Whether the reward for ingenious use of insider knowledge or just a happy accident, Gavin O’Connor’s mixed martial arts movie Warrior is released with its two leading actors – both in their 30s – in the middle of an almost meteoric rise to stardom.
British actor Tom Hardy has been around for years, with appearances in Black Hawk Down and Layer Cake to his credit, but it wasn’t until his show-stopping performance in 2009′s Bronson (in which he looked nearly unrecognisable as notorious prison hardman Charles Bronson) that he found prominent roles in Inception and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, as well as being on villain duty for Christopher Nolan’s final Batman movie next year – as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.
Meanwhile Australian Joel Edgerton can look back on small roles in the Star Wars prequels, as well as King Arthur and Kinky Boots, before making his presence felt in the terrific crime drama Animal Kingdom and snaring a lead role in the upcoming prequel to The Thing.
In Warrior the pair are cast as brothers and rival MMA fighters. They aren’t on speaking terms, partly thanks to their father (played by Nick Nolte) who divided the family many years ago with his alcoholism. Hardy is the moody and unforgiving Tommy Conlon, whilst Edgerton is his older brother Brendan – a family man and a high school teacher.
They share few scenes together, but those they do are intense, physical and the centrepiece of the picture. Yet whilst real-life fighters have hours to psyche themselves up for such an intense encounter, how did the actors manage to maintain the necessary intensity in the stop-start world of filmmaking?
Edgerton suggests it wasn’t too much of a problem: “Because this stuff is so physical it was very easy, once we got started, to get into it. If you were there on the set you would have found it quite funny because in between takes – or leading up to each take – you’d find Tom and I running up and down stairs or doing push-ups or hitting the pads to get into that physical state of being mid-fight… Once the actual fighting started it was very easy to have 100% focus on what was going on.”
Hardy, an intelligent and meticulous performer, has a similarly no-nonsense attitude to getting in the zone: “Emotionally I just get on with it. If I know what I’m doing, the guy says action and I do it. It’s not rocket science. The work is done months before I get on the floor.” He’s clearly not from the method school saying, “You can’t be in trauma to portray trauma.”
“I’m never lost in a character, ever. Everything is absolutely articulated and worked out and there’s no room for error. The only thing there is room for is inspiration in the moment because you’ve done your homework up to that point but when you get onto the floor with another actor what you get is the outcome of the two of you together and the energy in the room, the director and how everybody turned up that morning. I might have lost a family member the night before. Joel might have hangover. Or the director may do. That’s going to change the outcome again, so you never know what the room’s going to present you with in the moment, but the performers work should be done before he hits the floor.”
The Conlon brothers have very different fight styles, with Tommy accustomed to knocking out opponents with a single, devastating blow, whilst Brendan is all about resilience and determination, pinning opponents down. Yet the actors training regimes didn’t differ too greatly. “A lot of the base training we did was similar,” Edgerton revealed, “we would get into [the gym] at seven in the morning – for two months straight we just did this fight camp. In the beginning stages we learned lots of skills together, just lots of warm-up stuff, and kick-boxing. And then as our fighting styles work different in the film, I would concentrate a lot more on doing a lot of jujitsu and Tommy would concentrate more on the striking.”
“We were always in the same room but quite often I’d be with my stunt guy Sam [Hargrave] doing one thing while Tommy was doing another. But as a team it was really like living at fighter camp because we’d all go off and have lunch together and there was a real sense of family and community.”
At this point Hardy turns journalist and asks his co-star a production question: “Did you go down to New Mexico at all, to see Greg Jackson?”
Edgerton confirms that he also went to see the renowned UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) coach: “We went and saw him because he’d give us insight into, for instance, the in between round stuff. Because Gavin [O'Connor, director] was stretching for real authenticity in the sport, to represent the sport in a very authentic way, which included the smallest details.”
“Smallest details”, it seems, is an understatement on the Aussie’s part: “The guy who plays the referee in the film is a real UFC referee, the guys holding the cameras at the four sides of the cage are guys who really do that for a living, I think we had cutmen who were real – so that authentic world was important for all of us to give the sport the credit and respect it deserves. Frank Grillo, my coach in the film, and I went to see Greg Jackson, to show him an anamatic video of the fights we were going to do and say “if that was your fighter, and you had a chance with him in between rounds, what would you tell him to educate him how to win this fight?” And that would get incorporated into the movie.”
