Brian Hel­ge­land tells Michael Bodey how Tom Hardy brought back to life the in­fa­mous Kray twins

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

Amer­i­can writer-di­rec­tor Brian Hel­ge­land half an­tic­i­pated Lon­don­ers would doubt his at­tempt, in Leg­end, to drama­tise the story of the in­fa­mous Kray twins — the gang­sters Reg­gie and Ron­nie, who dom­i­nated the East End of Lon­don dur­ing the 1950s and 60s with a mix of ruth­less­ness, charm and glam­our that won as many fans as foes. Yet the writer of LA Con­fi­den­tial and di­rec­tor of A Knight’s Tale and Pay­back had a ready re­sponse.

“There’s was a lot of ‘ How could an Amer­i­can pos­si­bly do this?’ ” he con­cedes. “To which we’d say the best western ever made in the United States was di­rected by an Ital­ian [Ser­gio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West], so I’ll give it a shot.”

Hel­ge­land notes there is a “very strange” own­er­ship of the Krays in Lon­don. He spent time at E. Pel­licci cafe in Beth­nal Green Road, a for­mer break­fast haunt of the ter­ri­ble twins. “And it’s filled with peo­ple who pull you aside and say the East End was a safer place when the Krays were here,” he says. “And then there’s a whole other group of peo­ple who say, ‘ They’re scum­bags. Why would you want to make a movie about scum­bags?’ ”

Then there’s the re­gional di­vide, with south Lon­don­ers ar­gu­ing the tough­est crim­i­nal “firm” of the pe­riod was the Richard­sons. “It’s like sup­port­ing a football team,” laughs the Amer­i­can fan, via LA Con­fi­den­tial’s Rus­sell Crowe, of the NRL team the South Syd­ney Rab­bitohs.

“But there was some­thing glam­orous about the Krays — and I say that word and I don’t mean be­ing glam­orous is a good thing or a bad thing, be­cause LSD was glam­orous in the 60s, too.

“But the Richard­sons didn’t own night­clubs; the Richard­sons weren’t pho­tographed with all these celebri­ties; David Bai­ley never took a photo of the Richard­sons — so there was some­thing about the Krays that was at­trac­tive at the time.”

Hind­sight says they were mon­sters but Hel­ge­land’s re­search — and sub­se­quent film — shows that back then in that club­land world there was some­thing al­lur­ing about the twins. It partly ex­plains why a writer from Rhode Is­land would take on a Bri­tish gang­ster tale.

Hel­ge­land says he al­ways wanted to make a gang­ster film but do­ing a straight Ital­ian mob film is “al­most point­less” given the great movies al­ready made on that theme, to say noth­ing of The So­pra­nos.

“But the chance to take one step away from it, in a way, and do a Bri­tish film was very ap­peal­ing to me be­cause I thought this was how I could move away from the com­par­i­son,” he says. Leg­end be­comes a very dif­fer­ent gang­ster film purely through the cast­ing of Tom Hardy as both twins.

Hel­ge­land says he didn’t plan it that way. When he was writ­ing the screen­play, he was fo­cused on the story and char­ac­ter. “When you’re done writ­ing, the re­al­ity de­scends,” he says.

There are prece­dents for one ac­tor play­ing twins (in­clud­ing Jeremy Irons in Dead Ringers, Ni­co­las Cage in Adap­ta­tion, Hay­ley Mills and Lind­say Lo­han in dif­fer­ent ver­sions of The Par­ent Trap and, most re­cently, Ar­mie Ham­mer in The So­cial Net­work) and the di­rec­tor ap­pre­ci­ated that was a pos­si­bil­ity.

“But the scary thing about that is if you don’t pull it off, the movie is not go­ing to pull it off and you’re dead from the start,” he says. The al­ter­na­tive is lim­it­ing the role of the sec­ond ac­tor, which would have made sense in Leg­end, where the charis­matic Reg­gie is the main char­ac­ter.

Hardy al­ready has form as a screen crim­i­nal, hav­ing starred in Bron­son, the 2008 film by Ni­co­las Wind­ing Refn drama­tis­ing Bri­tain’s most no­to­ri­ous pris­oner. Hel­ge­land wanted him to play Reg­gie, and take it from there. It be­came clear as soon as the two sat down for din­ner, though, that the ac­tor wanted to play the vi­o­lent, men­tally un­sta­ble Ron­nie.

