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Interview: Writer/Director Brian Helgeland on Tom Hardy and LEGEND

In Legend, Tom Hardy delivers not one but two powerhouse performances as Reggie and Ronald Kray, the twin gangsters who ruled London’s underground in the 1960s. Guiding the film as both writer and director is Brian Helgeland, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for co-writing LA Confidential, and who most recently wrote and directed the Jackie Robinson biopic 42.

Helgeland crafts Legend as a brassy, pop-infused crime story with Hardy’s work as a bold centerpiece. A set of strong supporting roles connects the tale to reality: Christopher Eccleston as a determined and frustrated cop, David Thewlis as the Krays’ clever right-hand man, Taron Egerton as Ron’s bold young lover, and Emily Browning as Frances Shea, the woman who married Reggie Kray but could never quite overcome his nature.

We spoke to Brian Helgeland about the search for truth in a story filled with lies, the determined work of Tom Hardy, and the life of Frances Shea as she was caught in this strange criminal maelstrom.

Nerdist: My understanding is that the original prompt for you in learning about the Krays, was a lie.

Brian Helgeland: Yeah, it was, though I didn’t know it was a lie for a long time. In 1998, I was asked by Warner Bros. to go on the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant tour, to maybe do a Led Zeppelin biopic script. One of their managers, a Cockney guy, was missing a finger. I asked him one day what happened to his finger. He said the Krays had cut his finger off. I didn’t know what a “kray” was, maybe an animal, a fish? He told me this elaborate story about the music biz in the ‘60s, a really great story.

The Led Zeppelin thing fell apart, and I thought the only story I’d heard that was worth pursuing was that one. But I never did anything with it. Years later, when Working Title, the production company, came to me to see if I’d be interested in doing a film about the Krays, I remembered that story. Months and months later, when I was doing the script, I was going to put it in. But it turned out that it was a made-up story. The guy just made it up because it was better than the truth.

What I found was that was typical of the Krays, which is that nothing was true about them. Everyone had a story about them, they would all overlap, there’d be different versions, different points of view that painted them as the heroes of the story, or the villains of the same story. I thought it was interesting that, even though I didn’t know it at the time, the very first story I was told about them was a lie.

N: You ended up with a script called, appropriately, Legend. Is finding an objective truth important in this case?

BH: I don’t think the truth is findable in this case. What I thought I could find was the emotional truth of the story. That’s what I was always trying to track in research, and talking to people who knew them.

N: That makes me think of Werner Herzog’s concept of “ecstatic truth,” which is even further afield. You’ve got objective truth on one end, and “ecstatic truth” on the other end of a spectrum, and emotional truth somewhere in the middle.

BH: In all my research I found that Reggie, who was the most “together” of them, a smooth businessman who kind of has a plan, goes to prison for violently, absurdly stabbing to death a guy at a party. He never did anything else like that in his entire life. It never made sense, as far as what his character adds up to. He was certainly a gangster, but he wasn’t a guy who stabs to death someone at a party filled with innocent civilians, so to speak.

His state of mind when he did that always troubled me. I was interested in Frances, his wife, and finally I met Chris Lambrianou, who was in “the firm,” their gang. He went to prison with them, he got 15 years. I asked him about Frances, and without skipping a beat he said “Frances was the reason we all went to prison.” He described Reggie’s state of mind after [their relationship], how he got irrational and would drink himself senseless every night. He stopped looking after things. All of the sudden, Reggie’s state of mind in the moment of that stabbing made sense to me, because it was related to her. And that connects to the idea of an emotional truth.

N: Was there any resource that gave you a particular insight into Frances?

BH: There’s a bit. There wasn’t anyone I could find who was a contemporary of hers who didn’t relate to her through Reggie. I met a lot of people who knew Reggie, and knew her though Reggie, but no one who just knew her. I included everything I was sure about with her, but I didn’t want to just make stuff up about her. That’s why I settled on her, and included her as a narrator, because I thought that justified another point of view for her. She was elusive.


N: When gangster films have narration, it’s often a male character as represented by a film like Goodfellas. So a female narrator is interesting. Was there more about using Frances as the way in that was important for you?

