Tom Hardy talks The Revenant, character actors, and playing the villain

Tom Hardy talks The Revenant, character actors, and playing the villain

Photo: Maarten De Boer
Photo: Maarten De Boer

Credited as “Thomas Hardy” in his feature film debut with Ridley Scott’s 2001 war drama, Black Hawk Down, Tom Hardy has spent the 14 years since in an upward climb of enormous success, becoming one of the most recognizable stars in Hollywood. Though it’s not far-fetched to assume he’d fulfill the role handily, Hardy’s near-universal acclaim hasn’t come by way of him playing what would be considered the conventional lead character. In fact, the London native’s filmography reads like a checklist of every variety of antihero or reprobate, with the most recent example coming in the form of his character John Fitzgerald in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s epic early-American Western, The Revenant. Despite belonging to Hardy’s ever-growing list of primarily reluctant antagonists, the character is another example of the actor’s ability to manifest believable characteristics rather than simply mimicking traits.

Whether as the quintessential nemesis Bane in The Dark Knight Rises or the quietly dangerous Bob Saginowski in The Drop, Hardy’s versatility is just as much a force to be reckoned with as the characters he plays. However entrenched in the make-believe world those roles may be, Hardy’s relatable portrayal of imperfection and vulnerability has gained the 38-year-old a great deal of well-deserved accolades, with 2015 proving to be the most successful yet of his career thanks to starring roles in Mad Max, Legend, and The Revenant. Hardy recently spoke with The A.V. Club about his affinity for characters who are troubled and why empathizing with a murderer isn’t all that far-fetched.

The A.V. Club: John Fitzgerald isn’t a conventional “bad guy” in the same way the Kray twins [who Hardy portrays in Legend] are, for example. There’s an empathy given because of the environment and his survivalist instinct. Was that something you saw in the character as well?

Tom Hardy: Yes. I never go into playing a character thinking, “Oh, this is a good guy or a bad guy,” even if he is written as the villain in the film. There’s got to be something likable about whoever I’m playing. If I’m going to play an armchair defense lawyer for the benefit of play-acting a character, it’s my job to support every single one of his attributes and find a mitigating circumstance or reason for he or she to do whatever they’re doing and justify that in an environment which is artistic and creative. So it’s never a question of, “Is this a bad or evil guy?” Because I find things much more fascinating when they’re gray.

There’s a lot of things going on in John Fitzgerald, but I think his most heinous crime comes in two parts. One is the actual killing of the boy, and the second part is the burying of Hugh Glass. I don’t know why he didn’t kill Hugh Glass. Maybe he didn’t have time. I don’t know why he didn’t kill Bridger. There was an opportunity to do that, and he didn’t, but if he had, it would’ve made him a very different character. That would’ve made him much darker, but for Fitzgerald, it would’ve been a practical thing to do. Yes, Fitzgerald didn’t like [Glass], but to be fair [Glass] was going to get everybody killed. And of course as soon as Fitzgerald’s son arrives and starts screaming, then we’re into what I justified as noise discipline [Laughs.]—if you’re yelling, and it’s genuinely a dangerous place. You look at John Fitzgerald’s scalp, and there’s a past history of mistrust from the scars he’s inflicted and the scars inflicted upon him. He sees certain people as extremely hostile toward him—with that level of duress and that kind of history and those kinds of ghosts in his mind, I can see why one was a mercy killing of a man he had no particular liking for in a time that was very different from ours, and the second was an alarm he just turned off.

The burying alive of Hugh Glass—that one was just very strange because he made Bridger culpable with him in a world whereby he sort of doubled up his bets, but he could’ve killed him. Fitzgerald could’ve had him fall off a cliff or hurt himself, because back then he would’ve been able to tell them that Bridger had been overrun or scalped or something. Maybe he needed a story. So it’s not really as easy as asking, “Is he a bad guy?” I think he’s a desperate opportunist who had a lot of ghosts and trauma and was thinking in the moment. He is wretched and a coward and reckless, but he’s also fearless and brave. It’s a very strange character, and I kind of liked him. [Laughs.]

AVC: Did you see much of yourself in Fitzgerald from that standpoint of a human’s instinct to survive?

