"I BELIEVE he was a modern incarnation of the archetypal Southern badass from the days of old," says Barry Pepper of Dale Earnhardt Sr., the iconic racer whom Pepper portrays in ESPN's upcoming 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story. "In an age of double-talking, spineless, amoral entertainers, politicians, figureheads and role models, I found it pretty refreshing to play a man who spoke his mind, stood his ground and lived his life passionately following his dreams."
It's a cool May evening in Southern Pines, N.C., and Pepper is relaxing with a cigar at his hotel after 10 hours of shooting at North Carolina Speedway in nearby Rockingham. If he's intimidated by playing the Intimidator, NASCAR's most revered figure, he's not showing it. Playing a sports star isn't new for the 34-year-old actor, who received high praise from critics for his portrayal of Roger Maris in HBO's *61. But playing Dale Earnhardt Sr. is an entirely different challenge. "He's playing an icon," says Sean Bridgers, who plays the late driver Neil Bonnett, one of Senior's closest friends. "I mean, I would be terrified even playing Dale Jr. I'd rather play Elvis, honestly. Senior is the exact same thing. When I found out Barry Pepper was playing Earnhardt, I was like, 'He's a great actor. But how are you going to get him to look like him?'"
For starters, prosthetics--a false nose that had to be adjusted twice daily. Pepper plays the racer from age 17 to 49, and it's eerie how much he looks and sounds like the Intimidator. To capture the North Carolina nasal twang of the racer, Pepper spent hours listening to an iPod filled with Senior's interviews and would jolt himself into character on set by snapping off a couple of his favorite Dale-isms. ("I didn't mean to wreck him. Just meant to rattle his cage.") The shoot lasted three weeks, with Rockingham serving as the setting for some of Earnhardt's most memorable racing moments. The movie debuts Dec. 11 on ESPN. "It's a performance that will be judged by millions of people," says Pepper. "They were intoxicated by his life and legend. Ultimately, I hope they forget about Barry Pepper for an hour and a half and escape into Dale Earnhardt's world."
A DAY AT THE RACES
The production of 3: The Dale Earnhardt Story was very much a local affair. All but 20 members of the 140-person crew were from the Carolinas, and 1,000 locals were hired as extras, many for scenes at the track, including one in which Pepper as Earnhardt Sr. (left, center) and Bridgers as Neil Bonnett (seated to Pepper's right) listen to an invocation in the drivers' tent before the 1990 Southern 500 at Darlington. "I think we have a realistic perspective that you can't please everyone," says Pepper, who is also the film's co--executive producer. "We selected periods of Dale's life to dramatize and compressed certain events. Fitting a life into 92 minutes is a challenge."
FATHER AND SON
As a youngster Dale worked on cars with Ralph (J.K. Simmons) in the family garage; later the two raced each other on local dirt tracks. (That's East Lincoln Speedway in Charlotte, right.) "To me the absent-son, lost-father relationships between Dale and Ralph and Dale Sr. and Dale Jr. provide the lifeblood that drives this story," says Pepper. "It's not about Winston Cup championships or the dramatic death. It's about Dale Earnhardt: the man, the dynamic, complex, intelligent human being that lived life to follow his dream and ultimately became a great father, husband and, arguably, the greatest driver NASCAR has ever seen."