Why shooting 'Le Mans 66' made Christian Bale reflect on his own life
The actor had to drop the 18 kilograms he piled on to play Dick Cheney for his role as racing driver Ken Miles
“You do not need to be a car fan to understand and appreciate this film,” says Christian Bale, pondering his exhilarating new movie Le Mans ’66. “It’s a wonderful David v Goliath story.” It is debatable, however, exactly who is David and who is Goliath. In America, the film is called Ford v Ferrari – a rather more straightforward title that encapsulates this head-to-head battle between two titans of the car industry.
You might think that the Michigan-based Ford Motor Company would be Goliath to the elegant boutique luxury of Ferrari. But in the world of motor racing, back in the 1960s, it was the Italian company that dominated, winning the 24-hour Le Mans endurance race six times in a row between 1960 and 1965. They were the team to beat.
When Henry Ford II, son of the founder of the company, entered the race, it meant bringing in two outsiders – the real “Davids” of this story – British mechanic and racing driver Ken Miles and the Texan car designer Carroll Shelby. While The Martian star Matt Damon plays Shelby, it’s the British-born Bale who takes on the role of Miles, who was raised near Birmingham, England, but became a naturalised American.
“The man was remarkable,” says a clearly admiring Bale. “He would just win every race he would go into. He was so good … there was one race where he stopped, got out, got himself a sandwich, ate the sandwich and then got back in his car and won. He would do things like that; it didn’t endear him to the officials. And he would often end up getting disqualified, but he was a real racer’s racer.”
After his more extreme roles, be it his serial killer Patrick Bateman (American Psycho) or the DC Comics superhero in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Bale’s turn as Miles might feel more grounded. Nevertheless, it still meant rigorous preparation, not least shedding the 18 kilograms he’d gained to play former White House vice president Dick Cheney in Vice, which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination (one of those turned into a win, for his role as boxer Dickie Eklund in 2011’s The Fighter).
When director James Mangold (who worked with Bale on the western 3:10 to Yuma) first saw the actor, he told him if he didn’t drop the weight, he wouldn’t fit in the Ford GT40 that Miles helped design and drove during the Le Mans race. Bale’s own health aside – he’s 45 now and recognises he can no longer treat his body the way he did on The Machinist, for which he dropped 27kg to play an insomniac – there were other reasons to diet. Miles was “a bit of a health nut”, says Bale. “He would go running a lot. He was very light and it’s all part of who the man was.”
Once Bale slimmed down, he trained at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving. Though not a petrolhead – apart from dreaming about riding a motorbike when he was a kid – it allowed the actor to experience the adrenalin rush you get from going behind the wheel at those speeds. Moreover, it gave him an “understanding of how alive these men felt”, risking life and limb. “They were willing to take it right to the edge of death.”
It was bringing this to the screen that intrigued Bale. “How do you try to relay the excitement of motor racing through film?” he asks, rhetorically. “[We wanted] to attempt to see if we could give a taste for what it feels like to be going round the track at those dizzying speeds.” Indeed, perhaps with the exception of Ron Howard’s Rush, there are few other contemporary Hollywood films that have brought motor racing alive in the way Mangold’s film does.
While Bale shot some of actual race scenes, Le Mans ’66 recruited some of the world’s top drivers to film those hair-raising hairpin turns. They even employed the sons – now racers themselves – of the actual drivers from the 1966 Le Mans race. Bale recalls the scene where Miles and others are lining up to run to their cars for the start of the race. “I’m standing next to the sons of the actual racers who were next to Miles at that moment. We were looking at black-and-white photographs – going ‘There’s your dad! There’s your dad! All right, action!’”
Still, this hits on a main theme for Le Mans ’66: fathers and sons. As much as the story deals with Miles’s volatile time with Shelby and the Ford executives, the most touching element comes with his relations with his son, Peter (played by young British actor Noah Jupe). “Ken was a really devoted dad,” says Bale, “and I think that in addition to the story really being about friendship, it’s also about how you balance the absolute duty and love of taking care and providing for your family, with a passion that also introduces immense danger into your life.”
A father himself – to Emmeline, 14, and Joseph, 5 – with his wife of almost 20 years, Sibi, Bale spent time with Miles’s now grown-up son Peter, who told him countless stories about family life. Bale even watched the final film with Peter and his daughter. “That was a moving experience. The most profound screening of a film I’ll ever have,” Bale remarks. “But I did find myself sitting there and thinking about my own life, like any good film makes you do. People you’ve loved and lost. You cannot help that.”
It’s also tempting to draw comparisons between Bale and Miles: two men obsessed by their work, passionate for the craft, desperate to be the best. You might even say that getting under the skin of a character is just like lifting up the hood and tinkering with a V8 engine. “Yes, you want to build it from the ground up. That’s where the satisfaction is,” he grins, warming to the theme. “Absolutely. You want to get your hands as dirty as possible.”
Le Mans ’66 is in UAE cinemas from Thursday
Updated: November 27, 2019 06:03 PM