Tom Hardy, Emily Browning and Brian Helgeland confront the Krays’ legacy in LEGEND

A conversation with some partners in crime.

If the Park Hyatt Hotel has rules about vaping, Tom Hardy was eager to break them. Settling in with Legend co-star Emily Browning and writer-director Brian Helgeland in front of a room filled with a dozen journalists, a bearded, baseball-capped Hardy frequently vanished into a cloud of vapor, like the Caterpillar in "Alice in Wonderland." Occasionally, all you could see was a Cheshire Cat-like smile in the fog.

It was not altogether unsurprising for the British actor, who has a reputation for being evasive and sometimes prickly with the press (which would happen in another Toronto interview, when a reporter tried to get Hardy to comment on his sexuality and the actor politely but firmly dodged the question). But on this particular afternoon, barely 12 hours after Legend's red-carpet premiere in Toronto, Hardy seemed happy to chat about how he portrayed both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the notorious twins who held sway over London's underworld in the '60s, rubbing elbows with superstars like Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland and rubbing out most of those who tried to take them on.

What was it like for Hardy to play opposite himself in so many scenes throughout Legend?

"Awesome!" Hardy answered, with a smile. "I don't argue with me. It's other people I have a problem with."

One person with whom he had no issues was his stuntman and double, New Zealand native Jacob Tomuri; Hardy has worked with Tomuri on Mad Max: Fury Road and the forthcoming The Revenant.

Over the course of a six-hour session early in the shooting of Legend, Tomuri and Hardy went through each of the scenes in which Ronnie and Reggie appeared together, taping each segment on Tomuri's iPhone for reference. When Hardy was portraying Reggie, Tomuri stood in as Ronnie; when Hardy stepped into Ronnie's shoes, Tomuri became Reggie. In post-production, Hardy was digitally pasted over Tomuri.

"I think he was happiest when we were slapping each other, because that was his territory: 'Ah! Thank God! We can have a good fight!'," Hardy cracked. "The downside to that was that we were wearing rings and we were really slapping each other and the rings actually do land. We thought, if we have open hands it's not gonna hurt. Mistake!"

"It's strange to watch the film and he's not in it, because he was such a presence every day there on the set," said Browning, who plays Reggie's conflicted wife, Frances.

Tomuri's presence gave Hardy someone to work against, which he said is crucial to his process of creating a character. "Acting is about other people, not necessarily you, if you're doing it," he said. "My emotional landscape is triggered significantly by others, as opposed to what I'm doing, 'cuz that's called 'wanking.' Where I come from that's called masturbation, which is stinky, self-indulgent -- and good fun!"

No, Hardy did not receive two paychecks for doing double duty -- instead, he settled for an executive producer credit on the picture.

The Krays' world of gangster glamour was previously portrayed in director Peter Medak's 1990 film The Krays, in which brothers -- and Spandau Ballet bandmates -- Gary and Martin Kemp played the leads.  

"I've seen Spandau Ballet's The Krays,'" Hardy admitted. "It was a bit of a horror, wasn't it, in many ways and aspects? Quite chilly and sort of a slow, long tale of them that created a sort of ambiance of terror around the family and the mother specifically. (In the movie, Billie Whitelaw, as Violet Kray, is portrayed as the maniacal maternal motor that drives the twins into lives of crime.) It was a very different piece altogether to what we set out to do."   

A reporter pointed out the verbiage on the film's poster: "Gangsters. Brothers. Icons." Chuckling, Hardy turned professorial and cheerfully dissected the copy.

"Well, they were brothers, weren't they? Twins. I think, yes, we know we're gangsters, on what level or what degree, pedigree, in the rank and file of what a gangster is -- they certainly were involved in the criminal underworld and they were in organized crime. Were they big, big-time gangsters? I think not quite the same, though that kind of segues into the concept of 'icon.' In British culture, they certainly became infamous -- famous for being associated with celebrities and culture," emblems of the Swinging Sixties.

"I think that was kind of their undoing," Hardy continued. "They enjoyed the attention, and most of the gangsters that I would sort of call 'gangster' gangsters don't really embrace celebrity-ism in that same way, where they put themselves front and center. so iconic literally because of that, really."

Asked to describe the differences between Reggie and Ronnie, Hardy turned contemplative.

"In real life, it's very hard to get into the skin of anybody," he said. "I'm not sure what makes me tick, or you. ... But from basic research on them, one of the lads was a paranoid schizophrenic and had significant mental health issues and the other one managed to keep his under wraps for a lot longer, I think, and wasn't so extrovert with them. Apart from visually they're very different to look at, aesthetically, and they had very different temperaments, different attitudes toward things and they were also kind of 'one,' as well: They were synonymous with being The Twins, accepted as the Kray Twins together. It wasn't like they split up and lived separate lives; they were an entity, in many ways."

