The demise of the “old” Top Gear dominated headlines across the world last year, with former presenters Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May decamping to Amazon Prime for a new motoring program in light of Clarkson being fired for a “fracas” with a producer. Was it a massive loss for the international motoring community with a penchant for British wit? Absolutely. But like a phoenix rising from the ashes (or rather, like an Opel Kadett rising from the river), Gear returned with a slew of presenters in tow, led by BBC radio presenter Chris Evans and fellow motorhead Matt LeBlanc. Ahead of the show’s premiere on BBC America next Monday, May 30, Vulture spoke with LeBlanc — who will be Top Gear’s first American host — about taking over hosting duties, how the new format is different, and why he prefers the films to the studio portions.
When did your keen interest in motorsports begin?
I started riding motorcycles when I was about 8 years old, and it all followed suit from there, specifically with motorcycle racing. And then it turned into following cars. Anything with an engine in it, pretty much, I’ve been a fan of since I was a kid.
Top Gear fans certainly know you from when you broke track records as the Star in the Reasonably Priced Car back in 2012. I’m curious if this visit sparked anything in you — did you walk away from the studio thinking, wow, I could see myself having this job some day?
Not really. I remember when I was driving back from the studio I thought, wow, that was the coolest talk show I’ve ever done. I was a big fan of the show prior to that. I didn’t realize how big internationally it was. Some of my friends watched it, too, but it never really took off in the States. But after that episode aired, I got calls from friends of mine all over the world. I couldn’t believe the response to it. People would stop me in the street and I would be ready for them to say something about Friends or Episodes, but they would say, “Hey, man, I saw you on Top Gear! Way to go, man!” I was like, really, wow. I started looking into it a little more and I realized how huge it was. Hundreds of millions of people.
They asked me last year to host this thing called Top Gear: The Races, which I did, and that was really fun. After that, there was the big shake-up with the presenters — with Jeremy, James, and Richard — and then Chris Evans came on board, and then they approached me with the offer of hosting it. It never crossed my mind prior to that. My only thought about going back to Top Gear was, how could I get back on and drive around the track again and see if I can beat my record?
Guide me through the events that led to you joining the show.
I was approached by the producers of Top Gear. We had a meeting; [producer] Alex Renton came to Los Angeles and we sat down and talked about it. All of the people involved in the show on the production end of it are motorheads, too, it’s not just the hosts. They all know their stuff about cars. It’s a very interesting world.
When you, Chris [Evans], and the rest of the cast and producers finally came together, how did you all choose to approach this reboot? What were the fundamental tenets of the old Gear that you wanted to keep, and what did you end up leaving on the cutting-room floor?
Well, you know that old saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” There wasn’t that much to fix. We decided that what would be different, without giving too much away, was that we’re going to have two celebrities per episode to create a competition element. It was done in the past, and it was always a fun aspect to watch. We’re changing the track a bit to make it a little more exciting and dramatic and more fun to drive. I’m actually going to test it out again later this week, do a couple of laps on the track. The general consensus of what to definitely keep on the show were the films. We’re doing more films and bigger films with more scope in them. We have more presenters, so it has a bigger feel in general.
For instance, we have Eddie Jordan, who has a huge Formula 1 background. When Eddie talks about a car’s performance, that guy knows what he’s talking about. Chris Harris has his own YouTube channel, “Chris Harris on Cars,” where he tests all types of exotic cars all over the world. He’s a great driver. Sabine Schmitz — she’s from Germany and drove this vehicle called the Ring Taxi, and she’s the first woman to ever win an endurance race. She can drive the hell out of a car. And then we have Rory Reid. People submitted tapes and he won an internet submission contest. He’s going to be joining us doing something called Extra Gear. It’ll be online content and aired after Top Gear airs, behind-the-scenes stuff to give you a little more. Previously they had a news segment, and that will be in the Extra Gear section. For the most part we’ll still be in the studio, we’ll still be doing interviews, the sets are the same, we’re sitting in the same chairs. It’ll feel like a new coat of paint on the same show, hopefully.
I’m glad you’re expanding the films. I’ve always found that part of the show to be the most enjoyable and informative.
That’s the part that feels so much more than just the cars. That’s the travel aspect of the show, that’s the “exploring different cultures” aspect. We want people to ask themselves, “What road are they driving on? Where is that? We’re going on vacation there next year, maybe we can stay an extra day and drive on that road.” That element of the show enables you to travel the world from your couch at home. For me, personally, for my involvement, I like the making of the films more than the studio portion.
Why is that?
The studio portion, that’s not really my thing, that’s not what I do. I’ll be involved there and present, of course, but I won’t be doing the interviews. Chris will be doing the interviewing. I’m an actor, that’s what I do. For me, I want to be in a car in a faraway place driving down an epic road, taking in a view in a dream car, and having an experience and letting people live vicariously through my experience. That’s the part I love the most. One other thing about what my involvement brings — I think my name is sort of associated with comedy. So I tried to bring more comedy to the show, which I think will help broaden the audience. If someone’s sitting in a car and talking about how the power feels like this, the brakes feel like this, the suspension feels like this, if you can do that in a funny way, that’s more interesting. We all worked hard on injecting more comedy into the show as a whole. I think that alone will help the show be successful. I like comedy, I like to laugh. I’m not drawn to drama. I’m always looking for what’s funnier. Comedy and cars is an interesting mix.
Have you spoken with Jeremy, Richard, or James at all — either for advice or well wishes?
I haven’t, no. I don’t really know those guys. Chris Evans knows them, I don’t know what the extent of those conversations have been, though. I know he still keeps in touch with them. I met Jeremy when I did the show the first time, and I met the other two guys at the end of the interview segment. We talked briefly afterwards. I haven’t spoken with any of them since the change.
I realize you only have one season under your belt, but have you given much thought to what you’d like your Top Gear legacy to be?
Not really, to be honest. Maybe soon. That’s like putting the cart before the horse. A lot of people have been asking me about how I’m dealing with the pressure and keeping the show a success; that’s not really my department. [Laughs.] That’s the burden of the network, unfortunately. The part I have is to make the show as funny and as interesting and as entertaining as possible. Once it’s out of our hands and it’s broadcast — I learned this lesson a long time ago — you can’t worry about the numbers. Someone else worries about it. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. What we have is entertaining, it’s funny. Chris and I have a great onscreen chemistry.
If you could relay any message to fans of the old Top Gear who might be skeptical to watch the new version, what would it be?
I would say, is it the same Top Gear? No. Those guys are gone. We’re here now, and we’re going to do the best job we can. We’re not them, they’re not us. Will it be better? Will it be worst? It’ll be different, but it’ll still have that same feel, it’ll still have elements of the old show present. But if you only want to watch “Top Gear Jeremy Clarkson,” then it’s probably not for you. That question almost answers itself in that sense. I’m not him, he’s not me. From what I’ve seen so far, the show’s working. It’s entertaining. If you want to be entertained with a car show, I think it’s a good show. [But] it’s not Chris and I doing Jeremy Clarkson impressions.