Before the German premiere of Ron Howard’s terrific Formula 1 drama Rush, we had an opportunity to interview the film’s star, Chris Hemsworth (Thor). He discussed his preparation for the part, the mentality of Formula 1 drivers and his upcoming projects.
Filmfutter: You have the better role than Daniel in the film, don’t you?
Chris Hemsworth: Maybe (laughs). I certainly had a better call time. Daniel had to get up at about 3 am each day and had the prosthetic makeup done for hours. I had a nine o’clock call. And he said that he looked at the call sheet and the call sheet read: “Scene 1: James Hunt kisses a nurse. Scene 2: James Hunt has sex on a plane. Scene 3: Niki Lauda checks his tires”. He was a little upset (laughs).
FF: What did you learn about the character and the mentality of a Formula 1 driver and how did you get into this state of mind?
CH: This sport certainly attracts very interesting personalities, especially in that era when the chance of death was a lot higher, around 20%. I asked myself, why someone would partake in such a sport and I came to the conclusion that it is the immediacy that fear of death gives you. It is pretty unique. It forces you to snap into the moment, to pay attention and to think about right now. Not about tomorrow, not about yesterday and not about any other concerns. You are absolutely in the present or you are dead. Guys, who participate in activities like this or who climb mountains and such – they talk about how that puts you in the now. It is easy to become addicted to that or even to extremes in general. In James’ case, he’d chase the extremes in all the other elements in his life. Everything would have to be at that level of commitment and adrenaline.
FF: Does this kind of adrenaline rush fascinate you yourself?
CH: Well, I enjoy surfing and as a kid I was very active and enjoyed a lot of adrenaline-driven activities. And I think that was for the same reason, without being conscious of it. It is exhilarating in many ways. Of course it was never to the extent as for James and the other drivers.
FF: How much did you get to drive in the movie?
CH: We went to a boot camp for three or four weeks before we started shooting and then we ended up doing a lot more (driving) ourselves than we anticipated. This was due to the nature of the shoot, which was kind of “get what you could when you could”. There were quite a few occasions when we had a gap in the shooting schedule and we’d quickly jump in a car, they would mount cameras all over it and we’d hit the track. The far more challenging, precise and dangerous scenes were done by the precision driving team.
FF: Can you tell us more about your audition for Rush?
CH: At that time I was shooting (The Avengers) on location and normally when I’m shooting I’ve just got my head down and I that’s it. When scripts come in, I try and read them or if I’m in LA, I can have a meeting for a role. But I haven’t been sending in audition tapes for a long time. Normally I’d just go ahead and have a meeting with the director, but I have already met Ron (Howard). It was a great meeting, but I wasn’t going to get any further unless I did something about it. So I was in Albuquerque, shooting The Avengers and I figured I’d jump on it and be proactive. I recorded my audition and sent it in to Ron.
FF: How much did you know about James Hunt prior to the film?
CH: Frankly, not much at all. I didn’t know much about Formula 1, especially not this era, James or Niki (Lauda). It became strangely familiar once I started researching. So I guess I’ve heard of that sometime, but I didn’t know any details.
FF: What was the more daunting task for you – taking on a comic book superhero with a gigantic worldwide fanbase or on a real-life person, who is a sports legend?
CH: They were both intimidating (laughs). But this was particularly nerve-wracking because he was an iconic person and he is also no longer alive, which adds pressure because I had to live up to the memory. At the same time, this challenge makes it kind of thrilling. The two go hand in hand. There were so many resources, people to talk to and so much information to take in. I couldn’t have had someone better than Ron Howard steering the ship. He created the most comfortable environment on set and through his endless resource of support and knowledge about this world, it felt easier.
FF: What kind of research did you do for the part?
CH: I spoke to people, who knew James (Hunt) – a few mechanics, drivers and read several biographies about him. But mainly, the most useful stuff were the interviews on the internet. BBC had an entire B-Roll, which consisted of outtakes from interviews that couldn’t be used because he was swearing or screwing around or making jokes that were inappropriate for the broadcast. It was extremely insightful because I got to see him just in his element, doing his thing. He could be really interested or not interested at all, but he was completely honest about it. He also had a real childlike sense of wonder and fascination in the way he approached things, a real sense of ownership of his environment.
FF: Did you get to talk to Niki Lauda about his relationship with James Hunt?
CH: Unfortunately I didn’t get to talk to him during the shoot at all. I first met him at the premiere. He’s fantastic. He’s as straightforward and undiplomatic in real-life as he is portrayed in the movie. He said he loved the movie and said that he wished James could have been there to see it as well. They always had huge respect for one another. I think Niki appreciated the freedom that James had and James appreciated the discipline that Niki had.
FF: James was basically a rock star. Do you think someone like James Hunt could exist nowadays? Does he compare to famous actors?
