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Tom Hardy with Reese Witherspoon in 'This Means War'

Newly-minted British movie star Tom Hardy gets his first chance to top-line in a big-budget studio film with This Means War, a comic action romance opening on today (February 17). He gets equal billing (though his name is listed third) with established stars Reese Witherspoon and Chris Pine (Star Trek).

Not bad for a guy who first registered with most American movie fans less than two years ago with his breakout role as Eames, a wily con man in Inception (2010).

His part in the blockbuster won him a BAFTA award for Rising Star in early 2011, though Hardy told British TV comic and Chatty Man host Alan Carrr that he skipped the ceremony to visit with family and loved ones during a brief few days off between shooting films.

In War, the London-born actor plays an elite CIA agent whose office partner (Pine) is also his best buddy. When the two men discover that they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon), each deploys covert surveillance and hi-tech gadgetry to find out how the other’s romantic campaign is faring and to try to interfere with its possible success.

Hardy, with both his real-life English accent and many tattoos on display, has an especially fun scene in which he shoots down an unmanned drone that Pine’s character has set to spy on him when the Englishman takes Witherspoon out for a romantic spin in a fast car.

If the movie is a hit, it could turn Hardy, 33, into a romantic leading man in Hollywood’s eyes. So far, his film roles have either been mostly chaste (a muscled, mixed martial arts fighter in last year’s underappreciated Warrior) or supporting (Inception and his secret agent in Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy).

In the UK, Hardy is already established as star material. He’s widely recognized enough, for example, to be included in this amusing TV commercial for Kleenex along with rocker-charity fundraiser Bob Geldof, singer Emma Bunton (a.k.a. Baby Spice), and Swedish soccer manager Sven Goran Ericksson.

Among his most notable roles across the pond, he played a brooding Heathcliff in a 2009 TV miniseries of Wuthering Heights (during which he met actress Charlotte Riley, who played Cathy and is now his fiancée). It aired on ITV in England and PBS in the U.S. In a heavy-breathing review in The Observer, Kathryn Flett rhapsodized that his Heathcliff was “thoroughly dangerous to know in all the right ways, entirely capable of making even careworn middle-aged women rend their garments, tear their hair and head for both the moors and the HRT [hormone replacement therapy].”

He also scored playing Charles Bronson, a famously violent, real-life criminal in Bronson (2009), for which he was named Best Actor at the British Independent Film Awards. And he portrayed a homeless drunk in Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards, a 2007 TV film for which he received a BAFTA nomination. (His co-star in that one was Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch.)

Next up for Hardy are two more Hollywood movies that are likely to make this summer’s want-to-see lists. He’s playing the super villain in The Dark Knight Rises, the Batman movie due July 20. The film reunites him with Inception director and fellow Brit Christopher Nolan. He’s also starring in Wettest County, a crime drama about bootleggers battling the law that’s set during the Great Depression and has an Aug. 31 release date. In it, he again teams with Gary Oldman, Hardy’s acting hero and co-star in Tinker Tailor.

And after that? Hardy has been tapped for the Mel Gibson role in a new, much delayed Mad Max sequel, to be called Mad Max: Fury Road. It may finally be happening. The actor showed up on the red carpet for the premiere of This Means War sporting a raffish-looking beard that he disclosed he is growing for his role as the post-apocalypse action hero.


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By Leah Rozen