This interview was published in 2011. The formatting was updated in 2021 after a website migration.
The Academy loves a good boxing film (the Oscar-winning Rocky, Raging Bull and When We Were Kings, for example) but MMA has yet to capitalise on critics’ fondness for watching men punch each other in the face. This is partly because MMA is a young sport and its moves are complex, but the main reason is that every MMA film made so far has been awful.
All that is about to change. Not only is Warrior a chest-thumping tale of rivalry and redemption – the plot revolves around two brothers entering the world’s biggest fighting tournament – but it also features stellar performances from Nick Nolte and Australian actor Joel Edgerton. Stealing the show, though, is British star Tom Hardy, who packed on 12kg of muscle to play wrestling prodigy Tom Conlon. Hardy is so convincing that you suspect he’d flatten a Raging Bull-era Robert De Niro whether the cameras were rolling or not. We talked to him about his transformation.
Did you know much about MMA before starting work on Warrior?
I’ve dipped in and out. I knew of the UFC from the early days, when Royce Gracie was winning everything and nobody knew what Brazilian jiu jitsu was. I watched Ken Shamrock and Tito Ortiz in the early days, then Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture. Then I caught up with it again when I was involved with Warrior.
So fighting itself was pretty new to you?
Well, three years ago, I did a bit of training when I was on RocknRolla because Guy Ritchie does BJJ. Then I did taekwondo for about a year in London. Now I’m into it. I’m training on the set of The Dark Knight Rises with [karate world champion] Buster Reeves, doing some striking. On Mad Max I’ll have BJJ guys to train with every day. It’s a therapeutic thing, very chilled.
You play a lot of physically imposing characters. Do you find that being in shape changes your disposition?
Yes I do. I notice when I’m in bad shape because I become more of a dick. When I’ve been training I feel more secure in myself – I’m not sure if it’s endorphins, but I feel satiated. When I’m not training my shoulders go up, I’m bow-legged, my centre of gravity goes up on the balls of my feet, but when I’m training I’m much more loose. It’s so easily forgotten, it’s easy to go, ‘I’ve got no time for this, I’ve got finances, romances, all this stuff’, but when I train everything slows down a bit more. It’s a vital part of life.
You put on some serious muscle to play Conlon. Was that tough?
Joel and I both had to get up to 84kg to play middleweights. Initially we were going to play heavyweights, but it was like, ‘It’ll take a year, I haven’t got a year to take off between films.’ So it was made middleweight. I spent three months with my trainer, P-Nut, before filming started. I was a mess, because I’m a binge trainer. I train for the part that I need to do and then I’ll spend some time with my son, spend a while on the couch, then come back to a character who needs to be physical and it’s like, ‘Shit, I haven’t been to the gym for nine months.’ P-Nut had to pick me up off the floor after I finished Bronson and I had to strip away a load of fat and pack on muscle as fast as possible.
How was the fight-specific training?
Before filming started, we’d do two hours of boxing, two hours’ Muay Thai, two hours of jiu jitsu, two hours of choreography, two hours of weightlifting a day – seven days a week. Then it was filming and I had to maintain the weight while I was carb-depleted. It would take about two days to shoot one ‘round’ of fighting. Even in a sparring session in the gym you get pretty tired after 20 minutes of sparring, and we were maintaining that illusion of being fired up for two days… and just eating chicken and broccoli at the same time. It was weird.
You trained with leading MMA coach Greg Jackson and a few UFC veterans. What did that teach you about the fighting mindset?
What was interesting was that sense of encouragement and camaraderie and discipline that goes with being a fighter, and the love that people have for each other in their own camps. I always thought fighting was a very brash world – when you’re looking from the outside in, it’s a sport where you beat people up. The camp isn’t like that, it’s a very loving place. Yes there’s a hierarchy, but that comes from mutual respect. A lot of why I wasn’t into martial arts before was fear of dojos, of fighters’ gyms, of that pack mentality, thinking, ‘That’s a scary place, I’ll never survive in it.’ So I avoided that for many years, and I found drinking, found tattoos and other ways to avoid that and feel strong. But eventually you realise that being strong is participating, being prepared to be counted. You don’t have to be good, the fact that you turn up is massively respected. Because they need bodies.
Harden Up: Trainer Patrick ‘P-Nut’ Monroe explains how he got Tom Hardy cage-ready
Train moves, not muscles
‘I didn’t want to train Tom to look like he could fight – I wanted to train him to fight. We’d take the normal movements involved in striking and add resistance. For example, I would resist him when he was throwing a punch. He had to get used to the fighting moves before jumping into the fight scenes.’
Send the right signals
‘In training I do something called signalling, which involves sending “signals” to the muscles you want to develop as often as possible. So instead of doing a few sets of press-ups to failure over five minutes, you might do ten every five minutes for an hour, or do sets spread throughout the day.’
Confuse your muscles
‘If you always do the same moves, the body will just get more efficient at them. Introduce variables: you might do ten fast press-ups, then one slow one, switch to your knees or put your arms really wide. By making every rep hard and different, you’ll ensure that the body tries to get generally stronger rather than better at a specific movement.’
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From 2008 to 2018, Joel worked for Men's Fitness, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Though he spent years running the hills of Bath, he’s since ditched his trainers for a succession of Converse high-tops, since they’re better suited to his love of pulling vans, lifting cars, and hefting logs in a succession of strongman competitions.