You may have seen him in Good Bye Lenin!, a German comedy with actual laughs. Or The Bourne Ultimatum, although blink and you missed him. Or Inglourious Basterds, playing one of Quentin’s Nazis.
Now, he’s Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s Rush, which charts the Austrian Formula 1 champ’s Seventies rivalry with swaggering British glamour boy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). Hemsworth gets more women, but Brühl cadged a lift to Brazil in Lauda’s jet.
Esquire: Were you intimidated to meet Niki Lauda for the first time?
Daniel Brühl: I clearly remember our first conversation on the phone where he said, “Bring hand luggage to Vienna so if we don’t like each other you can piss off.” Fortunately, he liked me. On my last day, he said, “If you want to come to the Brazil Grand Prix, I’ll take you.” He flew me there in his private jet and introduced me to Vettel, Rosberg, Button and Bernie himself.
ESQ: Was Lauda’s endorsement a pre-requisite?
DB: He’s friends with [Rush screenwriter/producer] Peter Morgan, so if he hated me, I’m sure he would have told Peter, “There’s no way this German prick is playing me.” But I think he liked my sense of humour, because the Austrians are much funnier than we are.
ESQ: Well, Schwarzenegger. But as a national trait - really?
DB: They’re more like you guys. They have a morbid sense of humour; they’re very self-ironic; and they love to talk about people behind their back.
ESQ: Does Rush feel like a career breakthrough?
DB: As a German actor, you always go to these auditions for big films and they let you wait for two weeks and then call you and say, “You were awesome but it’s going to be…”
ESQ: …The non-German guy.
DB: Exactly. I almost died finding out I’d won this role. I was on a road in Spain trying to overtake a truck, with my girlfriend screaming at me, “You are not a rally driver!”, when I saw I had three messages from England. I knew they wouldn’t tell me no three times.
ESQ: How did you prepare to portray this peculiar-looking and -behaving man?
DB: If there’s something we have in common, it would be that German ambition and determination. He has it 100 per cent; I have it maybe 50 per cent. I said to Ron and Peter, “Are you sure people are going to like me? Because I’m an asshole.” I thought I should be slightly more sympathetic but that’s not Niki.
ESQ: Did it dent your confidence to hear the script keep describing him as “rat-like”?
DB: It wasn’t too bad for my ego. Sometimes I’d be picked up at 4am to get my special make-up and I’d look at the call sheet and it said, “James Hunt is making love in a plane, James Hunt is drinking with his buddies” and my scene was “Niki checks the tires”. Then Chris would roll in at 9am looking fresh and beautiful.
ESQ: You have a German father and Spanish mother. Which nationality triumphs in your personality?
DB: I just feel European. I live between Barcelona and Berlin. Staying in Spain over the winter and Berlin for spring and summer is an ideal combination. I have a tapas bar in Berlin. You’re cordially invited. It’s called Bar Raval and it’s pretty cool. Philip Seymour Hoffman has been. Geoffrey Rush and Clive Owen, too.
ESQ: How was it hanging out with Quentin Tarantino?
DB: When I got the role [in Inglourious Basterds], he hadn’t cast Mélanie [Laurent] yet, and my agent said, “Do you have time to go to Paris for five days to audition all the young French actresses and hang out with Quentin?” I said, “Let me look in my diary.” He’s a highly creative madman; I tried to absorb as much as I could.
ESQ: Do expanding opportunities mean you have more of a career plan now?
DB: I was lucky to start working when German cinema was having an interesting moment. Now the quality is going downhill again because they’re insisting on doing comedies. We should know by now that we make good cars but we’re not the funniest people.
Rush is out now. Read more about the film and the real story that inspired it in the current issue of Esquire Weekly, our brand new ipad magazine