Tough, rough, hardy

Tom Hardy was only six weeks old when filming on the first Mad Max movie began in 1977.

Now, 37 years later, the Englishman finds himself playing the eponymous anti-hero of the dystopian world created by director George Miller in his hit trilogy of Mad Max films from 1979 to 1985.

Even though Hardy is acknowledged as one of the most gifted dramatic actors of his generation, he tells reporters in Los Angeles he never expected to land the iconic role made famous by Australian star Mel Gibson.

Like many others, he assumed Australian writer-director Miller would look for another Aussie to fill Gibson's shoes in his long- awaited fourth film, Mad Max: Fury Road, which opens in Singapore tomorrow.

"When it popped up on the circuit that Mad Max was being cast, I didn't think I'd be in the running for that because I was working with Joel Edgerton at the time," Hardy says, referring to his Aussie co-star in the 2011 mixed martial arts drama Warrior.

Another reason he thought an Aussie would be picked: Like the earlier films, Mad Max: Fury Road is set in a desolate post-apocalyptic world that Miller originally envisioned as Australia in the not-too-distant future.

But Miller obviously saw something in the stage-trained Hardy.

The actor has earned widespread acclaim for his thoughtful and visceral performances in films such as Warrior, Bronson (2008), The Dark Knight Rises (2012) and Locke (2013), where he has excelled at playing dark, tortured characters.

"When Tom walked into the room, he felt so much like the character to me," says Miller, whose films follow the adventures of Max Rockatansky, a man trying to survive a cruel world overrun by gangs and warlords. "And I'd seen him in movies like Bronson and the wonderful miniseries Stuart: A Life Backwards, and began to realise this guy will take on anything."

Hardy, on the other hand, never assumes anything when he tries out for a role. Even after appearances in action blockbusters such as Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight Rises, where he played the masked villain Bane, he says imagining he will be given "the opportunity to play the lead in a huge movie is kind of beyond me".

"I'm still coming from a place where I will do anything and I'm very grateful just to be working, as a working actor."

Nevertheless, he and co-stars Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult jumped at the chance to audition for roles in the franchise, which has been credited with influencing an entire generation of film-makers and other artists with its quirky, neo-mediaeval dystopian imagery.

It pioneered this and many other tropes of the apocalyptic genre, its distinctive visual style and ground- breaking action sequences also widely copied.

Hoult, the 25-year-old British star of X-Men: First Class (2011) and X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014), was too young to realise where a lot of these ideas and images originated.

"I hadn't seen the original Mad Maxes, then I watched them before I auditioned with George and was blown away by the fact that so many of the things I had seen in popular culture were based on this world that George created. And they stood the test of time," he says.

Hardy agrees, noting that "a lot of popular culture has been affected by what was clearly this seminal work that George created" with the original Mad Max film in 1979. "Computer games have been completely inundated with the imagery from George's mind," he says.

At a press conference in Hollywood to promote the film, he and the other actors are clearly in awe of their director - a mild-mannered, grey-haired 70-year- old whose eclectic body of work also includes family films such as the animated hits Happy Feet (2006) and Babe: Pig In The City (1998), which he wrote and directed as well.

Theron had been wanting to work with him for years. "I have found myself talking with other directors whom I hold in high regard and I've heard them talk about George too."

The 39-year-old South African actress (Prometheus, 2012; Monster, 2003) was also drawn to the fact that in this new instalment, Miller created a female protagonist Furiosa, her character, who is more than a match for Max as the pair team up to defy a tyrannical warlord.

"That there was going to be this awesome female role and that she would stand next to Max - I was intrigued by all of that," she says.

Hardy reveals that he, too, was won over after meeting the director: "We sat down and talked for hours about theatre, analysis and people."

The actor delivers a heartfelt plug for the film, noting that as an action movie, it is entirely original rather than being adapted from a superhero comic book as many action franchises today are.

"What's really lovely about this movie is it's a fantastic epic spectacle and super-movie. It's relentless and it's live action, but it's underpinned by a huge mythology which has been around for about 40 years and steeped in all kinds of human-condition tales from Greek tragedy all the way through to modern socio-political symbolism.

"But at the same time, it's about the cars, explosions and stunts. So if the kids want to go out and watch a movie that's epic, then go watch this instead of something which they can play on their Xbox."

Even more impressive is that these stories and characters - each of whom has a detailed backstory created by Miller, the cast reveal - were all conceived in the brain of one man.