They were also, like many of their associates, larger than life.

"If you met them in the street, you wouldn't believe them on the stage or you wouldn't believe them in the theater," Hardy explained. "It's beyond heightened reality. That's a lot of the difference between a discrete gangster and a gangster who's shamelessly out and proud." He noted the behavior of young men who flash gold-capped teeth while cruising around in cars with booming bass: "There's a flaunting energy that comes with the almost ridiculous nature of gangster-ism and mannerisms, especially in that world -- peacock behavior."

Yet while the Krays were anything but wallflowers, separating the truth about them from the colorful rumors and exaggerated street fairy tales posed a challenge for the writer-director and his stars.

"I did a lot of research, read a lot of books," Helgeland said. "I tried to read all of them, but a lot of them are really bad. It's interesting because there's such a spectrum of what is said about them and told about them. They were sinners and saints and all those things.

"And it was difficult to get to the human side of them in a way: That's all been lost, really. For two guys who haven't been dead that long, I was amazed at how little 'fact' was known about them, other than dates: They went to prison on this date, and Jack the Hat was killed on this date.

"When I was researching, I met several people who knew them at the time and I met a guy named Chris Lambrianou, who had gone to prison with them for 15 years. I was always curious about Frances and I said to Chris, at the end of a long day with him, 'Can you tell me about Frances?' And he said immediately, 'Frances was the reason we all went to prison.' And I had never heard that in the 35 books I'd read or in the endless newspaper articles I'd read."

Lambrianou suggested that after Frances' untimely death, Reggie "stopped sorting things out," Helgeland explained. "If someone in the East End was seen talking to a policeman, Reggie would hear about it and a couple of days later he would knock on their door: 'What were you talking about? What's going on?' If there was a trial going on, he would bribe jurors or pay off policemen, and any investigation he would always beat back. Chris said after (Frances) died, he stopped doing that, completely. ... Chris described it as almost like he was waiting for the police to come get him."

Browning realized there was far more information on Ronnie and Reggie than there was on Frances.

"I feel like Frances is a much more mysterious character than the Krays in the sense that there's just not as much information out there about her," Browning said. "So I kind of allowed myself to be led by what Brian was telling me about her, also because I didn't want to go out looking too much on my own because I feel people make a lot of things up and I didn't want that to get kind of muddled. So i just stuck with the version of Frances that was in the script."

Helgeland surprised Browning with a couple of letters that Frances had written to Reggie, notes that offered startling insights into their volatile relationship.

"One of them was kind of like a sweet love letter,' Browning said. "The other was her kind of toward the end of their relationship and she was having a go at him and completely spitting acid at him. I love that. I think she could have so easily been this soppy, sad character, and I like the fact that she was willing to stand up to this kind of terrifying man. It was really helpful to me to have that."

Nearly everyone who met Ronnie or Reggie had stories to share, but many of them were impossible to authenticate.

"There were a lot of books, lots of myths," Hardy said. "That's why it's called Legend as well, because it's a myth again, a take on it. It's not like this is The Word, or the gospel because there is no real gospel on this. It's amazing how the sort of stone-in-the-water ripple effect of everybody who knows or has a tale or was related to them -- there's so much churn to go through where you're really left with primary sources like photographs, or bits of crime memorabilia, like things that they've touched, places that they've been that you can sit and sort of pick up energy, or whatever."

To prepare for his role, Hardy reconnected with he termed "a small social circle, a network of gangsters and criminals, a fraternity within our country that are specifically British" that he had previously met when he was researching his previous true-life crime drama Bronson.

"They still hold it very close," he said of the Krays' legacy. "But even their tales are kind of loose and embellished. But if you scrape away whether somebody likes or dislikes somebody over a period of time, or is forging a specific iconography of their own, perhaps -- there are some people who have very telling stuff to say about the twins, who spent a lot of time with them."

Former Kray cohort Fred Foreman told Hardy, "he didn't like Reggie at all. He told me why he didn't like Reggie and he completely counterbalanced anything that was written in the script about his charm and his suave, effortless swagger and his romanticism. He demystified that totally and he didn't believe a word of it. It didn't really help, but..." Hardy laughed. "You have to listen and go, 'Eh, all right, fair one,' because ultimately, people like that, to me, are going to be a gauge of whether there's an authenticity to the structure of what you're creating in your show-and-tell of acting."

Foreman had an entirely different attitude toward Ronnie.

"He absolutely loved Ronnie -- he loved him," Hardy said. "Ronnie was the most honest out of the two, even though he was bonkers, generally, and if he didn't take his pills he was incredibly prone to bouts of massive rage. He was infectiously funny. He was larger than life. He was a really kind and warm-hearted individual; if you wanted something, he would take it straight off his wrist and give it to you. Everything came at a cost to most people, but within his fraternity he was the charmer of the two, in most aspects. That surprised me."