coming out with the krays: we talk to tom hardy and legend director brian helgeland

In director Brian Helgeland’s new film, Legend, gangster Ronnie Kray is boldly open about being gay in 60s London.

by Cliff Joannou
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08 September 2015, 12:00pm

The Kray brothers are an intrinsic part of London's pantheon of infamous historical figures. They occupy the murky territory of gangster-land in which the urban mythology and the brutal reality of their many killings have become synonymous with old school East London and the Swinging 60s of the West End. Almost everything about the twins in shrouded in myth and mystery, but one of the facts we know for sure is that one of the Kray brothers, Ronnie, was openly gay.

Our scheduled interview for the film is with director Brian Helgeland, but towards the end, Tom Hardy strolls in unexpectedly. A welcome gatecrasher...

How did you research a project that involved so many urban myths and filter the facts out?
I read almost every book and they all agreed about certain things, so I cross-referenced them all and took what factual events we could roughly be sure of, such as the well-known killings. I spoke to his contemporaries at the time, former gangsters and old friends, and even Barbara Windsor.

Really?!
She dated the third brother who I didn't have the luxury of the time to portray in a film. She talked about how fun and exciting it was to be around them.

And all the facts pointed to Ronnie being openly gay?
That was the case as far as all the research I did, we didn't push it one way or the other. And being gay was against the law in 1965. Someone said to me, "He was a gangster, so it was OK." But if you think being a gangster and saying you're gay makes it easier, I don't think you know too many gangsters.

Why do you think he was so open?
I think he has a weird honesty. He was much more honest than [his brother] Reggie, who lived one life for this person, and another life for that person. Ron was much more what you see is what you get.

Was that because of his mental health issues?
It never struck me that way, why he was so upfront about everything. You just knew where you stood with him. Whereas with Reggie you didn't quite know what he was thinking. I don't know if that honesty's related to Ron's illness or not, or if that's his character. I think the illness more affected his moods.

Do we know what he suffered from?
They say paranoid schizophrenia, which is often triggered by a severe health issue. A lot of people trace Ron's issues back to when he had diphtheria at around three-years-old. He almost died, and it was probably that which brought it on.

How did you filter the facts from the myths?
It's hard to boil two people's lives down to two hours, but the thing with the Krays is it's so awash with tabloid history, in which all the newspapers want something outrageous and crazy. And then there are the other stories, that they were modern Robin Hoods helping old ladies across the street. So, they're either saints or sinners. Movies, especially in the last ten years or so, everyone's either good or evil, and that to me is really dull and false. I tried to find what the middle was and embrace the contradictions and tried to get that across.

I guess to find their humanity?
Yeah, that's the key word in a way, because it doesn't mean you're forgiving them and saying it's cool for Ron to kill Cornell. Sometimes it's just portrayed as this mindless act, but when you understand what went on with those two guys, it's harder to judge them.

As a gay person, it's interesting for me to see a multi-faceted gay man on screen especially when other previous films on the Krays have only hinted at his sexuality.
Well, it's because its compelling in a way, it's interesting, it makes him a fuller, richer person and it's true, so it wasn't a hard decision.

How did Tom Hardy react to playing the character in that way?
He likes to stay away from stereotypes because it's just not interesting to play. It was interesting because Ron was openly gay and tough. It was also important to show Ron's crew, like Mad Teddy, that they work for him and they're not on the same footing. You judge Ron by how they act around him.

There are also claims that Ron and Reggie had an incestuous relationship.
To me that's part of the tabloid nature of the history around them. I just look at it from a journalistic point of view, there's only two people in the world that know if it's true, and that's Reg and Ron. I don't see Reg and Ron running around saying "Yeah, I had sex with my brother." I see that as just part of the tabloid hysteria that surrounds them.

[Tom Hardy enters]

Hi Tom Hardy. How did it feel to play Ron as openly gay when other previous depictions have shied away from it?
Well, he was openly gay. And there was some question as to Reggie, certainly in prison later in life. I don't know if he came out as such, but there's lots of questions about their sexuality. For this particular episode in Legend, about Ronnie being openly homosexual, it wasn't something he was embarrassed or shy about, it was something he was very straight about. He had a very ethical take on it as well, he would say, "I'm a homosexual, but I'm not a poof" whatever that means. It's another bracket of semantics that I couldn't fully comprehend that was very specific to Ronnie's take on being gay.

It's interesting to see a character of that era depicted so aggressively masculine, when the acceptable face of gay men in the media was the camp Kenneth Williams type.
There's a convention that assimilates the concept of a homosexual male in the arts or character depiction as being camp as you say, but of course there's an awful lot of gay men who, for want of a better way of putting it, are 'macho' or whatever. In the real world there is no such thing as a standard example of a gay man. I think it's awesome to see the full spectrum of what's out there, both past, present and future. I was watching a brilliant documentary about a transgender navy seal who had the operation and went back to work at the White House. I mean that's the reality. Gender, sexuality, race, creed, it doesn't matter. You are what you are. Ronnie was a gangster and he happened to be homosexual. He wasn't playing a sexuality. In some ways he was more honest about himself than Reggie, he didn't have anything to hide from.

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Text Cliff Joannou