Daniel Brühl - or Daniel César Martin Brühl Gonzáles Domingo, to give him his full name - was born in Barcelona and raised in Germany. He began his acting career in 1995 in the German soap opera Forbidden Love. After gaining critical acclaim for his role in the 2003 German film Goodbye, Lenin he attracted international attention in 2009 playing a German war hero in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.
This month he is generating even bigger buzz in Ron Howard's fuel-injected biopic Rush playing '70s Formula 1 star Niki Lauda, arch rival to British playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). It's a performance that has already prompted whispers of the O-word.
Brühl spoke to Empire at the Zurich Film Festival about his relationship with Lauda and the challenges and rewards of playing a man so single-mindedly dedicated to his sport that not even a horrifying crash that left him permanently disfigured could keep him away from the track for long.
What were your first thoughts on playing Niki Lauda, a somewhat difficult and unique character?
Well, I grew up in Cologne, which is not far from the Nürburgring, where the accident happened. When I was a kid I knew who Niki Lauda was, and he's still an icon in Germany. It felt a little weird at first. When I got the call telling me I'd got the part, I kind of panicked. My first thought was, Shit, now I have to play this guy (laughs). We don't have that much in common, so it took a lot of preparation and a long time to get there. But I'm very thankful that Niki supported me all the way, giving me so much encouragement and answering every little question. And we talked about some sensitive stuff, about death and fear and overcoming fear.
What did he tell you about overcoming fear, because he was literally back in the race a couple of months after the crash? What did he tell you about the crash, for that matter?
|Niki told me he doesn't remember anything about the accident, and it was very strange for him to see the movie and to relive those moments.|
He told me he doesn't remember anything about the accident, and it was very strange for him to see the movie and to relive those moments. He's watched it over and over again. He told Peter (Morgan, screenwriter) the third time he saw it in London at the premiere, he couldn't sleep that night because it moved him so deeply. And fear, I mean, he's human. I said to him, 'Niki, you must have felt fear sometimes.' And he said, yes, he had a panic attack in the hospital in Monza when he was testing the car for the race. He was so paralysed he couldn't change gear; he did a whole lap in second gear, shaking with fear. He said (in Lauda's clipped Austrian accent
), 'And then I went to a room, I closed the curtains, I laid down and analysed my fear for an hour' (laughs). And then he raced and he came fourth. I don't know, it's insane.
How did you convince Ron Howard you were right for the part?
I don't know. I went into the audition pretty relaxed because I was sure I wasn't going to get it. That probably helped. I had Peter Morgan on my side and Andrew Eaton, one of the producers, they were very keen on offering the part to a German-speaking actor. Also, Ron and me connected instantly. We mainly talked, I didn't even have to act. We talked about race movies I like and about cars, and then I got a bit cocky. I wanted to shift gears so I said, 'You know Ron, it's crucial for me to get the accent right, because the accent adds an extra lever of arrogance.' I hadn't prepared it by then, of course not, so I started speaking in this fake Austrian accent, and Peter spoke up in polished Viennese, 'That is a shit accent.' I thought, Okay, that's it. But three days later I was in Spain, on the motorway overtaking a line of trucks, and my girlfriend was screaming at me, 'You're not a racing driver!' I looked at my phone and I had three missed calls from England. I thought, Okay, that's a good sign. They won't call me three times to say no. I called them and Ron offered me the part.
Were you driving when you made the call?
No, I pulled over (laughs).
How much preparation did you have to do for the driving scenes, and how much of the driving did you get to do?
More than I expected. Yesterday on stage (before the festival screening) my Italian stunt driver was very sweet and very excited. He said, 'I showed Daniel how to put the gloves on and how to put the helmet on.' It came across as if I hadn't done anything at all.
At first, of course, they were extremely concerned insurance-wise, which I can understand. But Chris and I went to Formula 3 boot camp for a month and got more and more experience and got to drive more than we thought. Of course all of the precision driving and the accident was done by professionals.
Did you have any close calls?