BH: It was that getting more into the emotion of the story. If you just told it from the brothers’ point of view, or one of the brothers, using the day to day life of a gangster wouldn’t have opened them up as characters. I thought seeing it at least partially through her eyes was an honest way to explore different parts of them. Especially for an audience in England, which is so familiar with them, and Frances being the part they aren’t so familiar with. So for an audience who really knows the Krays, it gives them a different angle.

N: When Reggie gets violent as you mentioned, I wondered about the idea of some transference of personality traits between he and Ron. Maybe that’s just the influence of other twin movies, like Dead Ringers. Is that something you thought about at all?

BH: I thought about it up to the point of the idea of a closeness between… I have sons who are nineteen months apart. You hear about “twin behavior,” finishing each other’s sentences, knowing what the other is thinking, but my sons have that as well, because they’re brothers. I think sometimes the “twin” elements are given too much importance. And in a crime family you’re going to be closest to your brother. So that didn’t seem unnatural to me, as far as raising an eyebrow at those concepts and exploring them too deeply. What seemed more important to me was that Ron had mental health issues and Reggie felt a responsibility to look after him, something he might not ordinarily feel with a brother beyond a natural bond.

In research, the did seem very separate from each other, in their behavior and even how they looked. For identical twins, they don’t look identical at all.

N: One line really stuck out for me: “don’t hide what you are.” That seems very important.

BH: I thought Ron, oddly enough, the real Ron, was very honest. He was very open about himself. It was illegal to be gay in London until the mid-‘60s. He was openly gay, and a gangster who was openly gay, which must have been twice as difficult. You knew where you stood with him, there was no mystery.

There was more mystery with Reggie. It’s difficult to pin down what he’s thinking. Is he a club owner, or a gangster? He’s the one with the identity problem in a way, Ron isn’t the one with that problem. And, except for the first time they meet, I think every other scene in the film, Reggie tells Frances a lie. When she asks him about himself or his plans, he lies to her all the time. He’s living different lives, he’s who he needs to be based on who is in front of him at any given time. In a way, Ron is speaking about Reggie when he says that line.

N: Reggie is hiding himself more than anything else.

BH: Yeah, and what do you do when what you’re good at is being a gangster? He’s fighting his nature all the way through the story.

N: Can you tell me about Tom Hardy? Getting those two performances seems like an incredible task.

BH: When we first met I talked to him about playing Reggie. I didn’t know if he wanted to play both characters, but he was very keen about playing Ron. Basically the short version is he said “I’ll give you Reggie if you give me Ron.” And we agreed, happily, and like idiots in a way, because we had no idea what we’d just agreed to, either from a technical or acting point of view.

Bear in mind that when everyone talks about the great dynamics between actors when they’re going at it, he plays those two parts, with no one opposite him. His performance as the two brothers is in his head.

N: So you had no stand-in?

BH: We had a stand-in, but there was no performance there. It’s not like you have Michael Fassbender playing the other brother while you’re shooting to create a dynamic between two actors.

N: The Social Network, for example, used a more active stand-in to play the other Winklevoss twin opposite Armie Hammer.

BH: Yeah, and they did a lot of face replacement. But we have Tom, and the other brother is never there. The acting challenge was the biggest thing we dealt with and that Tom had to deal with. I’ve never worked with anyone like him. He has a level of dedication to the character that’s really amazing, and has a lot of fun doing it. That’s when he’s at his happiest, I think, when he’s doing all that stuff.

N: As a director, what’s your approach? Do you let the script and your casting choice do a lot of the work?

BH: Yeah. Obviously I know the script very well because I wrote it, which also gives me the ability to leave it behind and go with ad libs. I know when that stuff is going to work or not, as far as telling the story goes. I’m very free with the script. And actors, I’m from the Tony Scott school, which is to hire great actors, which makes your life easier. They know 90% of what they’re doing. If this was a circus and they’re knife throwers I don’t have to teach them how to throw knives, I just need to say “a little to the left.” I love letting them do their thing. I don’t rehearse a lot, I like to just rehearse on the morning of, unless it’s a fight. We had to rehearse those a lot to know how to shoot them and address technical issues. As far as scenes, we rehearse when everyone walks up in the morning, and we see where it goes, or doesn’t.

Images: Universal

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