Tom Hardy: The Wild One
One of the most intense actors of our time agreed to take us on a motorcycle tour of his hometown—and then the day spun way off-script.
BY ERIC SULLIVAN; photography by greg williams | Sep 27, 2018 | Film & TV
We're at the first stop on Tom Hardy’s literal tour down memory lane, and he’s already causing trouble. The caretaker of St. Leonard’s Court, an apartment building in the leafy London suburb of East Sheen, comes out to the driveway to say that a tenant has lodged a noise complaint. Hardy leans back in the saddle of the offending source, a Triumph Thruxton fitted with a not-so-subtle 1200cc engine. “Must be hard for someone who’s home at 3:00 p.m. on a Tuesday doing fuck-all, innit?” he says to the caretaker, who’s already in retreat. Then, overriding his knee-jerk snark: “It won’t happen again.”
“I’m the youngest person to own a flat on this block,” Hardy, forty, tells me, sounding both proud and bemused. He bought the place fifteen years ago, moved out six years later, and now uses it as a crash pad for out-of-town guests. He didn’t choose the location for its social scene, if the few geriatric residents shuffling by are any indication. Rather, he was the prodigal son returned: He grew up in the upper-middle-class community, the only child of Chips, an adman and writer, and Ann, an artist. His parents still live nearby.
“Ready for the five-dollar tour?” he asks. Our plan is to trace the path from what he calls his “privileged bourgeois background” to the upper-upper-class town of Richmond, where he now lives with his wife, actor Charlotte Riley, and their child, his second. (He also has a ten-year-old son with assistant director Rachael Speed.) The journey is short in distance—a little more than two miles—but ultramarathon-long in life experience.
“Behind the Laura Ashley curtains, there was naughtiness and fuckeries!” he begins like an overenthused docent. I point out that’s a line he’s delivered many times to many writers. He shrugs. “It’s easier to say that than to go deep-sea diving into it.” To Hardy, a fiercely private man and a reluctant public figure, the canned story serves the useful purpose of making an unsuspecting person feel like they’re getting to know the real Tom. “Should we fuck off?” he asks as we pull on our gear. Except for the beat-up jeans, his five-foot-nine frame is covered in black, from his helmet to his motorcycle boots. We get on our bikes and fuck off.
Five minutes later, just past the prep school he attended as a boy, Hardy spots a commotion, and we pull over. A woman, blood covering her face, lies faceup, half on the sidewalk and half in the street. A few bystanders are crouched around. As Hardy approaches, he says, “I know her.”
It's Mae, the mother of one of Hardy’s childhood best friends. [Some names have been changed.] He drops to one knee and takes her hand in his. Someone in the crowd tells us that Mae tripped while walking her dog. She’s slipping in and out of consciousness.
“Mae, it’s Tommy,” Hardy says. “Squeeze my hand. Keep talking to us. Can you open your eyes?” She moans. He tries out a joke. “Are you Canadian?” he asks. She manages a word: “No. ” He says, “Not even a little Canadian?” She doesn’t reply. By the time the ambulance arrives, Mae is responding, but barely. Shortly after, her son Albert pulls up on his bicycle. When he sees his mother laid out, he bites his fist. Hardy wraps his arms around his friend, both to comfort him and to keep him at a safe distance.
The paramedics load Mae onto a stretcher, and Hardy asks if they can bring Albert, too, then asks again to make sure they remember. They say yes, but they’ll first check Mae’s vitals.
After the ambulance doors close, Hardy turns his attention back to Albert. “Your mom took a whack to the forehead. But I’m not concerned immediately, ’cause she’s responding better than when we arrived. And ’cause they’re not rushing off. You settle in at the hospital, and then we’ll meet you.” Albert protests, but Hardy stops him. “I’m one of your best mates, and I love you.” He slips money into Albert’s pocket. “Just for now,” he says. As soon as the ambulance leaves, bound for Kingston Hospital, he calls Albert’s wife.
