Matt Damon on the ‘great underdog story’ of ‘Ford v Ferrari’

Matt Damon, as Carroll Shelby, in "Ford v Ferrari."
Matt Damon, as Carroll Shelby, in "Ford v Ferrari."Merrick Morton/20th Century Fox

In “Ford v Ferrari,” Matt Damon plays racing legend Carroll Shelby. As a driver, Shelby won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in 1959. After retiring, he formed his own race team. Ford approached him about joining forces to beat Ferrari at Le Mans. In 1966 ... well, anyone familiar with the history of auto racing knows what happens. The rest of us can see the movie. It opens Friday.

Directed by James Mangold (“Walk the Line,” 2005; “The Wolverine,” 2013), the film costars Christian Bale, as race driver Ken Miles. Also on hand are Tracy Letts, as Henry Ford II, and Jon Bernthal, as Lee Iacocca.


Damon, 49, spoke by telephone from Los Angeles on Monday. Subjects included acting with Bale, acting with an accent (Shelby was a Texan; Damon is famously Cantabrigian), and, inevitably, feuding with a certain late-night talk-show host.

Matt Damon (right) and Christian Bale wave green flags to start this year's Indianapolis 500.
Matt Damon (right) and Christian Bale wave green flags to start this year's Indianapolis 500.Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Q. Are you a car guy?

A. Actually, no. So I took as a good sign my liking the script as much as I did, not being a car guy. That said, you can’t not appreciate how beautiful these cars [in the movie] are.

Q. So what kind of car do you drive?

A. A Tesla. It’s great, I love it.

Q. You mentioned the script. What about it appealed to you?

A. Well, I just thought it was a great underdog story. I’d heard of Carroll Shelby, but I wasn’t familiar with the Ken Miles part. The way it covered their relationship and friendship was just great. I may not know much about cars, but what I do know a lot about is the act of coming together with a group of people and collaborating.

Q. You saw a parallel between the racing crew and a film crew?

A. A direct parallel, which wasn’t lost on any of us. It’s basically the same structure. You have a group of people who want to make something. They don’t have the money to do it. They go to the studio. The studio gives them the money. The occasional ... argument ... arises out of that tension.


Q. Christian Bale has the showier part. Is it easier pitching or catching (to mix sports metaphors)?

A. [Laughs] That’s funny. I don’t know. It all depends on what you’re being asked to pitch. Obviously, it’s great to get to react. I think of that scene with Tracy Letts, when I take him for the [high-speed] ride in the car. That scene has to be driven by Tracy. I’m 100 percent reacting to what he does. When you’re reacting to a great actor, like Christian or Tracy, it becomes effortless. They’re carrying so much of the load.

Matt Damon and Christian Bale in "Ford v Ferrari."
Matt Damon and Christian Bale in "Ford v Ferrari."Twentieth Century Fox

Q. Your scenes with Bale have a real crackle. When there’s chemistry between you and another actor, can you feel it while the cameras roll?

A. Of course you feel it. It’s tangible. It’s a real feeling you have while it’s happening. And Christian is someone I’ve admired for a long time. I’d called friends who’d worked with him about what to expect. He’s such a generous actor, he’s such a good person. I just love the guy. I feel happy I had a chance to work with him.

Q. Does having to use an accent make acting harder, easier, or doesn’t make a difference?


A. No, it’s just about understanding where the person’s from. I lived down in Texas a lot when I was younger, which is helpful. You just have to put in a lot of hours so that you’re not thinking about it [while doing it]. That’s the key. Just having it become second nature, because even though that’s a very superficial part of the performance, it’s a necessary one. When I did the movie in South Africa [“Invictus,” 2009], it was much harder for me to do. I treated it for six months like a nine-to-five job.

Q. I kept thinking you sounded like someone, and halfway through the movie it hit me: Tommy Lee Jones. Was I imagining that?

A. No, Tommy Lee was one of the voices in there when I was hearing that accent in my head.

Q. You’ve played real-life characters before. You mentioned “Invictus." There’s “Behind the Candelabra” (2013), and let’s not forget your Brett Kavanaugh last year, on “Saturday Night Live.” Does it make a difference playing a character who was a real person?

A. It’s impossible to boil down somebody’s life into two hours. For instance, Christian was talking to Peter Miles, Ken’s son, who was a real resource for him and very much liked the film. But he acknowledged that “I’m never going to look at that screen and see my father.” I look nothing like Carroll Shelby. But what matters is the dynamic between these two people [Shelby and Miles].

Q. Let me put that question differently. Do you feel a personal responsibility in playing someone who actually lived that you don’t feel in playing someone fictitious?


A. Yes, I do feel a responsibility there. But I also thought this story was a very flattering story for both these men, so I wasn’t hesitant at all to tell it. Shelby’s family was very happy with the movie. It’s a pretty nice yarn, and it reflects well on him.

Q. The story starts in 1959 and ends in 1966. Obviously, period matters a lot to the movie. But does playing period matter much for you as an actor?

A. No, nobody living in a period thinks about living in a period. Twenty years from now, this interview will be “period,” but it doesn’t feel that way to us right now. So what’s helpful for us [as actors] is the production design and the wardrobe and the cars and all those things that build a world around us. It’s literally real. That’s always helpful in situating you in the time. It was great that we had incredible production values in this movie.

Matt Damon and his wife, Luciana Barroso, attended the "Ford v Ferrari" premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Matt Damon and his wife, Luciana Barroso, attended the "Ford v Ferrari" premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

Q. Your wife and kids are thanked in the closing credits. So are Christian Bale’s.

A. Yeah, that’s nice, isn’t it? We shot this movie out here in LA, and to shoot in LA and get a tax credit there’s a zone you have to go outside. It’s an hour-and-a-half, maybe two-hour drive to get to the set. I’d have to leave very early, get home very late. So it was a way to say thank you. They don’t know about it. I’m taking them to the premiere tonight. They’re going to be excited. I’ve gone to premieres with them before — like the Mary Poppins movie, last year — but not a premiere of one of my movies.


Q. What’s next?

A. I’m in the middle of a movie right now directed by Tom McCarthy, who did “Spotlight” (2015) — you know, a little movie about your paper. Next year Ben Affleck and I are producing and acting in a movie [“The Last Duel”] that we did the script on with Nicole Holofcener. Ridley Scott is directing. So it’s busy times.

Q. Last question: Who’s a better driver, you or Jimmy Kimmel?

A. Oh, come on! How could you even ask? I mean, please: I’m a better everything than that guy. That guy is a scourge on the species.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.