As one of the UK’s fastest rising stars, Tom Hardy piqued our interest in 2008 as gay gangster Handsome Bob in Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla. Here he tells Simon Gage about Guy, Madonna and dealing with his demons.
“My favourite subject is always going to be me, I’m afraid,” says Tom Hardy, pouring himself a cup of tea at the bar of Beach Blanket Babylon, one of the sparkling new venues opening up East London to the smart set who wouldn’t have been caught dead round these streets a couple of years ago.
He’s wearing a red flannel shirt that’s covering up his famous tattoos (“Laugh now, cry later” on his chest, a tribute to his agent on his arm), and a pair of scruffy jeans. He has about ten boxes of trainers on the stool next to him, a gift from the nice people at Adidas; it’s the only addiction he’ll allow himself these days: trainers. “I’m very selfish,” he goes on, the accent a weird mix of street and suburban, posh and common, peppered with the voices of the people he’s talking about. “It’s all about me. I know it.”
Refreshing to hear a celebrity admit they are an ego maniac, you might be thinking, except that in Tom’s case it’s not true. While most actors/singers/whatevers trot out well-rehearsed lines to get across the exact image they’re trying to create, and never mind who they’re talking to, Tom Hardy, one of the most promising actors of his generation if not THE most promising, actually, you know, talks to you.
He knows your name, asks you questions, eventually takes your phone number and tells you to ring him if you ever fancy a chat. And he lets you in on things most other famouses would probably hide. Like how he has a bit of a sex thing for women’s shoes. “It’s a fetish,” he goes, about three minutes after I meet him. “I love classic , elegant women’s shoes. I find them incredibly sexy. High heels. Not just a stripper shoe but maybe a Louboutin or Jimmy Choo.” When he gets a bigger house, he’s going to start collecting them, while his girlfriend apparently says that when they’re out all he looks at is other women’s shoes and other men’s arms, another strange fixation.
The arm thing, mind you, is probably something to do with the face that he’s one of those actors that fucks with his body to get the part right and so he knows how hard it is to turn a good bicep. To play violent criminal Charles Bronson (the film’s out next year), he put on the best part of three stone only to find out the project had been shelved and instead he would be playing an emaciated homeless man in the BBC’s Stuart: A Life Backwards. When that was finished Bronson was back on, and so he had to get back to bulking.
And that sort of demonstrates the range of the man. From Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers to The Virgin Queen, from Stuart: A Life Backwards to Sweeney Todd, and from Bill Sykes in the recent TV version of Oliver Twist to a gay gangster in Guy Ritchie’s latest RocknRolla. He’s been described as a character actor in a leading man’s body.
And what a body! Roguishly handsome with his crooked teeth and crinkly eyes, he’s still got a bit of the bulk of Bronson but it’s his charisma – a raw sexual charisma – that really gets you. He has this uncompromising sort of masculine aura (he argues with you about that, reckoning that he’s actually quite feminine) that you don’t usually get with English actors. It’s a Brando quality that starts with the deep voice and the bruiser’s face and continues through to a complete lack of squeamishness about gay stuff (some of which he says he’s tried) that can only come from someone completely at home with their own sexuality.
Add to that his thoughtfulness, an emotional intelligence he’s acquired through the therapy he used to wean him off drink, drugs and violence and plain old-fashioned niceness, and Tom Hardy is something of an all-rounder, with BBC projects starting to take off (he’s writing a comedy series and has just been given some sort of a green light) and teaching gigs at schools he once got thrown out of. It’s a long way to come for the guy who started out winning a TV modeling competition.
So, have you completely messed up your metabolism doing Bronson then?
Yeah, For Stuart: A Life Backwards I lost the weight with a nutritionist then for Bronson I had to put on two and a half stone in a couple of weeks so I just ate a lot of sugar, a lot of pizza and a lot of ice cream. I didn’t have time to do it properly. Bronson’s body’s like a brawler rather than a six-pack or athletic. I couldn’t get my legs up to that standard and my wrists and forearms weren’t thick like his.
