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Tom Hardy and Steven Knight take viewers on an intense emotional ride in 'Locke'

Tom Hardy in "Locke"
Tom Hardy in "Locke"

In the intense dramatic film "Locke," construction foreman Ivan Locke (played by Tom Hardy) has worked hard to craft the life he has envisioned, dedicating himself to the job that he loves and the family he adores. On the eve of the biggest challenge of his career, Ivan receives a phone call in his car that sets in motion a series of events that will unravel his family, job and soul. The life-changing news? A woman with whom he had a one-night stand is about to give birth to his child.

Steven Knight and Tom Hardy at the New York City press conference for "Locke"
Carla Hay

"Locke" (written and directed by Steven Knight) is an unusual film because only one actor (Hardy) is seen in the movie, which takes place as Locke is driving his car. The other actors in the movie are voices that are heard in Locke's phone conversations, as he tries to navigate the crises in his career and personal life. Here is what Hardy and Knight said when they did a "Locke" press conference in New York City.

What were the challenges of working in a confined space?

Hardy: There were no challenges at all because it’s a small work space. You have less parameters to explore and investigate. It’s like being in the dark. It’s an easier space. I suppose it’s like being in a dog kennel. There are boundaries within that space. In the literal sense, you have my GPS system. I had my box of medicine because I had a cold.

Did you really have a cold?

Hardy: I did actually, which is always the way, isn’t it, when you do something at the last minute? You get ill. And that was it, really. The rear view mirror, the [windows] and the road ahead, so it was a safe space to explore.

And lot of the functionality of the piece is in the airways: the conversations coming in from around the country through the phone. It’s a talking-head piece anyway. So it was nice to be doing something as simple as fixing a lightbulb or changing a plug. Driving a car in one direction has a simple, practical symbiosis with the radio aspect of what’s going on in his head.

Knight: It’s an advantage. But the advantage of shooting everything in one space means you can shoot and there’s no continuity issue. The background is always changing and it’s sort of chaotic in its light. So when you come to the edit, you can always choose according to the performance rather than anything else.

And also, the nature of the space and the nature of the journey offer up all kinds of metaphors that maybe you don’t have to force. In other words, Ivan’s future is through the windscreen; it’s ahead. His past is in the rear view mirror when he speaks to his [absentee] father.

So the space is giving you the journey as well. You know there’s a destination. You know there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Normally, when you construct a film, you talk about the three acts. It’s there in front of you [in “Locke”].

It was sort of a solid evocation about lots of things that this man’s life — in one space. We had three cameras in there at all times. After to the very short shooting period, we pretty much have everything that we could possibly get from that space.

How much research about concrete pouring did you do? What was required to garner the nuance of this Locke character, as opposed to the villain Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises”?

Knight: Fortunately, my experience dealing with concrete was limited. But when I was younger, I worked on building sites and learned that the arrival of concrete is the big day. It’s the big drama. It’s when the foreman’s job is on the line.

And when concrete arrives, you have to deal with it, because it’s going to go hard somewhere, and if it goes hard in the wrong place, you’ve got to dig it up. So, the whole premise of the film is to see an ordinary man and an ordinary tragedy. You also have to do justice to the drama in so-called ordinary lives. Here’s a man who runs a construction site, and makes multimillion-pound decisions every day, he gets in his car, and no one knows who he is.

Concrete was great for that. It’s a shapeless, solid thing that you have to make into something. That’s what Ivan does. He tries to make rational decisions, solve problems, fix things with his hands that are solid. Like John Locke, the philosopher, he’s a rationalist. But tonight, of all nights, it's not going to work. There is no practical solution to this problem.

It’s like concrete: The baby’s going to come. To get the technical stuff, I spent some time with the man who built the shards on the biggest buildings in London. He was very Ivan Locke-like. He was very methodical, very practical.

Hardy: I think there is a theme between all the characters I play. I connect to all of them in some fundamental level. Ultimately, everything's in the script and in what my director and what he’s given me. For me, what was interesting about Locke, juxtaposed to anything I’ve played before, is an essence of containment. You don’t have any physical exposition, in a way — physical, like being overtly bombastic or violent.

But there's still a huge amount of vengeance and aggression in Locke, which is deeply rooted, which you never see. He obviously talks to his father. There's a propulsion in him to drive to London, which is compelling enough, which is probably driven with anger, in a lot of ways. But its containment and its slow diffusion and understanding of the deconstruction of his own psychology without an analyst on his own — literally pioneering into the deconstruction of himself and the rebuild of his new life, however he is destroying an old one.

I can understand from looking at it and talking to Steve that there was a part to navigate, which is fascinating of the human condition and ordinary environment. This is very much a hugely dramatic night for an ordinary person and a man — all of us, really. Like any of the cars on the motorway that night, this is one man’s night.

We were talking early on that this could’ve easily have been called “Not Very Nice Wednesday.” It wasn’t so far removed from home in many ways. A lot of people, friends of mine, who have seen the film have responded in a way in which they've said, "That hits very close to home." That just goes to show that you don't have to have huge stunts and vagarious characters, which are fantastic as well, to elicit a response from an audience who’s intelligent and demands a certain stimulus and buttons to be pushed from their films or their books or their paintings or music or whatever it is.

