Ben Hardy: ‘I felt myself getting lazy as an actor on EastEnders – I had to get out of there’

‘There are times I’m frustrated or not getting a job I want, and I’m like, man, if I was just in EastEnders…’  (David Reiss)
‘There are times I’m frustrated or not getting a job I want, and I’m like, man, if I was just in EastEnders…’ (David Reiss)

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. He felt like he was losing himself, though.

“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.”

Nude scenes now are 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’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”.

Different worlds: Hardy and Jason Patel in ‘Unicorns’ (Signature Entertainment)
Different worlds: Hardy and Jason Patel in ‘Unicorns’ (Signature Entertainment)

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.”

Making the band: Hardy as Queen’s Roger Taylor, alongside Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello and Rami Malek in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (Shutterstock)
Making the band: Hardy as Queen’s Roger Taylor, alongside Gwilym Lee, Joe Mazzello and Rami Malek in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (Shutterstock)

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.

Breakout role: Hardy as Peter Beale in ‘EastEnders’ (BBC)
Breakout role: Hardy as Peter Beale in ‘EastEnders’ (BBC)

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.

‘Unicorns’ is in cinemas