The bed has been removed from the Soho hotel room 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 at the denouement of his unremittingly butch new mixed martial arts film Warrior.
Hardy jogs into the room flanked by minders as if he’s entering a boxing arena. How about sorting things out mano a mano, I suggest? It could make both our careers. He could get the slightly bonkers rep Christian Bale has had ever since he bawled out his director of photography on set, which might help establish him in Hollywood (Hardy’s current focus). And getting bopped by an angry thesp adds lustre to a hack’s CV. Hardy looks game: “What – out the back?” No, here. “Absolutely!”
Really, I was only joking. For one thing, Tom Hardy would batter me. You just have to look at his improbably pronounced neck muscles to realise that.
Hardy 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, in which he plays a troubled war vet who, for reasons that made sense when I saw the film, has to cage-fight his brother in a martial arts contest at the drama’s climax. It’s Raging Bull meets Rocky meets Rolf Harris’s song of fraternal solidarity, Two Little Boys. But one passage troubled me: “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, namely, the esteemed writer of gags for comedian Dave Allen who, along with his artist mother, brought up their only child (Tom, born 15 September 1977) in the genteel London suburb of East Sheen. “The point is my father’s not really into throwing his fists. 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.”
Hardy – 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 – is an appealingly odd interviewee. He pronounces bagarre with an exaggerated 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 Tom Conlon] does it for a living.”
Excellent, but there’s another point. The idea he’s not familiar with alpha male bagarre stuff is barmy.
Hardy’s undeniable buffness, though, may have cost him work. There was a hideous career-defining moment in 2005 when he was turned down for the role of Mr Darcy in a film adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Hollywood producer Stacey Snider took him aside during auditions. “She said: ‘Honey, women over the world have a picture of what Darcy is and I’m afraid you’re just not it.’ That’s really hard for an actor.”
So why the CV teeming with thugs, not one of whom would make their girlfriends daisy chains or, you know, happy? “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.”
This is all great stuff about an actor’s motivation, but I’m thinking, as I take notes, of what would happen if I suckered him with the old “Look over there!” and, while he turned, chucked the coffee in his face. No, he’d probably recover and still do me in.
There’s a lot of conflict in Warrior, in which the public school-educated, fetchingly plump-lipped, lavishly pecced 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 with a Freighted Family Back Story who returns to the ring to express himself in the only way he knows. Gradually we unpick That Back Story and learn that his alcoholic father (Nick Nolte) destroyed the family with his drinking. But let Hardy relate the plot as he lies on his back.
“Is it Rocky meets Raging Bull? Yes, if you want that hyperbole. But it’s a very intricate family drama, to the backdrop of an MMA (mixed martial arts) movie – which is fantastic.”
Hardy takes a sip of coffee, rolls on the sofa and stares at the ceiling. This would be the moment to take him. Cushion over the face. Shimmy down the fire escape. PR minder finds him later, open-mouthed and dead. Perhaps not. He sits up again. “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 28lb of muscle. But what interests him 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.” But his character has to be beaten virtually to death by his brother to be spiritually reborn, which is very Christian.
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. But let’s watch. Who do you want to win? Red car? Or blue car? 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. Let’s watch Ricky Gervais and Danny Dyer in a ring with bottles.” Hardy may have had too much coffee. “I would pay good money to see those guys carve each other up. If they didn’t, I’d be trying to instigate it: ‘Go on fellas, let’s turn the lights off, feel our way around this ring.’”
Why Gervais and Dyer? “You aren’t telling me you wouldn’t watch that – that’s a good pay-per-view fight. That would get a lot of people interested in MMA. Actually, it’s not MMA – MMA has rules. We shouldn’t have rules. We should just say: ‘You guys go at it, see what happens.’ I don’t want to say fuck ‘em, but fuck ‘em. I don’t care. Their children I care about. And for that reason we can’t let it happen.” Hardy laughs at his own compunctions about Gervais and Dyer’s children, if indeed they have any. “My inside voice says, ‘Yeah!’ but in reality we don’t let Gervais and Dyer hurt themselves. Why? Because we’re not God. We shouldn’t play with people’s lives like that.”
He lies back on the sofa again and 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. In my screening, I tell Hardy, there were lots of women alternating between whooping during the fight sequences and weeping over the poignant ones. “I welled up when Paddy [Nick Nolte, Tommy’s dad] has the relapse and gets drunk.”
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 mean to him? (Nolte is also a recovering alcoholic.) “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.”
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. Like Groucho Marx’s tattooed lady Lydia, he has an encyclopedic chest, though in his case it is 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 fiancee actor Charlotte Riley, whom he met on the set of Wuthering Heights. There are many others (his torso is a big canvas) 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 US. “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 on theatre or TV?’ I just want to know.”
He’s loving the work, but wilting under the PR demands, the poor flower. “I’ve got about six or seven of these things going on at the moment so I’m being pulled from pillar to post.” But in the process he’s become so Hollywood he’s too big to be photographed by the Guardian. “Look, there’s an abundance of exposure when you start working in American films. Inevitably you become a brand and that has to be controlled.”
We thought the refusal to be photographed was because his body looks different now he is shooting as Bane from how it looked in Warrior, the film he’s promoting today. “Well, I’m metamorphosing my character as best I can and because I’m not Christian Bale, it’s difficult.” I tell Hardy of a charming story in which Christian Bale, who plays Batman opposite Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises, told an interviewer he would like to “piss on the shoes” of a critic who had commented on his “trademark weight-loss” acting. “Why would he want to piss on anyone’s shoes?” asks Hardy sensibly. Maybe he could ask him on the set of The Dark Knight Rises when they’re not comparing muscles. “Don’t think I’ll be doing that.”
Does he feel as sensitive as Bale to journalists writing about his body? “Not yet. At the moment it’s a way of identifying me. That’s how people initially identified Christian Bale. Who’s he? He’s that bloke whose ribs you saw. Then he’s that bloke who swore at the DOP. Then he’s that bloke who was great in The Machinist.”
His PR minder enters, insisting we wind up. Maybe he will feel differently when he is more established. Maybe you’ll be duffing up interviewers and ruining their footwear. “Maybe. 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 dry shoes and no black eye.