An interview with Tom Hardy for Bronson (2008)
August 5th, 2016
By Damon Wise
This interview with Tom Hardy is a fragment of a phone conversation that was meant to last 20 minutes and went on for nearer 90. In the course of it, Hardy said goodbye to his wife and (I think newborn) child, accidentally drove off with his wife's phone, dropped it off for her at a nearby cafe and then drove to a photo shoot for Dazed & Confused, for which he was at least an hour late. I know this because the film's PR began ringing me relentlessly while Hardy was (permanently) mid-sentence, which meant I had the constant beep of an incoming call in my right ear.
It was an interesting interview because the last time I'd spoken to Hardy was on the set of Guy Ritchie's Rock-N-Rolla, where he seemed pretty pissed off about the way Bronson was heading and was withering about Nicolas Winding Refn's involvement (“I want to green-screen his miiiiind,” he drawled, doing a sarcastic but admittedly very good impression of the Danish director). Something had clearly changed, since, on this day, Hardy had nothing but good things to say about Refn...
When did you first get involved with Bronson?
Originally, I was there when Rankin was attached to direct it. Rankin and I, and a producer called Danny Hansford, made a short film about Charles Bronson, then Danny went to Vertigo Films to get some money for it. Vertigo took it on and started to work on it. Then I was off it for a little bit, because I had a play to do, and then Jason Statham turned up and asked for it to be rewritten, I think. And then he didn't want to do it. And then I got in touch with Charlie just after Man Of Mode – I did that play at the National Theatre a couple of years ago – and then I called Danny at his suggestion, and he asked if I'd be interested in doing it again. And I was, like, “Yeah!” It was about four years in all.
What happened with the short film?
It went round Charlie's family and they had a look at it. It was just a scene of me in a hostage situation. It was just to get a feel for the piece and see what Rankin was like at directing. He wanted to put something down on tape, some monologues-to-camera. It was very different to the actual film, and there was a lot of stuff that didn't make the film, where I'm in different make-ups, wearing plastic syringes on my fingers and dressed like a puppet. There's something very vaudevillian about the to-cameras in the finished movie. But initially it was just a very straightforward, AA-meeting, confessional approach. Which worked very well, in the context of that tape. But it was more of a Ken Loach kind of thing. For a while I wanted to get it written by Ailsing Walsh, who did Song For A Raggy Boy, and do it with her. That would have gone a very different route. But Vertigo wanted to go with Nicolas [Winding Refn], who made the Pusher films.
How did you take to him?
I don't think he liked me! We both came from very different angles. I don't think either of us wanted the other to be there. He didn't think I could pull it off, and I thought he was a wanker! (Laughs) Up his own arse. A posh kid. Just like me! (Laughs) But now, having worked with him, I fucking love him. Because he's a genius. He's a really good, fun artist to work with, and creatively he's brilliant. I felt very supported by him. And it was a very tough shoot, to be honest. People were walking on, walking off, the script was falling to bits at times,and we had to get a script editor to come in and rewrite lots of it. We were shooting in consecutive order, and some of the stuff came unravelled as we went along. But what we had was a really interesting study growing. It was so cool, and it looked so beautiful, and it all started to develop on set, into a very different piece. There were rewrites all the time. I wouldn't have been able to do that with anyone who wasn't a proper artist. It was like working with an elaborate theatre company.
In what way?
If you look at it, it's kind of raw. And a lot of the stuff works for that reason. It's really brave. And if it falls down, it kind of picks itself up and dusts itself down and gets on with it again. It doesn't actually feel sometimes like a film you're watching – more like a very cool selection of different scenes. It's also highly entertaining and stylish, with moments of brilliant cinema.
Did you have any input from Charlie's friends and family?
Charlie's friend Mark Fish organised all the extras, who are friends of Charlie and connected to Charlie, or served time with Charlie. His mum was in it too. (Laughs) Well, she hasn't served time with Charlie! (Laughs) Well, she has, technically – she's been through his entire incarceration but from the outside. So she was there, his cousin Lorraine was there – all these people that authenticated the movie. Which was fabulous, because we had the entire lot coming on set. Which meant we had this... not pressure, as such, but an incentive to get it as right as possible.
Where did you start?