TH: Not really. I use my imagination. I think it would be foolish to say I see myself in a character, because they’re make believe. You’re breathing life into a fantasy to benefit a story, so I draw from my imagination. Some things I do sort of get in hindsight. I kind of get why [Fitzgerald] stabbed the kid. I think, okay, would I do that in that same situation? Eh, possibly. But would I find myself in that situation? Unlikely. [Laughs.] I don’t think I would put myself out there like John Fitzgerald. I’m not that guy. His story is unique to him in that fable. This is Fitzgerald’s character arc, and these are his choices, and I had to justify them, if that makes sense. In hindsight, I can understand some of these fictitious characters’ points of view. Why would they do what they do? What are the mitigating circumstances or what’s the human element to it? I’d rather that than me just writing them off as being “born bad.” The fact that no one really is born bad is kind of interesting, isn’t it?

In a way I was able to justify a little bit of that as Fitzgerald, because you look at Hugh Glass, and you think, hang on a minute, Hugh Glass is also making money by taking and killing all these animals, scouting and helping these fur trappers to basically pillage the frontier. They’re basically going out for big business and essentially ripping the land out from underneath the First Nation. Hugh Glass had managed to clandestinely sort of infiltrate and become familiar and have a family there, but he’s still bringing that new generation with him. He’s still participating in that business himself. He’s still working for the company, and yeah, that’s about survival, but it’s not black and white where he’s a good guy just because he has a wife who’s Pawnee and a son who’s half-Pawnee. He’s still a man who’s working with people who are actively damaging, raping, and pillaging in the name of business. So he’s not entirely clean. The only difference is that he has love for the First Nation like the Pawnee, and as Fitzgerald I don’t because they cut half my head off. [Laughs.]

What makes a man in our film is that he crawls through unbelievable duress and abuse and survives something incredible to find the man who killed his son. That’s a long way to go to just kill somebody, to exact revenge. So he’s actually doing the same thing, but he’s not doing it as obviously as Fitzgerald was doing it. Fitzgerald stabbed and killed someone, effectively changing two lives, but as people, both characters are doing that to entire nations. Glass is part of that as well, so how can he say he’s at one with the peace of the world? I saw Hugh Glass as a character slightly no less pious than the recently converted. At least Fitzgerald is honest, whereas Glass says and thinks he’s one of the First Nation, yet he’s fucking them over. [Laughs.] It’s brilliant.

AVC: It’s a sort of self-aware hypocrisy for Fitzgerald.

TH: Exactly. But it’s a silent hypocrisy for Hugh Glass. You can’t be half against it. You’re either against it, or you’re not. As a member of the First Nation, how could you trust someone who’s not indigenous? Who are you? [Laughs.] So, there’s a mistrust there between both characters where it’s like, we’re not so different. We’re just two sides of the same coin. Your chips just happened to fall that way, and mine fell this way.

AVC: Watching The Revenant, it’s clear the physical environment plays an integral role. Did you see that aspect specifically informing your portrayal of Fitzgerald?

TH: It’s a character in this film. It’s not only the stage, but it’s the embodiment of the movie. For the performance, we visited Alberta, and it’s incredibly beautiful there and wild and remote, and it has quite significant weather changes from incredibly cold to incredibly hot. It would be hard not to acknowledge the weather when it can be so severe. [Laughs.] You can continue to work and thrive in a huge community in weather that, for some, is unimaginable, but that’s today with all the puffer jackets and thermal equipment and food, and the abundance of knowledge you have when you’re not at the poverty line, and you’re not suffering and struggling out there.

But if you go back in time to the early 1800s, the people who were out there who were not the indigenous peoples who already had their own ways of living prior to being taken over by the Americans, British, French, etc. They had thriving communities within that environment, and they were doing well out there, but that weather must have been so unbelievably brutal still. One wonders how people have evolved from the toughness of men and women at the time who had to live without the benefit things like penicillin or modern medicine. If you tripped and broke your ankle that was it. If you got bitten or savaged by something, that was it. You were dead.

Life is a very different pace today to the point where you look at people back then, and you think, how did people survive in this hostile terrain? It was scary at times to think that people really did live out there in the woods in huts they built themselves for months on end, getting wet, getting snowed on, and survived and worked here long before planes, trains, and automobiles. At that time, these people were out there doing very serious work, and they were incredibly resilient, sturdy, tough, and wily human beings. I couldn’t conjure up the truth for that, necessarily, I could only imagine what that must’ve been like, and it still blows my mind.

As for us going to film there, yes it was cold, but I’ve also been to other places that are all kinds of cold. I was in Oymyakon, Siberia, which is the coldest place on earth at minus 72 degrees, and we went swimming in the river out there, which was minus 45 degrees. Cold is fucking cold, mate. [Laughs.] You don’t take chances if you’re from the city. You don’t walk around ignorantly. Nature has a way of saying, “I win.” [Laughs.] If you’re not prepared for it, and that was a bit of a shock for a few people with this film, and for me in some aspects, too.

