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Bronson - Tom Hardy interview

Tom Hardy in Bronson

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRITISH actor Tom Hardy has become the talk of Hollywood for his unflinchingly brave portrayal of Charles Bronson, the man dubbed Britain’s most violent prisoner. But while initially nervous of meeting his subject, Hardy learned to develop a begrudging admiration for him, while learning his own life lessons.

He talks to us about some of the preparation he did for the role, as well as responding to some of the criticisms that exist about it (such as the violence and the way it “ignores Bronson’s victims”) and also gives us an insight into the rigours of bulking up and down for various roles.

Q. How long did it take for you to bulk up for this role?
Tom Hardy: Five weeks. This was a micro budget movie really and the money took forever to come in. One minute it was going, then it wasn’t, then it was again. I actually put the weight on a year before and then it fell through, so I lost it again for Stuart: A Life Backwards. And then I came back and had five weeks to put it on.

Q. And you’re putting it back on again for another role, aren’t you?
Tom Hardy: I’m actually Bronson size now. And I’ve got to go up another two and a half stone.

Q. How do you lose the weight once you’ve put it on?
Tom Hardy: It’s much less daunting once you’ve put your foot on the road to it. I’m a notorious couch potato and I don’t like exercise. Half an hour of physical exercise, like jogging or fast walking a day is a start. Then there’s your diet. You cut out sugars, fat, soy sauces… anything that’s nice. Tea and coffee is replaced by boiling water with lemon. It’s amazing how quickly you get into it. There’s also herbal tea and a lot of water, obviously… about two litres a day.

Cucumber and celery juice, which is actually really nice. Breakfast would be grapefruit and toast, with a bit of jam, and a boiled egg. An apple as a mid-morning snack, and lunch would be grilled chicken salad, with tomatoes and as much spinach as you want – you can fill yourself up with green vegetables such as spinach, broccoli and asparagus. Every time you need protein, get yourself a boiled egg in. But your main meals would be chicken, or hummus, or white fish. You can lose about a pound a day. But you can do this stuff over a period of time, and you can have your happy days. It’s about motivation and it has to be something that’s realistic for you to keep up.

Q. But you must really want a part to put yourself through that?
Tom Hardy: Absolutely. But Stuart: A Life Backwards was a brilliant part that an actor like me would totally want to do. So, you just do it. I hate training, but I’m doing this cage fighting film for the guys that did 300 and I’ve been training ridiculously hard with my trainer, Peanut, for about 10 days… a lot of weights, a lot of wrestling, a lot of punching and kicking and we put a tape together and sent it over to them. They called me the other day and said: “Look, we’re really disappointed with you.” It was horrible. I wanted to cry. But the next day Peanut and I sat down and had to talk our way back into doing it all again. They sent videos of what they wanted me to look like and I had to get on with it.

Q. Is this ability to devote yourself to the goal in hand something that you have in common with Charles Bronson?
Tom Hardy: I think with Bronson that’s his tool. That’s the environment he’s in. It’s also where they have no control over him. He said to me as well that it does their head in that they can’t stop him doing that. They cannot stop him physically taking care of himself. I’ve had all kinds of conflicting reports while doing my investigative role, from both sides – pro and negative and from the guards and from Bronson’s friends and family about what the guards do, and what he does. Right down the middle, there’s a through line.

But I think both sides might be as bad as each other… taking the Phil Danielson hostage situation completely out, which I think is the most alarming and terrifying of his crimes. That’s the one that he’s serving life for. That’s the one where there is no way I’d try to justify anything about him… except as an actor attempting to think how I’d get into that situation. Horrendous things went down in that room. If you start to unravel it all, it’s a mess.

But coming back to the point, things I can identify with Charlie with… obviously I’m an obsessive compulsive. If I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it. But I don’t say I’m going to bash you! Actually, he hasn’t said that for nine years and I’ve given him numerous occasions to bash me actually. If he was inclined to, he would have done because I’m an irritating little bugger [laughs]. I do ask questions and I am quite tricky.

Q. How nervous were you upon meeting him for the first time?
Tom Hardy: I was very nervous. I had to know exactly how I could move, otherwise I wouldn’t get anywhere. I can do an impression of Charles Bronson to a certain extent but then I was face to face with my subject and I’m not any relation to him. I’m not his family, a friend, a doctor or a social worker. I have no official capacity to help him. I’m there to pretend to be him. So, it was a very awkward situation. I didn’t want to be his puppet for the outside world. But at the same time I needed information from him in order to get as thorough a likeness as I could.

It was enjoyable in the way that I learned an awful lot that I didn’t know going into that experience. And I know an awful lot more now than other people that haven’t been in that room about that experience. I’m quite sensible in everyday life and I’m surrounded by very sensible women… my girlfriend and I have a child, and they’re very concerned about safety and their own safety, and whether or not I’m doing the right thing. My judgements within that room were made from a place of security. Am I safe? Or am I having a jolly? Am I w**king here? Am I a middle-class suburban mockney wannabe, which to all intents and purposes I’m completely guilty of as well! Is that what I’m here for? But I don’t think I am, actually.