I did have one little accident where a wheel came off. I spun the car and I was a bit nervous for a minute or two. I turned around and I saw Chris and his mechanics smiling, and immediately in my paranoid German brain I thought it was one of their dirty McLaren tricks (laughs).
We'll never know.
Was there any rivalry, friendly or otherwise, between you and Chris on set?
Only when I had to be picked up at three AM to have the prosthetic makeup. Then I got mad. I'd be sitting there for six or seven hours and I'd look at the call sheet and I remember one day it said, 'Chris Hemsworth pickup, 10:00 AM.' His first scene was kissing a nurse, his second scene was making love on a plane. My scene was I had to check the tires on the car. So when he comes up to the trailer and says, 'Hi buddy, how's it going?' I was like, Fuck you! (laughs).
How transformative were the facial prosthetics from a performance point of view?
It was shocking because they looked so incredibly authentic. It was so convincing that many times I'd wander round on set and some extras wouldn't get that it was fake. They would look at me with shock, and that made me understand what Niki had gone through. I admire the strength that Niki has, his lack of vanity and his extreme sense of humour, the sense of irony he has. Everyone I know would have suffered much more from that than Niki. He's very strong.
What did you learn about Formula 1 in the 1970s that you didn't know before?
|I'm not the rock star James Hunt was, but also I'm not as disciplined and focused and incredibly blunt as Niki. I guess I'm somewhere in the middle.|
That the rivalry between these two men was so extreme. The way they pushed each other was really fascinating. And also how dangerous it really was back then. I grew up with the sport being safe, Ayerton Senna was the last driver I can remember being killed (Senna died in a crash at Imola in 1994
). Since then, thanks to drivers like Niki, things are very different. Niki told me about a screening he organized at Nürburgring for Ron. Bernie Ecclestone and a lot of young drivers and while they were watching the film they would turn to him and say, 'Was it really that bad?' And he'd say, 'Yes. It was really that bad. You're safe these days.' You had to be so dedicated to the sport to be willing to risk your life every week. That's what I found so interesting about the movie: What did this mean for these guys? James lived his life in such an intense way because he didn't know how long it would last. And what did it mean for their families, the wives who knew on any week they could lose their husbands?
Are you more Niki or James?
Well, you can't compete with James, not with his reputation (laughs). I talked about this with Chris. I guess I'm somewhere in the middle. I'm not the rock star James Hunt was, but also I'm not as disciplined and focused and incredibly blunt as Niki. But I really enjoy playing people who I envy, and I envy Niki for his bluntness, the fact that he's one hundred per cent honest. I'm a lot more cautious and diplomatic. Niki is just completely blunt, which I find admirable and brave.
How did getting to know him change you?
He taught me how to lose fear. He said to me at the beginning, 'Don't give any importance to what people think of you.' He knew I was under a lot of pressure, especially as a German playing an Austrian icon. And Niki said, 'Just forget it.' That's a lesson for the rest of my life.
Was there added pressure in playing an icon who is still very much alive?
Yes. Pressure from knowing that he is so blunt and that he would've told me if it was bad. And because he is so famous. But it helped having such a good relationship with him, because you can't get any better information than from the living source. That was crucial because Niki would tell me things that you can't find anywhere else. He would tell me things about James that I would pass on to Chris.
What was the most bluntly honest thing he said about your performance?
Well, I wanted to get some feedback from him early on so I could still adjust things. The first scene he saw was the press conference after the crash. He called me at six o'clock in the morning, and he was obsessed with the details. He said, 'Gut, gut, gut. But the wedding ring is bullshit. I never wore a wedding ring. I don't want to see that ring again.' I said, 'Okay, the ring… anything else? The performance?' He said, 'Ja, gut, gut, gut.' (laughs). He was so sweet the other day. He's watched the movie over and over, and he really has no time for it - we thought maybe he'd watch it once and be gone before the credits came up, off doing something else. The other day he said to me after watching it for the third time, 'Daniel, do you really think I was such an asshole?' I said, 'No, no, no! You were not an asshole. Okay, maybe you were an asshole. But people like you in the end!'
Interview by Simon Braund