As often as Hollywood seems to champion rising stars or future A-listers, few of those careers survive more than one or two flop, and many stall before they have the chance to break through. Simultaneously, actors and filmmakers sometimes deliver work that simply cannot be ignored, no matter how big or small the film, and they soon find themselves on a fast track whether they want to stick with character work or strap into the red carpet rotation and ride their celebrity all of the way to the bank. In the last decade we've seen actors like Edward Norton, Eric Bana and Ryan Gosling explode onto the moviegoing consciousness via big roles in small films, and subsequently go on to do even greater things. And following the achievement of last year's breakthrough biopic-cum-character study, Bronson, actor Tom Hardy can count himself among the throng of performers whose talent is simply undeniable.
Hardy's follow-up is no less than this summer's most highly-anticipated film, Inception, where he stars alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a member of an outfit that infiltrates a victim's dreams and steals their secrets directly from their memories. Cinematical sat down with Hardy and a couple of our colleagues for a casual chat at the Los Angeles press day for the film, where in addition to talking about his transformation as the forger Eames, he reflected on his collaboration with writer-director Christopher Nolan, and explored the changes his career is going through – and that he hopes it will go through as a result of making two marvelous films, back to back.
Cinematical: In interviews you talked about how the costumes helped you keep everything pretty straight, but because we've been watching very ambiguous advertising for a year, we were assuming that this movie was going to be the most complicated thing of all time. Having seen it, it's relatively straightforward. But at any point, was that something that you had to sort out, or was it always pretty clear what you had to play or what you had to do?
Tom Hardy: Yes. Let me be completely straight with you. When you receive a script like Inception, it's always pretty complicated on the page because it's a lot of narrative. It's a lot of interaction with characters. It's a lot that you have to get right and you basically sink into it. That's the complicated work, especially when it belongs to somebody like Chris Nolan who is so prolifically brilliant in our world. He's someone we all want to work with. He's probably the best director we've got in the West. And I'm not just saying the hottest director. When you work with anybody you look up to, you don't want to question them. Seeing as he created it and it's his brainchild, The Dark Knight and Batman Begins and Memento. This is someone who has the proof in the pudding. He's not someone you need to second-guess.
I'm a very small cog in the wheel. When the script came, the complexities were in the shadow of being invented by someone who has clearly done a lot more thinking about this than I have. It's not my place to say, "Chris, I want to change your script" or "Maybe if we tweak this line or change this line" or "The third act doesn't really work. It falls down" or "This is a big complicated". All of that goes out the window. What was very clear about this blueprint and from speaking to Chris was that the read was quite complex because it's hard to get inside the mind of the writer. And in another way, I knew that all of the characters were, in some way, him, articulated through relationships in his own life, because it's fiction as opposed to, you know, playing a real person. It's intrinsically connected in many levels to the writer who is also the director of these big movies we've seen. He's the lynchpin of all this. The complexities were finding a relationship with Chris Nolan by which we could apply practically what needed to be done without trying to outshine anyone. That's why there was no ego on the set amongst all these very famous and brilliant actors. Because everyone just defaults to Chris. We're all very grateful to be here.
It's a film with a lot of substance as well as a great action movie. It's an anomaly. You don't get that. It's like theater. Theater is a place where new ideas are constant. The idea within the theater is like this 24/7. You have anomalies and you work them out. It's problem solving. But not in a big movie. It's backed by Warner Brothers. There's 200 million dollars at stake. DiCaprio's there. Nolan is there. It's big. We're under the pressure. It's not necessarily that it's hugely complicated to understand. The film, I find, is actually very simple. And it really works. It's about, "How do you need us to fulfill your vision?" That's the truest form of any artist serving a writer.
Cinematical: Does he tell you then about the character? Because the character seems kind of like - and I know it's contradictory - a no-nonsense dandy.
