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As depicted in James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari, auto designer Carroll Shelby and racer Ken Miles were two eccentric individuals with a lot of personality and character – which is why it makes all the sense in the world that the production would hire Matt Damon and Christian Bale to play the parts. They are not only unquestionably two of the most talented performers working today, but also previously had the experience of portraying real people before.
Given the material and talent levels involved, you may be curious how the two stars approached both the physicality and personalities of their roles. I certainly was, which is why I asked them about it at the Ford v Ferrari Los Angeles press day early last week:
Discussing the subject of where they started with their performances, Christian Bale and Matt Damon offered up two different perspectives on the matter, the former accentuating the bits and pieces one picks up while working on a portrayal, and the latter focusing more on the research side of things.
According to Christian Bale, his process doesn’t so much involve honing in on a particular detail and then building from there. Instead, he likened it to a spiral – suggesting that he to a certain degree does circles around the character while selecting certain elements to emphasize, with it all coming together as a total performance in the end. Said Bale,
For me, it's sort of a strange kind of spiral thing. I don't really have any particular technique. I just kind of start seeing what there is, and you pick little bits, and then you realize that for new ignored earlier is actually really important. And you gradually piece it together. There's always a timeline - it's like a sort of like a temporary piece of performance art in a way, because you're just like, 'Hey, that's what it is today. Here we go.'
Watching Ford v Ferrari, it’s clearly a method that serves him well, as his turn as Ken Miles is one of the best parts of the film. Miles is a strange character who is never hesitant to speak his opinion on a subject – but that also has a habit of getting him in hot water, and fails to earn him the trust of the important executives that decide whether or not he stays in the driver’s seat.
As for Matt Damon, he explained that he actually enjoys the process involved with portraying a real person, and found a particular advantage playing Carroll Shelby in that there was a lot of material that he could use as reference while building his authentic performance. That’s not always the case, as he explained by comparing his preparation time making Ford v Ferrari with his time getting ready to play Edward Wilson, Sr. in Robert De Niro’s 2006 spy drama The Good Shepherd. Said Damon,
That research phase is really fun, and there's a lot - and each one is different depending on what... Carroll, there's a lot of existing footage of him, so that was something that you don't normally get. I remember doing this with [Robert] De Niro for this movie, The Good Shepherd a long time ago, and we had a lunch with family members of people in the CIA. It was a movie about the CIA, and we just walked out and he said, 'Yeah, it's the thing. You just never know what you're gonna get.' It might be the smallest little story, but you never know what's gonna help you, or where it's gonna come from. So you just kind of keep talking to people and keep that research alive and see what happens.