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THE INDEPENDENTOne of the rare ‘EastEnders’ actors to leave the BBC soap and actually make it in America, the British star of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ and ‘The Voyeurs’ talks to Ellie Muir about full-frontal nudity, his new queer drama ‘Unicorns’, and why he wouldn’t work with Bryan Singer again.
Ben Hardy knew he had to get off EastEnders. When he joined the cast of the long-running soap in 2013, playing Ian Beale’s misguided son Peter, he only planned to stick around for a year. But then Peter confessed to indirectly killing his best friend. Then his sister Lucy was murdered. Then he got his girlfriend pregnant. One year turned into two, with Hardy on the cusp of becoming one of the show’s biggest stars. But he felt like he was losing himself.

“I had been battling it for a year, how to make things work,” the 33-year-old says today, sitting across from me in the conference room of a London skyscraper. “I have so much respect for everyone who works on that show. [But] I felt myself getting lazy as an actor, I felt myself constantly going ‘This scene doesn’t work’. Like I was trying to make a diamond out of something that can’t be a diamond. That laziness scared me. I [said], ‘I have to get out of here’.” Hardy leans forward and stuffs a nicotine pouch under his top lip.

Only a handful of EastEnders stars who plot to trade Albert Square for Hollywood ever actually manage it – Hardy was one of them. Within a year of leaving the show in 2015, he was playing the evil, metallic-winged Angel in the superhero sequel X-Men: Apocalypse. He was Queen drummer Roger Taylor in the Oscar-winning biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. And you may have seen him (and, well, a lot of him) in 2021’s Prime Video erotic thriller The Voyeurs, in which Sydney Sweeney watched him have sex with a succession of beautiful models from her apartment window. There’s no denying he has range.

I spy that range in the room with him. Hardy, dressed in a white tank top, his jacket slung over the back of his chair, is serious and sometimes intense. He’s also playful, catching you out with a joke when you least expect it. He likes to turn the tables, too – a real conversation is had, rather than a one-sided interrogation.

We’re here to talk about Unicorns, a gritty British drama in which Hardy plays a mechanic and single father who grapples with his sexuality after falling for a drag performer (played by an enchanting Jason Patel). On paper, the pair are worlds apart. Hardy’s Luke is messy, blokey and desperately lonely. Patel’s Ayesha is all glamour and jewels, and someone who faces a cocktail of prejudice just by existing as an Indian gay man forced to keep his personal life a secret from his family.

As he and Ayesha grapple with their attraction to one another, Luke struggles with his own internalised homophobia. When it came to his performance – which is tender and vulnerable in ways that audiences likely haven’t seen from him before – Hardy tells me it was easy to pull from the culture around him as a teenager. “I grew up in Dorset,” he says. “I’m not slagging off Dorset – I think it’s a beautiful place – but it definitely isn’t as progressive as London and it wasn’t when I grew up there 20 to 30 years ago.” He pauses. “I was never a homophobe but I was surrounded by people using homophobic slurs. People would use ‘that’s so gay’ all the time, like it was a negative thing.”

He’s really reflecting now. “There were jokes that I made that were completely inappropriate, which I wish I could take back. I’m not saying ‘woe is me’, but that’s just part of the cultural conditioning. I think it’s something we as a system have to change.” He adds that Sherborne, the town he grew up in, just held its first ever gay pride event. “C’mon baby!” he shouts, fist-pumping the air and falling back into his chair.

Hardy is proud of Unicorns. He calls it his “most creatively rewarding experience” to date, which starts to make sense when we discuss some of the other work in his CV. Hardy’s entrance to Hollywood was at least partly down to Bryan Singer, who cast him in both X-Men and Bohemian Rhapsody. Famously, Singer was fired from Bohemian Rhapsody for “unreliable behaviour”, according to the BBC, and with just three weeks of filming left to go. Dexter Fletcher would step in to finish the film. Reports at the time claimed that Singer would disappear from the set for consecutive days. Singer himself claimed that 20th Century Fox refused to allow him time off, saying in a statement that he “needed to temporarily put my health, and the health of my loved ones, first”.

In recent years, Singer has also strongly denied multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, while numerous X-Men actors – including Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry and Alan Cumming – have spoken publicly about tumult on his sets. Hardy’s experience with Singer was slightly different to theirs: a baby-faced newcomer at the time, he simply assumed this was how Hollywood worked.

