ShortList meets the British actor who took on the Kray twins and won. Plus an exclusive image of the actor taken by the inimitable David Bailey.
Interviewing Tom Hardy is not like interviewing other film stars. From the moment he arrives – alone, dressed down in hiking trousers and black T-shirt, puffing away on a complex-looking digital e-cigarette – it is immediately clear this is not someone who will be exhibiting any kind of on-promotional-duties polish. He is very, very nice (I get a hug at the end of the interview), but there is unmistakably a wired edginess about him. When we sit down, it starts like this:
Me: I’m going to start with an obvious question, which is…
Hardy: Have you seen the film?
Me: Yes. I…
Hardy: Right, well that’s the first question, then. The second one is, “What did you think?”
I tell him I loved it, and why, and he is pleased (“That’s a f*cking result!”). When we move on to me asking him questions, his answers – again, in contrast to other film stars, with whom the game is to get them to veer slightly away from prepared, succinct monologues – are smart and eloquent, but long, drawn-out and enjoyably all over the place, veering off into tangents prompted by thoughts that have clearly just formulated. At the end of our allotted time, we are told to wind it up not once but twice, and even then he is still going, launching into theories about American versus British gangster films and life and humanity and such things (“Sorry man, I can talk for f*cking ever!” he laughs). He will be talking with a seriousness and sincerity (“All the risk was taken by [writer and director] Brian [Helgeland], to be fair…”), then will switch without warning into a piercing, mock-hysterical falsetto (“…letting me PLAY BOTH F*CKING ROLES, MAN!”).
In fact, briefly, while we’re on the subject of the way he speaks…
Tom Hardy’s normal speaking voice is not something we have been privy to onscreen. Since he delivered – whatever your opinion of it – the most imitated cinematic voice of the decade in The Dark Knight Rises, we haven’t come close. That thick Welsh accent in Locke, The Drop’s quiet Brooklyn drawl, the Russian twang in Child 44: we just never hear it. And this might be because it doesn’t exist. It’s five years ago, but if you watch his Jonathan Ross appearance in 2010, where he is very well spoken, he confesses he “sometimes picks up accents, and sometimes I don’t know how I’m going to sound until I start speaking”. If you then watch another video of a feature on GMTV, dated just a month previous, while addressing some young people from troubled backgrounds as part of his charity work with the Prince’s Trust, he is speaking to them in a south London street kid drawl. Today, in the flesh, he is about halfway between these two.
A natural-born chameleon.
The role we are here to discuss today does not, by Tom Hardy’s own standards at least, involve a huge stretch accent-wise. But it is “the hardest thing that I’ve ever done, technically”. This is because, as mentioned, he plays not one role, but two. In the same film. You will likely have seen the posters for Legend by now, depicting Hardy as both of the Kray twins. Which seems an ambitious, almost foolhardy undertaking.
Hardy agrees. “It is one of them situations,” he says. “You get an actor to play two characters, and immediately, it’s pony. It’s gonna be rubbish. Just: no. It’s a bad idea.”
This particular “bad idea” came to him when he first met writer and director Brian Helgeland (who had previously written screenplays for – no biggie – LA Confidential and Mystic River) for dinner. Brian wanted Hardy to play Reggie (the hetero, alpha male, more-straight-down-the-line Kray). Hardy, though, had read the script, and of course, being Tom Hardy, was drawn to the more complex character. “I was like, ‘Well, I feel Ronnie,’” he says. “So which actor am I gonna give up Ronnie to, if I play Reggie? Errrrrggh…. I can’t have that. ’Cos that’s all the fun there! And Reggie’s so straight! But there was a moment when I could have come away just playing Reggie. We could have gone and found a superlative character actor to play Ronnie, and that would have been the best of everything."
But Helgeland sensed the dissatisfaction in his potential leading man. “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Oh, he wants to play Ron,’” he tells me. “And the paraphrased version is that by the end of the dinner, I said, ‘I’ll give you Ron if you give me Reg.’”
And so began their quest to turn a risky, potentially disastrous idea into something special (as Brian puts it to me, “the movie’s either gone right or gone wrong before anyone even starts working on it”). Hardy found some comfort in Sam Rockwell’s two-interacting-characters performance in Moon. “I’m a big fan of Sam,” he says.
“And Moon gave me reason to go, ‘I know it’s possible to hustle with self, to create a genuine dialogue with self.’ So then it’s the technical minefield: can you authentically create two characters within a piece at all? So that the audience can look past that and engage in the film? It is what it is: it’s two characters played by the same actor. But I think we got to a point where people forget that and are genuinely watching the story."
