Film

Caging the adrenal boy

Stuart Jeffries

He's aiming to crack Hollywood, but Tom Hardy is getting typecast as a thug. Can he escape?

The bed has been removed from the hotel room in London’s Soho where rising British film star Tom Hardy and I are to meet, leaving a vast carpeted brawling area. We could, I think as I await his arrival, mix it up like Oliver Reed and Alan Bates did in Women in Love, or as Hardy and his screen brother Joel Edgerton do in his unremittingly butch new film, Warrior, about mixed martial-arts (MMA) fighting. 

Hardy jogs into the room flanked by minders as if he’s entering a boxing arena. He settles on the sofa and pours coffee. For the next hour he writhes and giggles as he chats about his career prospects.

As he pours, I ask him about a line in the production notes for Warrior: “The son of a Cambridge academic father, Hardy is the first to admit that prior to Warrior he was not a fighting man and not intimately familiar with ‘alpha-male territory’.”

Surely this makes his dad sound like a mortar board-sporting ponce, rather than what he was—the esteemed writer of gags for comedian Dave Allen?

“The point is my father’s not really into throwing his fists,” Hardy replies. “He’s got lightning wit, backchat and repartee to get himself out of a scrap—and nothing else. My father came from an intellectual and studious avenue as opposed to a brawler’s avenue. So I had to go further afield and I brought all kinds of unscrupulous oiks back home—earless, toothless vagabonds—to teach me the arts of the old bagarre.”

Alpha-male moments

With his machine-gun verbosity, rococo vocabulary and the non-remote possibility that he could turn at any moment and chuck me out of the window, he is an appealingly odd interviewee. He pronounces “bagarre” with an exaggeratedly angry French accent. Then he repeats it.

“Bagaaaaarrrre! It got me into an enormous amount of scrapes and trouble—and eventually I ended up in Warrior, where he [his character], does it for a living.”

Excellent, but there’s another point. The idea he’s not familiar with alpha-male bagarre stuff is barmy. Let’s review. After graduating from Richmond Drama School and the Drama Centre London, Hardy got a role in the World War II miniseries Band of Brothers and in 2001 made his film debut in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, neither a paean to non-violence. He was the violent Dickensian hoodlum Bill Sikes in the 2007 Oliver Twist miniseries. He played Handsome Bob in Guy Ritchie’s 2008 film RocknRolla.

He played a notoriously violent prisoner in Bronson in 2009, winning best actor at the British Independent Film Awards for the role.

He played Heathcliff in the 2009 miniseries of Wuthering Heights. He played a London gangster in a miniseries called The Take.

True, he did play a relatively weedy homeless alcoholic in the 2007 TV adaptation of Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards, but that’s the exception that proves the rule. He’s currently filming Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, in which he plays stupendously muscled and unpleasantly brutish super-villain Bane. So why the CV teeming with thugs?

“It boils down, in brutal honesty, to necessity. But there is another component to those characters, which is a kind of legitimate or illegitimate suffering in their psyche, which is more exciting to me. I’m playing people who have an obstacle to overcome and struggle to express that.”

Getting into character

There’s a lot of conflict in Warrior, in which the public school-educated Englishman is cast as a troubled Pittsburgh-based Irish-American bruiser. Hardy is a surly, almost non-verbal wounded beast of an ex-GI and ex-wrestler who returns to the ring to express himself in the only way he knows.

“In hindsight I can see it’s great drama, but when you’re getting your teeth kicked in and eating endless chicken and broccoli, you don’t really care.”

What does he mean? To look like a cage-fighter he had to eschew carbohydrates and eat chicken and broccoli incessantly. That wasn’t all.

“I did two hours boxing a day, two hours mai tai, two hours ju jitsu followed by two hours choreography and two hours of weightlifting seven days a week for three months. So come on! You have to really want to do that, so it was a challenge.”

Hardy’s Warrior regimen put on 13kg of muscle. What interests him, though, is not the fighting style per se but its spiritual dimension.