For the half hour we’ve been here, Hardy has not stopped moving. He’s talked himself through each step as if checking off boxes on a crisis to-do list. Suddenly, he turns to me and considers our circumstances. We began the day as writer and subject, but that dynamic dissolved the moment he saw Mae. “There was no interview here,” he says. “We find ourselves in a situation where we needed to put everything on hold.” A smile cracks across his face. “Welcome to my neighborhood. I told you there’s always something to find behind the Laura Ashley curtains.”
Private Tom and Public Hardy: These are the two sides that define him. That his time is split between work life and family life, and that his obligations toward both are sometimes at odds, isn’t unique. However, his steadfast struggle to separate them is; he’d be thrilled if never the two should meet. But they do, with increasing frequency, in ways that are beyond his control.
Public Hardy may be an accomplished actor in the U. S., but in his home country he’s a national treasure. In June, he was awarded the title Commander of the Order of the British Empire, which, while not as prestigious as knighthood, is on the same scale. In February, Glamour UK named him the sexiest man of 2018. Madame Tussauds in London recently displayed his likeness reclining on an oxblood chesterfield couch, one arm perched atop the back cushion like an invitation. (“Cosy up to Tom on his leather sofa and feel his heartbeat and the warmth of his torso in what is surely the hottest seat in town,” hypes the wax museum’s site.) He tells well-worn anecdotes to keep Private Tom concealed, and he’s always on alert.
“Nine times out of ten, when somebody says, ‘Don’t do that,’ my instinct is to say, ‘That has to be done’ ”
We meet for the first time the day before the accident, at the Bike Shed, a motorcycle club and café in Shoreditch where, last year, he spent his fortieth birthday. It’s Hardy’s favorite place in London—not surprising, as he’s an investor in the company, which plans to open a location in Los Angeles soon. Every few minutes during our conversation, he nods hello to yet another bearded, inked-up passerby. He’s wearing a loose T-shirt and cargo pants with enough pockets to fit all the world. Brown fuzz dusts the crown of his head. A copper beard stippled with gray blankets the lower half of his face.
He answers my first question—how he’s doing—without missing a beat: “I’m tired.” He’s been working a lot, mostly on Marvel’s Venom (October 5), in which he plays the title role, a reporter named Eddie Brock whose body is hijacked by an alien symbiote. Venom has remained one of Spider-Man’s best-known foes since he first appeared in comic-book form in the late eighties. At times, he’s an outright villain; at others, including in Hardy’s hands, he’s more of an antihero. He can’t discuss the plot, but he says the tone of the movie, directed by Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland), is “dark and edgy and dangerous.”
The three-month shoot, which ended in January, took him to Atlanta, New York, and San Francisco, where the movie is set. “I see America by where the tax breaks are,” he jokes. Next, he headed to New Orleans to play a syphilitic Al Capone in Fonzo, directed by Josh Trank (Chronicle). That crew went hard: nineteen hours a day for six weeks. The day they wrapped, he flew home, threw on a suit, and attended the royal wedding with Riley. (All he’ll say about why they landed the coveted invite is that “it’s deeply private” and “Harry is a fucking legend.”) The work wasn’t the hardest thing; it was, he says, spending such long stretches away from his family.
Yet workwise, Hardy has arrived at what you might call a stakes moment, one that’s twenty years in the making. At the dawn of his career, after landing just two small roles, albeit in big projects—Band of Brothers and Black Hawk Down—he scored his first major part, as the bald, asexual villain in 2002’s Star Trek: Nemesis. But the movie tanked, snuffing buzz over his excellent performance. Five years of forgettable films and a few distinguished stage performances passed before Hardy played lead roles that fully showcased his talents: the homeless drug addict with a heart of gold in the BBC’s Stuart: A Life Backwards (2007), for which he shed nearly thirty pounds, and the most violent inmate in Britain in Bronson (2009), for which he packed on fifteen pounds of muscle.
Physical change is just part of Hardy’s exacting, chameleonlike transformations. “One can embellish with flair or an accent,” he says. “But ultimately you need to ground the character in some form of recognizable truth.” Hardy will talk your ear off about acting theory— Stanislavsky versus Adler, presentation versus representation, the use of clowning and mask work. “I’m a complete geek about it,” he says. But those seams don’t show. At his best, Hardy so thoroughly embodies a character, in both body and spirit, that he all but disappears.
