There were dogs on set and dogs in the script, but Tom Hardy felt like the production of "The Drop" could use one more mutt.
The British actor — known for being Bane and Bronson and now, he hopes, Bob, the not-so-simple simpleton in the new crime drama penned by genre master Dennis Lehane — has a hard time saying no to a pooch, or at least something he likes that might make everyone else a little crazy. So when costar Noomi Rapace brought Hardy to an animal shelter near their Brooklyn set to research their roles, the outcome wasn't really in doubt.
"I knew the minute we walked in there, he'd be walking out with a dog," Rapace said in her trailer, shortly after the unexpected canine trip.
Hardy did adopt a dog, a pit-bull puppy, and took it to the set. Never mind that the actor was in the U.S. only for a few more weeks. Never mind that he was spending 10 hours each day shooting a movie, then titled, aptly, "Animal Rescue."
On a chilly April day during the 2013 shoot, Hardy's new pet was outside the working-class bar where the film is set, jumping, barking and looking a little overwhelmed, or maybe just confused why someone had yet to walk him over to craft services.
"She's still around, yep. She's still around," said Hardy in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival when asked about the dog. "She has a great home."
That kind of unexpected behavior characterized Hardy as he made the film, directed by "Bullhead" auteur Michael Roskam and set to open Friday after its Toronto premiere last weekend.
Hardy embraced a kind of single-mindedness to play opposite the famously self-critical James Gandolfini (the last movie the late actor shot)--Hardy wasn't bashful in offering suggestions as he watched playback of scenes at the monitors, and he lobbied Lehane and producers for a more ambiguous ending, which the screenwriter then partly rewrote on set.
He also often indulged in a kind of wild playfulness when Roskam yelled cut, engaging costar Matthias Schoenaerts in what appeared to be a game of unrequited tag on one afternoon and generally getting in touch with his inner child.
"I'm a complete...I joke around because if I don't let it go, it has a counterintuitive effect on the work," he said in Toronto.
"Some actors, they can stand still behind a string," Roskam said. "And with some actors, it's like they don't want to over-concentrate and be good when you're not shooting, and then you say action and they lose it. Tom is one of those actors."
Roskam didn't want to lose it here, in this mood piece of double-crosses and beaten-down humans, of dog rescues that are metaphors for lost innocence. Shot by Nicolas Karakatsanis in the brackish palettes and confined spaces of working-class Brooklyn, "The Drop" has the kind of muted tone and slow burn one doesn't see much in American thrillers these days.
"What I was trying to do was go back into a very authentic era of film noir," Roskam said. "The average person thinks of noir, and they think of shadows on the ceiling and a femme fatale and a guy with a smoke. For me, it's a social comment, a voice for the voiceless. I wanted to direct this film as if Frank Capra would have done 'Taxi Driver.'"
That's in part why the film was shot entirely on location in and around the neighborhood of Marine Park, a working-class enclave that's just a few miles from hipster Brooklyn but a time zone away in sensibility. There is a blue-collar bar, named for Bob's cousin Marv (Gandolfini), who is like Tony Soprano but without the success. Once the bar's owner, Marv has lost the establishment to a group of Chechen mobsters who use it as a "drop" point for money laundering. (Lehane makes his feature-screenwriting debut with the film, adapting the script from his short story.)
At the start of the film, a robbery has the mobsters putting the screws to Marv and bartender Bob. Meanwhile, Hardy's character, a low-key and possibly slow-witted man, has rescued a pit bull pup. While he and damaged new friend Nadia (Rapace) bond over the dog, a creepy neighborhood man (Schoenaerts) claims the dog is his. The mobster and canine plot lines soon entwine — especially as the dog takes on a role that may be a MacGuffin but certainly serves a character purpose.
Lehane said he created the animal-themed short story as a new spin on his traditional crime tales and found himself able to revise it significantly because the source material didn't offer many elaborations.
"I couldn't do this with 'Mystic River,' because I'd keep thinking, 'I worked so hard to get to Page 301, so how can I change what's on Page 299?' " he said. "But a short story is different."
What he built is a story that has a surprising poignancy amid the violence and dark machinations. There's a kind of heartbreak beneath many of the proceedings, shady as they are.
"We're all desperate, and we all want something, but there's a tenderness here too," Schoenaerts said.
Desperation and darkness are things Hardy knows well. He told a reporter at a Toronto press conference, who asked how hard it was for him to go to dark places in his roles, that he basically lives in dark places. His reputation as an intense presence precedes him; reports from the set of the upcoming "Mad Max: Fury Road" described tension between him and co-star Charlize Theron.
But even those who say Hardy isn't always the simplest personality to work with stress it all falls away when a director calls"action;" the actor, they say, is a live wire who channels his complex inner life into his performances (which makes his gentle persona as Bob in this film all the more striking).
"The Drop" also offers the chance for viewers to see two actors of considerable talent share the screen, in a posthumous bonus of sorts.
As he sat next to Michael Gandolfini — Hardy had allowed the late actor's teenage son to shadow him over the course of several interviews — he described Gandolfini using one of his run-on phrases and extended metaphors ("The melody and music and tonalities is what we were trying; we were looking for a space to harmonize"). He noted Gandolfini's perfectionism.
"He didn't like to get things wrong. If things weren't going the way he wanted it to, he made very specific demands to accomplish his level of expectations. He would get mad at himself. It was, 'I'm going to get this right.' He would police himself."
That allowed the pair, Hardy said, to build a certain rapport necessary for the film. "It really is an odd couple story," he said, "in a strange way a 'Mice and Men' story."
Or a different kind of animal, anyway.