CH: It was a different time. The immediacy of information in the media nowadays won’t let you get away with what you could get away back then. Honestly, though, I don’t think he would have cared anyway. That was his personality. It is different for actors. If you are a driver, you can get out on the track, drive properly and you can still win. That does the talking. If you are an actor and you make too many outrageous claims and do too many controversial things, then people won’t turn up for your movies, no matter how good you are (laughs). You’ve gotta be a little more careful. But James was one of a kind.
FF: Through the characters that you are playing, did you and Daniel (Brühl) have some sort of a friendly rivalry on set?
CH: Oh, we had so much fun. One could make the assumption that if you have a rivalry off-screen, it could benefit the one on-screen. But that is not the case. I think that is just restricting. The fact that we did get along so well, just allowed us to explore our on-screen relationship openly, with all the freedom available. We both shared the same excitement and enthusiasm for the film, but also the same anxieties and trepidations. Daniel has such a good sense of humor and he is so talented that he raises your game.
FF: Do you like very physical roles? Even in Rush, your part is somewhat physical.
CH: Well, Thor, The Avengers and Snow White (and the Huntsman) kind of came on top of one another. But my taste and my interest in what I want to do are a lot broader than that. I do love doing those films, but I’ve got them in spades with contracts for more Thors and The Avengers. I really did want to do something different. Even though Rush is exhilarating, physical to a degree and has thrilling backdrop, it is also a character study of these two fascinating people. It was refreshing to do something smaller, more intimate, that was focused on the characters.
FF: Is The Heart of the Sea, the movie you are currently shooting with Ron Howard, similar to Rush in terms of also being more character-focused?
CH: It is a nice blend. That is exactly what I love, when a movie is still entertaining, visually appealing and sweeps you away in the adventure, but at the same time has intelligence and integrity. I didn’t know beforehand that true events inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick. The book that our film is based on, is about that true story. It is set in the whaling industry in 1822. A whale ship, the “Essex”, is struck by a whale and sinks. The survivors spend 93 days in the ocean. It is a tale of survival, heroism and tragedy with very strong characters.
FF: When you are being offered scripts, do you find it difficult to get away from Thor?
CH: At first, yeah. Those kinds of scripts were the obvious choice when it came to me at first. But I have great agents, who work hard at seeking out different opportunities for me. Doing movies like Rush also opens a lot of doors. Filmmakers talk to one another. Michael Mann talked to Ron Howard and I ended up doing a movie with him. It was never a problem, though. I had this opportunity because Ron saw Thor. I’d be careful to ever turn my nose up at those films.
FF: What can you tell us about the cyber-thriller you are doing with Michael Mann?
CH: I just finished it. It’s based in the world of cyber terrorism. Basically, something similar to the Chicago Board of Trade is hacked into and it sets off a chain of events around the world, affecting the stock market. And the code that was used to hack into it, my character had written it years before and he happens to be in prison for cyber crime. He is pulled out and offered a deal if he works with a joint task force of the FBI and the Chinese government in trying to track this guy down. It starts off in Chicago and ends up in Kuala Lumpur, in Hong Kong and in Jakarta. It’s this sort of cat-and-mouse international heist-thriller. I’ve gotta get my one-liner on what that film is about (laughs)
FF: It sounds very interesting, though.
CH: It was fascinating. I knew nothing about that world. It’s very prominent now as we see what hacking and cyber terrorism can do, like shutting down power grids in other countries. In our film, he (the villain) shuts down the water pumps to overheat the cooling system in a nuclear power plant and causes a whole lot of chaos. When you do that research, you realize how vulnerable you are.
FF: James Hunt seems like the perfect part for you. How easy do you find it to be seen and to be found for the roles?
CH: I’ve been reading the scripts and chasing the scripts instead of just sitting back and waiting for them to turn up. You have to be proactive and you need the right people around you searching for those scripts. So far I’ve been lucky. There are always many variables, of course. A perfect script can come along, but you are unavailable or you are available, but someone else was ahead of you.
FF: What do you do on a totally free day?
CH: Seeing my wife and my kid. I have been so busy lately. That’s what I’m missing the most. An ideal day for me is just being with them.
FF: You said you weren’t a big Formula 1 fan before. Is it more of interest to you now, after having done the film?
CH: Yeah, it is. I do have a desire to go and see a race, when I get a chance.
FF: Was the 70s-setting of the film another attraction to you about this role?
CH: Sure, that’s what I love about acting – being able to leap into different genres and periods of time. The 70’s was a very fun thing to dive into because I wasn’t around to see them for myself.
FF: What kind of driver are you in real life? Did the movie awaken a desire to drive an actual Formula 1 car in real life or be a co-driver in one?
CH: Sure! (laughs) We had a go-kart track back in Australia, at the house that I grew up in. My brothers and I used to compete there. We also had motorbike growing up. But generally, I am a pretty conservative driver.