Chris Hemsworth stars as legendary British Formula 1 race car driver James Hunt in the high-octane “Rush.” The Aussie actor, best known for playing the thunder god Thor (and will reprise the character in the upcoming “Thor: The Dark World,”) recently spoke about portraying a man whose life was as exciting and edgy off the course as it was on.
Q: Was James Hunt a serious person in some ways?
Hemsworth: Oh yeah. He could have gone on and on with the lies but the big thing that struck me is that this guy is involved in a sport where four or five drivers were dying every year. Those are horrific odds. What is the byproduct of that kind of lifestyle and involving yourself in something where you’re up against death every weekend? Guys would either distract themselves from that fear, whether by women or partying and drugs or whatever. (His rival) Niki (Lauda, depicted by Daniel Bruhl) would study his fear. He was a mathematician about it. With James, there was an incredible vulnerability there. Also, there was a deep need to be respected and acknowledged for what his skill set was and what he was achieving. He tried to stay true to himself. But he was in an industry where there were sponsorships and regulations and things that needed to be upheld, and he was just like, “No. If I want to be barefoot with a pair of jeans and a t-shirt to events then that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to wear a suit and tie because some sponsor told me to.” I think there were times where he was chasing his shadow with his image. He’d try to stay so true to himself to prove a point that he’s drifted away from who you actually are. That is when the most outrageous things that he did that were unacceptable would occur.
Q: He seemed so cocky and self-assured. Was that just a front?
Hemsworth: For the most part, there was a vulnerable human being in there, and this exterior of the incredible highs that he lived with. There’s always what comes up, comes down. There was a darker side to James. It wasn’t all glamour and parties. There was something in there that you rarely got a glimpse of. Those were the moments that aren’t necessarily described in detail in the film but you see his anxiety in there, like throwing up (before each race). Even the more subtle moments, Ron (Howard, the director) said, “We don’t really know what he’s thinking here. Maybe he doesn’t.” That was sort of exciting that there was these contrasts and contradictions in who he was.
Q: Did you meet any of the people who worked with Hunt?
Hemsworth: I spoke with one of his teammates, who was a driver at the time. It was interesting. He said he could never sit still. He was always tapping his foot or fidgeting or up to something and that little bit of information, although we’d read about it, was a nice kind of indicator. It started to fall into a lot of what he did and half the time, I think he did things because he was bored.
Q: What do you think it is about this story that will appeal to so many audiences because it’s not just a sports movie?
Hemsworth: No, not at all. I think it’s tested highest amongst women who don’t even like Formula 1. I think you really get a film that tics so many boxes. There’s a popcorn entertainment element to it but it’s surprising and exciting and there’s real characters at the center of it. I think it’s about two fiercely honest people who were incredible rivals but had great respect for each other. The biggest thing is the honesty that they lived with. They certainly approached things differently, but it was their honest version of it. I think this goes for everybody. We all wish we could be more truthful. I think we avoid conflict at certain times so we say what is politically right instead of what you actually think and you watch these two spar off and there’s no filter. There’s something refreshing about that.
Q: You did an audition tape for this so what about the role made you want it so bad?
Hemsworth: Initially, it was Ron (Howard). I hadn’t read the script but I love his films and met him a few times. He’s such a great guy that I just wanted to be a part of whatever he was going do next. Knowing that (screenwriter) Peter Morgan had written the script was like the same thing. I then read the script and loved it. I don’t know but for whatever reason, there was the vulnerability I saw in the character that wasn’t necessarily on the page. There was something else to him. It doesn’t matter how glamorous or confident someone in the limelight can appear, there’s always, you can’t run on that kind of intensity always. There’s got to be something else there. Then you understand how dangerous it was so it’s like, why did he do this? What is it? Something about him just fascinated me. I’d watched a couple interviews with him and there was this childlike character. You’d watch interviews with him before and after and he’d be sitting there looking into the lens and smiling and kind of fidgeting. There was no reason for him to look down the lens. Most people try and pretend it’s not there but he was like, “What’s this thing? What is it?” like a kid. You watch children walk into a room and they own their environment. Before they’ve been corrupted by the social etiquette and whatever it is applied to them, there’s a freedom in what they do. He kind of lived with that. There was this childlike characteristic about him and freedom to what he did.
Q: Is he analogous to anyone today?
Hemsworth: I don’t think there are a lot of people like this these days. I’m sure there’s a lot of rock stars and musicians who lead that life and get away with it. (Hunt) drew these sponsors and the money in Formula 1 these days, I don’t think many guys do it. Even before or prior, James was kind of one of a kind. He embodies that ‘70s lifestyle with all the glamour of Formula 1 from that period and then took it to the nth degree.
Q: As a celebrity, do you think you also had to accept how to have some fun?
Hemsworth: Oh definitely. It was a lesson in “if you’re not having fun, what’s the point?” I certainly do this because it’s fun and enjoy it a lot more than I used to. There was a lot more anxiety, probably more so when I wasn’t working as much as well. That’s the trick to being ok with it and it maybe not working out, just enjoying it while it’s there. The feedback we’ve got from this film is like you might get one of these in your career if you’re lucky with the appreciation for it. We were told that with this being a real life story, there would be so many critics firing off and saying that it didn’t happen like that but the Formula 1 world gave us such an eye in it. I’m trying to really enjoy this moment and being part of something that we’re all collectively this proud of.
Q: Are you in shape now for your next role in “In the Heart of the Sea?”
Hemsworth: Almost, yeah. I start out as a healthy first mate and then we get lost at sea and things get really bad. I had to lose more weight than I’ve done before and all of us go down to some ridiculous calorie intake. It’s not too bad.