"You need a challenge in life"

Interview with Christian Bale
Christian Bale is a real chameleon: he took part in the resurrection of the Batman franchise, then recently he transformed into a corpulent politician in the leading role of 'Vice'. Now he is telling us about the unsung racing genius of driver Ken Miles.
 Ken Miles is a fascinating character. What did you know about him going into Le Mans ‘66?
“I knew nothing about him, and I think I’m probably in the same boat as most people on that. He’s very much an unsung hero of motor-racing. He was a very English man, from the Midlands in Britain. Before racing, he was a military man, served in a tank unit. He was there, I think, D-Day plus two or three days after, then went across Europe. He was there when they liberated Belsen. Then he became an absolute, pure, racer’s racer, very strong-minded, incredibly passionate about what he did. Within the motor-racing circuit, you hear many stories about him, about that race in ’66, but they were all new to me.”

Are you proud to finally bring his story out into the wider world?
Yes, but I also don’t think that this was a man who was doing it for the fame. I think that’s what made him so admired by the racers – that he did it just for that purity. He was inducted into the [racing] Hall of Fame already, and I think he would have been very happy being a man that the people in the racing world know who he is. So, I suspect that he felt that he got recognition. In my mind, I never would have viewed him as somebody who was longing for anything more.”

Did your research for the movie give you a newfound respect for the limits and dangers these drivers pushed themselves to, back in the ‘60s?
“Absolutely. And then there’s obviously the question of why. Why are they doing that? What kind of person is it who wants to do that? These guys were sitting on bombs. Literally, the doors in these cars were full of gas – the gas tanks were right there! That was a big burning danger. And back then, there were no real ambulance crews. There were many stories, horrendous stories, of people dying on the side of the road, from incidents that would be solved in 20 seconds nowadays. The safety just wasn’t there. And back then there was also an attitude of, ‘If you’re worried about safety, you shouldn’t be a racer.’ The huge difference nowadays is that pretty much any vehicle you get into, the strongest part of the car are the brakes. Whereas at that time, that wasn’t the case at all. These cars were rocket-ships going down the Mulsanne Straight on the Le Mans track at 230mph. Without good brakes! Not knowing if this bloody thing was going to stop! You know, it was, ‘Are the brakes going to overheat and just melt?’ The difference back then was the not knowing if they could stop, at the almost unfathomable speed of 230mph. That’s just mind-blowing.”

Did you start to understand the psychology of these guys, over the course of making this?
“Well, what you’ve got to do in portraying [a character like] that, is think about what kind of person chooses that. What kind of person thinks, ‘Yeah, I want to be in that car, doing that’? It’s not tricky to understand someone doing that when they are single and a young man. But when someone is a family man, when they’re a dad and a husband [like Ken Miles was], but they’re still doing that, that’s something that you really want to try and figure out. That’s a different kind of individual, someone searching for something beyond just the selfish and reckless. What are they pursuing there, you know?”

A lot of the drivers you trained with for this movie, as well as the stunt co-ordinator, Robert Nagle, say you’re the best actor they’ve ever seen behind the wheel. That you’re a natural racer. Did you feel like you had something to prove to these guys on the track?
“No, because I knew that if I felt that way then I would very quickly end up in the hay bales and wreck these cars! In fact, every day on set, I would say quietly to myself, ‘You’ve got nothing to prove to them. Don’t try and keep up. Don’t ever do it. It will never happen. You are here to pretend to know what you’re doing… And, just to be clear, you really don’t know what you’re doing!’ I managed to have a lot of fun, but did I ever feel like I was ever anything more than an absolute beginner? No. Those guys are being incredibly generous with their comments about all of that. It was so much bloody fun, though. Some of that fun is on camera, a lot of it is offcamera. And Nagle is fantastic. We’ve worked together before. I’ve hung off the side of a 1930s car, racing through Wisconsin, hanging on by a strap with him driving. I didn’t want a harness in case the car rolled – I wanted to be able to jump off. Nagle was at the wheel, flying through the middle of the night. It was brilliant. He is brilliant.

Was it tough to get back on the track for this, having had a motorbike accident in the past?
“No, it felt totally different, being enclosed and strapped in and everything. And one of the great things they taught me for this was the donuts and sliding out. So, you get accustomed to that. What they taught me in particular that was crucial was this: ‘Don’t look where you’re going; look where you want to go.’ Which is actually very good advice in life. It sounds like a bit of a head-scratcher immediately. ‘What? Don’t look where you’re going? That sounds a bit bloody dangerous!’ But when you think about where you want to go, it makes complete sense. So, no, I didn’t have that [fear].”

Director James Mangold says he saw a lot of similarities between you and Ken Miles, specifically in that you love the work, but are “allergic” to all the bullshit around it... Do you see some of yourself in Miles?
“[Bursts out laughing] Jim and I have worked together before, and we’ve known each other for more than a decade… Look, I don’t ever try to compare myself with characters I play or think that way but, yeah, it happened fairly quickly. Jim went, ‘You do know it’s just you, right?’

As part of your research, you had lunch with Ken Miles’ son, Peter. What did you most want to learn from him?
“You never know what you might learn. You just let the conversation flow and sometimes it can be going in the least likely direction and you get something really useful. I had certain questions, like, ‘Did he like to sing? Did he drive fast on the streets, or just on the track? Did he have a favourite author? Did he dance? How much did he drink?’ Basic things. It’s just about having the time to spend together with the people who knew the characters. Then they are reminded of occasions and stories that might seem incidental and meaningless to them but actually are really useful. There were things I was scribbling down and Peter was like, ‘Really? That’s interesting to you?’ I was like, ‘That’s pivotal.’ So that was an enormous help. But, also, [when you’re playing a real-life character] you want to gain the trust of those who knew him and that means being thorough. You’re trying to tell someone’s story but in a short space of time. I think it’s honourable to meet with people when possible and I also want to hear what their questions are, too.”

In some ways, this movie is about the quest for perfection. Have you ever achieved it?
“Nowhere near it, no. But I’m not sure that achieving perfection is really the goal, even though it might feel like that’s the goal. I feel like if you try to achieve it, that’s more fun, isn’t it? That’s the challenge. You need a challenge in life that seems insurmountable, to keep yourself excited. And then, of course, there’s the question of, ‘What is perfection?’ It’s not like what I do is like a car race, when you know a bend and you can’t do that corner any better, it’s more abstract than that. I suspect perfection is totally unattainable, but that the trying is what brings us the quality in our lives.”

2019.11.14
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