Trying to logistically mount this hugely ambitious and epic film that Alejandro and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki] have beautifully captured over eight months out there, moving huge amounts of machinery around places that were sometimes impossible to reach because we’d been snowed out or rained out or the snow had thawed out—I don’t even know how to describe it. It was a complete orchestration of the weather dictating just what we could shoot. With the time constraints of using natural light as well, and with the specificity of how Alejandro and Chivo wanted to accomplish all these design aspects in those pockets of magic hour just made the entire technical endeavor somewhat complicated. You don’t really see independent, big movies like this being made that often for a reason, and it was just wonderful to see something so ambitious and an expedition being made in such a grand way by such talented artists. And yes, it was fucking cold. [Laughs.]

AVC: Which lends itself to another powerful part of the level of exhaustion being displayed in every facet of the setting and the characters from beginning to end.

TH: Totally. You want to go out and play a game of any contact sport or something for a few hours, you’re going to get tired. If you want to go and launch an outing with six kids going canoeing down the river in a safe environment, by the end of the day you’re going to be tired. But if you want to take 200 people out to the mountains to these really remote places, and make them work for 12 to 16 hours a day, giving them 8 hours to turn around, and have them travel 200 kilometers the other way for eight months every day for six days a week, you’re going to have tired people. [Laughs.]

It was an endeavor and a labor for art, and it’s not something that can easily be done in the same way that Mad Max could not have easily been done. You had to have the effort poured into it and the due diligence of many, many years to make Mad Max, but also there’s a level of pushing the limit or trying to do something exceptional, to aim for the stars and capture the moment or do something profoundly innovative, to achieve something which is of the highest standard. I think that was what was awesome about watching the guys going out and doing The Revenant. Everybody was hellbent on seeing it through to the end. It became, for us artistically, a bit like an expedition to the South Pole. It was our version of that within filmmaking. The elements were what they were, and we tried to make a movie within them.

Some of the shots you see with guys on top of the mountain, we got chopper lifted to that, because if the snow comes in and the fog blows down, you aren’t getting off it. [Laughs.] I think the toughest thing I did was put on eight layers of thermals and wet suits underneath my costume, and then trying to walk anywhere. It was just a very, very exciting and long shoot. [Laughs.] You wonder when even the horses are like, “Come on, man. Come on.” That’s why we called it “The Forevernant” for a while, which I think imbued the characters with a certain level of misery. [Laughs.]

AVC: You look at these characters you’ve played who, at least in the conventional sense, are considered antagonists like Alfie Solomons or Bronson. They’re not troubled, necessarily...

TH: They’re all morally corrupt, my characters, but ethically they’re really fucking sound. [Laughs.]

AVC: How much of a disparity is there for you, though, in bringing those characters to life instead of staying safe in the bad guy trope confines? You compare a character like Bane, for example, to John Fitzgerald, and there’s a world of difference.

TH: There’s a huge difference, but both characters have those shades of gray. The black and white thing is not interesting to me. There’s huge variations between every single character, and then there’s the whole thing of being a classic study in being typecast where if you dump all these characters in the vagrant, miscreant, box of evil, you’re missing out. It’s very easy, and I can see why anyone would want to go, “Oh, if you have two colors, red and black, then these ones are all red, and these ones are all black,” but that’s too simple for me.

I do go to as much of an effort as possible to distinguish characters, and the differences which may be millimeters for some are, for me, thousands of different character traits and an ethical range of what makes someone like Bob Saginowski different from [Ivan] Locke or what makes Forrest Bondurant different from someone like Bronson or Bane. They’re light years apart from one another, but they’re from a world whereby the ethical structures surrounding them are like DNA strands. No two are the same. They have similarities, yes, but they’re a study on a certain type of arena, which is what I find interesting, and why it’s not a coincidence that I’ve chosen to build a small community of miscreants. [Laughs.]

I just don’t think I’ve played anything that would be in conventional terms a straight leading hero type. It’s just because I haven’t found that, before the age of 35, really, that there are any heroic classical characters that are that interesting to play. They all seem to be rather one-dimensional, and I think that when I get older, I’ll look into the other side of the smorgasbord, but just like choosing between the red and black colors where you’ve got the miscreants on the one side and the heroes on the other, I’d still want to know what’s not so cool about the hero. It’s well and good to be a hero, but what’s the not good part of it? That would be the honesty and more truthful side of the storytelling that I would like to see that says, “Well, he’s a bit of a bastard throughout his life, though, but at the same time he climbs Mount Everest.”

