CANNES, France — Consider Heath Ledger’s Joker. If you conduct a Twitter hash tag search using the phrase #reallytoughacttofollow, by rights Ledger’s performance in “The Dark Knight” should come up first.
Now, even though no one’s seen it yet, consider Tom Hardy’s Bane. This is the actor, portraying the ragingly violent adversary featured in “The Dark Knight Rises” (opening July 20), who finds himself in the unenviable position of following Ledger’s posthumous Oscar-winning act.
The 34-year-old Hardy is everywhere at the moment, which takes the heat off following a really tough act. Like Michael Fassbender, who was two years ahead of Hardy at the same London drama school, Hardy’s an actor of considerable stage training and an already impressive range of screen credits, most recently “Warrior” and, less comfortably (the script was crud), the romantic comedy “This Means War.”
At this particular moment within his overall career moment, Hardy’s trying to get comfortable on a surreally low-slung couch in a banquet room in a hotel (the Martinez) located on the Croisette, the seaside boulevard that transforms each May into a study in elegant traffic congestion during the Cannes Film Festival. Hardy’s in Cannes with “Lawless,” one of eight English-language main competition titles (out of 22) vying for the Palme d’Or.
“Sorry, I seem to be sitting here rather … louchely,” Hardy says, doing his best to negotiate a position of repose without sliding onto the floor straight off the hotel’s stylish but uncomfortable settee. All the furniture in Cannes works this way, I say.
“Yes, but then, everybody in Cannes is stylish and uncomfortable,” Hardy counters, grinning.
The Prohibition-era drama opens Aug. 31 in America under the Weinstein Company banner, and stars Shia LeBeouf as the real-life Jack Bondurant, junior member of a tight-knit rural Virginia clan that held its own against rival bootleggers and various lawmen until alcohol was once again legalized. LeBeouf may top the billing and narrate the heavily romanticized story in director John Hillcoat’s movie, but Hardy anchors and dominates the cast as Jack’s older brother, Forrest, a fearsome wielder of brass knuckles and a man who often grunts, bear-like, in a witty actor’s flourish, when words fail him.
Hardy, whose last stage appearance came in early 2010 in “The Long Red Road” at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, says that his main concern in “Lawless” was not making his character a lout of pure violence, nor a “second-rate Clint Eastwood.” Animals were his building blocks, he says. Forrest is a bit of a bear, a dinosaur and, he says rather perversely, Tweety Bird from the Warner Bros. cartoons.
Like so many projects in Hollywood, “Lawless” languished a long while before coming to fruition and earning a prestigious Cannes competition slot. (Rumors abounded this week as to why; one had Harvey Weinstein, the man who took “The King’s Speech” and “The Artist” all the way to best-picture Oscars, strategically murmuring about the possibility of “Lawless” bowing at the Venice film festival, in order to get Cannes to bite. Which they did. On the other hand, maybe Cannes festival head Thierry Fremaux like its brand of pulp Americana.)
Hillcoat, the Australian filmmaker whose previous picture was “The Road,” rehearsed his “Lawless” actors on the set in Georgia, a process Hardy enjoys. Screenwriter and composer Nick Cave based his script on the memoir “The Wettest County in the World” by Matt Bondurant. At a “Lawless” press conference in Cannes, Cage noted, sardonically, that he was attracted to the story’s blend of “sentimentality and brute violence.” Hillcoat stressed they were going for something based in character as well as archetype. “In my world,” said Hillcoat, “which is the medium-budget world, I’m interested in films that have character and drama. And those are words that you cannot use in the United States at this time.”
But he got it made, and Hardy’s reputation will only benefit from being the strongest aspect of “Lawless.” Somewhat apologetically, as Hardy attempts, eventually with success, to get out of that infernal low-slung sofa, the actor notes he has no immediate plans to the return to the stage. He’s to be the new Mad Max in the “Mad Max” reboot. His work has been linked to the animalistic charisma and tenderness of Brando, and while he hastens to mention that he quite deliberately has never seen the film version of “A Streetcar Named Desire” or, from three years later, Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront,” he’s humbled by the comparisons.
“May as well make a bit of hay,” he says, again with a faint note of apology. Why not? It may be raining in Cannes, but career-wise, Hardy’s sun is shining.