Take a scene from 2015’s The Revenant. Hardy plays Fitzgerald, the coldhearted fur trapper and the target of revenge for Leonardo DiCaprio’s Glass. One night, around a campfire, Fitzgerald makes a veiled threat to a suspicious travel companion. He never raises his voice, but it’s as if he’s ripped out the man’s heart. Hardy’s performance earned him both an Oscar nomination and, after losing a bet with DiCaprio over whether he’d receive such recognition, a tattoo on his right arm that reads leo knows all.
His knack for magnetic unease can inject a blockbuster with edge: Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, and, most notably, The Dark Knight Rises. But aside from Fury Road, whenever he’s assumed the lead role—Lawless, Warrior, This Means War, The Drop, Locke, Legend, Child 44—the results have come up short critically, commercially, and sometimes both. Venom is Hardy’s most visible role yet.
“Sounds like a lot of pressure, doesn’t it?” he half-jokes. But he says he’s not concerned about box-office returns; as always, he’s consumed with building a good character. He admits he knew little about Venom when he first read the script. “So I spoke to the only person I could really trust in this environment: my older boy.” His comic-book-loving son “was a huge influence on me doing the role.”
Hardy prepped for the movie for more than a year. He undergoes a rigorous process to shape each performance, complete with its own argot. A script is a “case file,” to be “unpacked” via “investigation.” He often begins by using personalities, both real and fictive, as lodestars toward which he guides his portrayal. The voice he developed for Al Capone in Fonzo is based on Bugs Bunny’s; to prove it, he plays me a clip of the raw footage on his phone. Sure enough, he sounds like the cartoon rabbit with a severe case of vocal fry. In Venom, the dual roles of Eddie Brock and Venom reminded him of three wildly different traits of three wildly different people: “Woody Allen’s tortured neurosis and all the humor that can come from that. Conor McGregor—the überviolence but not all the talking. And Redman”—the rapper—“out of control, living rent-free in his head.” Those are not details he revealed to the execs at Sony, which is producing the movie. “You don’t say shit like that to the studio,” he says.
“If the odds are stacked against Sony, that’s not my fucking business. It's irrelevant.”
Hollywood is having a stakes moment of its own. Disney’s acquisition of Fox is the latest sign that the studio system is struggling to adapt to the rise of streaming services, among other things. Sony weathered a rough patch last year—a nearly $1 billion write-down—then recovered with the help of the fifth- and sixth-highest-grossing films of the year worldwide: the Jumanji sequel and Spider-Man: Homecoming, the feverishly anticipated relaunch of its most valuable property. The studio now plans to develop a franchise of interconnected Spider-Man-related movies that will fill the coffers for years. Venom is the first official entry.
“If the odds are stacked against Sony, that’s not my fucking business,” Hardy says. “It’s irrelevant.” He burnishes an image of himself as a creative lone wolf, and in the third person no less: “Tom is very mercenary when it comes to work. I cannot give a fuck what the writer, or the director, or Larry in Baltimore thinks about my choices.” (He later clarifies the perspective shift: “Sometimes I talk in the third person because it’s a lot easier to see myself at work as a piece of meat. So when Tommy says he doesn’t give a fuck what you think, it’s only because I give too much of a fuck, and it gets to a point where it stifles me.”) But it’s hard to square his claims of artistic purity with the occasional very non-lone-wolf detail like, “Market research shows that the biggest fan base for Venom is ten-year-old boys in South America.”
If this movie does well, there will be sequels. And if Sony builds its cinematic Spidey universe, Hardy may well appear in those, too. Beyond those commitments, he’s vague about his post-Fonzo plans, most of which don’t involve acting. “What I’d like to do is produce. Write. Direct,” he says. Through his production company, Hardy Son & Baker, he’s working on the second season of Taboo, a moody period drama set in early-1800s London that he stars on and cowrites with his father. The first season was a mixed bag—its premiere ranks as one of the most streamed episodes of any BBC show, but historians criticized its accuracy and U. S. viewers met its FX airing with indifference—yet his stature is such that the BBC green-lighted the second season. He also optioned Once a Pilgrim, a thriller by a veteran of the Parachute Regiment, the elite airborne infantry of the British army; he’s considering directing the adaptation.
