The hard-nut has become the poster-boy for everything bad about being a man. So how do you navigate playing the alpha male when it’s your actual job?
The tough guy is not a particularly sympathetic figure as of late. He’s Vladimir Putin, shirtless, on his lovely horse. He’s Lord Sugar’s way of doing business, or John Humphrys’ interrogation technique. The hard man used to be our big-screen hero, but we’ve come to realise that perhaps Sly should have talked it out in Cliffhanger.
There are new ways of hanging tough in 2018: you can do it with grace like Gareth Southgate, or with the resilience of Andy Murray. You can be The Rock who is, well, a rock for every man who hopes we can redefine masculinity in a positive way.
And then there are the men who play at being the tough guy for a living. What do the prisoner officer, the bouncer and the pro-fighter think about performing a role with a serious image problem? ShortList spoke to five men whose day jobs mean being ultra-masculine for a living.
James John, 36, has been a door supervisor for 18 years. He now runs a security company
On the first job I did someone got stabbed in the neck with a bottle. I had to detain the person who stabbed them. It was quite an experience. I had only done a week-long course. There was almost no physical training on it. Now there is.
In the old days, I saw people get a kick in the face from a bouncer while lying on the floor. There was quite a lot of that when I started. Now you certainly give someone a few more options.
People swear in my face all the time. It has no effect on me. Recently someone spat at me. I tackled them to the floor. I don’t slap or hit or punch anyone. But I will tackle them if I am assaulted.
Swearing is not my first port of call but some people don’t understand anything else. Occasionally I’ll swear to show them I am not messing around.
My dad told me to imagine I’m in a courtroom: how am I going to answer to my actions? I think about that in any scenario.
I’ve never had to punch anyone. I’ve certainly sat on a few people. But I’d rather not.
I’m 6ft 1in. I’m meaty. I’m fat, basically. Being big can make you a target. We employ a basketball player, he’s 6ft 7in, and he gets picked on all the time. It’s small-man syndrome. I’ve got guys who are bodybuilders and they wear raincoats because they don’t want to show their bodies off. It can make your job harder.
A good female member of the team is easily worth 15 men. They are so good at defusing a situation and most – but not all – people don’t want a physical altercation with a woman.
The notion of this being a tough-guy industry is kind of done. Most of the staff coming through these days have two kids and a landlord. Sometimes you really do have to be a tough guy on the job, but that’s not anyone’s first thought.
We employ so many primary school teachers. It’s a massive moonlighting industry. You can see they’re teachers in the way they do the job. They’re in charge as they are in a classroom.
I don’t call anyone mate or love or darling. Times have changed. Certain things are unacceptable. I’ve had a lot of strong female role-models in my life, so I’ve always thought us equal. I have two boys and I am raising them with that.
The all-action hero
Warren Brown, 40, is an actor who has played the bad guy in Hollyoaks, a good cop in Luther and currently stars as a sergeant in spy thriller Strike Back
I’ve played alpha characters. You’re always going to put some of yourself in roles. Coming from a fighting background [Brown is a former Muay Thai boxing world champion] and having grown up on a council estate in Warrington, there are going to be some traits I share with my characters.
I have to look tough and physically imposing to play the part of a soldier in Strike Back. But that’s not just about an aesthetic. I’m in the gym at 6am before we start filming in the Malaysian heat, and go again in the evening. It’s a job you can’t just turn up and act in. It’s the hardest physical job I’ve had.
I try to do as many stunts as they will allow me. We are expected to do as many of our own stunts as we can and as we want to.
I am not afraid to show my vulnerable side. As humans, we are not always in control. It’s more truthful if the tough guys are not tough all the time. I don’t think anyone is just one thing. We all wear masks.
I turned 40 this year. It’s a turning point in a man’s life. I have godchildren and a niece who just turned one. My dad hasn’t been too well and that’s put things into perspective. It’s a shift.
My Thai boxing coach said, “Don’t show you’ve been hurt.” Even if you’d been injured in the gym training, you couldn’t show it. Wait until you get outside or home. You’d do your best not to show pain or weakness. But equally, you’d be devastated watching your mate fight; your heart would be in your mouth.
I’m a softie. I cried at Billy Elliott. I love musicals – the glitz and the glamour. The week before I flew out to film Strike Back I watched three musicals: Hamilton, Les Misérables and Chicago.
I grew up in the Eighties so my heroes were Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. They were all fighters. Who’s my hero now? My mum. She’s an amazing woman.
In my social group we’re not afraid to show our feelings. Last night I called another actor, my friend Martin Compston [star of Line Of Duty]. We chatted away and then messaged at the same time afterwards, “I love you, man. I miss you.” We feel we can have that conversation where we say, “Listen, mate, I’m not feeling too great.” Talking can change so much.
Jason Fox, 42, is a former Royal Marine and Special forces sergeant turned TV star on SAS: Who Dares Wins. A new channel 4 documentary sees him investigate Narcos
I put myself into situations of extreme violence. I’ve had to be good at my job. But I don’t see myself as a tough guy. It’s just a persona because I was in the special forces.
A lot of the time you don’t want to get in a fight. You want to get in and understand the people you are working with or are confronted with. The last thing you want is to get your nose bloodied, but you know that is an option and you are prepared to go in for it.