Hardy: You're absolutely right. The thing about Chris is that he's British and I'm British. We're from a very similar neighborhood. I was quite fortunate to be able to tap into my one-on-one relationship with Chris Nolan. That was my port of call. So the process of dispatching information and recording a response was very simple. What do you need? Who is this guy? What do you want? He wanted a little bit of John Hurt. A little bit of Bond-ness. A little bit of the Royal Shakespeare company. A bit of Farley Granger. He gave me a book to read about forgery about the fake masterpieces by the Dutch artist [Vermeer]. He gave me very images and ideas to collect to put into this character. He liked what I did in RocknRolla and wanted to keep it as close to me as possible in many ways. And he didn't want to try too hard. He wanted to really create something, but this is who he is - this is what he portrays in the film and how he does. He's very simple and there wasn't a great amount of back and forth over it. There didn't need to be. He was very clear about who it was I was to play.
There's something very old school, MI-5 about this guy as well. He's got the Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana type - old and faded, a slightly shabby down-and-out diplomat. A bit unscrupulous and off-the-radar. He's got the gambling and he's into the dream stuff. Parts of him you find questionable, but you've also got the fighting and the scenes within the dreamscape, which shows a potential military background. He's a very can-do person with weaponry as well. He is a good blend of the British kind of espionage take on what a James Bond type would be. Educated. Also minimal effort, maximum force when it comes to the speedy delivery of violence and death. That's something we pride ourselves on in the military in Britain. That was very clear. He's an archetype.
Everyone up there has their own private relationship with Chris. What I realized personally, on a very minor scale, was that the more I did impressions of Chris, the easier it was. I thought, I have to stop because I'm still talking like Chris. Using his cadence or whatever and then slightly changing it with maybe a little of a slight edge and that Roman Catholic softness. That was feedback I was getting from him. I think Eames is Chris. To be honest, I think they all are Chris. But the more I tried to be Chris, the more I ended up projected on him. That was really what went into it rather than any massive research prior to the planning. Plus, I came straight from Warrior, shooting in Pittsburgh. I was straight on and off set – lost, anyway, and trying to catch up.
Then, there's Leo and there's Ellen Page and Ken Watanabe. Tom Berenger. I'm fans of everybody and I have to come to that, coming from obscurity all of a sudden being on set with these very prolific actors. In my world, these are very, very prolific people to do a good job with. I was concerned about not letting the team down. And that fed the work, really. Because not letting the team down was very much what it was all about. Being dispatched and working with new people was the mission of the heist. It's all reflective.
You're coming into this off such an acclaimed role in Bronson. How has that film changed your career?
Hardy: Well, Bronson has been like a calling card here in the States. I've been working for about 12 years as an actor. I'm not new to it. Bronson was sort of the last desperate stand in many ways. I've always wanted to get onto the American stage. It's a bigger stage. You get more exposure. It's great. You want to play as big as you can in your field. It's like football. Acting is a contact sport for me. The American field is the place that I want to play on. The long-term effect is that smaller, independent films can be funded by greater exposure so I can go back to theater or independent film and then go back to theater or smaller passion projects. The effect of exposure and public image in America is that, obviously, it's the ocean. I'm a very small fish in a big, big, big sea.
Bronson is really where I'm at in London now. It happened to be a calling card because CAA and the agents there took notice and said, "I think we can now start dealing in the industry." The commodity from London has come out. I suppose the product being me. They can maybe put me around a lot easier with a card like Bronson. But to me that's just the work. The M.O. and the character transformation is the stuff I'm interested in.
Did you get to work alongside Tom Berenger at all in advance of shooting to develop the relationship between his character and yours?
