We talk to Daniel Brühl about playing Niki Lauda

Rush – a race movie to get excited about (really)
Film+TV | 14 October 2013

Daniel Brühl as Niki Lauda in Rush

There are relatively few high-octane scripts that put drama at the fore. Rush is a perfectly honed balance of pretty nervous tension and genuinely great acting, and follows the events surrounding Niki Lauda’s infamous 1976 Formula One crash. We spoke to Daniel Brühl, the man behind era-defining Good Bye Lenin! about the complexities of fear, and how to focus the power of Lauder to get better catering…

James West: So we saw a preview of Rush at the Dolby cinema in Soho Square before it came out. I don’t know if you’ve ever been there but the room is tiny – obviously being Dolby’s headquarters the sound is fucking insane.

DB: Especially in that movie – the sound evolves through the whole film.

JW: Sometimes when you see it on those massive screens the sound detail gets lost. 

DB: I know what you mean – it’s one of the first movies I have worked on where I have a greater understanding of the sound design process. Editing is still an abstract thing to me, when I saw an early cut in Berlin everyone told me, “Wait until the sound design is finished and you’ll really see a difference.”

Fabien Kruszelnicki: How many times did you see the film through it’s different stages of editing?

DB: Once or twice – then you see some bits and pieces when you do the ADR [dubbing]. That’s usually so terrible though because you just see bits and pieces of everyone’s contributions. I had to dub myself in German with an Austrian accent which was a bit of a pain in the arse!

FK: Is there a lot of work afterwards then to re-dub bits of voices?

DB: Oh yeah there is. They asked if I would consider dubbing in French and Spanish as well – because I speak both languages – but we just didn’t have the time. It’s a lot of work but it’s significant to be able to get the levels of cockiness and irony right in another accented language. Ron [Howard, Rush‘s director] said at the first audition, “Well, don’t be too crazy about the accent, because we English and Americans won’t really pick up on that detail in the German language.” But it to me it meant a huge difference in the way I approached the role.

Salvatore Ferragamo billboard in ‘Rush’

Above: Cheeky 70s billboard for Salvatore Ferragamo in a still from Rush – Ferragamo designed Daniel Brühl’s costumes for the film.

JW: How do you start to prepare for such a complex character? 

DB: It was very intense! At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play him, the script was so good that I knew I had to go to the audition. Peter Morgan is such a genius when it comes to scripts based on real people. I could immediately tell this was a clever race movie, a good race movie. It’s an interesting journey for two actors, when I got the offer I was so excited and freaking out at the same time. The first thing I did was to get a Formula Three course to actually learn how to drive a racing car. Then I spent one month in Vienna with an accent coach to get my accent right, I tried to study body language as well of Niki. Some actors don’t like to meet the actual person, but I wanted to as I had so many questions.

JW: How receptive was he to that kind of scrutiny? 

DB: Well he’s as undiplomatic in real life as he is in the movie for a start. I remember there was a conversation where he said at around 6am on the telephone, “Yes I guess we have to meet now, just come to Vienna, just bring your backpack – that way if we don’t like each other you can piss off back.”

JW: What was the most valuable thing you learned from him? 

DB: Perhaps talking about death and fear – overcoming fear, all the really delicate stuff. It was very interesting hearing his thoughts about it. He is human, of course. I found it a hugely valuable thing to see those moments where he became more transparent and emotional, I wanted to give this character humanity.

JW: Which part of his character was the hardest to portray?

DB: I guess every feeling he had after the accident was difficult for me to act out – as I haven’t had a remotely similar experience to relate to. You have to sort of draw from your own fears and I guess in English you would call me a hypochondriac, a really terrible one! I’ve had many panic attacks. My girlfriend is a psychologist she cracks up when I’m having these attacks [laughs]  – I guess you just have to find ways of putting yourself in the position of the character or person you are portraying by feeding off of your own experiences of deep fear.

It’s quite different to fear for one’s own life and not try to show it than to outwardly express emotion – these guys were experts at that. It’s a tough subject to talk about with Formula One drivers. After his accident, 42 days later he got back into the car. When he tested the car he had a panic attack, so he was just driving around the track in second gear trembling, checking around to see if anyone had noticed him in that state – then he left. He went into a room afterwards, closed the curtains, and analysed his anxiety attack whilst laying on the bed. Then he got back into his car after an hour and ended up fourth in the race. It’s a nice skill to have to analyse a fear and rationalise it away!

FK: Were you able to do many of your own stunts? 

DB: I think I did more than we had expected. They were obviously very concerned with insurance and for all of our safety, and obviously for the cars, they were originals – some worth over a million pounds! I loved the ideas Anthony Dodo Mantle had -– the Director of Photography. To get the benefit of new CGI we shot digitally, but with some 70’s lenses attached to the cameras – it looked really authentic.

JW: After you taught yourself all of those mannerisms and the body language or accent, is it hard to shake them off?

DB: It does actually take a bit of time to adapt back to my normal way of being!.It did help me when I was shooting it, almost two years ago now, that whenever I wanted to complain about something – if the catering was shit for instance – I could just turn on Niki Lauder within myself and react to people which was fun, “This food is fucking shit!” [laughs]

FK: So in terms of the costumes, was there a certain piece which really stood out for you? I know Ferragamo made the majority your outfits in the film. 

DB: Yes Ferragamo asked us if we wanted to keep anything we really liked after filming – even though a lot of it obviously was very 70s so the collars were a little exaggerated for me to wear everyday. All of the clothes they made were, of course, brand new but made to fit the aesthetics of clothes in that era. The fabrics were just beautiful, the best. The only real vintage pieces I wore throughout filming were the racing shoes which are extremely expensive. They are still made by the guy who made the original racing shoes for all of the teams in the 70s.

FK: What was the most memorable scene to shoot? 

DB: We couldn’t shoot chronologically and sometimes we had to shoot scenes from the end in the first week. That is quite difficult because you then have to anticipate and almost create improperly the journey of the character straight away. I remember thinking that if I got that scene right I would have the whole path of the character sorted mainly. That was the scene of the press conference the day after the crash. It was only our fourth day of filming and that was the first scene that Niki saw. I wanted to get feedback from him whilst we were still shooting, to be reassured that I was accurately playing the part. He called me again very early one morning, “Yes it’s all good but the wedding ring is bullshit, I never wore the ring – tell the costume department to fucking get rid of it.”


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