But what appeal can this film have internationally? Isn’t UFC a particularly American sport? Apparently not any more. ”Now it’s very global. It’s sanctioned now in Australia for the last two years and it’s incredibly popular there – in fact it’s often incredibly popular in a country before it’s sanctioned there, so before the UFC has the right to come in and stage an event often times there’s a huge fanbase waiting for it to happen. Before the film I was aware that there was mixed martial arts but I wasn’t either well educated about it, nor was I a fan seeking it out.”
This new found knowledge about, and enthusiasm for, MMA is not just good PR. The actors are now really into the sport they spent those months trying to imitate on screen. So much so in fact that they have a short conversation amongst themselves in the middle of the interview, as Hardy describes to his screen brother the events of yesterday night’s fight. It’s a sport that’s left a positive impression on both men with Hardy particularly taken with the character and demeanour of the fighters he’s come into contact with.
“All the guys that I’ve met, the friends that I’ve made who are fighters, including Joe Calzaghe – the middleweight champion of the world – are gentle, gentle kind people, because they do it everyday. They train every day in the ring so they’ve got nothing to prove on the outside. So amongst men their very open-hearted and warm, very gentle with nothing to prove. Which is a relief because you have so many repressed, angry, WASP-ish men walking down the street being dicks – I meet them day to day all the time, people with something to prove and chips on their shoulders.”
“These fighters, you may not have conversations in the same way you can have with other men about other things, but they love their sport. Interactions about [fitness]: they all want to know if you’re healthy. These people are nurturers, people who deal with combat – literally beating each other up all the time, spend most their time trying to look after each other. They’ve all got injuries and they all want to get better, become physically stronger and more proficient at what they do and find more current and expedient ways to dispatch brutal beatings on one another! But they love it! In the same way Garry Kasparov loves chess and they’re very peaceful to sit with.”
Bulking up and fighting on screen is nothing new to either actor, but Hardy is associated with this sort of performance much more than his co-star thanks to that star-making turn in Bronson. Yet comparisons between the two men – Conlon and Bronson – would be superficial in terms of physical preparation and character psychology. “This man is a very different beast to Charlie Bronson – Charlie doesn’t have any technique at all, he’s a reactive person with no skin: so if contact with Charlie turns into physical violence then it’s going to be any amount of unpredictability which manifests in immediate response. He will bite, he will scratch, he will pull your ear off – he will beat you like an orang-outang or a chimpanzee would.”
“[Tommy Conlon] has that drive, but he has technique. He’s trained for hours and hours, refining it. So the body’s going to look different, so it’s going to require a specific body make-up. With Charlie Bronson it was enough to do a few press-ups, lift paint up and down the stairs, play some Xbox, eat lots of pizza and ice cream, shave my head bald and grow a moustache. A lot of it was to do with energy and manipulating, creating an environment where you believed I was a lot bigger than I was, when actually I was half a stone lighter than I am now. When you put someone on film you can make them look bigger than they actually are, so it’s about presence and it’s about space.”
This cerebral approach to determining the physical nature of the characters is what separates Warrior from other fighting movies and makes the fight scenes so compelling. The drama doesn’t come to a halt during the action scenes – in fact those final bouts are arguably the most crucial moments in the film from the perspective of character development. It’s an approach which Hardy says should see the film eschew the “mens’ film” tag and appeal to people regardless of gender. In fact, when we spoke in late-June, he revealed that the film was testing especially well with female audiences, going so far as to call it a “chick flick with violence.”
Edgerton is also optimistic about the film’s crossover appeal: “I think just as there is lightness in Tommy and darkness in Brendan, in that same sort of way there’s a large lot of women that go to UFC. There’s a lot fighting and destruction in our DNA that I think we don’t really get in touch with and this is a sport that allows us to catch a glimpse of that in a controlled, exciting environment. I think men are going to come home a lot more excited than they might have been because they’ve also been on an emotional journey which, in those general kind of opinions we have of men and women, we might assume they don’t want to see.”
Whether Warrior is seen by men, women or an even split between the two, Edgerton and Hardy have done their own careers no harm at all with performances they can be very proud of. With both actors there is a sense that the star is still rapidly rising and there are probably a few titanic performances yet to come, especially from the mercurial Tom Hardy.
Warrior is released in the UK on Friday September 23rd. Read our review here.