With Charlie, there's so many different aspects of Charlie to get a hold of and start with. It was very important to know which part of Charlie was the most neutral part, because it was going to be impossible not judge him. Actors are often told, “You mustn't judge your characters,” but sometimes it's very difficult to put a foot on the ladder if you don't start making some decisions. And when you're talking about Charlie, he's in a prison cell. He's been in a prison cell for 34 years, in solitary confinement, in maximum security. It's a very specific place. So his psychology comes from a place that's quite unique. I mean, I have no other reference points to guide me. I'm from East Sheen, I went to public school where I learned Latin at the age of nine, and certain expectations were made of me to go to St Paul's, Oxbridge maybe, and all that kind of thing. And I failed systematically to meet the mark – who I am and what I should have been are too very different things. But I began to realise that for Charlie it's exactly the same.
Was it difficult to get in to see him?
The entire process of getting in to see Charlie was difficult! There were a lot of prejudices I had to get over. And fear. Utter terror! (Laughs) And this was before I had to even think about putting on weight and all that kind of stuff. In the beginning I was even worried about giving my address away. For example, right at the start, he wanted to get me a pass so I could go and see him. I said, “Great.” He said, “Send me your address and I'll send you one out.” I said, “Yeah, cool,” and put the return address as my agent's. And then he phoned me up at home!!! (laughs) He said, (adopts Bronson's voice) “Tom. Tom, mate. You can't put the address of your agent on the back, see, cos the Home Office has to come and clear you, see? You have to put your house address on it.” I was like, “Oh, yes, right, I knew that...” (Laughs) It was kind of pathetic of me! But the more I got to know him, the more honest I was.
How was it to visit him?
It was a very interesting position to find myself in as a young actor, actually, and I'm very, very grateful for it. For example, the first time I went in to see him I was bricking it. Absolutely bricking it. Because I wanted to know what was going on. I wanted to know how to be calm in that environment and how to be unfazed. Because there I was, with all these fucking armed robbers, murderers and villains. You go in to see Charlie and the first person you see is Rob Maudsley, in the yard, and he's eaten two people's brains. It sounds funny, but he has. (Laughs) And I'm an armchair psychologist. It's not like I'm a doctor or lawyer. I have no sway in getting this man out of prison. It's not my MO to try to get him out of prison – I'm there to portray him, and that comes with its own pressure.
How did you get through it?
I just soaked up every single piece of of stimulus, from walking through the security checks, to seeing how many chocolate bars and chocolate cakes there were in the visiting room, to watching the old lady who's selling them, all the guards... I was soaking up all the different rooms I was walking through. Then I got to the segregated unit and I heard this voice coming out going, (adopts thundering Bronson voice) “OO'S THAT THERE, THEN??” This Dickensian voice comes booming out of this shoebox-shaped, concrete dungeon!
What's his cell like?
There are these little cages that they get to exercise in. There's a 20ft wall that separates it from the the segregation unit, so they only have, like 20 square foot of sky. Ever. Then there were the ten guards that bring him to his visiting room – and you're not even allowed in the same room as him. He's in the other room! You're standing in the cell with a dumb waiter in the wall and he's brought in on the other side. And this guy comes out on the other side...
What does Bronson look like in the flesh?
He's blue, he's that white! He's so pale. He's got these little purple spectacles and this big fucking moustache, and he looks like the arse-end of a great white shark, the way he moves. He's solid. But compact. And neat, in his Reebok Classics, his Reebok tracksuit pants and a white PE T-shirt. And he comes in and he looks at me like Mole out of Wind In The Willows, sort of sniffing the air. These big fucking eyes that are magnified by these purple spectacles that you can't really see through, but when the light catches them you're like, all right, there's someone well behind there! And he shouts, “BILL SYKES!” – because I'd just done Oliver Twist for the BBC – “WHAT A FUCKING PART!” It was very disarming! And he thrusts his arm through the bars, and it's huge – a massive forearm – for me to shake it! And I thought, “Oh no, I've got to shake his hand now...” (Laughs) I was such a pussy! Such a wanker!
