“It felt surreal the first time I heard about the film being considered in the first place, and it’s still weird even now.”
We got to chat with Jann Mardenborough, the “gamer to racer” subject at the heart of the Gran Turismo movie, with topics ranging from his experience in GT Academy to stunt driving for the film about his incredible life.
Check out a new clip from the movie before Gran Turismo hits US theaters August 25:
It goes without saying that your story, going from Gran Turismo fan to pro driver and subject of a Hollywood movie, must be very surreal. Now that the film is so close to release, what does this moment feel like for you?
It felt surreal the first time I heard about the film being considered in the first place, and it’s still weird even now. I still can’t get over the fact that my story is “forever.” I’m still trying to process that my journey, my family name, is now immortalized for future generations to see. I like thinking this is something my grandkids can look back on and be proud of.
Going back to the beginning, what made you decide to become an entrant in GT Academy? Was there a specific “Eureka!” moment?
I had wanted to be a racing driver since I was five or six years old. But, as I got older, the dream felt less and less attainable coming from a “normal” family, with two parents who live relatively normal lives and perform normal jobs. I didn’t know anyone who could sponsor me, so I shelved that idea while I was at school. I was too young to enter the first GT Academy, but I was also too busy with school at the time regardless.
It wasn’t until 2011 that the stars aligned. I had just dropped out of uni about three months prior, and I found myself in a position to put all my eggs in one basket.
I thought, “Let’s just see how far I can take this.”
What was the GT Academy training experience like, and what were the most difficult adjustments to make when racing on a real track for the first time? What differences stood out to you most when you first started driving professionally?
The biggest adjustment had to do with my vision. At home, I had always played GT on a tiny 17-inch screen. That’s what I used for years.
Then, when I got in a real car and had an instructor sitting next to me, who had a mirror that allowed him to watch where my eyes were focusing, it became clear that I would constantly look at the floor instead of looking ahead down the track. Your field of view is radically different in a car compared to when your view is constrained to a small TV; during a race, you’ll often be driving in the opposite direction of where you’re actually looking. This took months of reprogramming and adjustment.
The rest felt easy—even when, at 19 years old, I first got behind the wheel of a 485-horsepower GTR at Silverstone Circuit. As I was strapping myself in I thought, “Okay, how is this going to feel now? And, well, it felt normal. From the breaking and throttling inputs, to the way the car would steer and pitch around corners, driving the car felt oddly familiar. Aside from the additional sense of vibration and feedback through the steering wheel and seats, the car handled the way that GT had prepared me for.
It probably helped that at 19 I felt a lot less risk averse. I just wanted to go fast and develop as quickly as possible.
Does this relatively straightforward adjustment period attest to the quality of the simulation in the GT games? Would the experience have been vastly different if you hadn’t spent so much time with them?
Of course. I had no professional racing experience otherwise: I had never karted nor driven on a track, and my first time driving on an expressway was in transit to GT Academy. At that point in my life, I had only ever driven within 30 or 40 miles of my home in Cardiff. All my friends were there and we never had a reason to drive anywhere else.
I was a blank slate, which I think worked to my advantage. I didn’t have any other preconceived ideas about how to drive a racing car or take it to its limit. All I had was the game, and this made it easier for me to internalize all the instruction I was getting. I didn’t have to unlearn any bad habits or bad advice.
At least for me, the Gran Turismo games allowed me to circumvent the tens of thousands of dollars some parents pay in preparing their children to become a pro race driver. I was able to skip all that because of the game.
Aside from lending your life story to the premise of the film, you also got the opportunity to perform stunt driving sequences on behalf of the actor depicting you. What was that like, and how else were you involved in the production?
I was first approached about driving in the film early last year, and the producers were a bit wary, warning me that I’d have to do a lot of waiting around. But that didn’t bother me. I just said, “I’m in; this is going to be amazing.” I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to be part of such a fundamental aspect of the story, which felt a lot more significant than, say, a walk-on cameo.
As part of this process I got to meet some legendary stunt drivers—like Steve Kelso, who drove for Talladega Nights, as well as the driver for Kitt in Knight Rider. These super experienced guys were all part of the team and it was an honor to learn from them.
Otherwise, I’ve been involved with the project since the first script was written back in 2019, and all of the people I’ve worked with at Sony Pictures have been awesome. The producers have been very generous in involving me and taking my input on each script draft.
Once on set, I was asked if I wanted to help review the dailies, but I declined because that’s not my world. I was happy with the script and the cast, and wouldn’t know how to properly assess unfinished footage. That’s not my world.
With Gran Turismo nearing release, where do you see your career going from here?
I can only look ahead by about two years, since anything beyond that is too hard to predict, but I really want to do Le Mans. That race is my goal for next year. I’d also want to return to Japan to compete in Super GT. But I’m very flexible right now; I want to race into my late 40s as a professional. I haven’t peaked as a driver and I’m still hungry.
What do you hope the audience will take away from learning your story?
I hope people take away that you can do anything you dream and set your mind to. Of course, it’s not going to be easy, but you only have one life—why would you spend years doing something that doesn’t satisfy you or give you purpose? So, I hope the story in Gran Turismo can help motivate people to take a different path in their lives, where they feel more satisfied and complete. I’m very lucky that I had this opportunity when I was 19.
To close things out, we’ve got a rapid fire set of questions:
What’s your personal favorite game in the series?
I’m torn between Gran Turismo 2 and 3. Both were massive advancements over their predecessors and had a profound impact on me when they came out. Gran Turismo 2 had the better car and track selection—and the best intro—but the visual upgrades in GT3 were profound. I still have very fond memories of playing that game for an entire summer when it came out.
Favorite car to race with in Gran Turismo?
The Toyota GT-One in Gran Turismo 2—the LMP car.
Favorite car to drive in real life?
The Nissan GTR GT500 car that I drove in Japan from 2017 until the end of 2020.
It’s a proper race car: two liters, 700-horsepower, lots of downforce, and weighs a ton.
Favorite racetrack in GT?
Grand Valley Speedway, hands down. I wish it was real because it’s just so gorgeous and has an incredible atmosphere.
Favorite track to race on professionally?
Sportland Sugo, a little circuit in Sendai (north of Tokyo). It’s like a miniature Nürburgring.
Favorite music track from the GT series?
“My Favourite Game” from GT2 and, of course, “Moon Over the Castle.” They’re both still on my workout playlist because I’m fueled by nostalgia!
Gran Turismo 7 is now available on PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4, as well as PlayStation VR2 following a free update earlier this year. Gran Turismo arrives exclusively in US theaters August 25. https://www.granturismo.movie/