“Bryan’s behaviour wasn’t acceptable,” he says. “But I didn’t know that.” He inhales. “X-Men was a smoothly running ship, really. I only had a small part in that, and I did a lot of action stuff without Bryan there. Often Bryan wasn’t there anyway, to be honest with you.” Things were different on Bohemian Rhapsody, though. “I remember the first day and Bryan doing his thing… and everyone else being outraged and I was like ‘What’s the problem? Isn’t this just the way that it is?’ So it was an education for me … Looking back now, it was really not OK and that was not acceptable. In a weird way – there’s no condoning it – but his behaviour and his absence from his own sets unify the people that remain. And that’s not a working method.” Does he mean trauma bonding? “Yeah, exactly.”

Hardy tells me actors are conditioned to be thankful for absolutely any opportunity, regardless of how harmful it is. “You’re in an industry where 92 per cent of people don’t work. There’s this idea of ‘don’t complain, you’re f***in’ lucky to be there’.” Would he work with Singer again? “No I wouldn’t,” he says firmly. “I really am revealing too much but I don’t give a f*** anymore. The behaviour had escalated on Bohemian Rhapsody. I’ll leave it there.” He’s still grateful that Singer gave him a chance, but that gratitude is nuanced. “I will say I am thankful to Bryan because he cast me in … two great experiences. That being said, in terms of work ethic, it doesn’t align with my values.”

By this point in his career, Hardy has experienced those complicated feelings about his work more than once. In 2012, he was cast in The Judas Kiss, a David Hare play in which he played the young lover of Rupert Everett’s Oscar Wilde. The role called for full-frontal nudity. “In truth, I didn’t wanna do it,” he says. “But I was a hungry young actor. Did I want to be in a Sir David Hare play? Yes. And with Rupert Everett? Yes. But I wasn’t keen on getting my willy out to be perfectly honest.” That said, he’s grateful for the role today. “I actually found it really liberating once I did it. Afterwards, I felt so comfortable in my body. So now it’s like I’m just in Brighton on the beach, going for a dip. Sometimes I wanna whip my kit off but I won’t, you know?” He laughs, tucking another nicotine pouch under his lip.

Despite his success, Hardy admits to sometimes feeling lonely when he’s in between jobs. He’s searching, he says, for community. “Have you got a work family at The Independent?” he asks me, to my surprise. I tell him I think I do, though we don’t exactly braid each other’s hair at our desks. “I’m envious of people who have a work family,” he replies. “There are times I’m frustrated or not getting a job I want, and I’m like, man, if I was just in EastEnders…”. He trails off.

If Hardy could have it his way, he would gather all of his friends and family in a tiny town and live there. “We’d live in one village on the sea,” he says. “And it would be 24C every day, maybe 26.” It sounds strangely similar to Albert Square. Minus the weather, I suppose.

CITY A.M. – Last month, photos went viral of former EastEnders star Ben Hardy canoodling with the actor Jason Patel. In videos, the two often are tactile as they speak; a quick glance and they can look like absolute couple goals. Hardy, who has turned film actor and played Roger Taylor in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, has had high profile relationships with female co-stars, and has a big female fan following, but here he was, comfortably intimate, in public, with another man at a press conference for his new LGBTQ romance drama, Unicorns. The narrative among the toxic trolls was clear: ‘Omg, Hollywood hunk is gay!’

“It’s interesting,” Hardy begins, relaxing on a bench in a London park one blisteringly hot June morning. “We’re not a couple, but we looked like a couple. We’re very close, we’re very good friends, and he’d be there blowing a kiss near my cheek. Then on Instagram I experienced a drop in the open of what it’s like to be an openly gay or queer person. I started getting comments and DMs and I was like, ‘What the f*ck?’ I spoke to Jason and he’s like, ‘Yeah, I get that every day,’ To experience it first hand even in a tiny way was shocking. Man, I can’t imagine going through that every single day. I don’t usually look at comments, it just sort of flagged up ‘cause it was big all caps: ‘OH MY GOD HE’S GAY.’”

Sadly, the abuse won’t stop. In Unicorns Hardy plays Luke, a single father who unravels when he falls for an Asian drag queen called Aysha, played by Patel. Given Hardy has achieved what most EastEnders alum can only dream of, playing opposite Ryan Reynolds in 6 Underground and landing the role of Angel in the X-Men franchise twelve months after he left Albert Square, it was brave to take on the LGBTQ indie – and the inevitable abuse – just as his Hollywood career gains traction. Lest we forget, homophobic hate crimes are rising in the UK and USA and it’s an established fact in film that you lose audiences in middle America – anywhere between the two coasts, where homophobia is rife – if you come out as gay, which’ll have a drastic effect on the roles you’re hired for.

Was he worried about the reception? “I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind,” starts Hardy, pausing. “It’s odd, I can still hear that voice of concern, but that’s part of the social conditioning, isn’t it? That’s part of the problem. Why shouldn’t an actor play any part? Why should they worry about being seen as something because surely it’s okay to be that something? So why the hell should you worry about portraying something? Yeah, it crossed my mind, but sometimes you have to just ignore the voices in your head. It was a really powerful script and a story that I wanted to be a part of so I wasn’t going to let that fear get in the way.”