Hardy: A little bit. See, I watched everybody. I like to be the security, so I'm always watching for anything and everything that can possibly go wrong. So with Tom, I'm a massive fan of Sergeant Barnes from Platoon. As a kid, I watched that movie over and over and over again. I was watching Vietnam movies because they're like my western. I'm 32 years of age and that was the genre that was around when I grew up in England and the south of France. All the way from Apocalypse Now all the way through to Tour of Duty, the television show that was on to Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. In Platoon, all the American characters are there. Sergeant Barnes was, to me, very much like my father. I keyed in very much on him and that was somebody I wanted to be as a young man. So when I met Tom, it's f*cking Sergeant Barnes, you know? I've got to say, I've got a bit of a man crush on Tom Berenger. I just love him. And, of course, I was watching him a little bit harder than I would have if I was just studying something. I just would, by osmosis do little things with the glasses. I tried to make it simple and clear that I was doing an impersonation of him at times. It's just observation. And listening to his stories; I'd ask him for as many stories as possible. I was a bit shy at first. Whenever I meet somebody who is that much of an icon for me, I get a little nervous. He's f*cking Tom Berenger. Despite what anyone else says about him, I think he's awesome. You know what I mean?
How is Nolan as a director - does he do a lot of takes? Are you an actor who does his best performance in the first three takes, or are you fine going to 20 or 30?
Hardy: I could give a f*ck, as long as you get it. Any method necessary - fake it till you make it. I like to train and I like all kinds of methods and I'm never going to be as good as I want to be. If you need to take as many takes, I'm good, even if I think I've got it. I don't know better than you. I default to my director. If the wheels fall off and you push me into the ground and I can't go any further, I can't go any further. But in terms of 40 or 50 takes, sometimes an actor can just give up on life and say the f*cking lines. What happens then is something quite magical. You can see an actor just trying to get through it. Sometimes the first take is the one or the 59th, 68th or 83rd take has a very specific nature to it. A quality. That performance is something that you come to realize in film. Kubrick would do that to people. He'd push to a level where it's very similar to having flu. Sometimes when you're on stage, it works to only do what is absolutely necessary to go home and get back to bed and recover so you can do a matinee and another evening performance. The performance is very clean in that way. The actor doesn't interfere with himself.
Well how was Nolan on set? Did he ever make you go to take 83?
Hardy: No, never. He sometimes does it in one take. He goes, "All right then. Moving on. We've got it. No, I think we've got it." It's different with every director. You go with them and you default to what they say. And you can tell if someone knows what they're talking about. Sad is the day that you find out that they don't know what they're talking about, You kick them off and go find another jockey because if you start running around the paddock, you'll wind up with the worst performance. Because sometimes a director just can't hold his shit. But he'll find out and you'll find out on the floor and that's it. You move on and do another project. It's part of the process.
Because the film has so many thematic and narrative variables, what was your reaction to seeing Inception in its final form?
Hardy: I thought it was brilliant. Because it's moving so quickly, there's very little of the performance I gave that wasn't in the film. It's so expediently delivered and dispatched. What we shot is on the screen. We just had lots of coverage of it. He's a very, very masterful filmmaker and he puts a great team together. He's capturing things from every angle. He's performance heavy. He's got an amazing eye for picking up moments and finding things. You don't even realize sometimes that it's something you're giving off. Honestly, on a personal level and a mercenary level, when you're working with anybody and you sign the line, you kind of know that's what happens when you go in. If you're continuity heavy and if you're good enough, to be able to replicate by repetition naturally and organically the same moves, you could be a continuity junkie as an actor. You can hit the same mark on every single take down to what side is your best side. There's rocket science if you want to get into it. But the bottom line is that what I saw in the film was what I gave on the floor.
I'm so proud of Chris just to see his brainchild and creation, which is risky in this climate, too. Saying, "I need $200 million to make a movie about people stealing dreams from people" and "I need this and that" and "I need to turn Paris upside down," stuff like that, who would give that kind of money to anybody these days? And to see it up on the screen is just -- I hope you gentlemen agree with me, but I think this is one of the most exciting movies not just of the summer but to appear in theaters for a very, very long time. It's a blockbuster, but it's also a fulfilling movie, too, which is not too complex and is simple and delivers on many levels.
Cinematical: Your character has an antagonistic relationship with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's. Do you guys sort of discuss in advance how you're going to pull that off in your performances?
