Ford v Ferrari star Tracy Letts on playing Henry Ford II and exploring the 'weight of legacy'
Matt Damon and Christian Bale headline Ford v Ferrari, but, to the surprise of many, they don’t play the titular auto titans. Instead, the Oscar-winners are down in the pits as the men tasked by Henry Ford II to build a car that can compete on the race track with Ferrari. For Tracy Letts, a screenwriter and Tony-winning playwright, the intriguing entry point and chance to explore the “weight of legacy” was an easy sell.
“For God’s sake, his name is Henry Ford,” Letts tells EW of playing the Ford CEO and grandson of Ford founder Henry Ford. “I can’t imagine what the weight of that legacy must have felt like for a guy like that, who chose to run the family business just a couple generations removed from the creation of this industry. That pressure must have been enormous, and I loved that the story kind of hinges on his insecurity.”
Throughout Ford v Ferrari, director James Mangold’s film is building to the historic 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans, but the story begins with Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) convincing Ford that the key to rebounding from a sales slump is to “think like Ferrari.” But Ford doesn’t just want to think like Ferrari, he wants to buy it. The purchase attempt ends with Ford being played and Enzo Ferrari personally insulting his counterpart, leading to the mission to beat Ferrari.
While Punisher star Jon Bernthal was thrilled to finally be “the guy in the suit,” Letts says he’s constantly getting offered the roles of “businessmen, politicians, and men in suits,” so something has to “pop” for him, and the Ford v Ferrari script did just that. “I thought it did a great job of illustrating what all of the principal characters had at stake; we understood what the race meant to them and why they needed to win it,” shares Letts. “It’s not about automobile racing, it’s about endeavor and collaboration and friendship. There’s something mournful at the kernel of it, something about fathers and sons and what we make and what we leave behind.”
Perhaps that message is best highlighted in relation to Ford with both a funny and moving scene in which the auto manufacturer actually gets in one of his automobiles. Tired of interference from Ford and his executives, Carroll Shelby (Damon) tries to demonstrate the progress that his crew has made by taking Ford for a very quick spin (watch at the end of the trailer below), and once the ride is over, Ford’s screams turn to tears, declaring that he wishes his father could witness this.
“When you read the scene, you see the humor of this captain of industry getting scared in a fast car, but we didn’t just want to play it for the laugh,” shares Letts. “We thought there was something more serious at stake. I couldn’t identify with the wealth or with the blue-bloodedness of it all, but I could identify with the pressure. Pressure can really expose your vulnerability, and I loved the idea that we saw this guy in so many circumstances where he had to be the hard ass and head of this company, but then there was a moment where the top popped off and we got to see some of the vulnerability underneath.”
Ford v Ferrari is in theaters now.