Hardy's mighty morphin' skill set is his trademark, says director Nicolas Refn, who directed him in "Bronson," about an British inmate who comes to believe he's Charles Bronson.
"What's unique about Tom is that he's like a chameleon, and because of his theatrical background, which is extremely good, and the theatricality that went into Bronson, you needed an actor who could transform himself in so many different directions, and that's Tom," Refn said.
Hardy's a chameleon who's about to become a household name. "Warrior" is a crowd-pleasing fight film about brothers who settle a family score in an MMA cage, and gives Hardy his first mainstream showcase. It was actually filmed two years ago, then held so that audiences wouldn't think it was exploiting "The Fighter."
In the meantime, Hardy has worked nonstop. Whispers of his turn in "Warrior" made Hardy hotter than gold futures - he'll be in "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" next month with Colin Firth and Gary Oldman, he's shot a rom-com with Drew Barrymore, a bootlegger period piece for John Hillcoat, is Bane to Christian Bale's Batman in Chris Nolan's "Dark Knight" caper, and recently won the lead in the new "Mad Max" reboot.
I asked Hardy if it was incredibly frustrating to watch the studio sit on "Warrior," knowing that his career-changing performance was in limbo.
"Nah, it's actually nice to have a backlog of things. And a backlog of different things, so you get to try different things, and people see you in different roles. You want to metamorphasize, it's what you look for as an actor."
What you don't look for are movies that sit in the can for two years - usually a sure sign the studio lacks confidence in the title.
Not so in this case, Hardy said.
"We were shooting the same time they were shooting 'The Fighter.' 'The Fighter' gets released, and here's this boxing movie about two brothers who are always going at each other. I think somebody made the correct judgment that our movie could be misconstrued by audiences as something that was put out to capitalize on the popularity of 'The Fighter.' I think there's a chance that might have happened," Hardy said.
"But there's a good side to this. Gavin (director Gavin O'Connor) had a year to really finesse this thing in the editing room, which is a great luxury, especially in a movie that had 210 hours of fight footage. Just fight footage."
And if editing 210 hours of fight footage was a chore, imagine fighting for 210 hours.
To prepare, Hardy spent several months training (three low-impact, high-intensity resistance workouts per day, morning, noon and night). Add to that tutoring in jujitsu, karate, wrestling.
Most important, he said, was the mental/psychological research. Talking to fighters, to combat veterans (his character is also a Marine), trying to get a sense of how they carry themselves.
Input from real-life warriors turned out to be the key to the soft-spoken, quietly fearsome fighter he plays in "Warrior."
"I'd never been around such lovely people in my life. They're very gentle, often, because they have nothing to prove. The more humble the guy, the better the fighter. Sort of a speak low, carry a big stick kind of approach."
He repeats the advice he heard from one veteran of professional and not-so-professional brawls.
"If your in a pub, and a fight breaks out, and you're the loudest guy in the room, it means you're about to get knocked out."