In director Ron Howard's "Rush," the 35-year-old Brühl had the challenge of playing former Formula One racer Niki Lauda in the transformative 1976 season. Not only is the Austrian driver hard to please, but he was also severely disfigured in a fiery crash that year, only to come back and race weeks later.
Brühl plays opposite Chris Hemsworth, who portrays James Hunt, the hard-partying playboy British driver who battled Lauda for the championship that year in one of Formula One's most memorable rivalries. The film opened in US theaters last weekend.
The Berlin-based Brühl, who was born in Spain, made his international breakthrough as the son in 2003's German dark comedy "Good Bye, Lenin!" He also had the role of a German war hero in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" in 2009.
Brühl talked to Reuters about winning over Lauda, learning about his fear, and the Austrian's suggestion about traveling with hand luggage.
Q: You have two co-leads in two top films showing at the Toronto International Film Festival. How did that happen?
A: I sensed after "Inglourious Basterds" that there was a very positive change and a rising exchange between film cultures. Americans would go to Europe to shoot their movies, and not only because of tax reasons but also because the characters came from there or the stories were set in Europe.
When I went to the "Rush" audition, I was blown away by the script. I thought it was fantastic. I wanted to play the part but I thought I am very, very different and Niki and I don't have that much in common. I was quite surprised when I got the call after the first audition after three days and my agent said, "Ron is offering you the part." I sensed these things are possible now. And that's good, I think, because it makes these movies more authentic.
Q: In "Rush" you get an opportunity to develop the character.
A: It is one of these characters who is a gift because you have such a dramatic journey and an arc within that story. It was freaking me out at first because I realized really how different that man is. It is not only the driving that I had to learn. I mean I have a driver's license, but it is another thing to drive these race cars. I wanted to get the accent right. It is so different to my accent and you sound like a clown when you first try it as a German.
So the first time Niki called me was very early in the morning and he said, "Yes, I guess we have to meet now" (Brühl puts on his Lauda accent) and I said "Yes, that would be great," and he said "Just bring hand luggage to Vienna."
I went to Vienna with my little tiny handbag and after five minutes I felt better because I saw a smile on his face and I realized, "Okay, I think the guy likes me and likes the idea of me playing him."
Q: What nuggets did you learn about him by talking to him?
A: After every conversation, he was more willing to open up about sensitive stuff. So we talked about death and fear and overcoming fear. He told me a story that I didn't read in any book about him being almost paralyzed when he came back after the hospital and tested a car before the race in Monza and couldn't shift gears. Then he went into his room and closed the curtains and laid down on the bed and analyzed his fear, as he said, for one hour. Still it is a mystery to me how you do that. Then he was able to go back into the car and was fourth in Monza, which was absolutely incredible.
Q: Were you steeling yourself for rejection from Lauda?
A: Yes, of course, I was nervous. While we were shooting, I was begging (screenwriter) Peter Morgan to show rushes to Niki as soon as possible so I could adjust things in case Niki would not approve. After one week, it was the press conference scene (after the accident)... that Niki saw and he called me again at 6 o'clock in the morning and he said, "Good, good good. But... why are you wearing a wedding ring? I never wore it." I said "But other than that, was it fine?" "Yeah, yeah, yeah, go on. Good, good, good." Then I knew I was on the right path.
Q: Do you ever think you will move to Hollywood?
A: A dream my girlfriend and I have is to move to New York for a year or two because we just love the city. I would take some acting classes.
Q: And now you can afford it, right?
A: Sort of.