x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Consequences of the urge to win

The director Ron Howard and the actors Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl talk about their new adrenalin-filled flick Rush.

Chris Hemsworth, left, and Daniel Bruhl in a scene from Rush. AP
Chris Hemsworth, left, and Daniel Bruhl in a scene from Rush. AP

Even by the standards of Formula One, 1976 was an epic season. It was the year when McLaren’s maverick new signing James Hunt took on Niki Lauda, the Austrian-born Ferrari driver, then defending his World Championship. “It was just an incredible story,” says Chris Hemsworth, the 30-year-old Australian actor entrusted with the task of playing Hunt in Ron Howard’s new film, Rush. “The fact was far more interesting than any fiction we could come up with.”

Much of this comes from the jaw-dropping recovery made by Lauda after a near-fatal crash at the German Grand Prix in treacherous conditions left him with severe burns to his head. Missing just two races, Lauda miraculously returned – in considerable pain – to compete against Hunt for the final four meetings. Adding fuel to this already supercharged dramatic engine, however, is a huge clash of personalities.

“James Hunt was the rock star playboy of that era,” says Hemsworth. “I really admired his passion, dedication and the visceral approach he had on and off the track to life. It was such a contrast to Niki Lauda, who was much more intellectual. They were polar opposites. But they had a mutual respect for each other – it’s the yin and yang and they brought out something in each other.”

While the British-born Hunt may be the more glamorous character, Lauda’s admirable return to racing meant that Rush is not a film about heroes and villains, says Howard. “There were a few people back in Los Angeles saying: ‘Ron, who are we supposed to root for? Who is the good guy and who is the bad guy?’ I said: ‘That’s not this story. This really is a character study. It’s a survival story.’ The question is, what damage are they really going to do physically and emotionally to themselves? What price are they going to pay?”

In the case of Hunt, forever chasing the adrenalin surge that racing gave him, his party lifestyle eventually took its toll. He passed away in 1993, at the age of 45, from a sudden heart attack. By contrast, Lauda, at 64, is still very much with us, and “made himself available”, says Howard – particularly to the German actor Daniel Brühl (best known for Inglourious Basterds) who plays him.

“I remember clearly our first conversation on the phone,” says Brühl, 35. “It was 8 o’clock in the morning, and I saw an Austrian number flash up – I picked it up and he said: ‘We have to meet, I guess’ and I said: ‘It would be good.’ Then he said: ‘Well, just bring hand luggage to Vienna – in case we don’t like each other!’ And I just thought: ‘Wow, that’s how he is.’” Fortunately, they did get on. “I had to buy new clothes,” smiles Brühl, “because the hand luggage was not enough.”

Hanging out with Lauda, who flew the actor to the Brazilian Grand Prix on his private jet, Brühl got introduced to the F1 “circus”. But more vitally, he got a handle on the former driver’s mindset – particularly his relationship to fear. “He’s a fearless man. That helped me to play the part as well. I thought: ‘I can only be good if I’m fearless myself.’ That it’s so important – to face fear and to vlose fear – because I was afraid of playing him.”

As for Howard, it helped that this wasn’t his first sports movie (having examined boxer Jim Braddock in Cinderella Man). But if that was the story about a journeyman fighter on the ropes, Rush deals with two prime athletes determined to win at all costs. “These guys really did it their way,” he says. “They really didn’t bend to any system. They own their successes and they bear the scars of their journey.” In the case of Lauda, those scars can still be seen.

• Rush is out now in UAE cinemas

artslife@thenational.ae