Hardy’s future looks rosy. And yet, more than anything, he feels worn down. Physically, sure: He’s walking with a limp. He says he tore his right meniscus on the set of Venom, but he doesn’t know how it happened. “At the end of a job, I normally end up on the side of the road,” he says. “And then carrying the toddler around on my shoulders. . .” He lets loose a two-note cackle. “Things get in the way of looking after yourself.”
But the fatigue is also mental. Maybe it’s because the growing demands of the job, especially the time spent far from his wife and children, are beginning to outweigh its diminishing gratification. When I ask if being forty has changed how he feels about his career, this time he answers in the second person. “You’ve summited Everest. It’s a miracle that you’ve made it anywhere near the fucking mountain, let alone climbed it. Do you want to go all the way back and do it again? Or do you want to get off the mountain and go fucking find a beach?” He tugs his left temple so hard that it looks like the skin might tear. “What is it that draws you to the craft? At this age, I don’t know anymore. I’ve kind of had enough. If I’m being brutally honest, I want to go on with my life.”
After the ambulance leaves with Mae and Albert, Hardy suggests that we stop at a few places on our way to the hospital. Not for my benefit, but for his friend’s. “Albert needs to be alone with his mum and his thoughts,” he says. “He’s going to be taking care of her, so it’s important he pays attention. Sometimes, when there are other people around, that’s hard to do.” Hardy isn’t trying to swashbuckle; he’s thinking of how to best help two loved ones. And, apparently, a guy he just met: Looking me up and down, he says, “We’ve had a bit of a shock ourselves. We could use some sugar.” We set out for a refreshment stand in a nearby park he first came to as a toddler with his mother to paddle around the kiddie pool, and then as a teen with Albert and others to play rugby.
When we arrive, the stand is closed. As we get back on our bikes, a father walks by carrying his son, a chubby boy with an explosion of straw-colored curls. “How old are you?” Hardy asks the boy. “He’s two,” the dad beams.
“When will you be three?” Hardy asks.
“July,” the toddler says softly.
“That’s really soon!” he says. “You’re a bit older than my youngest, who’ll be three in October. Oh, you’ll be a big boy by then. You’re already a big boy. Do you want to sit on my bike?” The boy buries his face in his father’s chest. “I appreciate I’ve made you feel nervous. This is what I will do: I will disappear,” he says, which could double as his two-sentence acting manifesto. He revs his engine over and over. As we depart, the boy watches Hardy, his mouth agape.
We cut into Richmond Park, a twenty-five-hundred-acre expanse that’s equal parts polished and untamed. When something catches Hardy’s attention—stags in the brush, a view of the Thames, a tree with knotted bark—he raises two fingers to his eyes in a V, then points so I see it too, like I’m his Dunkirk wingman.
We pull over at a dead end. With our engines rumbling, Hardy tells me that his parents moved to this part of London to enroll him in the best schools they could afford. The area is among the wealthiest in the UK, but it’s also an economic patchwork where council houses sit blocks away from mansions. “Growing up, you mix and mingle. You can sit in the shit if you want to, or you can make something of yourself,” he says. “Or you can end up under too much pressure and fading out young.”
As a child, Hardy had a strong relationship with Ann, but he butted heads with Chips. Father and son made up years ago, and Hardy resists going into detail about their difficult past. “My father was the most wonderful of teachers in a world that can be cruel,” he allows. “He treated me like an adult, as opposed to changing his persona for his child. There was no filter. Do you understand? No filter.”