You’ve met Charles Bronson. What’s he like as a person?
Brilliant! Really funny. I was scared at first because he’s in a segregated housing unit behind the prison, which is purpose-built for seven life-long prisoners for various degrees of murder and cannibalism. He’s the only one kept there who hasn’t actually killed anyone.
But he’s ultra-violent?
He’s got a name for that but after further analysis there are other men in that world who are much more violent on the street. I spent a lot of with Charles and with his family and friends, who are in the film.
You never felt threatened moving in those circles?
Of course I did! I’d be foolish not to. Once you’re in, you open up a door and the fear is, “Will it close and I’ll be close and I’ll be stuck in there?” I’m not there to be a gangster. I’m an actor. We’re from different worlds. But there’s a code of ethics about that they do, however immoral you think it is. Some of them quite proudly own the badge of bank robber but they’ll still turn up at 8 o’clock on the dot immaculately dressed and if you ask them to do something they’ll get it done. It’s the same as if I was playing a transsexual or a black activist from Swamp Town Mississippi in the 60’s, it’s a different culture, and I’m a tourist.
So, do you go into the visitor’s room…?
There’s no visiting room with Charlie Bronson. Even his probation team is not allowed to be in the same room. You’re talking through a dumb waiter. You can touch him or give him a hug, sort of, but even at 55 he’s considered too dangerous to be in a room with someone, even his mother. It was like putting your hand into a lion’s cage and it was a very soft and gentle hand and I had a feel of his forearm.
Was that a sexy moment?
A sexy moment? It was an exciting moment. It was a moment when I broke through my prejudices. And I can’t speak for the victims of his crimes but my experience with the man is of someone who has consistently surprised me, pulled rugs from underneath me. Make no bones about it. I know this mad is a dangerous man but I would feel comfortable sharing a cell with Charlie. Until we fell out. [Laughs] One time he goes, “Tom, what you going to do about the ‘tache?” And I said, “I don’t think I’m going to go with it, mate.” And he was like, “You what? This is the most notorious moustache in the penal system.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s a bit Village People, innit, mate?” and he laughed and goes, “Y.M.C.A.” He could have grabbed me any time he liked. But he’s so up for having a laugh.
And what was it like working with Guy Ritchie on RockNRolla?
That’s a whole different type of acting that is. It’s punching the clock acting in many ways. It’s fun. His films are kitsch. I played a character and we didn’t even know if he was gay up till the 11th hour. Gerald [Butler] is going “I think it would be good if he was gay” and I’m like, “Just make a fucking decision. I don’t care if he’s gay or not.” I just wanted to get on with it.
And did you get to meet Madonna while filming with Guy?
Yeah, I was preparing for a scene with Gerard when my character comes out, and I had seen her on set and I wobbled because I get star struck. I did what anybody who can’t deal with the situation does and I went and his in the Range Rover. So I was sort of prepping for the scene in the Range Rover and somebody said hello to me and it was her, she’d somehow managed to get into the back of it! Yeah, and then we had a conversation which I have completely blacked out because there she was like the Mother Mary in the boot of the fucking Range Rover and I was completely star struck and trying to learn my lines.
What did she seem like?
It’s like sitting with a predator. I don’t know whether you’re going to eat me or not. She told me about a book I should really read, whose name completely escapes me, because I was just [aghast] “Madonna’s speaking!”
What does she look like?
Like a ghost, to be honest.
Did you fancy her?
No. She’s just someone’s mum to me. I grew up with her. She’s Madonna!
But she could be a Milf [mother I’d like to fuck, an older woman fetish thing]…
She’s more like a myth than a milf. It just doesn’t seem right. I didn’t see her as a sexual creature. There was a time when I really would have totally gone there but since the Justin Timberlake leaping over cars and things, I just think, “Enough now.” It would be nice to see her do something else now, like an Audrey Hepburn, go and be an Ambassador for the Goodwill somewhere. It kind of spooks me out a bit. But who am I? She’s very cool, very savvy. She’s like a hitman or something. Then she gave Gerald Butler a shot of Vitamin B in the arse in the back of the fucking Range Rover! Gerard Butler’s flabby arse came through the window and she shot it with a jab of B12. Right in his arse! It was a day of surprise after another surprise. Gerard Butler as attractive as he is, his arse just has no appeal to me. It’s a distraction when I’m trying to learn my lines!
