From Hardy to hard man

 

Charles Bronson – not the Hollywood actor, but a real-life English criminal – has spent most of his life behind bars for violent crimes. Playing him in a new biopic is the well-bred son of a Cambridge scholar. Tom Hardy tells MICHAEL DWYERabout his physical transformation for the role

AN ACTOR who evidently welcomes and relishes the challenges presented by his roles, Tom Hardy transformed himself beyond recognition to play the bald, hulking bulk of a man who is the title character in Bronson.

Although Hardy’s dramatic weight-gain was an essential element, there is much more to his complex, powerful and fascinating portrayal of the 55-year-old self-destructive criminal Michael Peterson, who changed his name to Charles Bronson and has spent 34 of his 55 years behind bars.

In person, Hardy, who is 31, barely resembles his on-screen appearance as Bronson, and he exhibits none of the man’s edgy intensity. It’s hardly surprising that Bronson thought Hardy was unlikely casting when the actor first visited him in Wakefield prison. “Charlie asked me how I was ever going to play him because I was my normal weight, around 10 and a half stone, at the time,” Hardy says. “I told him not to worry. The next time I saw him, I had put on a few stone in five weeks. I think there’s a certain necessity to do that now, to establish myself as a serious actor. Nobody sits up and takes notice unless you do something extreme.”

It’s all part of the actor’s work for Hardy. Two years ago he went to the other extreme, shedding stones to play a homeless heroin addict with muscular dystrophy in the moving, factually based BBC drama, Stuart: A Life Backwards. “Surprisingly enough, I was fitter than I’ve ever been after that,” he says. “I had a very good trainer. I didn’t go as far as Christian Bale did in The Machinist. I’m not as wired as he is. I didn’t just live on a tin of tuna.

“I needed my brain, so I didn’t starve myself. The mind is like a parachute and it only works when it’s open. I lost the weight by eating a lot of protein, as much spinach and greens as I wanted, and I was running for miles every day. I’m still a young man, so it was easy and it was only for five or six weeks. As a full portrayal of somebody, it was as close as dammit as I could get to being inside another person. It was the same when I played Charlie Bronson. I became very comfortable within the character.”

Bronson himself was “very excited” by the prospect of a movie about his life, Hardy says. “This man has spent most of his adult life in prison and the film was a vital lifeline to the outside world for him. He has written books and done a lot of paintings, which were a way of putting down his thoughts and sending them out, and the film was a new opportunity.

“In many ways, he collaborated hugely on the development of the film, inasmuch as he could from inside a prison. He never saw it as a way of getting him out of there, or something that would glorify him. He actually sent me very sensitive letters about personal moments he would have alone at night in his cell and about when and when not to cry. Very profound were the letters I received from Charlie.”

Bronson has yet to see the movie. “We want to get it into him somehow,” says Hardy. “You would think that wouldn’t be a problem after he has spent 34 years of his life in prison. I am sure there are some people who don’t mind, just as there are some who do. That battle is ongoing behind closed doors.”

Hardy has been to see Bronson “on numerous occasions”, he says. “It’s all very pedestrian actually, meeting this real person who’s in prison as opposed to this monster the tabloids would have us believe he is. I’m sure he was watching me as much as I was watching him. Now, though, it’s like visiting a friend.

“He’s in a black hole, in a cage within a cage. When he’s taken to and from a visit, he’s fully shackled in a body belt and with 10 guards around him. He’s confined in a small purpose-built block with these multiple murderers, even though Charlie never murdered anyone. He’s caused more trouble in prison than outside. At the same time, there’s something very mundane about visiting this 55-year-old man in a municipal building with all this strip lighting. It wasn’t anything like seeing Hannibal Lecter jailed in The Silence of the Lambs. It was more like visiting a patient in a hospital.”

Hardy himself risked getting a long prison sentence when he was 17 and was arrested for joyriding in a stolen Mercedes and carrying a gun in the car. “Those were dark days,” he says. “I wasn’t driving. I had a friend whose father was a diplomat and we took his father’s partner’s car. We were armed at the time. I could have got 14 years in prison, which really scared me. I had to wait six weeks for the crown prosecution service to come back with my case, and I was sure I was going to end up in jail.

