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Jann Mardenborough, 2011 GT Academy winner, poses for a photo outside the arena prior to the Manufacturers Cup at the Gran Turismo World Series Showdown in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  Photo: Oliver Hardt - Gran Turismo/Gran Turismo via Getty Images

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The Gran Turismo movie’s most important true story: Its hero really does love Kenny G

Jann Mardenborough discusses the games, music, and cars of his ‘gamer to racer’ career

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

A decade ago, when Sony Pictures first announced its plan to adapt the PlayStation racing sim Gran Turismo into a movie, fans of the franchise were bemused. Two big questions — How? And why? — were quickly answered: The Gran Turismo movie would be based not on the video game, but on the real-life story of a player turned professional racer.

Originally, the idea was to tell the story of Lucas Ordóñez, the Spanish race car driver who entered professional racing by winning a spot at GT Academy, the program that attempted to mold real-life racers out of virtual drivers. Over time, producers found a new subject: British racer Jann Mardenborough. He won GT Academy a few years after Ordóñez, and went on to enjoy a longer racing career, ending up in the Super GT championship in Japan.

Directed by District 9 writer-director and Oats Studios founder Neill Blomkamp, Gran Turismo is advertised as “based on a true story,” but it takes some cinematic liberties with Mardenborough’s journey from gamer to racer. We recently spoke to Mardenborough about his influence on the film, his history with the Gran Turismo games, his affection for cars, and whether he really does have a predilection for the smooth jazz of saxophonist Kenny G, or if that was just put into the movie for comic relief.

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Polygon: Which Gran Turismo game did you start with?

Jann Mardenborough: Kind of lucky story, really. I found [Gran Turismo] when I was 8 years old. But it wasn’t my console and it wasn’t my game. So in the U.K., we have this strange celebration every year called Bonfire Night, because we somehow want to celebrate a man who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. So now we have a fireworks display every year celebrating that. My parents’ friends had this party, and instead of watching the Bonfire display — because I didn’t like fireworks — I went into the living room and started playing GT1 on a PlayStation One.

That was my first time playing. I can remember [I drove] a pink or violet Mitsubishi 3000GT and I was racing on Autumn Ring. After that day, for the following week, after coming home from primary school, I kept on going over to their house. They got so fed up with me turning up all the time, they gave my parents the PlayStation One and [Gran Turismo], and that’s where the obsession of gaming started. Since then, I have had all the Gran Turismos from [the original] through 7. But it started with a console that wasn’t mine.

When you start a Gran Turismo game, you start with the cheapo starter car. Do you have any kind of romantic affection or nostalgia for a particular early street-level car?

I remember the first car in [Gran Turismo] because it was a 3000GT. I think you could buy that off the used car market. I don’t remember what I had in [Gran Turismo 2], but I remember what I had in 3 — a Toyota Yaris. And I never liked those starter cars, because you have all these nice fast cars, but you can’t afford them. So you have to do all these slow races before you get into the fun stuff. So yeah, absolutely the Yaris or a Mazda Demio, I never really had any fondness for any of those starter cars.

Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough behind the wheel of a car with a Gran Turismo decal on the windscreen
Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough in Gran Turismo
Image: Sony Pictures

Archie Madekwe, who plays you in the movie, is shown driving his dad’s VW Corrado. Is there any connection there to real life? Was that your parents’ car?

No, that was Neill’s choice. I mean, my parents never had a cool car like a VR6 Corrado, because that car, for car people, it’s special. The engine is great. It makes a great noise. It has that [active rear] spoiler. My parents only had one real cool car growing up: It was a red Peugeot 309 GTI. But that’s the only cool car they had. They couldn’t find a GTI [for the movie] because they’ve all rusted out.

What was your first car?

I still have it. It’s a 1991 blue BMW 318is. That was the car I used to go to GT Academy, actually. That was my first time driving on the highway. And I wasn’t sure whether it would make it. It was my first long-distance trip, [going] to GT Academy — and I could never get rid of [that car] because of my history with it.

In terms of the movie itself, how was it watching this condensed and remixed version of events in your life?

You’re right it’s condensed, because it’s really four years of racing in two hours, 10 minutes. I’m really happy, actually, the way that they teed up my life before racing, how I found [GT Academy], and how the academy process was. Because for 12 years, I’ve always had people ask me, “So how did you get into racing?” When I start explaining it, I can understand by their facial expression that they don’t really understand what I’m talking about, because it’s quite hard to conceptualize the whole process.

It’s not like they can show every single race I did before getting my international license, or all the races I did before I did Le Mans, but they do a good job of explaining the process of getting your race license. The races I participated in — Red Bull Ring, Le Mans, Dubai, Nürburgring — it’s not necessarily in the right order, or sequence of events, but those events happened. I get it. It’s part of storytelling. There’s a compromise to be made, compared to real life. It’s not a documentary.

