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By Jay Stone
TORONTO — Tom Hardy might be the best actor of his generation.
He can do anything. He was the scary buff gangster in Bronson and then he was the scary but doomed hit man Ricki Tarr in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. Next thing you know, he’s Bane, the gigantic muscled villain in The Dark Knight Rises, growling through a leather mask. Hard to believe it was the same guy in Locke, a solo film about a man who’s responsible for the concrete in a British construction project, called away because a woman he once slept with is about to give birth to their child. Now he’s Bob, the compliant bartender in the gangster drama The Drop who turns out to be a guy you don’t want to screw around with. Then he’s the indomitable (but vulnerable!) hero in the post-apocalyptic desert in Mad Max: Fury Road.
In his new movie, Legend, he plays the Kray brothers. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were gangsters who terrorized London’s East End: identical twins Reggie (big, tough, handsome) and Ronnie (insane, wild-eyed, gay). Hardy plays both of them in a feat of special effects, although he acknowledges that given the choice, he would have picked Ronnie.
“He’s a very comic, loud fully round blossomed character, and there’s a tragic clown to him and I’m looking for the moments to unearth that,” says Hardy, 37.
This was at the Toronto International Film Festival press conference for Legend, the Brian Helgeland crime biography that opens this fall. Hardy is smaller in person — five-foot-10, maybe and fit, but not Bane fit — and sports a bushy beard and a gallery of intricate tattoos on his arms that spill out of his T-shirt.
He’s something of an enigma: he looks like a street tough (he jokes about his bad teeth) but he’s also a much-praised English stage actor who, in 2003, was nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for most promising newcomer. In 2010, he starred in The Long Red Road, which was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also had some claim to the title of best actor of his generation.
Hardy has been compared to Marlon Brando because of his intensity and because of his almost supernatural ability to fold himself into a role. He likes figuring things out. Being the Krays, for instance, meant “acting in a bubble,” because he didn’t have another actor to play against. He ended up using his body double; a man whom he says was far closer to the Krays — and far more of a Mad Max — than he is. Having someone to play against helps up the ante.
“It’s key that whoever’s opposite ups the game for whoever the protagonist is, otherwise their status isn’t given to him,” he says. “You can’t just bring your status. That relies heavily on your ensemble. It’s got nothing to do with how hard you perform. You cannot be the centre of the attention unless other people allow you to be that. “
The Krays, like Bronson — or Bane — were fearsome characters who glared out with malevolent threat and there are rumours that, as Esquire magazine once wrote, on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road, Charlize Theron found him “weird and scary and wanted him kept away from her.” He has had fights with co-stars. He once battled Shia LaBeouf.
But in Toronto, he’s all charm. When someone asks him if he himself wants to be a Legend, he says, “I’m entirely not interested in that sort of thing.” He only expects to get jobs, he says, and he’s far exceeded those expectations.
“I only came to deliver a pizza and now I’m doing very well.”
Then something happens that allows a glimpse of some of Hardy’s more frightening creations. A reporter for the Toronto LGBT newspaper Daily XTra asks him about a 2008 interview in which Hardy apparently acknowledged that as a youth, he had flings with men. The reporter asked if he thought it was difficult for celebrities to talk to media about their sexuality.
“What on earth are you on about?,” Hardy asked. “I don’t find it difficult for celebrities to talk about their sexuality. Are you asking about my sexuality?” When the reporter said, “Sure,” Hardy responded, “Why?” and glared in a way that made it clear it was a closed line of inquiry. (For the record, Hardy is married to actress Charlotte Riley.)
It was an uncomfortable moment, although Hardy didn’t seem very concerned and he never lost his composure. It’s the control, not just the menace, that makes his screen toughs so convincing. Everyone loves the bad guy, at least in the movies.
“Watching someone saying ‘I’m going to change the world to suit my needs’ as opposed to change myself to fit in with society is something that, I think all of us would like to walk in those shoes for a day,” Hardy says.
“I like to watch characters who are rebellious or who will do what they want to . . . It’s something I’d like to do in real life but I wouldn’t do it because I feel responsible for participating as a member of society and I care about too many people and love too many people to want to harm them”
Movies, he says, are just the place for that kind of daydreaming.
“It’s healthier to have that conversation in a safe place,” he says. “Watching it feeds the fantasy as opposed to the reality.”