"It's all from his head, just one man. I'm quite blown away just by that, really, and proud to be a small part of a very big engine," Hardy continues.

"It just has to be seen because it's head and shoulders above probably any epic superhero movie that's out there. I can certainly speak because I'm not attached to one right now."

Hardy v Gibson

Tom Hardy

Age: 37

Nationality: English

Family: Married to English actress Charlotte Riley, 33, since last year (his second marriage). He has a six-year-old son, Louis, with ex-girlfriend Rachael Speed.

His Mad Max: Buff and gruff. He is a man of few words, but there is the hint of a soft heart under that steely exterior.

Career before Mad Max: Hardy was already a Hollywood A-lister, with big commercial films such as Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) to his credit.

He is also a respected dramatic actor who began his career on the London stage and went on to star in a string of critically acclaimed indie dramas, including Locke (2013), Warrior (2011) and Bronson (2008).

But this is the first time he is headlining a big action film, which will likely spawn its own franchise-within-a-franchise if it does well.

Reputation on screen and off: Known for playing brooding, tortured characters and immersing himself in his characters with method acting techniques and drastic physical transformations, bulking up unrecognisably to play a notorious British prisoner in Bronson.

Off-screen, he has come across as slightly eccentric after giving a few rambling interviews to the press.

Mel Gibson

Age: 59. He was 23 when the first Mad Max hit cinemas and 29 when the third film came out.

Nationality: Australian

Family: Was married to actress Robyn Moore for 31 years till their divorce in 2011. They have a daughter and six sons aged 16 to 35 and three grandchildren. He also has a daughter aged five with ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva.

His Mad Max: With three films, there is more character development in Gibson's version. Compared with Hardy's, his appears more unhinged and vengeful.

Career before and after Mad Max: Gibson was an unknown when he filmed the first Mad Max. It was Mad Max 2, however, that launched his career in Hollywood. Gibson would go on to become one of its most bankable leading men, thanks to hits such as the Lethal Weapon cop comedies (1987- 1992).

He also won recognition as a serious dramatic actor with the war movie Gallipoli (1981). In 1995, he directed and starred in the historical biopic Braveheart, which earned him the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.

Reputation on screen and off: Gibson is that rare actor who has excelled in both comedies and dramas, as well as making a successful transition to directing. Off-screen, he has appeared increasingly eccentric over the years and courted controversy with ill-advised comments, leading to accusations that he is racist, misogynistic and homophobic.

Who is the 'crazier' Max?

Mel Gibson's name is forever entwined with the Mad Max movies, which propelled the Australian actor to stardom in the 1980s.

After appearing in 1979's Mad Max, 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior and 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome - all massive box-office hits - it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would star in the fourth instalment, which writer-director George Miller began thinking about in the late 1990s.

But Mad Max: Fury Road ended up taking more than 12 years to get off the ground, during which time its star - who went on to win the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars for his historical drama Braveheart in 1995 - managed to destroy his reputation with various public relations disasters.

Eventually Gibson, who is now 59, also became too old for the part, says Miller while promoting the new film, which sees Max played by English actor Tom Hardy, 37.

"This movie took so long to get going that by the time all the planets aligned, Mel had hit a lot of turbulence in his life," says Miller, no doubt referring to the fallout from racist and homophobic remarks made by the actor over the years.

Also, the tale of Max, a rebel battling for survival in a dystopian wasteland, "was never meant to be a story about an older warrior", Miller says. "It was time for a new Mad Max, just like there have been several James Bonds."

Although Mad Max fans had hoped to see Gibson make a brief appearance in Mad Max: Fury Road, the director believes this would have undermined his goal of making it "a standalone film".

"A rumour went around that Mel might do a cameo, but we were really trying to make this world authentic and for the audience to be caught up in the experience on screen.

"So it didn't make sense to suddenly have Mel appear. That would just pull the audience out... It would be like seeing Sean Connery appear in a Daniel Craig-James Bond film."

Gibson has publicly given the movie and his successor his blessing, even posing for photographs with Hardy at the recent Los Angeles premiere.

But in an interview with Details magazine, Hardy said their first meeting was a little "awkward", although Gibson did wish him good luck with the role.

Still, after the meeting, Gibson rang up Hardy's agent and handed a backhanded compliment to the younger actor, who also has a reputation for eccentricity.

Hardy recalls: "He said, 'I think you found someone that's crazier than I am.'"

This article was first published on May 13, 2015.
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