Tom Hardy and his "whatever works" methodology


Tom Hardy first pummeled his way onto the screen to me in the film titled, 'Bronson'. It was a brazen, no-holds-barred type of performance completely unshackled from convention, self-censorship and reserve. He seemed to come out of nowhere, fully formed, and ate the screen alive. I pride myself on having a good scope of knowing actors who show promise in smaller fare and work their way into the system. But I was left scrambling going, "Who the hell is this guy?" His character, Bronson was a real-life career criminal who boasted the most fights in prison and was arrested so many times he seemed more at home in a cage than in the real world.

Its writer, director Nicolas Winding Refn created a surreal performance-art piece which was half operatic violence and the other half a demented one-man show where Bronson elucidates his own mythology. Hardy, with a shaven head and bulked up physique, tore through the prison guards as hungrily as he did the words. This wasn't some "discovery" of a talented newcomer but a honed professional who was breaking through to another level.

'Bronson' screened in 2008 and became Hardy's calling card to Hollywood and he's now on the verge of becoming a household name if he wasn't already. With turns in 'Inception', 'Warrior' and as Bane in 'The Dark Knight Rises' he has just debuted in the title role of George Miller's epic revival of his 'Mad Max' series, 'Fury Road'

In an interview with the SAG Foundation, Hardy sat down to discuss his role in the movie 'Locke' with its writer/ director Steven Knight. A far cry from 'Bronson' or his equally brutal Bane character, Locke is all restraint and containment. It is a fluid and seamless performance of such detail and eloquence that even Stephen Spielberg was left asking, "How did he DO that?" Come to find out, Tom Hardy has been hiding in plain sight since 2001.

Shambling into the interview with SAG wearing a baseball cap and layered tops, Hardy slouches over in a director's chair as if he had just been yanked out of bed after a long day of shooting and someone had whispered, "Hey, Tom, we have that thing..." His head down, he looked guarded and reluctant to be there. But soon enough, after a few questions to the director, Tom is asked about his process. Perking up, he begins to deconstruct not only his personal approach to the work but lays a few body-blows to some conventional thinking about film acting. So much so I had to pause and rewind more than a few times.

The first wallop came when asked if he was a fan of a specific acting technique? Smiling, he responded, "Yeah, I'm a strong advocate of any method necessary." Looking out to a room full of actors he continued saying, "There are two types of acting: 'convincing' and 'not convincing'. You fake it to make it and when in doubt, bullshit." Boom. With a devilish grin it was clear he was enjoying himself as he took off his cap, peeled away his jacket and warmed to his task of stomping over pretensions about acting.

It may not seem that audacious for an actor to admit they're just pretending or "faking it". But the watered down milieu of modern 'realism' has robbed many actors of their ability to create whole-cloth characters. The intimacy of the camera and constant media exposure of actors has brought about a flattened approach that closely resembles "just be yourself". It is few and far between that can 'pretend' as elaborately as Hardy and still have you believe them.

To further this point, he was asked how he achieved such emotional depth in the movie? Looking somewhat bemused he asked back "How do I have emotional depth?" with a slight snicker. Correcting himself, the interviewer observed that he portrayed such deep emotion and cried on-screen and wondered how he achieved that? Nodding, Hardy stated that they shot the film like a play, straight through, over and over and so each beat led to the next and so it flowed more naturally. But then, if the feeling wasn't there, he added glibly that he used "tear sticks".

Pause. Rewind. The man who is quickly being considered one of his generation's greatest actors uses tear sticks on a movie? (To the uninitiated a tear stick is a small, menthol stick applied to the eyes to stimulate them to water.) After his statement the crowd of actors began to titter at his apparent joke. Turning on them with honest revelation on his face he instructed, "There's no shame in that." There was a look of challenge in his eyes as if he dared you to question his performance.

This wasn't advocacy of cheap parlor tricks or short-cuts but rather a daring statement about the nature of results. He addressed working on Knight's script and being genuinely moved by it. But adds, "the work will open up emotion but you can't force that." If you have it take after take and suddenly it goes away you can't stop the engine of production to go looking for your emotions. He likens that to "wanking yourself". His ultimate point is there are "many ways to skin a cat" and he doesn't care how you get there. Just "get there NOW."

