Gran Turismo: David Harbour Talks Favourite Games, Playing Mentors & the Value of Esports

Gran Turismo: David Harbour Talks Favourite Games, Playing Mentors & the Value of Esports

Upon first hearing Sony’s plans to adapt its highly popular racing simulator, Gran Turismo, into a movie, you might have wondered — how? As it turns out, Gran Turismo is not so much a video game adaptation as it is a portrayal of an incredible true story.

“It’s not really a video game movie. It’s a movie where you incorporate a video game or a simulator,” David Harbour, one of the stars of Gran Turismo, tells Kotaku Australia over a Zoom interview (conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike).

“In fact, this person transcends the simulation to bring it into reality. It’s an interesting, metaphoric shift. A lot of times, you find people going into technology and here’s an example of someone who takes technology and moves it into the real world.”

Gran Turismo movie
Image: Sony Pictures

The actor is referring to Jann Mardenborough, the real person at the heart of the movie, who got his start as a professional driver by racing in Gran Turismo on his PlayStation. Mardenborough (played by Archie Madekwe) was tapped as one of the best simulation drivers in the world and was subsequently invited to compete in GT Academy, an exclusive initiative by Nissan designed to turn sim racers into real race drivers.

Harbour’s role in this story: Jack Salter, an ex-driver, once at the top of his game, who ends up becoming a coach to Mardenborough.

“[He’s] the ringmaster of the circus [who] wound up having to sweep up after the elephants, but he loves the circus so much that he just wanted to hang around,” Harbour said.

Stepping into the mentor role isn’t unusual for Harbour, who is well known for playing a father figure in Netflix’s hit Stranger Things. However, the actor saw the struggles of his characters, Hopper and Salter, as being subtly different.

“[Hopper’s struggle] is mentoring a young girl with supernatural powers coming into her teenage years and sort of understanding the world in a way,” he explained.

Gran Turismo david harbour
Image: Sony Pictures

“And [Jack], as much as he says he hates what these kids are doing and doesn’t believe in that, underneath, there’s this desperate need for him to believe in these kids and to believe in the potential of his generation’s idea of reality. I mean, to get deeply metaphoric. It’s like, you see these kids invested in video games, then you think like, does the real world have any value? I mean, you watch people on the subway — everybody’s on their phone — does this interaction with the real world have any value? Does locality have any value? And I think that Jack desperately needs these kids to believe in reality.”

Harbour added that there are certainly obvious similarities between his two characters, both being mentors who have had difficult experiences in their pasts and aren’t the nicest in their communication. But the actor added what they’re struggling to do is “very different.”

“I think how Jack achieves it, certainly at the end of the film, and his euphoria around it is very different from something like what Hopper is going through,” he said.

Salter’s need for his pupils to reckon with reality feeds into another interesting concept that Gran Turismo raises: Does esports have merit in real-world sporting competitions?

“It’s interesting and complex because I do feel like it’s wild that someone can go from a simulator to the real world and actually win full-on races,” Harbour muses.

“It somewhat throws into question the sport itself. Like, I’m not so sure that somebody could play FIFA on PlayStation and then go on to the World Cup or whatever.”

Gran Turismo movie
Image: Sony Pictures

Harbour, a self-confessed gamer who enjoys RPGs and indie games (including Diablo 4 and Hades), added that while he doesn’t watch simulator races, he does enjoy RTS tournaments and has huge respect for the skill of the players who participate.

“I certainly think that, like, certainly with those Starcraft players, the APM (actions per minute) of those guys is like 400 APM. [That’s] like a pianist. The incredible sophistication of a real-time strategy gamer is as brilliant as any sports player in my mind,” he said.

It’s this representation of the skill of video game players rather than the game itself that fans should expect from the Gran Turismo movie. Tonally, Harbour likened it to a classic sports film.

“At its heart, at its foundation, it’s a sports movie. It’s Hoosiers, it’s Miracle, it’s Friday Night Lights,” he explained. “It’s these euphoric underdog sports movies that I loved watching as a kid.”

Gran Turismo is in cinemas on August 10.

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