Not every actor can go normcore. Wipe off Johnny Depp’s stage makeup, and you’ve got an actor who seems ill at ease in his own skin. The athletic Zac Efron comes to life when he’s moving, but his inner light goes out when forced to be still. And though Kristen Wiig is skilled at playing subtle, there comes a point — as in the recent Hateship, Loveship — where her darting, observant eyes indicate an intelligence that’s supposed to elude her more simple character.
You’d be forgiven for expecting those same things to trip up Tom Hardy, whose new film Locke is a one-man show — and the titular character, construction foreman Ivan Locke, is quite an ordinary man at that. The 36-year-old Hardy is best known for his physically outsize roles — think of the masked Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, or the fearsomely muscled MMA fighter in Warrior — and rarely repeats an onscreen look twice. Even his buff body is a facade: Though Hardy strikes an aggressive, bare-chested stance on the cover of this month’s Esquire, he admits inside, “I don’t feel very manly … so I seek it, to mimic it.”
How could an unusual actor like Hardy, then, play a defiantly small-scaled character like Ivan Locke, who spends the film’s entire 85-minute running time sitting in a car, making calls on his drive home? Quite well, actually: Just as the film strips the narrative down to its most compelling essentials, where the plot consists only of what Locke says to his family and his colleagues on those weighty phone calls, so too does Hardy still manage to captivate in his most unvarnished performance yet.
“It's his ability to become someone entirely, the ability to disappear into another person,” explains the film’s director Steven Knight. “It's also that people look at him when he's onscreen, more than anyone else. I don't think you can learn that. Some people have it, some people don’t."
Hardy, though, is more self-effacing about his work — and it is work to him, no matter how effortlessly he seems to slip into the skin of another person. “I don't believe in the magic of the theater as much as I believe in control and manipulation and illusion and sleight of hand,” Hardy says, admitting that he’d watch his performance again and again on the monitor after takes, trying to calibrate it just so: “A lot of actors may think they're doing something, but what's coming across is something else entirely.”
Hardy has a complicated relationship with his own image, but he’s not afraid of it. Good thing, too, since Locke never cuts away to another actor. “I don't trust a professional who hasn't seen or watched or studied their work,” he says, tut-tutting the movie stars who claim to be too self-conscious to do so. “It's like boxers: Fighters watch their own fights and see where they make mistakes. It doesn't mean that they forget how to fight when they get in the ring.”
Trust comes up again and again when you talk to Hardy, who likes to describe himself as a “meat puppet” at the service of his director, but who is hardly a passive participant when making a film. The article in Esquire feinted at Hardy’s rumored feuds with Charlize Theron (with whom he stars in the forthcoming reboot of Mad Max) and the director Nicolas Winding Refn (who gave Hardy a big break with 2008’s Bronson); he’s also admitted to an altercation with Shia LaBeouf on the set of Lawless, but to be fair, the list of people beefing with LaBeouf is long. I ask Hardy, does he grapple with trust issues on set? If so, a film like Locke — which Hardy shot in a logistically tense six days, sometimes filming only one full, unbroken take a night — would seem to put those issues to the ultimate test.
“It’s funny that you say ‘trust,’” he muses. “I trust anyone, implicitly, until they fuck me over. When they do, that's the end of it. Trust is something that in my gig, you have to give it immediately; otherwise, you're not going to get any results. You have to be willing to give absolutely everything of yourself at the drop of a hat, even when you're dealing with the most untrustworthy, unscrupulous people in the business.”
Return Hardy’s trust and he’ll reward you, but test his patience at your peril. “When you're working with directors who don't know what they're doing or what they want, they often tend to put on a controlled mask,” says Hardy. “Now, I lie for a living, so I can smell when somebody's full of shit, and as soon as I realize that, we're going to have a problem. We're doing something that requires us to be open and honest to get the best result possible, so the dynamic between the actor and the director is about cutting straight to the work and about how we can best serve that work as a team.”
Fortunately, Hardy found that on Locke, where he and Knight were of such like minds about the character that he required “minimal intervention” during the shoot. “I do require the director to know a vast amount about what he’s talking about — and a bit more than me, too, so I can feel safe,” says Hardy. “That's what makes Steve so exceptional: He knows much more about this world than I do. That makes my job much easier, that I'm not trying to put out other fires laterally. I can just concentrate on my character and that's when I'm happiest.”
Perhaps that’s why Hardy has no trouble becoming a working stiff like Ivan Locke: Like any ordinary man, he just wants to get through his day unencumbered and trust that his boss will do right by him. He even frames the actor-director relationship in a way that any blue-collar worker can understand. “At the end of the day, I serve the badge,” Hardy says, though his insistence that he’s a beta male at heart is spiked with an irreverent follow-up: “But I can quickly tell who warrants that badge, and who's just wearing a silly hat.” Not that Tom Hardy has anything against silly hats, or even masks — he's worn more than a few of them over the course of his career. He just doesn't need them as much as you might think.