How Tom Hardy became Hollywood’s most wanted Brit

Roles in forthcoming films Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Warrior and The Dark Knight Rises see his star on the rise

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It’s been a long and rocky road for Tom Hardy to get to where he is today. But right now, what ambitious young actor wouldn’t want to trade places with him?

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This month sees the arrival in cinemas of the 34-year-old’s first headlining role in a major Hollywood production, the mixed martial arts drama Warrior. The release comes hot on the heels of Hardy’s turn in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which he stars alongside such British luminaries as Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and John Hurt.

On the horizon are big roles in other big movies, including the villain in the latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, as well as This Means War, a romantic comedy with Reese Witherspoon. “When you’ve done a rom-com, all that’s left to do is a really dodgy advert for a fragrance with your shirt off,” Hardy tells me, “then you know you’ve arrived.”

We meet in a suite at the Soho Hotel in London. To call him a big, burly beefcake of a man seems like an insult to the impressively sculpted body that he must spend many hours knocking into shape. He also has a scalp-exposing crop and an unlit cigar dangling from his puffy lips.

The former is for the benefit of director Christopher Nolan, for whom he is playing the masked, chemically enhanced super-villain Bane. The latter is practice for a huge studio franchise built around the life and times of someone Hardy labels “an iconic legend in America”. He won’t say who, but a few weeks later the announcement comes that he’s to play Al Capone in Cicero.

Hardy had his first crack at stardom over ten years ago, when he landed a small role in the TV mini-series Band of Brothers, swiftly followed by the movies Black Hawk Down and 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. Despite this initial flurry, his ascent stalled, in part because of personal troubles that followed him from his somewhat wayward adolescence.

Hardy grew up in East Sheen and went to private schools, but ended up a middle-class teen delinquent, being expelled from Reeds boarding school for theft, and arrested for joyriding and firearm possession at the age of 15.

According to Hardy, he suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and low self-esteem and, after succumbing to self-destructive impulses, he slipped into crack and alcohol addiction in his early 20s. Not only did he wreck his first marriage, but he ended up in hospital after one brutal binge. Rehab and years of cognitive therapy have helped him wrestle his demons into submission.

Now he claims to be “all about my son” – three-year-old Louis, from his relationship with ex-girlfriend Rachael Speed (he’s currently engaged to Charlotte Riley whom he met while playing Heathcliff to her Cathy in the 2009 TV adaptation of Wuthering Heights).

Sober since 2003, he even has a therapeutic mantra he’s fond of repeating: “Today is a good day because…” Today’s reasons are: “my son is healthy and I’m fulfilling my ambition to portray as many characters as I can before I become not-so hot.”

And it did take a long time and a lot of hard work for Hardy to become hot, despite working constantly in film, theatre and television. His TV appearances include The Virgin Queen, Oliver Twist and Stuart: a Life Backwards, the BBC drama for which he received a Bafta nomination. But only when Hardy made the conscious decision to pack on the muscle did things really take off.

“I wanted to establish myself as someone you would take notice of,” he explains. “I’m not a natural comedian, nor am I a Hugh Grant white-collar type. I fall into the category of being good at slightly dysfunctional, erratic personality disorders and I thought, ‘If I can change my body to meet that, do a variety of accents and hit a few people on screen, then maybe people might take me seriously.’ ”

It worked. First came Bronson (2008), an independent film in which he played notorious British convict Charles Bronson. His acclaimed performance led directly to Christopher Nolan hiring him
for Inception, which in turn helped
him to win the Bafta Rising Star Award earlier this year.

His role in Warrior sees him play a cage fighter who battles demons in and out of the ring. “Animals were hurt during the making of this movie,” chuckles Hardy, admitting that the strict diet he went on to convince as a lean, mean fighting machine made him foul-tempered and unpleasant to be around. “I made a lot of people very angry. It was a pure chemical imbalance. It was like, ‘I’m so sorry, I’m just so starving.’ ”

Hardy cracks wise and delivers smart answers in his stream-of-consciousness style, but hurt seems never far from the surface. Ask why things are going so right for him now and he’s blunt in his reply: “F***-up is the mother of all necessity. Passion can create and destroy. Being an addict, a lot of my behaviour in the past was symptomatic of the fact that I’m pre-wired to f*** stuff up if it doesn’t go right for me.

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“I had to take on the responsibility to mother and father myself properly, and that’s had a knock-on effect. Now that I’m actively taking care of myself, the right doors are opening up… And today is a good day.”