Jann Mardenborough chats stunt driving, adapting his life to film for Gran Turismo

The latest PlayStation adaptation is based on Mardenborough's journey from Gran Turismo player to professional racecar driver

Jann Mardenborough Gran Turismo

Sony Pictures has taken an interesting approach to its Gran Turismo film.

Rather than pursuing a more direct adaptation of the long-running racing game series in the vein of HBO’s The Last of Us or Peacock’s Twisted Metal, the latest PlayStation Productions title is based on a true story surrounding Gran Turismo. The film, directed by South African-Canadian filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (District 9), follows the life of Jann Mardenborough, a young Englishman who goes from Gran Turismo player to pro racecar driver.

Notably, a Gran Turismo film has been in the works for a decade, but plans for the current Mardenborough-centred iteration first materialized in 2018. For Mardenborough, then, it’s been a surreal five-year journey to bring his story to the big screen.

“I’m very lucky and blessed. I feel very privileged in this position to have a biopic be made about a chapter of my life,” he says in a roundtable interview in Amsterdam attended by MobileSyrup. “I’m 31 and I’m still racing — usually [a biopic] happens when you’re a lot older or you’ve passed away. So yeah, I feel very lucky about that part of my life.”

Jann Mardenborough race

Jann Mardenborough before the Amsterdam premiere of Gran Turismo. Image credit: Gran Turismo World Series

The night before, Mardenborough introduced the film at its Amsterdam premiere alongside Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of Gran Turismo, as well as several other GT players-turned-drivers. Of course, the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike meant that none of the cast — which includes Archie Madekwe (Midsommar) as Mardenborough, David Harbour (Stranger Things) as Mardenborough’s coach, Jack Selter, and Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings) as the Nissan executive who helped launch Mardenborough’s career — could be present.

But in a sense, their omission allowed for more of an emphasis to be placed on Mardenborough himself, whose story represents one of a small handful of people who graduated from the GT Academy. Sponsored by Nissan and Sony, the program ran from 2008 to 2016 and helped GT players train to become real-life racers.

For Mardenborough, his love of cars all started at a young age.

“The first conversations I had with Dad, he’d tell me and my younger brother to do something in life that is our purpose and what we’re passionate about,” he explains. “In the movie, it’s in that opening scene, and I’m very happy that it’s in there because that’s how it was said to me […] So having that experience and having my dad say that, I kind of held on to that as we were growing up.”

Jann Mardenborough Nissan

Image credit: Nissan

Around the same time, he notes that his “first real interest in anything was cars,” which led to him avidly watching motorsports and British Touring Cars. As he got older, this led to him playing Gran Turismo games on different PlayStation consoles, regularly going go-karting and watching videos on YouTube.

During this time, he knew he wanted to pursue some kind of career with cars, but he wasn’t clear what that would be. He also never shared these dreams with anyone. “The reason why I didn’t say it to my immediate circle of friends around the streets is because they always took the piss every time,” he admits.

By the time he was 19, he says he found himself in a “dark place,” leading him to drop out of university, return home and find a regular job. It was during this gap year that he found out about the GT Academy.

“I’d heard of it in the past. I thought it was a door. Not that I could win this, but for me, it was ‘how far can I go in this?’ And it’s always been, ‘How many doors can I open?'”

Jann Mardenborough helmet

Image credit: Red Bull

As it turns out, Mardenborough would, in fact, go quite far in the GT Academy in 2011, beating out 90,000 entrants and becoming the competition’s youngest winner. This success led him to drive for Nissan and compete in such tournaments as the Formula 3 European Championship, the GP3 Series, and the GP2 Series. He also placed third in the LMP2 class of Le Mans in 2013.

He says the whole experience also brought him closer to his father, his relationship with whom is, in many ways, the beating heart of the film.

“We have a mutual respect for one another because we were both doing things for a job which we believe is our purpose and passion in life. When you meet somebody who is completely all in on their thing, they’re so passionate about what they’re doing and they give off a certain vibe,” says Mardenborough. “My dad played football for 15 years professionally in an era where it’s not like the premiership today or football where they’re paid millions; it was like hundreds of pounds a weekend. So he did it purely because he loved the game. So when he saw me give off the same vibe of ‘I’m just doing this because I love to do that,’ he could understand.”

Racing to the big screen

When plans for Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski’s GT film fell through in 2018, Sony soon pivoted to Mardenborough. He says Dana Brunetti, the Oscar-nominated producer of The Social Network and eventual producer on Gran Turismo, approached him that year about making a film based on his life.

At the time, he only had two requests: that his cinematic counterpart looked like him (in other words, share his biracial identity) and that his full name be kept. Mardenborough notes that the former ask was quickly agreed upon, but his last name was nearly changed over concerns that it would be too long for American audiences. Ultimately, though, Mardenborough’s surname was kept.

Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough in the Gran Turismo movie.

Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough. Image credit: Sony Pictures

Beyond that, he says there was nothing that he “demanded” be in there, and he instead worked closely with the film’s creative team as a consultant.

“Of course, I’ve been involved in all the scripts since day one. When the first one came through, I was on a call with all the producers for seven hours while they were in LA, just going through line by line, word for word, going, ‘Okay, that’s not right, I wouldn’t say that,’ or ‘the racing here isn’t accurate,’ or ‘that’s not English humour.’ So yeah, I’ve been heavily involved.”

And when it came time to filming, Mardenborough got to play a more active role by serving as the stunt driver for the movie version of himself.

“It’s better than any cameo appearance […] What’s exciting to me is to have some sort of responsibility to the racing. I’m a racing movie fan and of course, there have been many recent films, and the racing in them is very kind of average. So to have the responsibility of being a part of that team is very cool,” he says. “I like that. I know racing. I don’t know cinematography, I don’t know acting, but I do know driving a car. I don’t know stunt stuff, but I was learning on the fly from the team. And I loved it. I really enjoyed how you have to think — there’s a lot more thinking involved.”

Image credit: Sony Pictures

One of the biggest challenges, he says, was shooting the Le Mans sequence. With the actual Le Mans location unavailable, the production used the Slovakia Ring motor racing circuit. On top of that, he notes that this presented obstacles like water tower drippage mixing with fresh paint and headlights needing to be taped up due to glares.

“We couldn’t see where we were going in the dark, the windscreen [windshield] is getting covered in paint and the circuit is one that nobody really knows very well. And we were there for two days driving through water towers where the car suddenly just turns into a boat and you have no control. So that was the hardest part of the whole shoot, but probably the most fun as well. Nobody crashed, but that was the hardest part of the whole shoot because we just sometimes had no control over the car.”

Meanwhile, he notes that “there’s nothing static with the shots” that Blomkamp went with throughout the film, so there was always a camera present with him while racing to ensure he was visible. Altogether, he says he drove “around 2,000 km” over the three or four-month shooting period, and he and the stunt team were given some freedom throughout.

“Say we had five or six seven laps, and they’d be like, ‘Okay, go out there, and after each lap, we want you in this position, but you can have the freedom to do passes and stuff because we’re always filming it,'” he explains. “So it comes across as natural because if you have set ‘you pass here, you pass here’ moments, it looks kind of awkward. So we had a lot of freedom with how we were doing the races because it just comes across as natural, which is great for all the drivers on the stunt team. It just kind of worked.”

Gran Turismo is now playing in select theatres ahead of a wide release on August 25th.

Header image credit: Gran Turismo World Series