“At the end of the din­ner, he knew it and he said, ‘I’ll give you Reg­gie if you give me Ron’,” Hel­ge­land re­calls. “I agreed to that at the din­ner, and that was the big­gest de­ci­sion of the film — and now we’ve ei­ther made or bro­ken the movie right from the start!”

Ini­tially, there was a chance they might shoot Hardy as Reg­gie be­fore the film’s pro­duc­tion was in­ter­rupted — “like Rag­ing Bull” — for a pe­riod, al­low­ing the ac­tor to gain some weight and re­turn as Ron­nie.

But the pro­duc­tion didn’t have the lux­ury of time or be­ing able to re­turn to lo­ca­tions in what is a lo­ca­tion-heavy film. So Hardy had to play both broth­ers on the same day and the crew didn’t have much time for the switch.

The trans­for­ma­tion would be tight, tak­ing Reg­gie and putting on a wig to lift “a kind of of­fk­il­ter widow’s peak” for Ron­nie. Hardy’s Ron­nie also had plumpers, a den­tal ap­pli­ance on his bot­tom jaw to fill his lower cheeks, in the style of Mar­lon Brando.

And be­cause the pro­duc­tion didn’t have the time to af­fix pros­thet­ics, the cos­tume depart­ment im­pro­vised by cut­ting the nip­ple off the top of a baby’s bot­tle to shove up the ac­tor’s left nos­tril. Then the ac­tor kicked in.

“Tom is al­most like a mime. He has great body con­trol,” Hel­ge­land says.

“He played Reg­gie with sloped shoul­ders and he played Ron with square shoul­ders. He fur­rowed his fore­head when he played Reg­gie. If you can tell me how a per­son can fur­row his fore­head and keep it like that for hours at a time, I have no idea — but Tom was able to do it, and then have a smooth fore­head for Ron.”

The trans­for­ma­tion ap­pears to have sat­is­fied those who knew the Krays (Ron­nie died in 1995 and Reg­gie in 2000), Hel­ge­land says. The di­rec­tor and Hardy worked with one of the Krays’ as­so­ci­ates, for­mer hit man Fred­die Fore­man, or “Brown Bread Fred”, while re­search­ing the role.

Hel­ge­land laughs when he re­calls the time Fore­man vis­ited the set and was hav­ing a chat with the di­rec­tor.

“Fred­die looked over my shoul­der and said ‘Je­sus f..king Christ!’ or some­thing to that ef­fect, and he was shocked,” he says. “I turned around and over my shoul­der there was Tom dressed as Ron and in Ron­nie mode. He looked at Fred­die and, in char­ac­ter as Ron, said, ‘ Hel-lo Fred-die’ — and it was like Fred­die had seen a ghost.

“He couldn’t be­lieve it and said, ‘I’m look­ing at Ron Kray 25 years af­ter his death.’ He was shak­ing, he couldn’t get over it.”

Hel­ge­land is sim­i­larly rap­tur­ous about the cast­ing of Aus­tralian ac­tress Emily Browning, who brings some equi­lib­rium to the film in her role as Reg­gie’s sweet­heart Frances Shea.

The di­rec­tor notes, “Ev­ery suc­cess­ful film I’ve done — just about — has had an Aus­tralian in it, es­pe­cially if you con­sider Mel Gib­son Aus­tralian [in Pay­back].”

He adds that Browning pos­si­bly has the hard­est job in the film, hav­ing to co-star with some­one who is “in ev­ery­one’s list as one of the top ac­tors in the world — and she has to act op­po­site two of him”.

“She has that daunt­ing task in front of her and she matches him in a qui­eter way, in a less flashy way and holds her own for a time and gives him a run for his money and makes his per­for­mances bet­ter be­cause she’s so good,” Hel­ge­land says. “She makes the movie for those rea­sons, and for bring­ing a woman’s point of view into the film. She’s also the low­est-main­te­nance ac­tor I’ve ever been around.”

Leg­end opens na­tion­ally on Thurs­day.


David Strat­ton re­views the film on Page 15.

Di­rec­tor Brian Hel­ge­land, above; Lon­don gang­sters Ron­nie and Regi­nald Kray, left

Tom Hardy as Reg­gie and Ron­nie

Kray in Leg­end

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