On the deck of a photo studio in Hollywood, Tom Hardy is sitting in the sun, explaining the rules of his favorite game. "Not in the Face is something that me and the lads play on set when we get bored," he tells me. "We fuck off and play Not in the Face."
"It's where you shoot each other, but not in the face, obviously," says Hardy, rifling through a packet of Sour Patch Kids. "If you get a scar on the face, then the makeup department has to deal with it."
One might wonder, given the provocative title of this time-wasting game, what exactly the participants are using as ammunition. "Whatever you want, mate," Hardy says. "Ideally, nothing that's gonna kill you or put you in the hospital." He fixes me with a knowing grin. "You know what the rules are now, yeah?"
It sounds like there's really only one rule, I reply.
Hardy nods, crossing his tattooed arms: "One rule. Not in the face."
Most actors would consider the face to be their moneymaker and protect it accordingly; perversely, Hardy has made the most money when that handsome mug was covered up. As the masked villain Bane in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy commanded the screen in a billion-dollar grosser but became not a lick more recognizable because of it, while follow-ups like Locke and Lawless won him good reviews but made hardly a dent in the box office. "No one recognizes me for shit," laughs the 37-year-old Brit. "I can't get a free Coca-Cola in this city! Which is a good thing — I don't deserve a free Coke, I'm just an actor. But maybe things will change."
They're likely to, if this week's Mad Max: Fury Road becomes the blockbuster it deserves to be. One of the most eye-popping, balls-out action movies ever made, Fury Road casts Hardy as the postapocalyptic wanderer Max Rockatansky, a role made famous by Mel Gibson in three movies directed by George Miller. After spending the last 15 years making family films like Happy Feet and Babe: Pig in the City, Miller has returned to live-action to reboot his seminal series, and he's made a dazzling installment that's not only the best Mad Max yet but one of the best movies of the year. "You are getting your popcorn-crunchin', sit-back-and-watch-a-movie extravaganza," Hardy says, "but it's a thinking man's action movie. A wise man's movie, actually, because George is pushing 70 years of age, and he's turned in what is arguably one of the most youthful things I've seen in my life."
Hardy plays Max as a tortured man of few words; in real life, the fast-talking, digressive actor often packs more into a single sentence than he's given to say in the entirety of Fury Road. Dialogue is perhaps the only thing Miller skimped on in the over-the-top movie, but that was literally by design: Instead of writing a traditional screenplay for the film, Miller and two artists storyboarded Fury Road shot by shot, and the final film hews almost exactly to his original vision. "He carved every single performance with a scalpel," says Hardy. "If we could have been animated figures, it would have probably been easier for him."
Fortunately, animation has little place in Fury Road, where Miller and a crack team of stunt men, artisans, and practical-effects pioneers engineered a movie-long chase sequence with minimal CGI. As Max and his wary ally Furiosa (Charlize Theron) flee across the desert with a caravan of masked baddies in hot pursuit, cars collide and fuel tankers explode for real, each spectacular setpiece a rebuke to those action movies whose computer-generated visuals feel increasingly weightless.
"Chris Nolan does the same thing as well," says Hardy. "He takes you, the audience, and goes, 'Alright, here's as close to the action as you can possibly get, and in order to do it, we're actually going to flip trucks and make people actually do these stunts.' To me, that's better than CGI, where you get lost. I play a lot of Xbox One games, and even some of those get to be a bit too much to follow at times. So why would I go to a cinema to watch a computer game?"
No green-screen vistas for this crew, then: Miller and his actors shot the bulk of Fury Road in the remote deserts of Namibia. Far from home and thrown together in the cabin of a truck during most shooting days, the actors had only themselves to rely on, and that pressure-cooker environment was rumored to create some tension between Miller's two leads. I ask Hardy what he and Theron talked about between takes, and the answer is, they didn't. "We were just waiting for the next shot, really," he says.
Either that, or Hardy would escape the truck to go play Not in the Face with his stunt doubles. Whenever Hardy mentions a friend from the production, it's not a fellow actor; instead, it's usually a guy from the movie's armory, or another of the movie's unseen laborers. "And I'm another very small part of that machine," he says, determined as ever to deflate his own incipient stardom. "I'm a bit shy in that sense, and I like to keep to myself. I think, innately, that's always going to be more of a characteristic to me than the need to be anything more." Besides, says Hardy, "When push comes to shove and the bottom falls out and there's no money left — and we do end up in an apocalyptic world — no fame's gonna save me from being eaten!"
And what if things don't get that grim? After all, Hardy's also got the eagerly anticipated The Revenant coming at the end of the year, where he stars opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in a revenge thriller for Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu. What if Hardy's face gets exactly as well known as Hollywood hopes, and the free Coca-Colas start rolling in and never stop? "Nothing really lasts forever, does it?" he growls, unable to accept the notion. "Today's news is tomorrow's toilet roll, and I'm in the business of humiliation."
The idea that failure is always close at hand — that even if Fury Road makes Hardy a megastar, there will surely be a dud down the line to dull his shine — sits much better on his shoulders. "It's key," he says. "If you're not failing, you're not fucking doing your job properly. To find characters, one has to always play. You have to be open to rejection, failure, and humiliation, and one has to be brave in that sense."
He pops a Sour Patch Kid, then puts his statement more simply. "There's two kinds of acting: There's convincing and not convincing," he says, adding with a ratatat laugh, "And I'm guilty of both!"