It’s the sort of mental strength and clarity of thought that must have helped Hardy establish a career beyond the soap opera in the first place. The drive is undeniable: Speaking to Deadline this year, the 33-year-old said that when his EastEnders role became unchallenging, he felt like “I need to get out of here,” adding: “I think there’s a point where I had to leave, though, because I felt like if I didn’t leave, I’d get stuck in this.”

The conversation about which actors can play queer roles is complex, controversial and evolving. A few years ago the established narrative was that ‘straight’ actors playing gay was a cardinal sin. Russell T Davies, who rebirthed Doctor Who, is a posterboy for that narrative, criticising any non-queer actor playing queer roles. In 2016 Ben Hardy met a similar wrath when he was on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. One publication ran a hit piece entitled: “Gay UK Magazine Put Straight, White Ben Hardy on Cover.”

But therein lies the problem: how can we be so sure of anyone’s sexuality? More and more people are defining as bisexual or pansexual as we come to terms with the fact that, shock horror, it’s just not as simple as being gay or straight: there’s much grey area in-between. As the theatre director Mike Bartlett explained to City A.M. when he spoke about casting Cock, his play about bisexuality: “What’s tricky is, are you going to say to the actor, ‘I want a full list of everybody you’ve ever slept with?” It’s exactly the point Unicorns is trying to make.

How does Hardy feel about labels? “James Floyd [director of Unicorns] talks about it, he’s very anti label really,” he says. “He’s very much about how he doesn’t want to be put in a box. He was raised as an Asian guy, white dad, Asian mum, he’s sexually fluid himself, he’s still exploring that and figuring it out. He says there’s very much a hashtag culture, where people define themselves by their hashtags.

“I learned from him and I agree with him and I find it really interesting, you know. We’re all just people, we’re all so multifaceted. Why stick to one label or one thing? I think it can be empowering, don’t get me wrong, especially when those labels have been marginalised, but yeah, I think it’s much more interesting…” He trails off. “We’ve just met, there’s a million things I don’t know about you. You could tell me you’re queer, bi, pansexual, straight, whatever, but that doesn’t mean I would know you. There’s so much more to know about you than that.”

Is there a certain power in not being defined by a label like gay and straight? Is that how it feels? “Yeah, yeah,” says Hardy, thinking. “I don’t know if it’s powerful. I don’t know. I suppose my answer would be I don’t know. I’m just, you know, I’m Ben.”

So what are the “million things” to know about Ben Hardy? Well, he likes “to sit and bake” in the sun, I learned off the bat. An hour’s sun soak later we had a sweaty hug goodbye even though neither of us had moved. It’s a refreshingly unstarry approach to a skin regime, and yes, that is a bellwether for now ‘ordinary’ Hardy is given his fame. He likes to run around this park, to get “lost in the middle of greenery”, works out a lot, is a cinephile, and plays the joker among friends. One pic on his Instagram (not that bloody thing again) of him mucking about at Royal Ascot is captioned: “Another year of successfully lowering the tone.” Under another post advertising the watch brand Bremont, which has watches starting from £3,200, he’s written: “Finalllyyyy @bremontwatches have found someone who’ll add a little class to the brand.” “I try and be semi authentic with that,” he says about his social media persona.

He’s an open book, and incredibly direct, but never impolite, telling me a minute after we met the intricate details of his last flat share (I’d been sharing my London living woes.) He speaks in a baritone that only changes when he’s enraged or passionate. Growing up in a suburb outside of Bournemouth, Hardy went to an ordinary comprehensive school and was in part brought up by his working class dad who used to make films in his spare time. “This is very broad brushes, but often people from a working class background put the emphasis on getting a job that pays,” says Hardy. “He was very open to me trying something else.” After a series of injuries halted trials to become a rugby player, Hardy pursued drama, which he’d loved alongside sport, taking it to acting school aged 18 at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. His first job was on the London stage in Judas Kiss opposite Rupert Everett where Hardy stripped off fully naked, an experience he described as “nerve-wracking.” He landed the role of Peter Beale on EastEnders in 2015.

He’s grateful for the platform EastEnders gave him, but “in the nicest way, wouldn’t want to experience it again. You’re in someone’s living room four nights a week. I’ve never experienced anything like the fan attention.”

Mostly, he’s just an incredibly warm bloke you want to go down to the pub with. Tabloids run headlines about Hardy peddling the ‘EastEnders to Hollywood’ narrative but it makes him uncomfortable. “I mean, it’s not true,” he says. “Like, I wish I had as much money as people think I do. But don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful to be doing something I love for a living and I do make a good living, but yeah, I’m not a millionaire. Which people often think.”

