Four years ago, Gabriel Leone appeared in a small Brazilian movie called “Piedade” playing a character named Marlon Brando; he was not playing the American actor but does bear a resemblance to a young Brando.
So it is only fitting that when the Rio de Janeiro native made his English-language debut, in Michael Mann’s “Ferrari,” he’s playing race car driver Alfonso de Portago, a stylish sportsman who both looked like and styled himself after “The Wild One.”
“On the first or second page of the script, it refers to him as being like Brando,” says Leone, who had little time to prepare, flying to Italy a month after landing this huge career break. He’d already watched most of Brando’s films but he went back to his early ones to prepare. “It was a big reference for me — the way my character dresses, but also his confidence, his energy, the way he faces the situations.”
But Leone, who first gained attention for a TV series on Prime Video in Brazil called “Dom,” says that perhaps even more important to capturing his character was Mann’s insistence that all the actors spend time behind the wheel of a race car on the track.
“He really wanted us to connect to that,” Leone says. “He loves the realism of the universe he’s shooting and wanted [us] to be inside the cars and feeling like real drivers, not only to pretend and let the stunt drivers do it all.”
That approach really helped Leone find his way into his character. “It was the most important thing for me to understand why people did this even though the risks were so high,” he says. “You start connecting through the adrenaline rush — you want more and more and see how people get addicted to that because it makes you feel so alive.”
At first, Leone drove “normally,” meaning defensively and safely as one would on the streets. “It took me a few days with a driver teaching me to change my mindset, to drive in that more aggressive way, to brake later, to be willing to lose a little control of the car and then get it back again,” he says, adding that he eventually topped 110 miles per hour.
There were other learning curves: Leone had never had a trailer before. “In Brazil we have collective rooms and that’s where you get to know the other actors,” he says. “The trailers make actors more isolated.”
And, seeing himself on screen in a big Hollywood movie took getting used to — the first time he saw “Ferrari,” at the New York Film Festival, he got caught up analyzing his performance, especially since he had never watched himself act in the English language before. Still, Mann captured de Portago’s final moments on screen in a way that jolted Leone out of his more critical mindset. “I was pretty shocked,” he says.
Leone is putting everything he learned on the race tracks of Italy to good use in the upcoming Brazilian Netflix biopic, “Senna,” about another doomed race car driver, F1 legend Ayrton Senna.
But he wants to keep acting in American films and if given the opportunity he would jump at the challenge of finally getting to play Brando himself. “He is definitely the best of all time and he changed the game so he’s the biggest reference point when you start acting,” he says. “It would be an honor for me to try to play him.”