Unless you’re a car racing aficionado, you’ve probably never heard of British car designer, mechanic, test driver and racer Ken Miles. In the mid-1960s, he was a close friend of American car designer and racer Carroll Shelby, both of whom worked for Ford, the company that eventually went into serious competition with Italian car company Ferrari over developing the ultimate car for the racing circuit. “Ford v Ferrari” tells the story of that fierce contest and captures the thrill of the race, both on and off the track. But it’s much more about the friendship and bond of loyalty between Miles (Christian Bale) and Shelby (Matt Damon).
Bale, an actor who seems always to be searching for a project that’s 180 degrees away from whatever he did previously (his most recent film was “Vice,” in which he gained 40 pounds to portray the rotund Dick Cheney), dropped all sorts of weight to bring his slim, trim Ken Miles to the screen for “Ford v Ferrari.” He spoke about the new film (and did mention Cheney’s size) at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q: How much did you know about Ken Miles before playing him?
A: I wasn’t familiar with Ken Miles previous to making this film, though I was familiar with Carroll Shelby. But what a character! Ken Miles was just extraordinary in his passion. He was a grumpy bastard and difficult at times. But you just love him, and he’s got a dream, and that’s really what it’s all about. Regardless of your knowledge about racing, the movie is about a dream, which we can all relate to.
Q: So, were you attracted more to the story than the person you were playing?
A: I adore Ken and I adored playing him. He (and Carroll were like) those eccentric, passionate, slightly insane men with a common purpose. That’s so attractive to play, and enviable in their friendship, as well. You watch this film and think, “Yeah, I want that kind of friendship, as well.” And it is wonderful when you get to have a friendship where you fight with people, but you still know that afterwards, you’re friends, you’re thick as thieves, you’ve still got this love for each other, regardless. It was wonderful to show that.
Q: The film also looks at the relationship Ken had with his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe), who helped him achieve his dream.
A: Much of the story is about Ken trying to struggle with his purest idea of racing. At the same time, Mollie puts so much on the line, and was so enthusiastic and supportive of Ken. He has a confusion about this: “I don’t get it, darling. Aren’t you worried that I do a dangerous sport? Isn’t that what you’re worried about?” But it’s not. Yes, it terrifies her, but she truly loves him and he truly loves her, and what worries her the most is that he’s not being truthful. She wants him to say what are his real desires, what’s really going on in his mind. No matter how much trouble that’s going to cause, you’ve gotta get it out there. And that’s why they become such a dynamic team who can’t do without each other. He couldn’t have done this without Mollie.
Q: You’ve put on weight for roles in the past, then lost it, then gained it again. What were your thoughts about doing it this time?
A: It wouldn’t have been the same thing, would it, if I’d have been a 240-pound Ken Miles, barely getting into those cars. (laughs) Those cars are not made for large men, at all. They’re not made for comfort. But it’s also very much part of Ken’s persona, to be a skinny dude, and that gangliness he had and his body language was very much like that.
Q: Are you a car guy in real life? Did making the movie change anything about that?
A: I drive a very old secondhand pickup truck. I now understand a little bit more about how to get the cars around the corners, without crashing. And I love it to bits. It was so much fun. I would love to be able to say (I did all my own driving). But It would be a total insult (to professional race drivers) to assume that we could really do that. I took every chance I could, but the insurance people were quite paranoid about it. But I would “rehearse” and take the Cobra around the track. And those cars are addictive. So, I managed to get a slight taste of how alive Miles and all these racers must feel when they’re doing this. And then there’s the contradiction and the worrying element of it that you feel alive precisely because of the inherent danger that could happen at any minute. But getting that little taste was wonderful in portraying the character.
“Ford v Ferrari” opens on Nov. 15.
Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.