Here are these heroes and these great characters, but what were there flaws? That’s what makes them human. But it’s also about what’s the fundamental story that we can learn about survival that we can pass onto an audience member when we tell these stories. Because it’s only really about storytelling anyway. You can’t always be good, no matter how hard you set out to be. You aren’t really going to be a man or a woman until you’ve upset somebody, or until you’ve told somebody, “No,” or you’ve been mean or did something that you didn’t want to do. Everybody has to do that. You can’t be lily white, and you can’t be truly, truly black.

AVC: That sort of “antihero” idea is in fact more realistic and believable.

TH: Exactly. They’re like us. They’re not trying to live up to something that’s not us. If you want to go to the cinema and escape, that’s one thing, but if you want to go to the cinema and escape and actually find connection, you’re not going to connect to something that ultimately is false. A superhero like Thor? Get real. It’s just not fucking real. That’s cool, but just as long as you know it isn’t real, and people in the real world don’t do that.

But there are plenty of real heroes out there. You look at somebody like Harrison Ford or Clint Eastwood, for example. You knew Clint was always capable of doing naughty stuff even if he was a hero. He’s a killer. Harrison Ford, when he played Han Solo originally, he was awesome, but he was reluctant. He was an arms dealer, and he was a criminal, but you loved him. I don’t connect anymore with a lot of these “goodies” and “baddies,” because they’re just not real. Film is already artificial anyway, so it’s just a further step into non-reality, and it’s kind of a waste of time. [Laughs.]

You want to study human beings and tell stories that are relevant, and I’m all for people enjoying themselves and just switching off and watching some cool stunts or watching some really brilliant visuals or follow something that doesn’t make me think too much, but Mad Max showed perfectly an example of proper stunts, huge visuals and designs, combustible orchestration of utter color, and it went back to the classics of the 1980s and how films used to be made with genuine effects, yet it still served itself, and the audience clearly loved it. People are smart. They know what’s real or what connects in a different way, and I think there’s a place for everything in the world of entertainment, but I just gravitate a little bit more toward things that form a connection to my personal taste.

AVC: Being able to evoke that kind of believability in a character is a difficult thing to pull off. Take Bane, for example, who’s based out of a comic book where the lines are often clearly drawn between good and evil.

TH: The comic book world is so exciting, yes, but how do you approach it, and who with, and what team? [Christopher] Nolan is just awesome, and he was very clear from the start: “This is what we’re going to do. This guy looks nothing like like you. He’s 400 pounds, maybe bigger, and when you read the comic book and have a look, you’re going to think, ‘How the hell are you going to play that?’” [Laughs.] “And oh yeah, we don’t want to use any CGI,” and I’m thinking, “Oh my God.” [Laughs.] I mean, where do you start? It was a brilliant opportunity for investigation and what is the double-edged sword, which was the voice and the mask where you can see part of the face.

There were some die hard fans that totally hated it, but some people really got down with what we trying to achieve there. But what Nolan allowed me to do was say, “What I’m trying to go for is a straight down the line evil voice like a classic English villain,” which we’ve heard a million times before, but we know we’re safe in that aspect, and then I looked at Bane’s Romany side, the Latino past, and I’m not Latino, but I said, “If you want me to play it, then I’ve got to do my due diligence,” and I looked up and found a guy called Bartley Gorman who was the King Of The Gypsies. He was a bare-knuckle boxer, Romany gypsy from Romany as in Roman all the way back to the concept of an old Latin heritage, and I did the voice for him, and I said: “We’re either going to get completely slayed for this, or it might be something really cool that we could work with, but it’s a risk,” and Nolan said, “Well, I think we should go with it,” and that’s what unlocked that voice and there was something to play that was not made up. It was a real guy.

AVC: That vocal dexterity is something you also use in The Revenant with Fitzgerald’s Southern accent.

TH: I guess I need to ask you if it was any good, then, being from Alabama. [Laughs.]

AVC: It was pretty spot-on and that doesn’t happen too often.

TH: Awesome, then. [Laughs.] Thanks, mate.

AVC: Is that ability and range with dialect something that’s always come naturally for you, though?

TH: It’s not conscious, initially. We were always encouraged in drama school back when—and I got thrown out of drama school—we were always told that if you step on stage, you have to step on stage with a minimum of seven different characteristics. In order to transform, you had to have a physical silhouette and a vocal silhouette, and of course your inner tempo so you could really disguise yourself. From where I’m standing, there are two sides to acting. There’s camouflage, and there’s the hustle. The hustle is basically: “How am I going to get whatever it is I need, and what am I prepared to do in order to get it?”