This was the ‘why I liked the film’ reasoning I gave to him at the beginning of the interview. And it is a remarkable performance, or pair of performances, or triumph of technical direction. The opening shot features both Tom Hardy Krays sitting in the back of a car, and feels strange, but very quickly, within about 10 or 15 minutes, you settle into it, and forget that it is actually the same guy. This was made possible, in part, by Hardy’s stunt double from Mad Max: a New Zealander named Jacob Tomuri.
“He inherited the hardest job of my career,” Hardy grins. “I put on a pair of glasses, played every scene with Ron, then took ’em off and played Reg. And we went through every scene in the film, recording it on the iPhone. So he’s got every scene of me doing both characters, on his iPhone. He actually played both brothers, had to learn all of the lines. He was paying attention twice as hard to keep up. But he superseded that, and was eventually ad-libbing. There’s a line that ended up in the film, where Ronnie goes, ‘I bent him up like a pretzel, I hurt him really f*cking badly.’” “Where did that come from?!” Hardy shrieks, in that falsetto again. “It came from New Zealand."
The wife’s tale
The other big potential pitfall, as Hardy sees it, was contributing to the ongoing glamorisation and eulogising of two brothers who were, to say the least, not very nice. Somehow they have become almost as iconic a piece of the Sixties puzzle as the Beatles or the Stones. But this was not something that Legend would be setting out to reinforce. “One has to approach these things thinking about the families of the victims who were involved in the other end of it,” he says. “Before you find the heart to like somebody, you’ve gotta look at their track record as best as possible: the people who’ve been hurt, the bodies, the suffering, people who were bullied, who lived in terror, who lost significant parts of their lives in the wake of these two men. There’s a lot of sh*t to wade through. And a lot of people who do not, quite rightly, want to see anything to do with these two men. And if I were them, I wouldn’t want to be involved myself, but there’s also part of me that wants to know. That wants to get under the skin.”
So how do you go about doing that? About humanising, to any extent, such people?
“I think the first port of call is, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do and say whatever you wanted to do and say in the world, regardless of the ramifications and the consequences?’ Ultimately, when I – we – go to the cinema or read a book or we go to escape, we respond to certain types of characters that go, ‘F*ck it: I’m gonna do whatever I want.'
And that’s because we can’t. Because most people would feel a responsibility.”
The answer to how Legend would do this came in the shape of a person who did feel some responsibility, namely Frances Shea: the troubled wife of Reggie, who died in 1967. Played by Emily Browning, she became the centre of the film when Helgeland met Krays associate Chris Lambrianou, who told him that “Frances was the reason we all went to prison”.
“We could have put more of the carnage and the crimes in that film,” says Hardy. “Not to say that it is not there, but what you do see, really, is Reggie, Ronnie and Frances. That’s the dynamic we focused on, that space, which hasn’t been seen before. What was that dynamic like? I don’t know if we came anywhere near the truth, because we weren’t there. But that was the playing field, if you like: Frances Shea, future ahead of her, caught up in something, and no one with her, the suicide. That sits with me in a way as the lead. She’s who we forgot. Ronnie, Reggie, they’ve done their bit. Frances was forgotten. And that kind of all ties it together for me."
The initial praise for Legend has been plentiful, but the mindset of Tom Hardy right now is such that he does not have the time to bask in it. There are other quite ludicrously challenging projects to be pressing ahead with. Coming in autumn is The Revenant, starring his good friend Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu of Birdman fame. Its trailer, as well as doing the not-going-anywhere trend for big beards no harm whatsoever, suggests that it will also match Mad Max in terms of an unrelenting barrage of intensity. Further into the future there’s the Elton John biopic Rocketman (initial challenge? Hardy “can’t sing”) and another foray into comic-book adaptation with 100 Bullets (news of which broke just after our interview).
And right now, as in this week, he’s working on a BBC series called Taboo, which is set in 1813 and stars Hardy as an adventurer who comes back from Africa and builds a shipping empire. The story has been developed by his production company Hardy Son & Baker (formed with his father, Chips) and has been written and directed by Locke/Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight, with Ridley Scott also exec producing.
“We’re sat on something really awesome,” says Hardy. “And it’s trying to piece it together. I’ve never produced anything before, so I basically don’t know what I’m doing. But I’ve got some options and solutions: if you say something is not working, you better come up with at least four other options. But it’s good. It’s just different.”
Another day, another big challenge. Another chance to do something different. It isn’t an easy life being Tom Hardy. But neither will it ever a boring one, and that’s good news for us.
Legend is at cinemas from 9 September
Words: Hamish MacBain. Images: David Bailey, Studio Canal
You can also read the Hardy interview in this week's ShortList Magazine. It'd be a crime to miss it.
[Cover: GREG WILLIAMS/AUGUST IMAGES]