“Ju jitsu is very Buddhist. All that we fear we hold close to ourselves to survive. So if you’re drowning and you see a corpse floating by, hang on to it because it will rescue you.” Hardy rolls over to look at the ceiling. “But the embrace is about the breaking of cycles. The film asks: What part do we play in those cycles and what is fated? That’s very Greek.”

Rituals in the ring

Let’s not go nuts about Warrior‘s spiritual dimension. It’s mostly blokes tearing lumps out of each other in a cage encircled by people screaming for blood and/or death.

“Again, that’s Greek,” says Hardy. “It’s the gods who have decided to sacrifice this man — Let’s watch two people kick the shit out of each other.”
Hardy sits up, giggles, pours more coffee. And that’s why people will pay to see Warrior? “Well, it’s a normal human impulse.”

He giggles wildly. No more caffeine for you, laughing boy.

“Funnily enough, for a film about MMA, Warrior scored very highly with people who don’t care about fighting,” he says.

I tell him that at the screening I attended there were lots of women whooping during the fight sequences and weeping in the poignant ones. There is a subtheme of alchoholism and abuse: Did that resonate for him because he was a drunk and a drug addict? Hardy collapsed in Soho after a crack binge in 2003.

“That was a lesson to me. I was fed to the Kraken and popped out the other side. In death I was reborn, just like in the film. Because I’d always been this adrenal kid and then I became a little shit. I’m not, now.”

He’s eight years clean. What did playing opposite a recovering alcoholic, Nick Nolte (who plays his father, Paddy, in the film), mean to him?

“I guess I’m more sympathetic to the alcoholic. I know in recovery that you are entirely responsible for your actions but I also know you’re not the same person you were yesterday. Paddy doesn’t think he’s the same person he was yesterday, he doesn’t even understand that person.”

So how can you be responsible?

“Well, that’s the conundrum of the human condition, isn’t it? Deciding when you’re responsible is hard fucking work, man.”

Moving on, moving up

I look at Hardy’s chest, thinking that it’s a shame he’s wearing a long-sleeved top. Otherwise we could spend the rest of our allotted time reading his tattoos—which seem to form an encyclopedia of his private life. His 1999-2004 marriage to Sarah Ward is commemorated by the tattoo “Till I die SW” and a dragon on his left arm. Below it are the words “figlio mio bellissimo”, commemorating his son Louis’s birth three years ago with ex-girlfriend Rachel Speed. On his back is the word “Charlotte”, marking his relationship with Charlotte Riley, whom he met on the set of Wuthering Heights. There are many others, but Hardy isn’t going to talk me through them today. 

Instead, he wants to discuss his career. Warrior may be the film that breaks him in the United States.

“I hope. The question I ask myself every 24 seconds is: Are we going to have a crack at the investment market in acting and producing and directing, or am I going to be a jobbing actor who struggles to work in theatre or on TV?”

The likelihood is the former. He impressed in Christopher Nolan’s Inception as Eames, the inept British conman, partly because of his delivery of lines such as: “Great. Thank you. So, now we’re trapped in Fischer’s mind battling his own private army, and if we get killed, we’ll be lost in limbo till our brains turn to scrambled egg.”

He has also wrapped another clutch of films, including This Means War, in which he plays a CIA agent. He will also be seen in the film adaptation of John Le CarrĂ©‘s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where, according to Xan Brooks’s Guardian review, Hardy “raises the roof as Ricki Tarr, the tale’s bullish rogue element”.

That sounds about right: Hardy is not so much raging bull as bullish rogue. He’s loving the work, but wilting under the PR demands, the poor flower. “I’ve got about six or seven of these things [promotional interviews] going on at the moment so I’m being pulled from pillar to post.”

He’s becoming very Hollywood.

“I have to make my bones with Hollywood to get in. And when I do maybe I’ll metamorphose from Mr Muscles or whatever it is I am now and become an irascible tosser.”

I’m just glad to get out of the room with no black eye.

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