Now, you can do that in your own accent and have a healthy career, just changing different hats, having a nice haircut, a nice suntan, a six-pack, and a set of great teeth. You can go a long way with that style of acting. Then there’s the other side, which is camouflage and says, “I put on a hat, a rubber nose, a cloak, put false teeth in, and I change my accent and walk with a limp.” You can take it all the way to Vaudevillian or surrealism or like Pixar to the green, motion-capture guys. I’ve always tried to hybrid the two together with the ability to have a foot in both camps, leaning on the strengths on one or the other at times, and I think if you only use your own voice, you can only have one shot at doing that, and then you’re done unless you make a career out of being you. If you want to be you, then that’s cool, and it’s Tom Hardy in another movie.

The paradox or irony here is that now I’m going to become Tom Hardy, the bloke who always does the silly voice. [Laughs.] Someone will always want to put you in a box, and then you become the parody of yourself. The constant is, though, that I just want to make the effort to try and transform as much as possible from one character to another, so that people can immerse themselves into the story and not in my performance. That’s my job, isn’t it?

AVC: The idea of the character actor is something that’s always seemed to be a point of criticism, yet it’s that very thing that often brings a film its cohesion.

TH: Absolutely. I mean, you look at Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Philip Seymour Hoffman—these are great character actors. Not necessarily the lead, but what’s so bad about playing a co-star? What makes you think that that’s so different from playing the lead? The difference in some aspects is like playing soccer. You’ve got the striker position, and they hit goals all day. They’ve just got to score goals. That’s what they do. They’re your front and center man or woman. Well, the guy who passes the ball to the striker has to be accurate every single time. Your central midfielder or your left or right wing has to pass that ball so it lands at the striker’s feet accurately so the striker can score. There is no difference between passing the ball to someone’s feet accurately than there is to the striker being accurate on the goal. The difference is the pressure on who’s up front, but in order for a team to play properly so that guy can keep scoring, you have to have strong people around. Being a co-star or actor is as significant position on the field as it is to be a striker.

Character actors like Gary Oldman or Gene Hackman or Ed Harris who are drawn to those parts, I assume, I think: What would they do? These actors and the characters they play are imbued with the ability to actually lift the lead and one another up in a film, and apart from serving the script and the director’s vision, but an actor’s sole purpose, my sole purpose as an actor, is to feed my opposite actor as much as humanly possible in order for him or her to do their job. That’s it. If I’m doing that for them, and they’re in return doing that for me, then we have a lot of options, and you hopefully have the potential to capture some great drama. Then we’ve done our job.

AVC: You’ve got a packed schedule this year and next, starting with the mini-series Taboo, Christopher Nolan’s next project, Dunkirk, and of course the recent announcement of Mad Max: The Wasteland.

TH: With Taboo, I finally am working with my father and with Steve Knight and Ridley Scott on a really fantastic, hand-cobbled classic sort of passion project set in the early 1800s in London, and we’re very excited about that. I wanted to take and be part of something in my own country. Because I’ve been away so long, I wanted to come back home and imbue a sense of pride in working here, which means getting to work with BBC and has to do with history and storytelling from the classics, which is a heritage in our country along the lines of Dickens and Sweeney Todd, and Jack The Ripper, and all the sort of classics, but in our way with a collective of really fantastic artists.

It’s lovely to be working with my father at home, and that’s a full circle thing. I go to work on a set with a collaborative team who I love working with, and we’re all working on a project that we’ve created from the floor, from nothing. Going from someone who’s begging for a part in a film or begging for a part on a 50-seater stage to turning up on a set where I’ve been there from the beginning of the concept stage with hundreds of crew members and people showing up with call sheets, it’s just a very wonderful experience as a young man. This is what I love doing, and I love storytelling. As for Nolan, well, I can’t talk about Nolan because he’ll kill us all. [Laughs.]

AVC: Don’t get killed.

TH: [Laughs.] Nolan gets away with the veil of silence. There’s actually quite a few things on the table, but I always want to be careful and to think about what to choose to do next. I love to challenge myself, and I like to be off-center and change up what I’m going to do next, and also I’ve got to think about my family as well. But I always like to take the bull by the horns, because if this all ends tomorrow, I don’t want to be remembered as anything less than grateful for every opportunity, especially that of having my family and holding onto them as tightly as possible and really, fully experiencing what life has to offer in all aspects.