In his teens, Hardy wobbled. “The centrifugal force in my life is a natural disposition to not be happy with the way I feel,” he says. That, combined with a robust contrarian bent—“Nine times out of ten, when somebody says, ‘Don’t do that,’ my instinct is to say, ‘That has to be done’ ”—got him into a fair bit of trouble. He hung out with the wrong crowds; he fought in school. “I grew up in the neighborhood being a dick,” he says. “I’ve learned and will continue to learn from being a dick. To try and somehow chisel myself into being a human being so I can respect myself when I look in the mirror. And that’s a procedure that will go on until I die.”
Starting at thirteen, he struggled with alcoholism and other addictions. He still has a soft spot for those with similar demons. In April 2017, when two kids riding stolen mopeds were T-boned at an intersection and tried to run, Hardy, who lived nearby, apprehended one of them. The Sun headline sums up how the press covered the incident: “Tom Hardy Catches Thief After Dramatic Hollywood-Style Chase Through Streets Before Proudly Saying, ‘I’ve Caught the C**t.’ ” He disputes the details of what was reported— “It wasn’t much of a chase; when I found him, he was in fucking rag order”—but that’s beside the point. The tabloids missed the real story: After the incident, he tracked down the kid he turned in and got him help. “He must stand accountable for what he’s done,” Hardy tells me. “But he’s got issues, and he’s in a bad way. Do we just give up on a sixteen-year-old?”
As a boy, Hardy was given second, third, and fourth chances. Along the way, he discovered that acting offered an outlet for his baneful discontent. He attended one drama school, then another, got kicked out twice, and was cast in Band of Brothers before he graduated.
Still, for years, he questioned his chosen path. Hardy even signed up for a Parachute Regiment training course—but never followed through. “Oh, mate, I did so much backpedaling,” he says. “The reality is that where I belonged was not there. The last person defending the realm was Mr. Hardy.” He calls the decision to back out “one of my biggest regrets. I wonder what life would’ve been like. I would’ve loved to have served and been useful.”
“You’ve summited Everest. Do you want to do it again? If I’m being brutally honest, I want to go on with my life.”
In 2003, at twenty-five, Hardy cleaned up with the help of a twelve-step program—he calls it “my first port of call”—and he’s been sober ever since. “It was hard enough for me to say, ‘I’m an alcoholic.’ But staying stopped is fucking hard.” Sitting on his Triumph, at the center of the place that held all the risks and possibilities that would define him, Hardy sounds almost wistful.
We take off through the park. He rides with his legs bowed out, his left hand resting on his knee, and his right hand holding steady on the throttle. When he rips on a vape pen, white plumes swirl around his head and dissipate into the damp air.
We head to Richmond. The town sits within the borders of Greater London, but its roots are as much in the countryside as in the city. Generations of famous Brits seeking refuge have called it home: Queen Elizabeth I liked hunting stags in the park; Charles I relocated his court here to avoid the plague; Mick Jagger lived near the Thames with Jerry Hall, who, though now married to Rupert Murdoch, apparently still co-owns the home they shared.
We stop at a café around the corner from Hardy’s place. The wall between us that crumbled upon seeing Mae—or seemed to, anyway—is fortified just as quickly. When Private Tom reaches playfully for my stack of questions and I instinctively pull them back, he casts a leery eye. “I see I’m not in the circle of trust,” Public Hardy says, when in fact I just got booted from his.
“Can I get a double espresso?” he asks our waiter.
“For sure,” the waiter says. “By the way, big fan. I always know if you’re in a movie, it’s going to be a good one.”
“Thanks. But don’t put your money on that,” Hardy says. “I’ve got to be crap at some point.”
“I would say you’re one of my top three best,” the waiter says. “Action actors,” he clarifies.
“I think I’m a bit too old now for action.”
“Except for the next Expendables,” the waiter jokes.
“I’m tempted to ask who the other two are,” Hardy says after the waiter walks off. “I showed great restraint. Great restraint.” He might claim that the opinions of others don’t matter, but this is driving him crazy. “Who are the fuckers?”
When the waiter returns, I ask. “Mark Wahlberg,” he says without delay, as if he were waiting for the question. Hardy, stone-faced, says nothing. “And Matt Damon.”