Convincing and not-convincing. Period.

One of things that drew me to the actor was his ability to be boldly creative when building a character that is far from himself in one film and then seem transparent in the next. Not simply a 'character guy' who disappears into strange, twisted creations but also able to give a scrubbed down, simple performance as in 'Locke' or his more recent film, 'The Drop' with James Gandolfini.

It's telling that when asked what actors inspired him he listed, "Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman and Frank Sinatra." That is quite a diverse list of influences and styles and yet they seem oddly at home coming through Hardy's approach. The elegance and keen mind of Fiennes is all over 'Locke'. The creative and anarchic characters of Oldman speaks right to Bane and Bronson. Then the unapologetic style and masculinity of Frank Sinatra who also seemed like he was just putting it out there.

"I take a piece of everybody," he admits about absorbing those influential actors. "They don't go out like they've gone in." That is a very important lesson hidden in a few words. Almost every actor will have some performance they've seen that inspired them to the profession. Early in their craft, young actors often find themselves doing some sort of imitation. Taking a gesture here or a certain line delivery there that they enjoyed and want to adopt for themselves. In time, the artifice of these thefts gets deeper with an understanding of what was going on in the context of the performance. Those choices you adorned are now part of your operating system of understanding of yourself and the character. Then, when they resurface in a performance they are no longer some hollow imitation but a transformed influence that no longer resembles its former source.

Getting back to 'Locke' the interviewer noted that it was a rather low-budget film. Indeed, the entire movie is shot inside and around a single car with Hardy as the only actor on-screen for its duration. Asked if he preferred big movies to small ones he quickly retorted that it didn't matter. "There's no difference between a $5 performance and a big blockbuster." To this the crowd burst into applause. Somewhat taken aback, Hardy looked slightly incredulous and mildly scolded, "That shouldn't need clapping."

Again, this is a telling moment. Here is an actor who has been laying down profound work in what we refer to as 'tent-pole' movies, being paid millions of dollars and saying his process is exactly the same. That may seem like common sense but it is not a given by any sense of the word. We expect our movie stars to be in big movies and to protect their brand. Adamant about this he pressed, "Actors act. You just do what it says on the tin. If you have the time you do the job." That may seem like hollow advice from a man commanding his salary but if you take a look at his projects and choices they are quite daring and without the blueprint we commonly find in our film stars.

But the question remains. How did Tom Hardy get here so fully formed and yet so off-the-radar? Turns out, Hardy hit it big back in the early 2000's with a string of performances in big projects. His television debut was in none other than Stephen Spielberg's HBO series 'Band of Brothers' . He followed that up with Ridley Scott's 'Blackhawk Down' and soon after as Shinzon in the Star Trek feature 'Nemesis'. "And then..."nothing", he says. It all went away.

Thinking he was going to be really famous he admits he attempted to drink himself into oblivion. So much so he ended up in the hospital. Hitting the skids, as he puts it, he finally ended up in rehab. Now to the outsider this type of self-destruction might seem incomprehensible. Why would anyone who had "made it" trash themselves so recklessly? But we have seen this time and again with younger stars. The industry beckons with the promise of being the next "it" person summoning connotations that draw you all the way back to your youth. When that dries up for whatever reason it requires a systemic rebuild of one's perception of the industry, themselves and their process.

For the record, Hardy worked consistently over the years but never with the type of high-brow exposure he received from his first few projects. Yet that type of crash and burn experience has obviously contributed to his process as an actor. When discussing his upcoming role as Elton John, he says he will throw the character under the bus and raise him back up again. "I like to destroy them(his characters)...find what's wonderful and then find the middle ground."

Then, in one final jab to the process, he even upturns the common perception that one doesn't do an imitation of a real person for a biopic. "I will be doing a fucking impression of Elton John!" he concedes laughing. "Humiliation is my friend".

Whatever works, indeed.

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