Meeting South American drug lords, there was no point in me being a tough guy. It would get me killed. I wasn’t going in there giving it lip and showing off about how tough I am and what I’ve done in the past. They knew about my past but it was more about breaking the alpha-male barrier.
Why do we have this barrier? It’s the way we are. It’s wired into us from the beginning of time that [men have] an element of bolshiness and stubbornness: “I’m bigger than him and harder than him”, and all this bollocks.
I didn’t have a gun so I knew my position straight away. If it got a bit confrontational, I’d be, like, “Hey, everything’s cool.” Arms up, palms open, eye contact.
Dealing with confrontations is about swallowing your pride. Is that difficult? Sometimes. It’s that fiery, hot-headedness that can turn situations lairy or violent. If you want that to happen then go ahead and do it, but it’s not my way of doing business.
In the military, you become aware of how fragile we are as individuals. Especially after 9/11, when I started going to faraway places. I became less hot-headed, more of a thinker. I try to look at things more logically, from other people’s perspectives.
There’s been an awakening to the mental-health issues of being a soldier. There’s had to be. It’s still difficult to get guys to open up. One of the main reasons is that they are worried about their career. But people have realised you’ve got to talk about it.
Is there such a thing as a tough guy? Everyone’s got a chink in their armour somewhere. I’ve met a lot of tough guys but there’s always something else going on. We’ve all got our kryptonite somewhere along the line.
What’s my kryptonite? Not having an iron for my clothes. It reduces me to tears.
Leon ‘Rocky’ Edwards, 26, is a MMA Fighter who is currently number 11 in the UFC welterweight rankings
You have to be a tough guy to go out there and perform and get the win. One hundred per cent. Physically, you have to be in great shape, but mentally, you have to be in great shape, too. You have to be solid in your head and body.
You do have to put on an ultra-masculine image. The guy who is facing you is thinking the same thing. He wants to hurt you; he wants to get the win. You focus on him and that tough-guy persona comes over you. It doesn’t change who you are; it just gives you focus.
There are no emotions in the fight. Once that first punch gets thrown, everything is second nature to me. It’s like driving a car. Once you’re in, you know you’re going to drive.
Once you’ve been out there, shed blood, why not show mutual respect? Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone, who I beat in June, is someone I grew up watching as a kid. After the fight, he came to my hotel and we had a drink and a laugh. No one wishes anything bad on their opponent.
Everyone has a family they want to go home to. So it’s about sportsmanship. It’s about health and longevity. It’s never about going in thinking, “I want to kill this guy.”
I got my nickname from fighting on the streets in Birmingham as a kid. I kept getting into trouble. There was a lot of gang culture. I was fighting to defend myself. My mum thought enough was enough and took me to the local gym at 15.
I didn’t have positive male role-models growing up. My dad died when I was 13. That was a big loss, especially at 13, when you are confused enough anyway. Vaughan Lee, who was the big name in Birmingham at the time and signed to UFC, trained at my gym. It was good for me to see a path to follow. Before, there was nothing.
I don’t know about the sport being too violent. MMA changed my life and I’m using it to change other kids’ lives in a positive way.
My little boy has already started training in martial arts. He’s five. The sport taught me self-defence, respect for others and how to take criticism.
The perception of fighters is that we’re rough and rugged. Nothing cute. I like little dogs and I chose mine because he was the cutest one. He’s a little French bulldog called Rocco. I don’t like big dogs.
The prison officer
Keith Potter, 47, is a prison officer who has worked with young offenders for 17 years at HM prison Feltham, London
You have to put on that bravado: I’m the establishment, I’m a tough guy. If you’re a new member of staff you lack confidence. That’s where the macho image has to come out.
I struggled when I started. I’m not the tough guy, but you have to be tough mentally and you have to let them know who’s the boss. It’s only when you gain skills that you can lose the macho bravado. You become more humanised.
I’m 5ft 9in and 12 stone, which doesn’t really wash when you’re walking around a prison. I puff out my chest, stand up straight and try to make myself as big as possible. I used to raise my voice but I’m not very good at that. So it’s about confidence, eye contact, body language.
I’ve sat down with prisoners and said, “There’s 25 of you and one of me, if you wanted to beat or kill me you could do. But that’s not what we’re doing. We’re having a chat; we’re trying to break down barriers. I’m the guy who will talk to you for four hours rather than do anything else.”
Lads ask if I’m gay to try to get one over on me. I’m quite feminine and I’m Mancunian – the northern accent is a bit different here. I’ll say, “It doesn’t really matter if I am or not. That’s not the issue. But let’s have a discussion about it. Have you got a problem with it? Are you homophobic?”
It’s like a big school where everyone is trying to find their way. We deal with a lot of immaturity, gang issues. Boys think they have to fit in. Any young lad in a group will act ‘The Big I Am’, “I’m untouchable”. But get them on their own and they are totally different.
The mentality is sink or swim. At our prisoners’ ages [15-21] no one wants to be seen to be sinking; nobody wants to ask for help. So we have to work with them quite delicately and closely.
I’ve never shied away from the fact that I don’t like violence. I’ll say to a lad that my biggest hate is violence. As soon as you start getting violent, I’ve got to stop working with you.
A lot of the lads look up to the muscular, bodybuilder types who work here. That is what they want to look like, which is fine – sometimes I think I wouldn’t mind having a body like that. But you’ve got to work with what you’ve got.
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(Images: Getty/Louisa Maymam/Channel 4)