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The truth about Christian Bale's intense training for Ford v Ferrari - Exclusive

It wasn't easy for Christian Bale to prepare for director James Mangold's Ford v Ferrari, but it was worth the effort. Not only has Bale been nominated for a Golden Globe for his turn in the historical racing drama — his fifth nomination at the Globes overall, and his fourth as a leading man — but he also recently nabbed a Screen Actor's Guild nod for the picture, too. With accolades like that, an Oscar nomination can't be too far away.

In Ford v Ferrari, Bale plays engineer and driver Ken Miles, who helped design and drove the GT40 Ford that led the motor company to its first-ever win at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans, the oldest active sports car endurance race. While Miles didn't technically win the event when he participated in 1966 (his third time driving in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race), he did set a number of records, and was ultimately inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2001. 

To play the racing legend on the big screen, Bale didn't just have to act like Miles — he had to drive like Miles, too. Thankfully, Bale was up for the job. 

Looper recently spoke with Ford v Ferrari stunt coordinator Robert Nagle about how he made the veteran actor road-ready. Though the process wasn't smooth sailing the whole way through and was certainly a big undertaking, the results speak for themselves. Here's the truth behind Christian Bale's intense training for Ford v Ferrari

Back to driving school — and the storytelling circle — for Ford v Ferrari

To teach Bale how to drive like a real racer, Nagle sent the former Dark Knight to the Bondurant High Performance Driving School in Arizona. At Bondurant, experienced and aspiring racers can brush up on their skills, regular commuters can learn advanced street-driving techniques, military and law enforcement professionals can get a better handle on their vehicles, and actors can learn how to drive like the pros.

For seven days, Bale spent seven hours on the track, learning how to drive thanks to lessons from Nagle's hand-picked instructor. But that was only part of Bale's education, and there was a reason why Boundurant was the place Bale did his first phase of Ford v Ferrari prep. As Nagle explained, "Part of the reason I picked Bondurant [was that] Bob Bondurant was an icon from that era and was a big part of that GT40 program."

Two years before Ken Miles' history-making performance at the 1966 automobile event, racecar driver Bob Bondurant completed 334 laps at the 1964 24 Hours of Le Mons. Like Miles, Bondurant was driving a car designed by Carroll Shelby, the engineer whom Matt Damon plays in Ford v Ferrari. It was enough to win the GT class at the event, but not the overall race. Naturally, a Ferrari came in first.

Nagle shared that he initially hoped he and Bale would "be able to at least meet Bob for a couple hours and talk with him a little bit" while the actor was preparing for Ford v Ferrari. Luckily, the pair got much more than that. For a full week, Bondurant regaled Bale and Nagle with stories from the Ford v Ferrari era of the mid-1960s. Nagle estimated that Bale and Bondurant chatted for four or five hours a day.

To Nagle's surprise, Bondurant was also close friends with Miles, and had plenty of insights to share about the late star. "The information that [Bale was] able to get from Bob was amazing," Nagle said. "It was an almost surreal experience to be able to sit down with this guy and listen to his stories. It was phenomenal."

The tough final exam in Christian Bale's Ford v Ferrari prep

The instructors at the Bondurant High Performance Driving School are top class, but at the end of Bale's training behind the wheel, Nagle had to hop in a car to see the actor's progress for himself. It was during this final exam of sorts that Bale was really put to the test, as Nagle joined Bale on the track and intentionally placed pressure on him to see how well he could hold his composure and focus on the road.

"The last day of the training, we finished in real race cars," Nagle shared. "One of the tests that I do is to whomever I'm training is to see how well they stay focused, to see if I can distract them. [If] they start paying more attention to my car then they are their own car, then mistakes start to happen." Nagle said that he also began to pester Bale with his car as the duo rounded the track.

Nagle didn't go easy on Bale just because he's a big-name actor, either. He admitted, "I hounded him pretty hard. I was inches off his gearbox and trying to fill his mirrors left and right, doing everything I could to distract him."

According to Nagle, Bale merely manage to keep his cool and complete the task without any punch – he passed the test with flying colors and "never bobbled once." Nagle praised Bale's professionalism during training: "He's hands down the best actor I've ever trained." Given some of the other names Nagle has worked with — he has credits in everything from John Wick to the Fast and Furious franchise to the upcoming Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) – that's quite a compliment.

Nothing's better than the real thing

All of that training paid off big when it came time to shoot Ford v Ferrari. Thanks to his extensive training, Bale knew exactly what his car was supposed to be doing during Ford v Ferrari's race scenes, allowing him to react accordingly while "driving." Additionally, his work at the Bondurant High Performance Driving School actually led to some real time behind the wheel on screen.

As Nagle shared with Looper, "Because of the training we did with him, I felt very comfortable putting Christian in the car." So, he did. Nagle revealed that the times in Ford v Ferrari when you see Miles "come screaming into the pits and jump out of the car, or jump into the car [and] merge into traffic that's going 100, 150 miles an hour" aren't fake — and they're not the work of a stuntman, either. "That's Christian," Nagle said. "You can't fake that."

Some of the cars used in the movie were remarkably close to the real things, too, creating an even greater sense of authenticity. Nagle explained, "There's a company called Superformance, and they're actually licensed to make what they call continuation copies of the GT40. We had a few of those." 

Yes, that means the cars you see in the movie have the same engine — a Ford 427 — as the one that Miles actually drove. And yes, it was just as impressive — and fun — to handle. "It was an exact duplicate of that car," said Nagle. "Quite a beast to drive." We can only imagine.

Ford v Ferrari is in theaters now.