Interviews

Interview: Patrick Dempsey heralds Ferrari as “the best motorsports movie ever made”

by Richard Dole
6 December 2023 4 min read
Interview: Patrick Dempsey heralds Ferrari as “the best motorsports movie ever made”
(Photos courtesy NEON/Lorenzo Sisti & Eros Hoagland)

Ferrari, the much-anticipated biopic by director Michael Mann and opening in theaters on Boxing Day, is a holiday present for movie buffs, automotive junkies, and motorsports fans. And it comes at a great time, right amid the barren off-season of auto racing. “I think it is the best motorsports movie ever made,” actor Patrick Dempsey, a star of the movie and a successful race driver in his own right, said in an interview with Hagerty.

The film takes place during the summer of 1957 and follows the trials of Enzo Ferrari, played by Adam Driver. Enzo is still grieving from the death of his son Dino a year earlier, as well as dealing with the repercussions of the infidelity which bore his illegitimate son, 12-year-old Piero (née Piero Lardi). While struggling with the current financial crisis threatening to send his company into bankruptcy, he prepares his cars to win the Mille Miglia endurance race.

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Dempsey portrays Piero Taruffi, the Italian racer, sportsman, and engineer who won the 1957 Mille Miglia for Scuderia Ferrari. The 50-year-old Taruffi retired after that victory. Dempsey, 57, is close enough in age to fill the role, even more convincingly so with the shock of dyed white hair required for him to look the part.

Still best known for his role on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy, Dempsey considers the movie to be a long-awaited gift. It offered the opportunity to combine his skill as an actor and his passion for racing cars. “Ferrari was the perfect experience for me because I love the era and have so much respect for the drivers of that time,” he said.

For decades Dempsey held the movie rights to The Limit – author Michael Cannell’s story of American Phil Hill winning the 1961 Formula 1 World Championship. Mann’s biopic, Ferrari, which is based in part on the Brock Yates masterpiece Enzo Ferrari: The Man and the Machine, had been on his radar. Dempsey says its movie rights have changed hands several times over the past 30 years. Mann acquired the original script from fellow director Sydney Pollack.

“I’ve been tracking the project for 15 years and knew about the script three years ago,” Dempsey said.

Production on Ferrari began in July of 2022 and concluded in October. Much of that time was spent in Modena, Italy. “We had great support from the factory with plenty of their cars from that era, plus from collectors who wanted their car in the movie. All the F1 cars are originals. You will find plenty of Easter eggs in the background of the scenes.”

“I spent as much as 10 hours a day in the car,” he continued. “The most seat time since my last full-time season racing in 2015.”

Most of the cars in the movie were actually Caterham chassis with vintage bodywork built on top, Dempsey clarified. He described the feel of driving these cars as “a bit like being in a Ferrari 550 Spyder,” complete with concerns about the lack of any sort of protective cage. His co-drivers in the movie cars included racers Derek Hill, Ben Collins, and Marino Franchitti.

Dempsey researched his character in multiple ways. He visited the Piero Taruffi Museum in Bagnoregio, Italy, and combed through the Ferrari archives in Modena and Maranello, where he found hand-written notes from the race. Additional background material he gleaned from reading articles from Motorsport magazine and books like The Technique of Motor Racing, penned by Taruffi, and Piero Taruffi: The Silver Fox, written by his daughter, Prisca Taruffi. The actor met and talked with Prisca when she visited the set.

As for director Michael Mann, his background spans decades in the entertainment industry. He has produced, written, and directed iconic works in television and movies such as Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice, The Aviator, Manhunter, Collateral, and The Last of the Mohicans.

Mann’s perspective, as Dempsey described the new biopic, is “a great look behind the door” of Enzo, whose name is the most legendary in auto racing history, and whose Prancing Horse logo represents one of the most recognized brands in the world. The legacy was crafted generations before “brand” was a household term.

Working with Mann was an education, Dempsey said. “It is staggering how much info he has, so he is demanding. He nit-picks and gives you an incredible sense of fine-tuning each scene. His attention to detail is amazing. Some scenes took two days to set up.

“Michael is focused completely on every detail. Many of the crew in those scenes are retired Ferrari racing mechanics. We never changed the dialogue. He is tough that way.”

Being on set was, the actor said,  “the closest feeling to being in the real pits.”

Dempsey speaks from experience. His racing career began in 2004 in the US in the Panoz spec series and he worked his way up to the professional ranks of the American Le Mans Series and the Weathertech SportsCar Championship. He made his debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009 in a Ferrari F430, a race in which he and co-drivers Joe Foster and Don Kitch piloted the GT2 car to ninth in class. It took three more trips to France and a switch to the Porsche 911 RSR before Dempsey found himself on the podium, finishing second in 2015 in the GTE Am class with Patrick Long and Marco Seefried.

Dempsey Le Mans Porsche on podium
(Dempsey on the podium for Porsche in 2015. Photo: Porsche)

The actor’s promotional schedule has been an endurance race of its own over the last several months: promoting the movie at the Venice Film Festival, preview screenings at the Formula 1 races in Austin and Las Vegas, and the official premier in London in early December, followed up a couple of weeks later by the United States premier in Los Angeles.

Dempsey doesn’t seem to mind. Nearly twenty years after his first racing exploits, his racing and acting careers are merging. He considers it a privilege to win on the big screen in a film that represents Enzo – among the most revered figures in racing. Another high point: the chance to highlight perhaps the greatest (and last) true automobile race through the Italian countryside.

Every scene in the film contains conflict. Dempsey described Ferrari as “very much a soap opera … It captures the essence and toils of auto racing.” On Boxing Day, audiences can experience all these storylines meeting at the finish line.

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