English actor Archie Madekwe, best known for starring in the horror film ‘Midsommar’, takes on a frightening new challenge in his latest project. The 28-year-old has suited up and been put through the wringer for the upcoming movie ‘Gran Turismo’, out on August 10, which is inspired by the true story of Jann Mardenborough, a gamer-turned-race car driver.
Also starring David Harbour (‘Stranger Things’), Orlando Bloom (‘Pirates of the Caribbean’) and Darren Barnet (‘Never Have I Ever’), ‘Gran Turismo’ was partly shot at Dubai Autodrome in Motor City, and Gulf News got a sneak peek at the action back in December 2022.
Packed to the rafters with pit and movie crews, racers galore and an eye-popping array of cars, the Autodrome had transformed into a bona fide Hollywood movie set.
During the interview, and still dressed in his racing gear, Madekwe shared his exhilarating experience working on the film and the challenges he faced stepping into the world of high-speed racing. “It’s been amazing. We’ve been racing on so many prestigious real tracks, which I don’t think many people get to say in their lives. It’s been unbelievable,” Madekwe said.
Getting ready for the role
Interestingly, before the start of filming, Madekwe wasn’t exactly primed for this type of role — he didn’t even have a driver’s license.
“I passed my driving test two weeks before I started this film. My poor driving instructor … I got in the car and I said to her I have to pass in two weeks. I was shooting another film at the same time. So, I’d wrap and then run in the evening to a driving lesson. And by the grace of God, I passed,” he confessed.
‘Gran Turismo’ the movie isn’t about the racing simulation video game of the same name, but it focuses on one of the most intriguing stories that has stemmed from the franchise. It follows the true story of Mardenborough, a Gran Turismo gamer whose skills behind the fake steering wheel won him the chance to become an actual professional race car driver.
In 2011, the then-19-year-old gamer participated in the GT Academy, which gave skilled ‘Gran Turismo’ players an opportunity to earn a real-life professional racing career. He ended up beating 90,000 other entrants and won the competition — the prize for which was a drive with Nissan at the Dubai 24 Hour. Since then, Mardenborough has competed in the Formula 3 European Championship, the GP3 Series, the GP2 Series, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and more.
To prepare for the sim racing scenes and make the gaming look as authentic as possible as a non-player, Madekwe worked with a sim instructor David Perel, whose story paralleled Mardenborough’s journey.
“It was just repetition, repetition because in the film I’m actually racing all those sim tracks in real-time — none of it is green screen. I had to win against the advanced AI because we couldn’t put on easy mode or the fans will know OK. So, I had to be good enough to be able to win,” Madekwe explained.
Immersing himself in the world of motorsport, Madekwe delved deep into the racing community and was struck by certain aspects, such as “how social this community is, how dangerous, how dedicated, how fit you have to be”.
Madekwe said he also got close with Mardenborough, who has done most of the stunt driving for the actor.
“He was just so open and collaborative … I just kind of snatched everything I could [to create] a toolbox of things to build this world for myself,” Madekwe said.
There’s no CGI used to replicate the races, so special POD cars were used to film scenes. This way, a professional racer would be seated on the roof of the car doing the hard part, while the actor sits within the car.
“We’re going racing speeds when I’m in the car,” Madekwe said. “We have a POD set-up, so the POD drivers are sitting on the roof … That was a mind-blowing thing for me, I didn’t realise just how much of this I was gonna be doing myself. I remember I got there the first day to do the track stuff. The stunt safety guy said the things we were attempting on this movie had never ever been attempted before in film … we’ve done ‘Fast and Furious, ‘James Bond’, no one has ever attempted this.”
The movie’s dedication to realism pushed Madekwe to take on daring challenges, even if he didn’t always enjoy them.
“I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve hated every minute of [being in the car]. You’ve got to be built for it, or you’re not. It’s been an exhausting experience, but a really worthwhile one. Because that’s the kind of stuff that’s immersed me in the experience. There’s no faking it in the film. I’m doing everything for real,” he admitted.
Foundation for the role
Portraying Mardenborough’s character presented its own set of challenges, but their close bond during the filming helped him build a foundation for the role.
“I guess the thing that really stuck out for me, and our conversations was how much [Mardenborough] grew through this experience through this process, how introverted, shy, and kind of lost he felt before finding the GT Academy,” Madekwe revealed, saying he wanted to capture the transformation the young and unsure gamer underwent to become a confident and determined racer.
Apart from the stellar cast, it’s the gripping true story at its core that makes ‘Gran Turismo’ more than just the average racing movie.
Madekwe said: “[Mardenborough] was a young boy from a small town who didn’t really know what he was going to do with his life, he didn’t really see anything bigger than outside of his surroundings for himself. And this just burst his world completely open. And that is a very universal story of coming of age and growing up.”
It was just an opportunity to come in and kind of shine a little bit with a character like this. The title ‘Gran Turismo’ is obviously a big gaming title. So, there’s already a built in audience, but the actual script was well crafted, and it’s actually very grounded in the true story of Jann Mardenborough. [It’s for the] kids in the world out there who think that they’re not good enough or can’t do it or think that they never have a shot — Jann’s the dream maker. In a way, Danny is a dreamer too. And the fact that he managed to pull that whole idea together and to get a bunch of sim racers into cars on tracks.
Jennifer Barretto is a writer based in Dubai.