Containment, just as a purely technical aspect of acting, Ivan's not too far from who I am, to be honest. It was nice to play with containment — a man that puts out fires and is technically very good at calming other people, being an anchor for so many other people, even in places that are not solid. And yet everything goes horribly, horribly wrong for him.

And perhaps his natural M.O. to be the fire-calmer, the guy who puts things out and can organize, join the dots and problem solve finds himself, ultimately, in a position where he can’t solve this problem, and he can’t do anything about it. And Locke is a floodgate of psychological and human paradoxes and grayness, which is terrifying for him.

But ultimately, he breaks new ground for himself. On that journey, he has a clean sheet by the end of it, whether you like him or not. He has courage and bravery to completely deconstruct himself and leave himself naked. Whether you like him or not is irrelevant. That fact that he was brave enough to try makes him less than ordinary, that he faced something, rather clumsily, a situation that I would have personally been terrified of.

Can you talking about technical aspects of filming those driving scenes?

Hardy: I was pretending to drive. It would have been illegal to read the Autocue and drive at the same time. It’s really simple. I was reading the Autocue, so that is similar to watching the road. I was reading the script, because I didn't know the lines. I got the script three days before we started shooting. So if you didn't notice I was reading the lines, then that's a bonus.

This is my first result. Sleight of hand. I don’t know what’s going on. I’m following the script, which is beautifully written. I’ve also got phone calls coming in, live feeds into my ear, when Steve says, "OK, call Tommy now."

The phone goes off and I have to speak to my ensemble, who were in a hotel room calling me live, and then I'd react in real time to them, as well as being on the back of a load driving on the M1, watching cars go past. And I have a cold.

My life wasn’t so dissimilar to Ivan Locke’s at the time. All of that, hopefully, translated into the serendipity of the character. Then I tried a dodgy Welsh accent, just to add insult to injury. I tried on my best Welsh.

Did you channel Richard Burton when you were doing the Welsh accent?

Hardy: I channeled him and I failed. A proper Welshman would probably say it was awful, but I listened to Richard Burton. The Welsh accent is very gentle and very kind. But also there’s something about that country, which is built on harsh terrain, and it's very windy and wet.

It's a very powerful country, in many ways, with the elements. For me, it's symbolic of where Ivan came from. We wanted a working-class character, without trying to be classist, sort of blue-collar, who worked his way from the floor up to being incredibly successful at what he does and under an incredible amount of pressure. But ultimately, his grass roots come from a specific postcode.

Whether or not I was absolutely on the money with my accent, that’s subject to taste and people’s ears. The long and short of it is the Welsh accent seemed to be particularly relevant for two reasons:

One: A lot of tough men and women have come out of Wales, and they endured a lot of incredible weathering elementals, and they work incredibly hard, physically.

Two: There’s a very gentle, kind and compassionate, almost melodic — not soporific, because we don’t want people to fall asleep — but there’s a gentleness to it, because as we watch Ivan's face, we see what he's thinking, we hope. And you hear what the people on the other end of the phone hear.

And it has to be a calming influence, and he has to sound like he’s in control and calm and somebody you can rely on in crisis. And Wales seemed like a very good essence for that — that sound. So Richard Burton as key — and Anthony Hopkins.

Steven, can you talk about your collaboration with “Locke” cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos?

Knight: Basically, I said, "Haris, you have to make it look interesting," and he did it. He's brilliant. Like everyone else on this project, because he was so different, and we were breaking the rules in so many ways, people relish the challenge. What I said to Haris in the beginning was that I would love for this to be something where you can just hear the sound and it would work, or you can turn the sound down and look at it and it would be beautiful, it would be hypnotic.

There is something very beautiful about nighttime motorways in urban environments from a moving vehicle. It’s lovely. I can’t remember the name of the device, but he rediscovered some of device that enhanced reflection, and it hadn’t been used since the ‘50s. We get the real reflection, but you get reflections of reflections as well.

Since we were really moving on a real road, you get happy accidents, you get lovely reflections. You get shaking on the road — sometimes at the exact moment that Ivan is shaking. All of those things were welcome in the edit.

A truck comes alongside and it just says, “It’s always been.” And then it goes away. You couldn’t plan that, and you couldn’t think of that. The randomness of the real world comes in and helps you and goes away again.

Haris designed how we shot the film. He placed the three cameras: one which was at a sensible angle, one was a little less and one was quite exotic into a solid mirror or pointing at reflections. So we always had options within any one journey or any one sequence. But he was brilliant.

What is the significance of the bracelet that Locke wears?

Hardy: It’s a Help for Heroes bracelet. It’s a charity for servicemen and servicewomen, to support the wounded.

Is that a charity you personally support in real life?

Hardy: Yeah, as well as the Prince’s Trust and the Lifeboat Association, because they’re all relevant. The Prince’s Trust in our country helps a lot of people get into work and takes kids and teaches them a trade, anything from plastering to music. There’s a lot of placement for kids in hard-to-reach areas. So that was a connection.

