Ford v Ferrari star Jon Bernthal was thrilled to finally be 'the guy in the suit'
“We need to think like Ferrari.”
Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and Ken Miles (Christian Bale) are the two men at the heart of Ford’s race to catch Ferrari for racing supremacy in the aptly titled drama Ford v Ferrari, but it’s the drive of Jon Bernthal’s Lee Iacocca that sends the battle into high gear. The Walking Dead and Punisher alum trades in weapons for ideas in director James Mangold’s film, in which he stars as the famous Ford executive, who would go on to become one of the auto industry’s most important figures.
In the exclusive clip above, Iacocca pushes Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) and Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas) to be more like Ferrari and less like Ford. EW also chatted with Bernthal about taking on the role and why it became so personal to him.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What jumped out to you about this opportunity? I feel like the easy answer is everything.
JON BERNTHAL: [Laughs] I think that is the answer. I’m an enormous fan of Jim Mangold and his films. He’s one of our national treasures and just one of the best filmmakers working — he’s just a master storyteller. And I’m a huge fan of both Matt and Christian’s; they’re two of my favorite actors, and who wouldn’t jump at the chance to work with those guys? And then the role. The script was so beautiful, where it just took this slice of time and thing that happened and really dissected it down to these issues of friendship and loyalty and integrity. And for Lee Iacocca himself, it was written beautifully and he’s such an extraordinary figure. Over the years I’ve gotten to play these strong, muscular, sort of technically masculine characters, and with Lee I saw something in him that was equally as strong and equally as masculine, but his powers were different. They were his integrity and his honesty and his loyalty and his ingenuity. I really responded to the Lee Iacocca at this point of his life when he wasn’t this titan of industry, instead this guy full of worries and ambition and a fish out of water in the blue-blood Ford corporation with his forward thinking. He reminded me a lot of my father, and I talked to Jim a lot about that. I really wanted to play this role kind of for my dad. I was unbelievably grateful that I got the chance.
How much did you know about this story and Lee before the project came to you? For me, I knew the name Lee Iacocca but my knowledge was very surface-level.
Probably the same as you. I had an idea of him and I remember him from commercials and his book. I knew that he was this titan of industry who had saved Chrysler, and he always seemed like such a kind man and a good man in the interviews I had seen. But then in really researching him and getting to know him and trying to understand his position at Ford, specifically in that time, I really kind of fell in love. I loved Jim’s take on him; I thought it was very interesting to take this guy, who, like you said, we all sort of know and have this kind of awareness of, and to really focus on him at a time when he was not what he became and concentrate on his formative years. Hope and ambition are keys to this entire thing, and his hope and ideas are the catalyst for this entire story.
It seems like playing a real-life figure always adds a little bit of extra pressure, so what was your preparation like to really channel who this man was?
It was a lot of fun for me. I love the books, I loved all the articles I read. I watched tons of interviews and TV segments with him. Almost all of that was from 30 years after, when our film is set, so in the bulk of video of Lee, he’s just so confident and achieved. Everybody knows who he was, so, again, it was interesting to concentrate on him when he was much younger and not the Lee Iacocca that everybody was listening to with bated breath. So it required a bit of my own imagination, but as far as his gestures and the way he spoke, you could draw on those things.
You mentioned it earlier, but what was it like working with Matt and Christian? These are two guys who have long been at the top of the profession.
The best thing about this business is the wonderful people you get to meet and work with along the way. They’re both heroes of mine. Matt, especially, I got to work with very closely, and he’s equal part beautiful human being and beautiful actor. He’s unbelievably gracious and giving and kind — and he loves it. He’s there to work, but he also goes out of his way to make sure that everyone is comfortable around him. I’m really, really proud to call him a friend. I was sort of staggered with his acting. He’s able to convey so much with real subtlety, and created enormous waves of emotion within this really reserved and small frame in what Carroll Shelby is going to let out in a given minute.
In a movie about building fast cars, how jealous were you that you didn’t get into these beautiful vehicles for a race? Even Tracy got a memorable scene in one!
It was just a thrill to be there and see them. I’m usually the guy who is doing all that stuff, and it was really fun being the guy in the suit on this one, the guy with the ideas. That was refreshing for me. You mentioned Tracy, who is one of my favorite playwrights of all time, and what a joy to get to know him. He’s another hero of mine, and I was so blown away by what he did in the movie. Another guy, equal parts wonderful human being and artist. I can’t say enough good things about Tracy Letts.
What fascinates me most about your post-Walking Dead career is that you seem to be going wherever the interesting filmmakers are, no matter the size of the role, whether it be for Steve McQueen in Widows or Edgar Wright in Baby Driver. Is that where your mind goes when looking at projects?
I think so. For me, it’s always about people who inspire me. I’m always looking for the best possible projects with the best possible people. The size of the role or the genre of the role or what the role is going to do for my career has never been a consideration for me. The best thing about what I get to do, which I’m so grateful for, is that you always get to grow and change doing this. Jim Mangold taught me an enormous amount about film and working with the camera, and I love that I get to do a job that I have been doing for many, many years and I continue to grow and learn and change and evolve and approach things completely differently, and that I get to be around people who inspire the heck out of me.
Ford v Ferrari opens Nov. 15.