Neill Blomkamp, director of Gran Turismo, speaks on stage at Sony’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2023 keynote
Neill Blomkamp, director of Gran Turismo
Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

What level of input did you have on developing the script? What did you bring to the movie in terms of conveying to Neill and the producers what it feels like to get behind the wheel of a GT4 race car for the first time?

[When I first] discussed the movie, the possibility of it happening, I said I only have two stipulations: The person playing me has to look like me, and they have to have my name. The second stipulation, [they said] “Maybe we can’t promise your name, because it’s quite difficult to pronounce for Americans.” But we managed to get both of those things in there, which is great.

When the script started coming through, Sony and I were aligned. They wanted to make something representative of my life [...] so I was very much involved in all the scripts. When the first script came through, we spent like seven hours on a call with all these people from production. And I was going through it line by line, word by word of what was wrong, what was right. So, heavily involved in the multiple scripts that came through.

[I wanted it to be] representative of me, the Gran Turismo gaming community, and also racing drivers, because I’m representing three camps, really. So I was very blessed that they were so open-minded to my input, because it had to be something that felt representative. Off set and on set, I was in constant communication with Neill (the director) and the producers. I didn’t have a role in, say, the casting. But I was always informed. It really couldn’t have gone any better.

I know you did some stunt driving on the movie. What was that experience like for you?

I was approached by the producers because they got asked by stunt coordinator Steve Kelso. It was his idea to have me play me [and] stunt double [myself] in the movie. That hasn’t been done before in a biopic — unless Tom Cruise comes out with a biopic, it hasn’t been done before. [laughs]

Jann Mardenborough listens to music in a Nissan/Nismo racing uniform in 2014
“Who can say where the road goes?”
Photo: Sam Bloxham/Formula Motorsport Limited via Getty Images

All the shots of the halo car is me behind the wheel. And I feel very proud, ’cause I’m a racing-movie fan. I critique all the racing stuff, because I’m involved in that sport. So now that I’m part of the stunt team, there was no excuse for something not looking right. I loved it. I got to see how movies are made. All the stunt drivers, they all said, “It’s the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie before, because there was so much driving.” I mean, I did over 2,000 kilometers while I was on set in a few months. [...] Yeah, I loved that experience. I’d like to do more of that in the future.

The story of the movie is all based on the fact that you have a passion for driving and cars. How has that changed or developed over the last 10 years?

Yeah, I’m still a huge car fan. It’s quite strange, being in the industry for 12 years — when you talk to racing drivers, not many racing drivers are actually big car fans. But I’m a huge petrolhead. I want to own many cars, especially from the ’90s, mid-’90s, that’s my era. I have three. I like to drive quickly, I like to have fun in my cars — it’s part of my hobby, maintaining them. I think cars are the ultimate expression of individualism and freedom. It’s such a special thing, having your own car. It’s limitless what you can do with it.

While Gran Turismo is mainly about your life and career, it also focuses somewhat on the game’s creator, Kazunori Yamauchi. What’s your relationship with him been like over the years?

Meeting Kazunori for the first time, I think it was, like, 2012, was a big deal. It’s still a big deal to this day. His passion for racing cars and Gran Turismo just shines through — you feel it when you play the games. The attention to detail he has — you have to be passionate about that. When he was making GT1 and GT2 within a 14-month span, he went home twice. Even though he lives in Tokyo, and the [Polyphony Digital] office is in Tokyo, he went home twice in 14 months.

Kazunori Yamauchi, CEO of Polyphony Digital laughs with Jann Mardenborough, at the Gran Turismo World Series Showdown in Amsterdam, Netherlands
Kazunori Yamauchi and Jann Mardenborough
Photo: Clive Rose - Gran Turismo/Gran Turismo via Getty Images

So when you’re using someone’s creation that was made with pure passion, to use that as a stepping stone to jump into something which is my passion — racing cars — there’s a mutual kind of synergy. I can see how passionate he was about his creation, and he’s looking at me, going, Wow, this has come off the back of my work. I’m very appreciative, because I wouldn’t be here if he didn’t have a passion for making Gran Turismo.

Kaz makes a cameo as a sushi chef in the film — so what’s your go-to sushi order?

Unagi-don, barbequed eel over rice, but it has to be cooked in the Western style of Japan — barbequed, not boiled. There are some amazing [unagi] restaurants around Suzuka Circuit in Japan.

OK. Last question. Do you really listen to Kenny G and Enya before big races? I couldn’t tell if that was factual or a bit.

That’s real, man! Neill texted me, like, June of last year, and asked me, “What music do you listen to before a race?” He’d message me at random times; often he just wants to know little tidbits. And I said, “Yeah, Kenny G” — specifically the song “Songbird.” It’s the only type of music I know for certain that brings me down quite a few levels before getting into the car. That’s true. I love Enya, too. When I was 6 or 7 years old, I started hearing it on old Jeremy Clarkson Motorworld videos.

So yeah, when I’m racing and there’s so much going on around me all the time, music calms me down, and it’s that. Always that.

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