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
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
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
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
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