Amid all the aggressive dream engineering and very loud horns of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, Tom Hardy managed to stand out as the debonair, scene stealing, dry-witted Eames. It was Hardy’s big-time introduction to American audiences, though he’d already made a name for himself in his native Britain and among casting directors with the controversial 2008 prison art film Bronson. Hardy seems to have it all: Even with all his coy, “of course I’ve kissed other dudes” admissions, he’s got a masculine, macho, yet sympathetic presence and he can really act. (If 2011’s MMA film Warrior didn’t do well at the box office, it wasn’t Hardy’s fault: He got great reviews.) In 2012, Hardy’s going to see if he can parlay these skills into full-fledged stardom with two mainstream movies on his docket: the Reese Witherspoon–led spy-rom-com This Means War, out today, and a second Nolan outing as the lead, unintelligible villain in this summer’s much-anticipated The Dark Knight Rises. On the eve of Hardy’s commercial breakout, Vulture spoke to industry insiders to answer the question: If Tom Hardy were a a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: After winning a British modeling competition at the age of 19, Hardy landed small roles in Black Hawk Down and Band of Brothers, the HBO World War II mini-series that launched many a young actor’s career. He worked steadily for the next seven years, popping up in everything from Star Trek: Nemesis, to the 2004 British crime thriller Layer Cake, to Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (in a powdered wig, no less). Versatility would also define his breakout period, which included roles as a gay gangster in Guy Ritchie’s 2008 RocknRolla and, crucially, as the notoriously violent British inmate Charles Bronson. (Like any respectable British actor, he also took a stab at the classics with Wuthering Heights.) Bronson earned Hardy rave reviews and major attention in the U.K.; his charming Eames in Christopher Nolan’s Inception established him as an up-and-comer in America. With his profile on the rise, Hardy has continued to take on every type of role — a rough-edged marine turned martial arts fighter in 2011’s Warrior, a conflicted agent in the restrained Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and now a leading man in McG’s big-budget This Means War. He’ll extend his commercial streak with a turn as Bane in this summer’s Dark Knight Rises.
Peers: Hardy (34) is on par with his This Means War co-star Chris Pine (31) and runs with up-and-comers like Taylor Kitsch (30), Ryan Reynolds (35), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (30), and Channing Tatum (31).
Market Value: Mostly unknown. Inception took home a mind-boggling $825 worldwide, but on the strength of giant names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Christopher Nolan; Warrior, Hardy’s only major U.S. role to date, earned an underwhelming $13 million domestically. Though Hardy is technically a co-star in This Means War, his name recognition trails both Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine, and the movie will likely be used as a barometer of Witherspoon’s earning power rather than a measure of Hardy’s ability to open a movie. The Dark Knight Rises is sure to be a giant success, whether audiences can even understand Hardy, much less recognize him, though if his Bane gets anything like the sort of critical recognition Heath Ledger’s the Joker did, it certainly will help him. A bigger test might not come until Depression-era bootleg drama Wettest County — and even there, a well-stocked cast (Jessica Chastian, Gary Oldman, Shia LaBeouf, Mia Wasikowska) will share the burden.
What Hollywood Says: To hear Hollywood’s power players explain it, Tom Hardy is Barack Obama in 2007: Lots of talent, huge potential — and still a relative unknown to most of the nation. “He’s not a movie star,” says one top agent, “He’s a great actor, but he’s an industry darling with major heat and goodwill, even though no one in 99 percent of this country knows who he is. Shia LaBeouf is Brad Pitt compared to him. But the upside of this is that he’s very cast-able, whereas if Ashton Kutcher has another bomb, he’s out of the movie business.”
And like pre-candidate Obama, a second agent argues Hardy seems part of a group of “unconventional leading men, like Jeremy Renner (41) and Michael Fassbender (34), and Christian Bale (38) — guys who might not have been the prettiest kids at 25, but who at 35 are somewhere between ‘leading man’ and ‘character actor.’”
The problem is, neither Hardy nor Hollywood seems to be clear on which career this cohort wants when they grow up. “The question is not ‘How do you cross them over to gold-plated movie star?’” explains this second agent, “Because frankly, I don’t know that any of them want to. Look at Christian Bale. He’s a child star who, through his work, forced people to take him seriously — and he has deliberately vaporized his public persona. Most people don’t even know what country he’s from. It doesn’t make him the easiest guy to sell a movie on his back. A guy like Hardy or Fassbender fits in that category, too. Guys like this, they can’t sit between Brad Pitt and George Clooney on [Jay] Leno’s couch.”
Part of the problem with Hardy’s lack of profile is his seeming disregard for publicity, which many U.K. actors view as unseemly or arrogant. “People like Tom, they don’t value PR,” says one top entertainment firm PR owner. “They look at media requests as an obligation or something the studio wants me to do, rather than, ‘This is good for me, so how can I best represent myself?’”
The next few movies we’ll see from Hardy won’t offer much clarity on his persona , either. This Means War is tracking poorly, but more to the point, seems a poor choice for someone who wants a serious, actor-ly career. “I don’t know what Hardy’s appetite is,” frets our second agent. “The thing that makes This Means War a strange choice is not just they’re selling a feathered fish — I mean, ‘guns and flowers’? Rather, it’s that if you look at guys like Christian Bale, Sean Penn, or Daniel Day-Lewis? Those guys don’t do this movie. But if you want to be the next Will Smith, you view this movie as like a Hitch, and you do.”
Also working in his favor is the fact that Hardy has yet to stick his neck out and attempt to carry an entire movie. “You have a certain number of bullets you can use when you shoot broad, and to use them on this is regrettable,” says our second agent. “If This Means War tanks the way everyone expects it to, he will have two bombs in a row [Hardy’s Warrior also failed to perform], but it’s not his bomb. It’ll be perceived as Reese Witherspoon’s, not his and Chris’s.”
Analysis: If Hardy wants to make it big, he’ll need to start taking risks, not minimizing them. “At a certain point, if you want to play the movie star game, you need to put your name above the title and take the swing,” explains one top talent manager. “Until you do, you’re never fully exposed.”
It helps that lately, Hollywood’s love affair with brands as replacements for stars seems to have fizzled and big stars are again starting to carry pictures. “It’s fun to see Tom Cruise succeed with Ghost Protocol and Denzel doing his thing in Safe House,” explains this talent manager. “From the talent perspective, this is our business. It’s exciting to see talent at least equitable with IP [intellectual property] these days.”
The play for Hardy to make, says our first agent, is to take advantage of this trend. “You gotta pair him with another male star doing an action movie, like the runaway train movie with Denzel [Unstoppable]. Or a big comedy, cause he’s funny, too. People get to sample him that way, and like him, too.”
Our second agent agrees and notes that “being the villain in probably the biggest action hero franchise in the world [The Dark Knight] is a good place to start. And both Chris Pine and Tom Hardy have huge franchise sequels coming out, so by the time both of those movies come out, the underperformance of This Means War will be a distant memory. And so I think now would be a good time to do an interesting filmmaker-driven movie. Whether or not he gets a huge amount of credit for Dark Knight because his face is obscured, he’ll be perceived as someone with a lot of foreign value. He should make a list of the filmmakers who’ve made things he’s loved and respected, and go make a movie with them.”
Bottom Line: Versatility is both a blessing and a curse — it allows a talented actor like Hardy to show off his range, but it makes him largely inaccessible as a name brand. His reluctance to establish any set career path, or to promote himself beyond the work, is his biggest liability. The fundamentals are in place, but until Tom Hardy decides who he wants to be, audiences won’t be sure of him, either.
Rating: Accumulate/Weak Buy