I’m here to challenge myself and to see whether I can shape-shift in an environment that’s actually quite daunting, but which I think would be nice to shine a light into. The destination of any interesting drama is that you shine a light into a place that not many people know about…

Q. How do you think the film will play with cinema audiences? The Daily Mail has already criticised it… and a lot of critics have said it fails to take the victims into account…
Tom Hardy: Right…. yeah. I understand totally. But I think that would be to take this particular film from an angle that it was a film about the victims, which it wasn’t. This film is about one man’s drive and ambition to be somebody, who has tools that aren’t the greatest tools in the world. Somehow he wants to become a brand of some sort. I don’t think it has anything to do with Charlie Bronson in many ways at all. I think what [director] Nicolas Winding Refn did was his take on it. It was more my job to go and find Charlie and then portray Charlie in this script. But the script was shot from an angle where he didn’t really care about Charles Bronson. What he [Nicolas] cared about was, why is he so ambitious, and why did he want to make so much bloody noise? What is his desire to be famous? And yet he has no reason to be famous. He bashes people. So, what’s that all about? It’s about the humanity of someone who’s desperate to be someone.

Also, an artistic take on it is that you have an artist… using the fact that he paints, he’s written 10 books, he’s got various poetry and he’s come to this place of great violence, mayhem and chaos from a background which wasn’t untoward. There was no obvious physical abuse. He came from a normal upbringing. His father was a sergeant major in a regiment. And yet he’s come down this path into this massive world of chaos and then quietly become an artist. So, when did his tools change for expression? And then there’s the absurdity of a man using violence, manipulation, aggression, hostage taking and terrorism, to some extent, as a technique to change people’s opinions of him. Of course, in many ways it’s not going to work. He has created victims and he’s caused a tremendous amount of damage and hurt people and ended up in a box in a hole in the ground. It’s not a very glamorous story.

Q. Did you find it an uncomfortable experience to get into his skin?
Tom Hardy: No, not at all. Only my hang-ups and prejudices about going into a prison and being surrounded by these criminals… obviously, for my own survival. But as with everything, these things happen to be more pedestrian. My anticipation was much worse… the fear of being hit is much worse than actually being hit – like in rugby. If I tense up, I’m going to break something. But if I know it’s coming and I stay loose, like a baby when it falls… if I knew going in what I knew now going in I’d have stayed a little looser and I would have got more information and I’d have a better opinion of what you’ve just asked. But I guess my point is that I’m not supposed to judge my characters. I’ve got to present both light and shade in order for it to work.

I set myself that decision, otherwise I’m driving an opinion at you, and I think that would be treating you like you’re an idiot. I don’t want to force-feed you my opinion. And I don’t think Nic did either. This was the story that we had. This is a man who’s locked in a cell with some unspeakable people… I know, I’ve met them. One who ate the brains of his cell mate, another one who’s killed four children and another one who chopped his wife up and posted her through his mother’s letterbox. These are real people. Charlie is the lesser dangerous of the lot, in that environment. But if you’re Phil Danielson he absolutely is not. So, how do you tell the light and shade? Is the film important to talk about? Yes, because it exists.

And far beyond it just being a challenge for an egotistical actor who just wants to show off and impress people, I think it is important to have a look at light and shade in all kinds of corners of our society because they’re inevitably going to be some kind of microcosm of what’s going on in the bigger picture.

Q. Does Bronson see the film as a last throw of the dice, do you think?
Tom Hardy: Absolutely not. In all honesty, I think this film can do more harm than good. In some ways I think, why don’t you just have a heart attack? If you know what I mean… people wouldn’t be so frightened of you if you’re incapable of causing violence. He would go grey at the thought of not being physically fit. It’s intrinsic to him surviving. Just imagine being in a cage… anybody, regardless of their crime, being in a cage for 30 years in one room is a tremendous act of endurance.

And psychologically, I can attest to the fact that the man is completely a genius. I’m not in any way enamoured of him, and he didn’t manipulate me, but he was very measured and well meaning and articulate. I’m very distrustful… believe me. I didn’t think for one second that I wasn’t in a maximum-security prison with someone who’s very dangerous. But I was surprised at every step of the way how the scare was removed from my eyes in the study of somebody who had been reported to be this, but wasn’t actually this anymore… but had somehow moved from that but was still locked somewhere far, far away where no one is going to find him.

So, is it a last throw of the dice? Or is it more whistling in the darkness? One thing about being famous to some people is that as long as he knows we know he’s there, then he’s not dead and we can’t forget him.

Q. Do you think he’ll get out?
Tom Hardy: Well, I hope he gets de-categorised at some point and rehabilitated slowly towards his freedom. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t. There are murderers who are released back onto the street.

Q. Can you give a one-word answer of what he might think if he were to see the film?
Tom Hardy: I’m happy. I think he’d be cool with it. We did him a good turn, to be quite honest. None of us were trying to fight for him, or against him. To be quite honest, we wanted to make it a good film, too. There’s drama, there’s conflict, there’s comedy and there’s some great colours. There’s all kinds of stuff in there. This is a piece of filmmaking… and lest we forget, it’s entertainment too. And it’s educational. I’ve been somewhere I’ve never been before and I think it will help me – and has done – to walk into rooms that I used to be frightened to walk into.

Read our review of Bronson