Tom Hardy has a firm handshake. It's the kind of handshake you'd expect from someone like him, a strong grip that suggests he's all business, that he's not someone to be trifled with or pushed to the brink, that the tattooed biceps peeking out of his sleeves could inflict Bane-level damage if necessary. It is effortlessly intimidating, this greeting.
The grasp doesn't match with the goofy grin he's sporting, however, as he welcomes you by saying "Hi, I'm Tommy" in a raspy English accent. Or the impromptu one-act play he launches into as he sees a poster for his new film, The Drop, sitting in this Toronto hotel room on a coffee table, waiting for him to sign it. (In mock-outraged movie star voice: "What do these people want from me? How much more can I give?!?" In whispery, stern voice: "The man is terminal, Tom. He's only got days to live." In embarrassed, ashamed celebrity voice: "Oh, oh my god, mate, I'm…oh, sorry, I…ah.") Or how, when the movie's director Michael R. Roskam walks into the room five minutes into the interview and Hardy notices that all three of us are wearing baseball caps and have beards, he'll gleefully start cackling and yell, "Fucking hell, it's first official meeting of the 1970s-Steven-Spielberg Fan Club here!"
It's a truism that actors are nothing like the characters they play (the phenomenon is called acting, and some do it better than others), and that a star's screen persona and the person you would encounter if, say, you met said star during a press junket are probably going to be polar opposites (unless the gentleman in question is Steven Seagal). Encountering Hardy, you don't expect to chat with Bronson's violent convict, Warrior's MMA fighter Tommy Conlon, The Dark Knight Rises' mushmouthed supervillain or Mad Max, who he'll be playing in the franchise reboot to be released next year. You expect a handsome, muscular guy from London, prepped to go into movie-promotional mode.
But the difference between the guy in Roskam's gritty adaptation of Dennis Lehane's short story, Hardy's past roles, and the gentleman that's come to the Toronto International Film Festival to show the movie before it opens on September 19th is enough to make you dizzy. His Drop character, Bob, is a quiet, quite possibly brain-damaged bartender who shuffles in the shadows of Russian mobsters and outer-borough tough guys like his cousin Marv (James Gandolfini, in his final role). Even after an encounter with an abandoned puppy and the dog's troubled owner (Noomi Rapace) changes his life, Bob is still a recessive figure. The human livewire standing in front of you, however, is as fast and motormouthed as the character is slow and silent, as philosophically deep as the round-the-way guy is dim-witted, as rat-a-tat funny as his tragically sad sack Brooklynite is humorless. It's arguably the most immersive, disappearing-act performance the actor has given to date, and his inherent manicness makes you appreciate what he does with the role that much more. The way he's bouncing about in the room and riffing on everything he sees, you wouldn't have thought Hardy played Bob. You'd have guessed he played the puppy.
"I used Ted Bundy as a reference point, actually" Hardy says, puffing away on an e-cigarette. "I mean, there's a lot of stuff I threw in there as I was trying to find my way: a lot of the Lenny character in Of Mice and Men, a little bit of The Sunshine Boys in terms of the relationship with Gandolfini, the classic notion of the bartender as therapist. I understood that Bob had a small racketeering thing going with a gang in the past, he'd been involved with some shady types and participated in stuff he wasn't really proud of. But then I started to think — maybe this guy is a serial killer? Maybe he's an alpha predator disguised as someone harmless. Those are the ones you have to look out for, man. You see someone sitting in the corner with glasses and a book, and then it turns out he's a Mossad agent and can kill you with a spoon."
"What it came down to, ultimately, was that Bob was just a very lonely guy," Hardy continues. "He's filled with pain and he wants to belong. You hear about psychopaths bonding with cartoon characters, because they aren't real. I always thought of him as being like that until he meets that dog; then he starts to care for something else, and it throws him." The tentative bond between the character, his canine friend and Rapace's wary young lady attracts the attention of her ex, a bruiser who tries to intimidate and shake down the quiet gent. "Well, really, the whole point about Bob is: He's always being underestimated. That becomes apparent by the end. The notion was just when and how to make good on that by playing him as something other than a tough guy or a fool."
"Brooklyn is a tough neighborhood," Roskam adds.
"It was ‘til you showed up, mate!" Hardy says, laughing loudly.
I used Ted BUndy as a Reference Point, Actually.
Both men say that it was Lehane, who wrote the screenplay based on his contribution to the 2009 crime-lit anthology Boston Noir entitled "Animal Rescue" (and who decided to relocate the story from Beantown to one of Brooklyn's rougher working-class neighborhoods), that attracted them to this tale of pets and thugs, though Hardy confesses that he'd hoped to work with Roskam after seeing the Belgian director's Oscar-nominated drama about a steroid-addled cattle farmer, Bullhead (2011.) "The movie genuinely fucked me up," the actor says. "It just left me a wreck: ‘Well, thanks for that, mate…I'm going to just go stare into the abyss now for a while.' But I could see how talented he was." When it's pointed out that both Bullhead and The Drop are fueled by notions of bruised masculinity — and that Hardy's tour de force performance in his other film this year, the one-man-in-a-car character study Locke, is essentially a long monologue about modern manhood under duress — the director and his star exchange a look.
"So we're going to talk about masculinity now? I can smell the pheromones already," Roskam says.
"We've all got beards, we can talk about manly shit!" Hardy cracks.
"Let's grab our drums and go into the woods," Roskam adds.
"Do you need the talking stick?" Hardy asks, before throwing his foot up on to the director's knee, where it will stay for the rest of the interview.
"Tom and I actually talked a lot about manhood while we were making this," the director says, "and the image we kept coming back to, time and again, was an ape. Have you ever seen a gorilla in a zoo? There's a small amount of glass between him and you. He'll look at you with complete innocence, but he's still a creature of great strength. You want to give him a hug, and if you touch him, he'll kill you. Those are my characters in a nutshell." He pauses for a second. "That's kind of how James thought of his character as well, wasn't it?"
Hardy nods, and goes quiet for the first time since he walked in to the room. "It's very weird talking about him in the past tense," he admits. "I miss him a lot. I don't think I've ever met another actor who was so open to other people's ideas. There was no sense of ego when you worked with him; it was always ‘Well, what do you think? What do you have here?' He brings a huge amount to the table and he facilitated the space for you to bring stuff as well. When two people like to work, that's when the magic happens. And James loved to work, even though he was incredibly insecure about his talent. But you were drawn to him."
"Philip Seymour Hoffman was like that as well," Roskam says. "Very insecure, incredibly talented, and you simply wanted to be around him all the time. And they would both be making fun of us for talking about manliness right now."
Hardy rolls his eyes and goes into an impeccable Hoffman impersonation: "Uh, I dunno, you guys…just stop being such wimps and go be men already!" Both of them bark out a laugh, and as Hardy stands up to say goodbye, he swats away an outstretched hand and pulls his interviewer in for a back-patting bro-hug. "Bob might shake your hand, but I have to let go of him now, mate. This is how the apes do it."