How ‘Gran Turismo’ Racer Jann Mardenborough Became a Stunt Driver in His Own Life Story

Before it became a movie — but after first launching as a series of racing simulation games — “Gran Turismo” was the platform that in 2011 allowed Jann Mardenborough to become a professional driver. At 20, and even from behind a virtual console, the Cardiff, Wales native was so skilled at navigating the complexities of the sport — not just the races themselves but the assembly of his vehicles’ literal nuts and bolts — that he earned a chance to attend Nissan and PlayStation’s GT Academy, and later to compete against real professionals on the same world-class tracks recreated in the game. 12 years later, “Gran Turismo” tells Mardenborough’s incredible story, for which he returns the favor by being the driving double of actor Archie Madekwe, who plays him in the film.

“The movie focuses on the first four years of my career where I was a Nissan driver,” Mardenborough tells Variety. “Revisiting that is cool, because I’m not somebody who likes to do that too often. But I’m very blessed to have this opportunity to tell this chapter of my life.”

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Directed by Neill Blomkamp, the film charts his path from desk jockey to podium-finishing driver. Though Mardenborough was initially thrilled to be a part of the film, he says that stunt coordinator Steve Kelso attempted to temper his expectations for what set life would be like, even when the story told was his own. “Kelso was like, ‘look, there’s a lot of waiting around. It’s not like real racing where we’re flat out 100% of the time.’” Kelso admits that part of his admonition was self-serving: “Having had to hire other professional race car drivers in the racing movies I’ve done earlier, it didn’t always work out perfectly,” he says.

“Needless to say, I already knew Jann was an excellent driver. [But] after talking to Jann on the phone, I go, this guy’s really cool. He seems to totally understand what I was relating to him about all this. And he excelled greatly.”

Dramatizing Mardenborough’s story meant simplifying and condensing various aspects of his accomplishments. Yet more than adjusting to the rhythms of the script, the driver had some new directives to focus on as he retraced the steps of his racing career. “The one bit which stuck with me was, if I can’t see the camera, then the camera can’t see me.” Like the vehicles he was driving, Mardenborough had to warm up a bit before he felt truly comfortable.

“The track is cold, the tires are cold — we’d need a few laps to get all these cars working in the right window,” Mardenborough recalls. “But it got to a point where as long as we were in certain positions at certain times, each lap that [we shot] was good.”

Kelso indicates that the “lap training,” so to speak, served two purposes: to ease his new driver into the filming process, and to be able to get more material each time he and the others completed a circuit. “When you’re filming the race cars like that, you can’t just start and stop, so we would try to go out and do three different scripted scenarios per lap,” Kelso says. The coordinator indicates that Mardenborough held his own and then some against the more seasoned stunt drivers.

“He did the exact same thing every time, whatever I asked him to do — and it’s really not that easy,” Kelso says. “All these guys had years and years of way more movie experience than Jann did, and right off the bat, he came right up to the top of the heat, did what he needed to do every lap.”

Supervising stunt coordinator STEVE KELSO (left) goes over information with one of the drivers and other crew on the set of Columbia Pictures GRAN TURISMO: BASED ON A TRUE STORY.  Photo by: Alejandro Romo
Supervising stunt coordinator Steve Kelso, left, goes over information with one of the drivers and other crew on the set of “Gran Turismo.”

After going through some of the experiences depicted in the film, where as a former gamer he was dismissed, if not outright belittled, by the professional drivers he was competing against, Mardenborough came into the process — even now as a seasoned pro — with a healthy sense of modesty. “Going into it, I was expecting to have to work to earn their respect.” At the same time, he says he didn’t hold back on behaviors behind the wheel that exemplify his attitude and reputation as a driver.

“I’m somebody who drives flat out all the time,” he says. “So any scene you see in the pit stop, and then the car drops off its air jacks and I’m full-gas, wheel-spinning out, that’s what I do in real life. It’s full attack all the time.”

In fact, some of the most fun that he had while shooting occurred while recreating some of the most difficult moments of his career: the crashes. In a scene where he collides with a rival driver, Mardenborough says he kept on telling fellow stunt driver Stéphan Verdier to go faster in his Lamborghini — and hit him harder. “It was such a weird situation to know you’re going to be hit and then go into the guardrail, still stay full gas, and then pull this device which will make your wind mirror falls down,” he remembers. “But it was great — I loved it.”

Working with Blomkamp and the visual effects team, Kelso found a healthy balance between shooting driving sequences practically and augmenting them with CGI. “Because of time, money, budget, we couldn’t do some of the wrecks, which we like to actually try to do some of practically, believe it or not,” he says. Nevertheless their work on set laid a foundation for the director to create scenes where the gaming and racing worlds literally overlapped. “The overlays that they did with the arrows and things like that to try to get the non-racing community to understand the moves that Jann was making, I thought that was kind of a neat touch.”

Though by his own admission he’s a driver who always goes flat out, Mardenborough says that after working on “Gran Turismo” he will henceforth pump the brakes a bit more often — if only when it comes to watching movies about his chosen vocation. “Having experienced what I have with the whole team, now, any movie I watch, I will look at the credits,” he insists, especially after realizing — though only after that fact — that he’d worked with people who were pivotal in the creation of another watershed driving film.

“My most favorite movie in the world is ‘Speed,’ and I was watching it on an airplane on the way to L.A. about three weeks ago,” he recalls. “I got to the credits, and the chief stunt coordinator was Gary Hymes — and Gary was part of our stunt team! I didn’t know at the time.”

Having now gone through both the experience of living this incredible journey and watching it get transformed into an action-packed movie, Mardenborough says that he understands why some of the details got fudged a bit. “It shows me results-wise as worse than in reality, but I’m very aware that it needs to do that,” he says. “It needs to show the arc. But it needs to be technically correct and emotionally correct, and the movie does a really good job … it’s more accurate than people might expect.”

Given that among the more accurate points the film includes, one is that he only placed but didn’t actually win at Le Mans, Mardenborough hopes to use “Gran Turismo” to boost his visibility before returning to some unfinished business in his racing career. “It’s come at a good time because my name’s quite illuminated right now,” he says. “The work now is with me to maximize the opportunity and get back out there to race at a level which I can compete at, which is the highest level in sports cars and prototypes.”

Kelso, meanwhile, says that if any of those dreams end up going unrealized, he might have a different kind of offer to extend Mardenborough. “I told Jann, you want to become a stunt driver?” he says. “I said, ‘You need to come out — I’ll put you to work.’”

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