Finally, Hardy speaks. “Can I give you this?” he says, handing over a plate, any plate, just to send the waiter on his way. Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Thanks, man. Good company.”
He deals with this sort of thing all the time. “I’ve crossed the line of being a public figure. And I accept that means to a certain degree I’m public property,” he says, “even though I project an image of myself to them,” acknowledging Public Hardy in all but name. Most people he meets are lovely. But “the downside of being overt is you invite darkness,” he says. “It only takes one person to cause real harm.” He defends himself as if someone has called him out. “That’s not being paranoid. That’s just facts.”
“The downside of being overt is you invite darkness. It only takes one person to cause real harm.”
By filtering which parts of himself become public, he’s mostly okay with the balance of Private Tom and Public Hardy. Except, that is, when it comes to his children. “I will pose for you, and photos of me and my wife are fine,” he says. “But if someone takes a photo of my kids, all bets are off. I will take the camera off you and beat the fucking shit out of you.” His voice contains no hint of exaggeration. “That’s the one that hurts. My kids didn’t ask for what my job is.” He pauses. “There’s something that really upsets me about the imposition of a grown-up world on a child.”
When we spoke earlier about his relationship with Chips, he said he was working to become a better father by learning from the mistakes of his own. “In trying to protect my children, I’ll probably give them their own dose of problems,” he told me. “But I don’t want them to go through what I went through.”
At Kingston Hospital, we make our way to Mae’s room. She’s feeling better, but dried blood still cakes her face. She and Albert don’t know who or what to expect next, or how long it will be. Hardy asks what she remembers—“Hit the pavement,” she says. “Made a nice sound”—and what still hurts. We unload snacks we brought, and then we wait.
The three relax into a familiar rhythm. Age has smoothed but not erased the boys’ mischief and the mom’s sass. Hardy jokes to Mae, “All right, lovely, want salt-and-vinegar chips with a side of infectious disease? Pick up a little souvenir?” She smirks.
Hardy squeezes some sanitizer onto his hands and rubs it, then reaches for a chip. “Don’t do that,” Mae says. “Wipe off your hands first. It’s not for eating.”
“It’s better than eating disease,” Albert weighs in. “I’d rather be sanitized to death.”
“I’m gonna take my chances,” Hardy says.
“How’s your mum and dad?” she asks.
“Very good, actually,” he says. “It was my mum’s birthday last week.”
“I’m glad to see you’re cracking jokes,” Albert says.
“Me too,” Mae says.
When she leaves the room with the help of a nurse, Hardy turns to Albert and delivers a dose of optimism: “She’s walking, mate. That’s a good sign. The next thing we’re going to get is an X-ray, or maybe a CT scan if they’re concerned about bleeding or swelling in the brain. They’ve got to check all the boxes.”
Once Mae is back, Hardy steps out to talk to the nurse without saying why. “Is he using his celebrity powers?” Albert asks me. “Not the first time I’ve witnessed that.” He laughs, then quiets. “But it’s a nice tool to have.”
Hardy returns without explanation. A few minutes later, the nurse comes in. “She’s going to be seen next.”
Like that, Mae is at the top of the list.
Though Hardy is coy about how much he played the fame card, it’s clear his job here is done. As we say goodbye, Mae pulls him in close. “I want you to know that I have plans to see Venom,” she says. “You’ve done something that’s close to my heart. You know I’m a sci-fi freak.”
“You’re gonna enjoy this one,” Hardy says. “This one’s just for you. And for my boy.”
Hardy wants to exert control over his world. The brutal irony is that the more successful he becomes, the more the world controls him. But as we walk out of the hospital, I suggest that while his celebrity might feel like a burden, in the instance of Mae and Albert it was . . . He finishes my sentence: “Perfect.”
At the exit, an orderly chases us down. “Tom! Tom Hardy!” We stop. “I just love your movies. Can I take a picture?” Two more fans follow. He smiles as they gather around in the hospital parking lot and start snapping selfies.
This article appears in the Autumn'18 issue of Esquire Malaysia. Get the digital copy here.