By Cole Cusumano
Chances are if you follow Matt Tifft on social media, you scrolled past a gruesome selfie posted from his account in early November. In a year difficult for many, he established himself as the ultimate swiss-army athlete. Not only did the 24-year-old become the youngest team owner in NASCAR Cup Series history with help from B.J. McLeod and the inception of Live Fast Motorsports, but he recently wrapped production on what will be his first feature film role.
While aspirations of becoming an actor were never a thought for Tifft, cinema had always been a passion of his. In fact, while most of his teammates and friends were going out to bars or clubs on Friday nights, he revealed himself and McLeod would frequently opt for trips to movie theatres instead.
The opportunity arose for Tifft when he appeared as a guest on former NFL running back Peyton Hillis’ podcast, In the Backfield. The 2012 Madden cover athlete talked about how he’d be starring in a friend’s upcoming film, The Hunting, at which the young driver expressed a piqued interest.
Coincidentally, boredom from quarantine led Tifft to an open casting call in Charlotte in the months prior. This ended with him being signed by an agency and enrolled in acting classes due to the talent displayed.
A timely conversation and newfound hobby landed Tifft a minor role in the upcoming film, which was slated to begin production just over 30 miles away from his hometown in Mantua, Ohio.
“I started racing in NorthEast Ohio — I grew up there, so it was cool to get my first legit movie experience up there,” Tifft said in an exclusive interview with POPULAR SPEED. “It was very fun, because everything I’d learned in racing really correlated and corresponded to this world. In a way there’s a lot of surprising parallels that I was not expecting.
“Being my first time and it being a learning experience, it was cool to feel the pressure, stress and nervousness of it that felt very much like a race.”
One of the most striking factors he picked up on was the collaborative effort of the cast and crew. Tifft likened this aspect to a driver working with the crew chief and engineer throughout the race week. Instead of giving feedback and making adjustments to get the car tuned up, you’re working with the director and what they want in the scene immediately, as well as what they want their vision to be portrayed as to the audience.
“The team aspect was very similar, because you felt like everybody was working towards one common goal,” Tifft said. “It was really fun, because you felt like you were part of something, which I hadn’t felt since racing. I talked to Peyton (Hillis) about that too and we were both talking about how it’s really the only thing that compares to being on that level in that mental threshold.”
Tifft and Hillis served as each other’s biggest source of comfort on set. Both entered as professional athletes making their debuts, which made it easier to empathize with learning hurdles and comparisons of cinema to their respective sports — specifically, in relation to mental acuity.
“The mental part is almost identical,” Tifft revealed. “Peyton and I were talking about it; it’s weird because we’ve both been out of our sports for a little bit, but it’s the only thing that gets you mentally close to that level of hearing the crowd and being in the plays, or the race for me. It was cool to not only feel it myself, but to have another athlete there that felt the exact same way.”
Although Tifft was only on set for four days, his first shoot would end up being one of the most grueling days of his life. In the events that followed the infamous blood-soaked selfie, the co-owner of Live Fast Motorsports embarked on a trek to a river on a brisk Fall day in Ohio to begin filming.
“We go down to the river and it’s maybe, barely, 20 degrees outside and the rest of the cast and crew has heaters and coats,” Tifft shared. “I’m sitting there in a figure-four, half my leg is buried, it had snowed the night before, there’s this horrible wind that’s going by and it’s freezing — like a windchill between five and 10 degrees — and I’m sitting there in a cut up t-shirt.”
To make matters worse, the crew had to constantly re-apply a gelatinous substance to Tifft’s fake wounds to maintain continuity in the scene. When it was all said and done, he ended up laying in the same spot without moving for four-and-a-half hours while shaking uncontrollably due to the frigid temperatures.
Upon reuniting with the crew at a coffee shop in Matua that doubled as an events center for production, Tifft shared he went into hypothermia. He was bundled up in blankets and coats, he was fed soup and green tea, but nothing was working.
Hillis, being the notorious outdoorsman and historian he is, came to Tifft’s aid.
“He brings out a bottle of Crown Royal and pours me a little glass of it; within 10 minutes I was warmed up,” Tifft said. “I was like, ‘I just got saved by a (Cleveland) Browns player, basically.’”
Unbeknownst to the 24-year-old, back in the American Revolution dogs would carry barrels of whiskey around their collars in order to help soldiers with dangerously low body temperatures. This proved to be an ironic parallel while filming a movie about a war veteran.
By time production concluded on December 11th, Tifft reiterated he couldn’t have asked for a better crew and first-time experience. He also compared the expression of gratitude being passed around at the wrap-party to that of the team dynamic in NASCAR following a successful qualifying session or race.
Now a new team owner in the Cup Series, does Tifft have a future in acting?
“It’s definitely something I’d like to do again,” Tifft said. “It’s not something that takes away from the focus of the race team — that’s always number one — but it’s kind of a side thing that I’ve picked up a little bit. I hope it goes somewhere and I get to do something with it, but if not, it’s so unique because you’re stepping out of your comfort zone and working with a team doing something else that’s not revolving around race cars.”
Tifft will showcase his acting skills in The Hunting — a sci-fi/thriller centered around a soldier returning from war in the Middle East only to be welcomed home to a series of murders. The film focuses on the protagonist’s homecoming, his family life and the hunt for the culprit, while also incorporating underlying themes of PTSD in veterans.
The film is being directed by Mark Hamer and is currently in post-production. Although there isn’t a scheduled release, Tifft projects it should begin screening in Fall of 2021.