Warrior: Casting Tom Hardy

Finding an actor with the unique balance of opposite qualities to play Tommy Conlon, a character who does some unlikable things and who is often unpleasant but whose core goodness and vulnerability must be ever apparent to the audience, was the key to the film first and foremost.

O’Connor had read close to 200 actors for the part when after an initial phone conversation, he arranged for an in-person meeting with Tom Hardy.  “It wasn’t a traditional audition” explains Hardy, who was confident in the dramatic essence of the character but had fierce initial doubts about whether he could “close the gap” presented by the accent transformation, physical transformation, and cultural transformations the role required.

After sharing his concerns with O’Connor, the two settled on a pow-wow in the United States to do some reading, development and analysis, and hopefully arm Hardy with a fully rounded character.  That experience turned out to be more in-depth than O’Connor ever imagined.  He recounts, “Hardy showed up at my house at midnight on a Sunday, unannounced.  Just a knock on the door, and there’s Tom Hardy.  He was supposed to go to a hotel, but instead stayed at my house for five days.  He never left, so I got to know him very well.  And the qualities that he had as a human being were just right for the character.”

Hardy’s co-star Edgerton feels strongly that the people with the most interesting lives off-screen make the most interesting presences on screen, and thinks that Hardy’s performance falls squarely into that category.  He feels that the key to playing this combustible character was that “Tom is definitely a character in real life, a really loving, lovely, thoughtful, intelligent guy. He’s a complex guy and that shows through in his work.”

Joel Edgerton

The next step was finding the right actor to play Tommy’s brother Brendan.  The brothers are almost psychological mirror images – where Tommy is full of surface rage that masks the decent person he really is, Brendan is very mature and thoughtful, but harbors a fierce fighting spirit at his core.  With a black belt in karate and a famed Australian stunt coordinator for a brother, Joel Edgerton had the athletic background O’Connor was looking for.  But he also had the key layers the role of Brendan required.  O’Connor needed an actor who the audience could sense straight away had an abundance of integrity, and “integrity reeks off him. You can’t fake that.” However, the role also demanded someone that the audience would believe had a past.  “Brendan was a fighter when he was younger, and he got into some trouble,” O’Connor elaborates. “But he’s evolved and become a man, a father, a great husband.  Still, there’s something primal about him.  So you need to see in his eyes that he could have the capacity to regress, to drink and throw a punch.”

It’s a balance that O’Connor thinks today’s Australian actors exhibit more readily than their American contemporaries, an Aussie mystique of sorts.  Edgerton’s co-star Nick Nolte also makes the connection, pointing out a discernable “pioneering spirit” from Australian actors of Edgerton’s generation.

Jennifer Morrison adds of her on-screen husband, “Joel has a huge heart.  He always wants the best for those around him, and he’s incredibly disciplined.  Having all those qualities in Joel obviously infused the character of Brendan.  They automatically make you want to stand behind him and root for him.  Whether it’s him working out his finances, saving his family, or winning the fight, you want him to win.”

Nick Nolte

Casting the role of Paddy didn’t require an international search. In fact, Gavin had to look no further than down his own street.  The part of Paddy, a man very much in need of redemption, was actually written for O’Connor’s neighbor and friend Nick Nolte, who was originally cast in “Pride and Glory,” but had a last-minute scheduling conflict that prohibited his participation. O’Connor and Tambakis both grew up as enormous fans of Nolte’s work and vowed to write him a special part.

O’Connor tells of humoring everyone on the production by “pretending to go through the lists” of suggestions for the role, all the while knowing that it should and hopefully would belong to Nolte in the end.  “He’s a national treasure,” says O’Connor, “and I wanted to use him how he’s best and hoped the role would remind everyone what he’s capable of.”
“Acting is a contact sport for Nick,” says Hardy of his co-star.  “You’re going into the room with somebody who’s going to judge you on your give and take.  He’s a live wire, an actor with incredible presence.”

Jennifer Morrison

Though the primary relationships explored in the film are father-son and fraternal, Jennifer Morrison’s character Tess is in many ways the “heartbeat of the film,” as producer Greg O’Connor puts it.  Where Paddy is holding together Tommy’s side of the fight, his training and his business, Tess is holding Brendan’s world together. “If it’s not for Tess’s female qualities holding these men together,” explains co-star Nick Nolte, “we don’t have a film.”

With the audience’s investment in Brendan and Tess’ relationship the key to their emotional investment in the final fight and indeed the whole story, the filmmakers were prepared for a vast search for their Tess.  But Gavin O’Connor tells of turning to the casting director after hearing from Morrison, only the fifth actress to read, and calling off the search on the spot.  “That very rarely happens, and when it does, we don’t challenge the movie gods on those things.  She just had it. She had the fire, the spirit, the compassion, the sexiness, the toughness, the maternal qualities.”  On-screen husband Edgerton agrees, “The warmth of Jen becomes the warmth of Tess. The goodness you see on screen is a quality that cannot be manufactured for a role.”

For all of the actors, understanding the complicated, emotional history of the characters’ relationships was a key part of their preparation.  Tommy and Brendan haven’t seen each other in fourteen years and beyond being out of touch, they are completely estranged when they reunite.  Conversely, Brendan and Tess have shared a fourteen-year marriage that grew out of a high school courtship.  The challenge for each actor was to believably erase – or instantly populate – fourteen years of a shared story with another actor prior to shooting.  Along with O’Connor, all kinds of details were discussed and explored with the actors that according to him “eventually worked their way into the DNA of the script and the movie,” going deeper and deeper until “it had footprints and fingerprints that just felt truthful.”