervous to meet the man he would portray on screen. "Knowing that Niki's very frank and honest I thought, 'Hopefully, he's going to like me and we'll get along,'" Bruhl recounts. "He called and invited me to come to Vienna. Then he said, 'Just bring hand luggage in case we don't like each other.' Fortunately, we did, and I could ask him whatever I wanted. He was so open and generous with his time."

The famously precise Lauda recalls their time together: "I asked him, 'Is it difficult to play me?' He said, 'Yes, because you are alive and you are known through television and other things. People know how you talk and what you do, so it's very difficult for me to really play you.' So, he came to Vienna to learn the Austrian language and my way of speaking English. He did a really good job to be the real Niki Lauda."

Although Bruhl studied his character assiduously, there were aspects he was hesitant to probe in his meetings with Lauda, lest the inquiry be too personal. He was surprised, however, with the answer he got when he screwed up the courage to ask Lauda about the fiery crash at Nurburgring. "The interesting thing to me is that he doesn't remember the accident at all," the actor says. "It's almost supernatural to me, one of the most fascinating aspects of my part, and it's something I can't understand."

The contrasting appearances between Lauda and Hunt were corollary to the drivers' approaches to their craft. Likewise, Bruhl and Hemsworth take different approaches to acting. "We come from completely different directions," Bruhl offers. "I have the highest respect for Chris' work because it's so physical. He plays superheroes; that's a lot of work. I come from a different direction, so the rivalry was believable. But their journey ends with them almost being friends. That worked out perfectly with Chris and me, as we share a sense of humor, laughed a lot and teased each other."

However, the rivalry doesn't end there. "I must say, I find myself rather sexy in the movie," Bruhl laughs. "James was the lady killer, but Niki is quite cool as well."

Equally so, Hemsworth felt comfortable working with Bruhl. "Daniel and I were at similar places in our career," he explains. "It's still exciting and new to us. We're not jaded by it all. It was a much more organic space to work in. You'd think it would've helped if we didn't get along off set, so we could work that into our roles. But, I find it the opposite. He is hugely talented and committed. It was also nice to have somebody in the same mindset with whom to bounce ideas around."

Producer Grazer felt the two actors' energy on-screen from the first day. He commends: "Chris is a gigantically charismatic, sexy guy who conformed his body to what Hunt looked like. He's magnetic. And Daniel was amazing in Inglourious Basterds. He's an unbelievable actor. It's always challenging to find two people who can compete with one another, who can raise each other's game not only in the film but on the set. These two actors are confident within their art form and were able to challenge each other for their best performance."

Also impressed with Hemsworth and Bruhl's total immersion into their characters -- and their performance in the mandatory Formula 3 preparation course -- was ALASTAIR CALDWELL, Hunt's team manager and chief mechanic in 1976, and a technical consultant during filming. "The physicality is almost laughably good," Caldwell nods. "Chris looks like James. He's the right size, the right coloring. Daniel's even more perfect. His body language, size, everything's almost eerie."

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