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Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story star David Harbour considers his new film to be a real-life The Last Starfighter.
In Nick Castle’s 1984 film that Steven Spielberg and Seth Rogen have both tried to remake, Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is an aimless teenager who perfects an arcade game called Starfighter and ends up being recruited by the game’s alien inventor to help fight in an interstellar war. Well, Neil Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo tells the true story of how Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) mastered the Gran Turismo video game en route to being recruited by Nissan and becoming a professional racing driver.
Harbour’s character, Jack Salter, who’s a former driver turned mechanic, is the one tasked with actually turning Jann into a proper race car driver, and the role has shades of Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder (1990), John Candy in Cool Runnings (1993) and Emilio Estevez in The Mighty Ducks (1992). But as soon as Harbour read Jason Hall and Zach Baylin’s script, he viewed it as an opportunity to channel one of his favorite Gene Hackman performances.
“Gene Hackman and Hoosiers are part of the reason why I took this movie,” Harbour tells The Hollywood Reporter prior to the July 13 SAG-AFTRA strike. “My agent sent me the Gran Turismo script and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I get to remake Hoosiers for a younger generation.’”
Harbour was supposed to be up to his ears in work this summer, but the ongoing double strike has ultimately delayed his concurrent productions of Stranger Things 5 and Thunderbolts. At the time of this conversation on June 30, SAG-AFTRA had yet to be forced to go on strike, but Harbour was baffled by the lack of common ground regarding the threat of artificial intelligence.
“I’m just so depressed that we can’t resolve these things. I don’t know what the endgame of any of this is,” Harbour says. “I’ve heard that there are no guarantees that AI won’t replace you, and it seems so insane to me that human beings would enter a room and say that to each other. The whole thing seems wild. So I really want to get back to work, but I also really want people to be paid their due.”
Below, during a chat with THR, Harbour also discusses how he misjudged the young actors on Stranger Things in a way that’s similar to his Gran Turismo character’s relationship with Mardenborough.
Well, you know you’re in good shape when an unfinished movie is highly enjoyable.
(Laughs.) I guess you saw the version with cameras hanging off the sides of cars and weird animated cars flipping.
Exactly. So you’ve probably gotten this a lot already, but are you a Last Starfighter fan?
(Laughs.) Yes, but I actually haven’t gotten that as much as I thought I would. There was only one comparison yesterday. It’s a great comparison of video-game wish fulfillment, but this is real life. So Gran Turismo is The Last Starfighter meets documentary.
They’ve been trying to remake The Last Starfighter for years, but the rights are famously complicated. So Gran Turismo is probably the closest thing we’ll get for a long time.
The comps for Jack Salter range from Robert Duvall in Days of Thunder to John Candy in Cool Runnings. Are you the kind of actor who will look at similar roles just to figure out what you do and don’t want to do?
Yeah, but only because I watch Hoosiers once every couple years. Gene Hackman and Hoosiers are part of the reason why I took this movie. My agent sent me the Gran Turismo script and I read through it and thought, “Oh my God, I get to remake Hoosiers for a younger generation.” So that was exciting, and Hackman’s Norman Dale was really the primary North Star character for me. He’s certainly even more complicated (than Jack). He’s got a lot more going on, and the story is really about him, but it was a nice model in a certain way. Of course, I’m doing my own personal work and I want it to be specific to me, but you can use archetypal models and tropes like that along the way.
Jack doesn’t think much of Jann (Archie Madekwe) at first, but he eventually becomes a believer. Have you had experiences like that with young actors where you’ll judge them prematurely until they ultimately surprise you with their ability?
Absolutely. (Laughs.) I’m sure there’s something to your question, but early on, it was very funny to see the sprouts of Stranger Things kids. We had, like, five of them that first season. The brood keeps growing, but they were all little saplings. So we all put bets on various ones going in various ways, and I was wrong about every single one of them. So it’s gratifying, sometimes, and not gratifying the next. But it’s been interesting to see kids surprise me in this business.
Did you know anything about the racing world before this experience?
Not really, no.
Did you get engrossed in it enough to follow it now?
Not really, no. (Laughs.) I loved doing it because it’s interesting on a technical level, but it feels like a violent place to me. I’m just not big into cars in that way. I like old cars and different things, but cars represent a world that is not my world. Again, it’s very violent. The rubber on the asphalt, the gasoline, the speed, the twisted-metal crashes, I would rather play a video game. (Laughs.)
Did they let you test drive any of the cars just for fun of it?
Yeah, we initially had to be driven around by a race car guy, and it was very unpleasant. Being a passenger in race cars is just terrible, but then they let us take them around and it was good. I mean, I got them up pretty high to 130 or 140 mph. There are serious speeds happening on these straightaways, but they had paddle shifters. The safety cars were manual transmission, so you had a clutch. And, to me, manual transmission feels like driving. Paddle shifters don’t feel great.
Well, David, you were supposed to have the busiest summer of your life by filming Stranger Things 5 and Thunderbolts at the same time, but instead, you’re now talking to me.
Are you keeping yourself ready for anything?
Not really. (Laughs.) I’m just so depressed that we can’t resolve these things. I don’t know what the endgame of any of this is. It seems so insane to me that there are these sticking points, and of course, I don’t know the nuance of any of this. But I’ve heard that there are no guarantees that AI won’t replace you, and it seems so insane to me that human beings would enter a room and say that to each other. The whole thing seems wild. So I really want to get back to work, but I also really want people to be paid their due. I really want them to feel good about how they work in this industry, and I really want us all to get back to work, because it’s exhausting to not work.
With Thunderbolts and Stranger Things both being delayed, do you think there’s a better chance that each project shoots separately now?
There will be a little bit of a push difference, but Stranger Things 5 will shoot for a year. So Thunderbolts will have to live somewhere within that, but the whole thing is crazy speculation at this point. I just don’t know what anything is anymore. I don’t know what we’re doing. I really wish that somebody in charge could tell me what’s going on, because I get tons of phone calls every week that say, “Oh, this is what’s gonna happen.” And then it just doesn’t happen. So nobody knows.
In light of what’s happening with the writers, do you remember the first time that a truly great piece of writing came your way and did a lot of the heavy lifting for you?
I’ve done plays my whole life, and my first Broadway play was a Tom Stoppard play, so it’s hard to compare anything to the genius of that. But one of the first movies I did was Brokeback Mountain, and that was a screenplay where I had just two very small scenes. Randall Malone was my character’s name, and he was a fully formed character. He was a very fleshed out, three-dimensional guy, who’s expressed very briefly. So there’s nothing in this business without great writers. It is the baseline. I’ll read these articles where people are like, “This actor said that great writing is important,” and it’s like, “Of course.” Great writing is the spine from which everything flourishes. There’s nothing without it. It’s not like Brad Pitt and I are gonna get in front of a camera and do something brilliant together. We need a script.
Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story opens in theaters on August 25. This interview, conducted prior to the July 13 SAG-AFTRA strike, was edited for length and clarity.