Hardy: A lot of stuff is just instinctive. You take the floor and that's just the way it is. Chris says, "You two have a running banter" and we go with it. If it doesn't work, it's not in the can. If it does work, it's in the film. And Joe's such a terrific kid. Everybody on that set [was] such great people to work with - very articulate and very intelligent and very inventive. All of them love their work, and they love Chris. There was a compete void of ego - and there was plenty of opportunity for there not to be one. I've been on sets where you mix actors together and it's the most atrocious outcome. The mind is like a parachute - it only works if it's open, [and] it's the same thing with interaction with another actor. If someone is open, if I make you look as good as possible by giving you everything I possibly can, I should look good in return, theoretically. Then everyone is on the same wavelength and the possibility is endless, depending on the structure of the piece and the outcome of the team. You never know what you can get. You can get something quite magical from what you first see on the page. The problem with this one is that what was on the page was so fucking magical, how could we take what was on the page off and make it even better?
The complexity of it was to be simple, not to overthink it. Chris directs in such a way that the landscape, no matter how massive -- and I speak like I've done millions of these films; I haven't. This is just what I picked up from my first big movie. But you have this huge landscape of massive movie drama in the background. You have this orchestration of technical support and stunts and people on the clock looking as money is being spent. Everything was so specific. It's all in the right place at the right time and orchestrated and organized enough so that Chris, if he had his head on, could turn his back and turn all that into a very intimate environment not dissimilar to how we're sitting around this table talking. Meanwhile, the background is being moved all around. It's like being in the middle of a big military operation. And Chris never raised his voice. He was so calm to the point that he was so relaxed as a human being and in such a confident zone that it was infectious. You felt safe to do whatever he asked you to do.
He had Joseph on that wire for three weeks. That's painful for anyone to do. A day is painful. Three weeks, it' s just painful. You think about military training. I'm not a superman. I'm not a hard guy. I'm not a tough guy. I've had military training for the very physical stuff. You start to question your limits very quickly when you're in pain. You overcome the adrenaline and the excitement and go, "I don't know if I want this." There was no moaning from anybody on this film. Joe especially was asked to do things that cost. I mean a little bit. We're acting. It's entertainment. It's not the army. But that's a very specific human being that can not only orchestrate this kind of movie but get trust from people like that.
Cinematical: Was there anything in particular that you saw in the script or even while shooting that you were excited to see how it might play out in the final onscreen version?
Hardy: All of it, to be honest. All it was, "How is he going to do that? How is he going to do this scene? How he's going to revolve the set?" We went to these big airplane hangars outside of London and there was a big revolving hotel reception. There's this whole quadrant right here. As soon as you saw that, it's like, "Okay. How does this work?" Then you just get involved, really. There were scenes with zero gravity. There were beds that we were rigged into through our suits, things that late got painted out and wires. We were almost levitating, technically. We were all suspended off wires and stuff. We were turned around and the building was turned around. There was all kinds of stuff on wires which we were all there to see. It was like walking into a Dali painting. It was very clinical as opposed to, say, walking into a Gilliam. Dali, futuresque. Clean. It was very structured in reality. It was mind-blowing to be honest. But also very simple. But some of the shots that appear very big in the film were done in a little corner of the room. There's what looks like a huge set piece and it's just, "take that guy and shoot over there by that bush." It's in the film and it ties into the dynamics of a big movie. Shooting set pieces is not always as secondary as one might imagine.
Personally, do you find yourself gravitating towards science fiction in any way?
Hardy: No, I go anywhere I can. I'll do anything anytime anywhere. It's like a fight. I like acting. I love it. It's my passion. If I don't work in movies or in film, I'll work in a stage. If I don't work on a stage, if I get locked up in prison, I'll be telling stories to myself. You know, I've got plenty of friends in prison so I'll be okay. I'd tell them stories and I'd be fine. This is something I do because I love it. If I wasn't doing it in the entertainment business, I'd probably be in some other country pretending to be in some other religion taking notes on SCUD missiles somewhere in the desert shooting people.