After a few months off, he’s looking forward to getting back to work. (As much as he loves recreational time, like most of us, he struggles to do nothing, and prides himself on a 9-6 daily programme of enrichment activities, from learning piano to working out, even when he’s off. Does he stick to it? Mainly.) In the future, he wants to do a few more “bid budget profile building” roles in order to help facilitate bringing more indies into the world, either as an actor or producer. “I’d love to be able to have the profile to be able to green light small budget movies, bring the story to the screen.”

Hardy is ultimately a pragmatist; something that grounds him. He’s taken to lying about his success when EastEnders fans – often in a silo and unaware of his broader career – ask him if he’s still acting. Forget Unicorns, role-playing the demise of his career may be his bravest part yet. “They’ll be looking at me and pitying me,” he says. “Sometimes I play a role, say it didn’t work out and I’m not acting anymore. I do it for myself, like a rehearsal for if that would ever happen. Ultimately, I’d like to not give a f*ck about acting profiles and jobs anyway. It’s hard not to be a desperate hungry actor. I think I’m constantly trying to not give a f*ck about that.”

VARIETY – British actor Ben Hardy, whose credits include “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Netflix’s “Love at First Sight,” is one of the leads in upcoming film “Unicorns.”

Co-directed by BAFTA nominee Sally El Hosaini (“The Swimmers”) and her long-standing collaborator James Krishna Floyd, from a script written by Floyd, the film follows a queer South Asian club performer (Jason Patel) living a double life who meets Luke, a straight, single-father mechanic, with whom unexpected sparks begin to fly.

Hardy, who plays Luke in the LGBTQ+ romantic drama, was drawn to the project by the unique story and the opportunity to work with director El Hosaini. “It was a challenging role for me, something I’d never played before,” Hardy said of portraying Luke, a working-class mechanic who enters the world of “gaysian” clubs in London.

“We spent hours and hours going through Luke, going through the script and story,” Hardy said. “To the point where we got to day one, I knew this story inside out. I feel like I really know this world and this story, and I’m ready to play it.”

Hardy initially had reservations about the co-directing arrangement, as he had signed on when El Hosaini was the sole director. “I was a bit like, ‘You guys [are] going to be arguing the whole time, how’s this going to work?’” Hardy said. However, his concerns were quickly dispelled. “They’re a couple in real life and their dynamic just seems to work. They have a good balanced relationship on set and offset. It was a joy to work with both of them.”

El Hosaini emphasized keeping Luke “very much in the moment,” which proved challenging for the forward-thinking actor. “She even bought me ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle to read,” Hardy revealed. “It was interesting playing someone very primitive and instinctive.”

The actor’s preparation included exploring Luke’s background and physicality as a mechanic. He also worked on Luke’s voice and movement, considering the physical toll of being a mechanic and the expectations of masculinity in Luke’s community.

Hardy intentionally limited his research into the gaysian scene, wanting his character’s reactions to be authentic. “I wanted my reaction to be as real as possible,” he said of Luke’s first encounter with the club scene. “I embraced my own ignorance and went on that journey with Luke learning about it.” The actor also enjoyed portraying Luke’s journey out of depression, crediting his co-star Patel for much of that character development.

“Unicorns” has received positive feedback since premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. “Everyone who’s seen it seems to love it,” Hardy said.

Reflecting on his career choices, Hardy looks for original scripts, relatable characters and roles that challenge him. “I want to be nervous,” Hardy said. “I want to feel like this is something that I’m not sure if I can pull off and take on that challenge. I don’t want to play the same character over and over.”

Interestingly, Hardy likens acting to anthropology. “I think actors are, or I’ll speak for myself as an actor, I think it is very close to anthropology,” the actor said. “You just want to study humans and step inside their shoes. It’s like, what is there that I can bring my own life experience to, but also use the realm of imagination and research to explore and get a sense of what it would be like to be that person?”

Hardy’s path to acting began with amateur dramatics after a sports injury sidelined his athletic pursuits. “To be brutally honest, at a young age I was very much just an attention seeking little kid. I was always making a show and a dance,” Hardy said. He fell in love with the craft at drama school, describing acting as “an amazing job” despite its instability. “I get to play for a living,” Hardy said. “As far as a way of making a living, I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do this, to still be playing around like I was as a kid playing make-believe.”

Since Toronto, “Unicorns” has had a stellar festival run, with playdates at BFI London, Flare, Goteborg, Palm Springs and Sydney. Protagonist is handling international sales. Signature Entertainment is releasing the film across the U.K. and Ireland on July 5.