And your character was gay in the end.
Which was great! It was a very simple story. Guy’s stories are like comic books. It’s the night before I go into prison and they’ve set me up with these beautiful Russian escort girls and there’s drugs and they’re going to see me off properly. I’m miserable and Gerard’s like, what’s the matter with you. And I go “It’s not that I’m unhappy but you wouldn’t understand,” and he goes, “Of course I’ll understand – I’ve known you for years.” I’m just like “I don’t want the fucking girls, I want you. “ And he starts berating the fact that he’s known me for years and had showers with me and that. It actually happened to one of the guys involved in the writing: this villain came out to him.
It’s such a tradition of London gangsters, the gay thing, what with the Krays…..
I wouldn’t like to say. I really wouldn’t. It’s an unsaid, untalked about thing. The military get it as well. Sexual relations where it’s a necessity, like prison, are different from being a homosexual.
Have you ever had sexual relations with men?
As a boy? Of course I have. I’m an actor for fuck’s sake. I’m an artist. I’ve played with anything and anyone. But I’m not into men sexually. I love the form and the physicality but the gay sex bit does nothing for me. In the same way a wet vagina would turn someone else into a lemon-sucking freak. To me it just doesn’t compute to me now that I’m in my 30’s and it doesn’t do it for me and I’m done experimenting.
Have you done it all?
Not all but I can imagine. We’ve all got an arsehole and I can imagine. It just doesn’t do it for me, sex with another man. But there’s plenty of stuff in a relationship with another man, especially gay men, that I need in my life. A lot of gay men get my thing for shoes. I don’t think I’m metrosexual but I’m definitely my mother’s son. I have definite feminine qualities and a lot of gay men are incredibly masculine.
You seem very masculine.
A lot of people say that but I don’t feel it. I feel intrinsically feminine. I went to an insight course at the parachute regiment. I thought, “I want to join up, do three years, go to Iraq, do my bit, get physically fit.” So I went to White City barracks and I realized I had a real phobia about groups of men, I’m frightened of them, I’m much more comfortable around women. I’d love to be one of the boys but I always felt a bit on the outside. Maybe my masculine qualities come from over-compensating that I’m not one of the boys. Anyway, it was fucking horrible, man. I signed up for three years and after forty minutes I had to talk my way out of it. They don’t need people like me, they need someone who’s prepared to go over and kill people.
Have you ever punched somebody out?
Yeah, ruthlessly on many occasions. I wouldn’t do it now but I used to just like fighting. Fighting to win, fighting to lose. I didn’t give a shit. I just liked fighting. I was just an idiot. I was an obnoxious, trouble-making lunatic. Not comfortable in my own skin and displacing that into the world. A complete twat. A knobhead. Mostly because I’m a middle class white boy from suburbia.
Have you changed your accent?
Yeah, because I’m a middle class white suburban white boy and I’m terrified someone might notice and eat me. Growing up I was deeply ashamed, I was like, “I’m not street and I’m not rich.” A classic case of suburban kid. There are a lot of suicides among suburban kids.
Did you ever get near suicide in your head?
God, yeah! I was drinking and drugging and sometimes I was surprised I woke up the next day. Sometimes I had to calm myself into oblivion, thinking tomorrow’s not necessarily going to come but don’t freak out now. Then I’d wake up with the guilt and the shame at the groundhog day of my behavior. Unlucky enough to be able to roll over and see the face of someone I love and wonder what I’d done to them and having to apologise. It’s easier if you think of it as a disease. But many a night I’ve spent in a police cell. You always get a sticky, filthy smelly blanker and someone’s written something on the wall in shit. But I was so young I didn’t really give a fuck. I mean, I was getting arrested between the age of 15 and 21, so it really needed to stop because eventually I was going to do a lengthy sentence. I was looking at 14 years when I was 17, I was looking at 5 years when I was 21 for something else.