Ivan’s the type of person who would reach out, certainly with the builders he would work with. I also wanted him to be the submarine captain in “Das Boot,” hence the naval sweater and the chunky knit jumper and beard, like Captain Haddock in “Tintin.” I draw sources from everywhere.

But the Lifeboat is symbolic of Picard in the middle of the storm, holding it all together. Anyone can steer a ship in the calm, but it takes somebody quite specific to steer the ship in a storm. So the Lifeboat sign was very specific. Everything was chosen. Help for Heroes is genuinely an amazing charity.

Ivan needed a little bit of help himself, to be honest. He wasn’t a military hero, but he was in his own crisis. It was just an echo that was relatable in a way. He’s the type of guy who would support a charity like that — and here he is, in a pickle himself.

There were quite a few character objects. There was nothing extraneous in that car. Everything was chosen, right down to the barber shirts with the specific cross. Everything was thought of, including the handkerchief and sleeve from having the cold, which I did have. I remember my mom, stuffing the handkerchief up the sleeve — that’s what moms do. Sometimes they spit on hankies.

Trying to hold a sneeze in when you’re trying to have a very important business conversation. Of course, no one can see you’re doing that; no one knows where you are when you’re on the phone. Unless you’re in a bathroom that echoes, no one knows.

I was trying to create an environment of that juxtaposition of that reality. Here I am having a very important conversation. And someone’s asking, “Are you listening?” I am listening, but I’m just trying to stop snot coming from out of my face.

It’s inappropriate for what I’m doing at the moment. Life goes on, even for the most mundane. So everything is specific to character — I hoped anyway.

You only had six days to film “Locke.” Was it stressful?

Knight: It wasn't really. Once we knew the way we were going to do it, and the structure, it was going to be what it was going to be. The only variable, really, was Tom and Tom’s performance, and I knew that would be fantastic. That’s why he was there, because he’s the best actor that we had. So it wasn't stressful, in that sense.

The only thing that was stressful in the sense that certain technical things could have gone wrong, like the concrete maybe. But when they did go wrong, we tried to use it. One example is since the BMW was on a low loader, it wasn’t driving, he hadn't bothered to fill it with petrol, and the vehicle kept telling you its low on the petrol by making a dinging noise. So in the edit, we would just put [a voice saying], "You have a call waiting" instead the noise. All happy accidents welcome.

Can you talk about the emotional scenes where Locke is breaking down while he’s talking to his absentee father as if his father is in the car with him?

Knight: When you're alone in a car, you're alone in a very particular way. It’s not like being alone in a film. Your body drives, and your mind is free. If you go on a long journey, you start to analyze your life. You look at the future, your past, things you've said and things you shouldn't have said.

I think that's why a lot of people talk to themselves in cars, because they're having this inner dialogue, which is justified to have the father in his rear-view mirror. And sometimes when he’s talking to his father, his lips are not moving, because it’s in his head. This is what goes around and around in his head.

Did you ever consider “Locke” to be a theater production? Would you want it to be a theater production?

Knight: I wanted to blur the lines between the two [cinema and theater], to be honest, which is to take the screen and make it the theater and have a theater experience, so you get the intimacy that you get in the theater, but make it into a film. It would be great to see it staged and lit in a particular way. I’m sure it would work that way. But it was conceived, absolutely, as a film.

Hardy: “Becket” springs to mind. And “Waiting for Godot” and various [Harold] Pinter [productions]. There’s all kinds of feelings for me of a convention where I can see it [as a theater production]. I do come from journeying in the theater.

To be honest, for me at age 36, it was the perfect hybrid of radio, a screenplay and a stage play. We sat around the table read for five days, and then we shot for five days straight on the road. So you're neither shooting a rehearsal period, and you’re neither actually shooting a film. You're shooting a rehearse reading, technically. You’re somewhere in between the three; it was experimental.

We sat around a table for a nine-hour day, for five days with the cast, and went through the script as a pretty straightforward theater practitioner stuff. Rather than standing it up, we just shifted straight to shooting a film. I was seated for that.

The initial response to reading material, you get (not often) a very interesting first read. Once the chemistry has connected in a room with a bunch of actors, you will hear a play in a certain way. And going into a rehearsal period, within six weeks into the run, you start to see a new dynamic on that play, once everybody stood it, felt it, moved it around, then start to go back again to where they were in the first day of rehearsal and start to reinvest in that.

What was interesting about this film, for me, was that it was a hybrid of all of those, and we ran a camera on it whilst we were rehearsing. Also investigating a space, which was contained. It was kind of a perfect blend, but neither nor or any of the different mediums going on all at once. And the fact that you only had one person in the room that you could see, and the rest were delivered via sound, created a really interesting hybrid of all those three things.

And watching the rehearsal room in process, because none of it was fully formed. It was open to, as Steve said, instances of accidents — happy accidents that would come in, stuff that you would never see in a rehearsal room was shot — and that makes for large parts of the film.

For more info: "Locke" website

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