Peter Howell: Matt Damon and Christian Bale talk about cars, competing and the ‘feminine idea’ at the heart of ‘Ford v Ferrari’

My interview with “Ford v Ferrari” co-stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale during TIFF 2019 begins with a confession.

I tell them that I got so caught up watching the momentous 1966 Le Mans sports car race recreated in the film that I pulled out the production notes during the press screening, squinting at them in the dark. I couldn’t stand the suspense; I had to see who triumphed in the real-life story.

“What, you cheated?” Bale says, looking both amused and alarmed. “You wanted to know ahead of time? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”

Damon interrupts before I can answer Bale.

“Do you read the ending of books when you’re halfway through them?” he asks, giving me a “gotcha!” grin.

The two actors are enjoying giving me the gears, which is appropriate for a movie about racing cars. (For the record: my answers are yes, yes and “bad thing” for Bale’s questions and “sometimes” for Damon’s.)

In “Ford v Ferrari,” now in wide release and courting Oscar buzz as well as big box office, Matt Damon plays ice-cool U.S. car designer Carroll Shelby and Christian Bale is “bloody minded” British-born driver Ken Miles.

Shelby and Miles were the last two people you’d think would be collaborators. They had to get past a skeptical Henry Ford II, a sneering Enzo Ferrari and their own egos to have a shot at winning the fabled race that Italian carmaker Ferrari considered his own.

But Damon, 49, and Bale, 45, get on like they’re been working together for years. “Ford v Ferrari” is actually the first time they’ve been in the same movie in long careers which have seen both win Oscars: Damon for co-screenwriting “Good Will Hunting” (with Ben Affleck); Bale as Best Supporting Actor in “The Fighter.”

Bale jokes the reason the two have never previously worked together is because he’s always been following in Damon’s footsteps.

“He denies it,” Bale says, looking over at Damon, “but I just say that I’ve gotten a lot of roles because he decided not to take them. It’s true!” An amused Damon shakes his head in disagreement.

The two actors have at least a couple of things in common. Neither had much interest in cars prior to making “Ford v Ferrari” — they joke about Bale driving a beater — and both may be vying for Best Actor at the next Academy Awards.

Despite the fact you play “frenemies” in “Ford v Ferrari,” even getting into a physical brawl at one point, neither of you seem on the screen to be trying to one-up the other or step on each other’s lines. There’s a generosity of spirit there.

Damon: I think the general philosophy of most of the people I’ve actually worked with, if you want to call it generosity, is that you want everybody to be good. All boats rise with the tide, and the better everybody is, the better the movie is … It’s really hard to make a good movie, even if the intentions are good. I always tell people we don’t get to see it before we make it, you know? You have all these ingredients and you can still f–k up the soufflé.

Bale: But that thing about not stepping on each other’s lines. Sometimes you need to be stepping on each other’s lines, you know what I mean? Just like we are right now. Sometimes you want that. It’s not always a bad thing. To me, it’s just part of the experience.

Damon: I think the philosophical bent of some actors is to look at it as a competition rather than a co-operation.

Bale: Yes, that’s the thing! It’s totally about co-operation.

Could you guys have swapped roles? Matt, could you have played Miles and Christian, could you have played Shelby?

Damon: I couldn’t have lost the weight!

Bale: That’s not true — you’ve done it before! I like to think that absolutely we could have done that. I don’t know if Jim (Mangold) would have agreed, or anyone else would have agreed, but I like to think we could have.

Damon: I like to think we could have, too, but it would have been a different movie. But Christian, I do have to say about the weight loss, you were 240 pounds in “Vice” as Dick Cheney and you lost 70 pounds (for this role). When I saw (Bale) right before we started shooting, I said, “How did you do that?” He’s the very best at it. I’m always interested it in. Is there a different technique, a different diet, a different philosophy? What it usually comes down to is just very, very hard work. He just didn’t eat!

There’s a line in the movie in which the phrase “you promised me the ride” is used, meaning the journey is more important than the destination. It strikes me as the key line of the film.

Bale: Yes, in the midst of something which is so generally thought to be such a macho, testosterone-filled sport, that’s actually more a feminine idea, the process rather than the reward, isn’t it? That’s truly what the whole thing is about.

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What did you both think about your characters, Miles and Shelby? Did you like these guys?

Bale: I thought a lot about the friendship and the people looking in the same direction, trying to make the same thing, even though they have different approaches to it. The bond is wonderful. I always admire the hell out of people who at least try to do something.

Damon: I couldn’t find anybody who knew Carroll Shelby who didn’t absolutely adore him. He was far more extroverted than me. He could sell you anything and he could get the better of you in a business deal and you’d still love him. He just had that irresistible energy about him and you were helpless when he turned it on. One of (former Ford and Chrysler czar) Lee Iacocca’s nephews told me that (Iacocca) once wrote Shelby a huge cheque, just to shut him up and get him out of his office. We’ve seen that character before, and we’ve seen the purist, a character like Miles. The person who does it his way, who is so single-minded. The kind of the kind of person who would lose the battle to win the war.

Bale (interrupting): And who couldn’t sell you anything!

The authenticity of this film is highly impressive. It’s a recreation of the Le Mans race but it sure looks like the real thing.

Bale: It was a hell of a day for me when we finally arrived at the Le Mans, our Le Mans for the film, and saw all the cars: the Aston Martins and the GT40s, things of beauty. But then you saw them next to the Ferraris and you go, “Oh, my Lord — we are thugs by comparison to that beauty.” The curves and everything. It was a wonderful moment just standing there. You don’t get moments like that often.

An adult-skewing drama like “Ford v Ferrari” is starting to become a rarity on the big screen, as the industry increasing shifts online. What’s your stand on the fast-arriving world of streaming?

Damon: I don’t think our opinions have anything to do with what’s going to happen with streaming or not. How we feel about it is not important to the people (who are doing the streaming).

Bale: I have to admit, I sort of purposely have put my head in the sand over that. I kind of go on what’s in front of me, and am I interested in that. I can’t believe that people hire me still!

You say you weren’t car nuts before making “Ford v Ferrari,” but are you now? Can you walk into a car dealership or auto repair shop and use all the right lingo?

Damon: I’m far more interested than I was before the movie, definitely.

Bale (to Damon): I don’t know about you, but I take a long time to learn things and I forget them really quickly. Whilst I’m making a film I can go into any detail you want. Then give me a week after we’ve wrapped and I go, “What was that?”

Damon: And I guarantee you’re still driving the ’91 Nissan pickup!

Bale: Please! It’s a Toyota Tacoma! And it’s 2003.

Peter Howell

TORONTO STAR