What have you done?
Everything from firearms through to drugs, taking and driving away vehicles, taking stuff from vehicles, drunk and disorderly, you know all kinds of shit. But anything I’ve done in the past is all behind me, and I don’t advocate the use of anything or violence. I am actively involved in anti-gun and knife crime messages. All the behavior, like the drinking is behind me. Now, I want to be useful and help people. Help kids in inner cities and guys in prison. I have a company which has an outreach project.
Have you got a partner?
The mother of your son?
Yeah [starts showing photos of Rachel and Louis, who he’s obviously obsessed with, on his mobile phone.] We’ve been off and on for three years, me and rascal. We’ve been together since a bit before Louis was born. We’d just split up when she got pregnant. She’s brilliant. He’s brilliant.
Has it changed you as a person, being a dad?
Yeah, it has. Stopping drinking was the first thing. It was a fucking trainwreck. I drank everyone’s share, took everyone’s drugs. I only got off the ride by good fortune. It’s fun to start with but it dies out pretty quick. Now six years on that was a chapter in my life. It’s with me forever, it’s a formative part of my life, I know my limits. I’m six years sober and I don’t want to drink today because I know where it’ll take me if I do.
You’ve said before that you can’t stop the voices in your head………
There’s an inner voice that everyone has. It’s a voice policing my behavior. Before I didn’t bother policing my behavior. Fuck that. I just used to use manipulation. What do I want from you? And what am I going to take from you? Then in an hour I’ll forget about you and move on to the next person I want something from. Self, self, self. My primary relationship was with myself and what I wanted and how I was going to get it but it was all completely unconscious. Alcohol is an illness of innocence because you don’t know you’re ill. You’re in denial. Then you hit bottom, and it’s like that song, “I’ve been down so long, this looks like up to me.” For some people death is the best thing that can happen. For some people the insanity is worse than death. But when you put things into perspective and look at other people it’s quite easy for me to get stuck so far up my own arse that I wonder who’s shitting on me. It’s good for me to get my head out of my arse and look at what other people are going through.
You did therapy and all that?
Yeah, you have to when you enter a programme.
And did you get anything out of it?
Of course I did! I’m fucking here. If you put it in simple terms I had a psychosis and I went around thinking that I had to know everything. I would never put my hand up id I didn’t know. Someone would say, “Tom, do you know how to drive?” and I’d say “Yes. “and we’d crash. And it was like, “Tom, all you had to say was no.” I’ve nicked a load of cars. I was an idiot.
Do you not miss the madness?
I don’t miss the chaos, no. I have silence and peace of mind. The first couple of drinks are nice but it was never an option. If I’m drinking, I’m drinking and I would inevitably do something stupid and not remember of come back a couple of days later. And it didn’t matter who I hurt, I’d come back and grovel and apologise and be pathetic. It’s wretched. A miserable life. I started at 12, 13 and I’ve been sober for six years. But I think about it every day. It never leaves me but it stops being as noisy as it used to be. I’m an old soak in a young man’s body, a drunk in recovery. Drunks are my people. I can spot them. And there’s none more pious than the recently converted.
So why were you drinking and fighting?
I was ashamed of not having any relevance…not being comfortable in my own skin. Huge ego, very low self-esteem. A lot of anger and rage and fear. It would be, “I’m not going to feel frightened so I’ll strangle the biggest guy in the bar and then no one will fuck with me.” I’ll get tattoos and people will know I’m not afraid to hurt myself and they’ll be like warning signs. I was restless as a spirit, nervous, over-stimulated. I was naughty as a child, manipulative, greedy for more love.
You’re in the right job, having people look at you for a living….
Yeah, but I don’t want them to smother me. Come close but back off. When I locked onto acting, it worked I found something I could do. Now I know who I am.
RockNRolla is released on DVD on 26 January and Bronson is currently scheduled for release in February