“I had six weeks of sleepless nights because 14 years is a long time. I was very, very lucky because my friend got his diplomatic immunity, so if he wasn’t there, the car wasn’t there and then I wasn’t there and the gun wasn’t there. But it was a horrible experience and a real wake-up call for me because my behaviour was getting very much out of control. I think I was trying to articulate myself as a man, but it came out sideways, if that makes sense. I was tinkering around with mind-games that were silly and very dangerous. And I got pulled up by the bootstraps, which was very lucky for me.”

Hardy tried modelling, which he found “soul-destroying and full of bitchery and resentment”, before turning to acting. “It happened by the grace of God, really,” he says. “Somebody asked me if I had tried acting and said I might be good at it because I was obviously a fantasist. There was nothing else I was any good at. I wasn’t going to get GCEs or A-levels. When the opportunity of acting came, I grasped hold of that. I had an inability to grow up, so when drama school came and my parents were willing to pay for me, I felt in a way that I could prolong being a child.

“My father is a Cambridge scholar, but I went the other way. I think fathers and sons sometimes are negative opposites for no good reason, and I recoiled from what my father was. He is very smart and learned and I felt I had to do the opposite, so I carved a groove out for myself. I made some wrong choices at a very early age. I decided to be a sportsman, but then I found alcohol and drugs, which twisted and expanded my skillset in a way that let in a lot of worse choices. I ended up physically and mentally corrupted at an early age and then I was very fortunate to be able to claw it back.”

That tough process began after Hardy had a breakdown and ended up in hospital. “I just came clean and realised that what I was doing wasn’t working, that ever since I was a kid I’d been pretending to be something I’m not. After I came out of hospital, my first job was playing a crackhead alcoholic rent boy in a play, which was tremendously cathartic because I was re-enacting a load of stuff I had just lived.

“It was like coming out of a train crash after drug abuse, drink abuse and rehab, and my career was still there for me. I woke up and I came up above the water. I was allowed to come clean with myself through that character. I wouldn’t have a drink in me after work, but I would still have my feelings. People say to be careful when you get sober because then you get your feelings back.

“I was very lucky because I got job after job after job, but I was always working for the next job and I was never really in the moment.

“I’m 31 now and my work has gotten stronger and I don’t have any fears about getting work any longer. I’ve cleaned up my act and I’ve had some brilliant opportunities. Now I concentrate solely on the minute-to-minute and I don’t think about the future or the past.”

Hardy boy: the roles

Tom Hardy has thrown himself into acting with a passion, working on stage and featuring in 29 movie and TV roles in the past eight years, including Band of Brothers, Black Hawk Down, Star Trek: Nemesis, Layer Cake, Scenes of a Sexual Natureand RocknRolla. He plays Heathcliff in a new TV production of Wuthering Heights, opposite Charlotte Riley as Cathy.

Hardy and Riley recently finished a three-month shoot in Dublin on the new four-part ITV drama, The Take, based on a Martina Cole novel and co-starring Brian Cox and Shaun Evans.

“I play a gangster who’s trapped between an old-school regime of thinking and the new school,” Hardy says. “He’s more a goon than a brain, a killer rather than a businessman.”

When he was at drama school, there “was a mantra drummed into us”, he says, “that you don’t step on stage to eat, you go out there to be eaten. It was a romantic notion in a way, but also very true and useful advice. When you go out there on stage and bare your soul, there are serious ramifications for you. We all want to be liked, but you have to take risks.

“I like to watch comedians, knowing they run the risk that might dry, just as I like to watch boxing and martial arts because I know someone might get knocked out. When an audience meets a performer, they demand a certain service, and if somebody fails, that has a value as well, especially in the theatre. There’s a certain gladiatorial spirit to it, and you have ambition and ego mixed in with it.”

Now he’s putting on the pounds and the muscle again and re-entering the gladiatorial arena for Pride and Glory director Gavin O’Connor’s new movie Warrior, which starts shooting in the US next month.

“It’s a cage-fighting film,” Hardy says. “I’m just under 12 stone at the moment and I’ve about six weeks to put on another two or three stone. I have a great trainer, an ex-US reconnaissance marine who’s a really good friend of mine. He’s dragging me through it all.


Bronson