Because I was judging this guy! So I grabbed his hand and I just kept shaking it, because I was nervous! I thought, I've got to ground this very quickly. What am I here for? I'm here because it's a challenge. This character is fascinating and this situation is a university. So I sat down and he goes, (adopts Bronson voice) “Now, Tom. A lot of people think I wear these spectacles for sinister weasons...” I made a note: his Rs are like Jonathan Ross's Rs! Not always, but sometimes, and I was like, “Awww...” And then he said, “But I don't. I wear them because me eyes are FUCKED from all the solitary what I've done, see?” Now, in a minute I'm gonna let you try them on and you're gonna see exactly what I see.” He took them off and gave them to me – and they're bottle-bottoms. He's blind as a bat! I thought, “Hang on, this isn't adding up.” And then he proceeded to talk at me for two hours; part of it was show and part of it was nerves. And you've got to remember that this is a guy who spends 20 hours a day in a room with his thoughts. and I suddenly realised that I was an extension to a certain kind of creative freedom.
What kind of shape is he in these days?
He's very fit. He's 55 years of age, so he's not a spring chicken, but this man does 2-3,000 press-ups a day. Religiously. And what I've come to learn, affectionately, from the fellows that are involved with him, is that he's a loon. I mean that as a term of affection – one of his books is called Loonyology! He's got a physical, elemental strength. And a massive capacity for mental strength. I mean, he's been incarcerated for 34 years. It's funny, because all the guards in Wakefield, pretty much about 90 per cent of the ones I've met, have said, “He shouldn't be here.” So you've got this really interesting dichotomy of a man. On the one hand he's incredibly dangerous, but on the other he's considered to have mellowed in his old age, and also to be past his sell-by date as a dangerous figure. I mean, I've heard “screws”, as they're affectionately called, say, “I've been with him on his worst days, I've rolled around on the floor with him, and he's finished.”
So do you think he's still a dangerous man?
He's presented in the press as an incredibly dangerous and violent prisoner, but a lot of the stuff that comes out in the press just isn't true. Originally, I dropped out of the film because they kept putting it back and I couldn't afford to spend a year sitting and waiting. So I took a job at the National Theatre, and I was travelling in one day, and someone said, “Tom, what have you done?” I said, “What are you on about?” He said, “Have you seen the papers?” I picked up the paper and the headline said, “SNUB FURY OF JAIL CON!” It said, “Britain's most dangerous,violent, hideous monster prisoner Charles Bronson smashed his cell yesterday and demanded a sit-down meeting with actor Tom Hardy after being snubbed...” So I phoned up his family and they said, “Oh no, it's not true, he's absolutely fine.” It was completely untrue. It hadn't happened.
So why do you think it was printed?
It took me a while to realise that a lot of stuff comes out about Charlie when he's due for parole, so they keep knocking him back. It's become a real old cat and mouse game. Granted, he's no angel. He's a naughty boy, in inverted commas. As in, his kind of naughty is (shouting) INCREDIBLY NAUGHTY!!! (Laughs) But if you're going to have rank and file discrimination between who's naughty and who's not, he's never murdered anybody. He's in a segregated unit with seven other prisoners, all of whom are multiple murderers to a man. Robert Maudsley is probably the man who's killed the least, and only eaten the brains of those two people – both of them being his cellmates. So you've got this character, this artist, painter and poet, who has a seven-inch stone plinth as a bed, a cardboard table and a cardboard chair, a camera on him all the time, and a cage within a cage. He has to roll up his bedding every morning, he's got a shoe box with his stuff in it, and that's it. And it's been like that for 34 years. And you've gotta think, well, Ian Huntley's got a fucking PlayStation! Charlie's getting Draconian treatment. And it's quite sad. You go into the place, and it's a mix between a hospital and a care-in-the-community centre, but always with this edge of incredible violence. You can feel it. It's like a submarine. But it's a hard, hard life.
So you have mixed feelings about him?
Yes. You can say, “He committed a crime – that's why he's in prison,” and I accept that. But he's suffering. I mean, there are much, more dangerous people out there. I heard of a lad who was sentenced last week for 35 years for pouring a kettle of hot water down somebody's throat for not having any money. They cut his nipples off, his ears, his lips, and because he didn't have any fucking money they poured hot water down his throat! That guy got 35 years, but he's not in a segregated unit! Now, I can't speak for Phil, the art teacher that Charlie took hostage – I hear they've made amends, but I didn't hear that from Phil himself – so I don't know the amount of trauma that Charlie has caused people, but it's a very tricky subject to take on. I must say, I was terrified to get involved and meet these people. But at the same time, it strikes me that, in some ways, they're no more unscrupulous that some of the people you meet in the film industry...
Posted 22nd June 2011 by Damon Wise, Film Writer