November 12, 2015 9:31 AM EST

Tom Hardy likes to play difficult men, so stepping into the role of one of England’s most bloodthirsty gangsters was an exciting prospect. Stepping into the role of two of them at once–identical twins, actually–presented more of a challenge. Still, it appealed to Hardy, who plays Reggie and Ronnie Kray, the crime kingpins who dominated 1960s London, in his new film Legend (in theaters Nov. 20). “Everyone hates the Krays where I come from. Their victims are going to look at this and say, ‘Why would you do a film about a couple of heinous, evil pieces of sh-t?'” Hardy says. “But if you’ve got time on your hands and you’re like me, you look for something to do which is naughty.”

Naughty is where Hardy, 38, excels. Born and raised in London, where he trained classically as an actor, he’s emerged over the past decade as the blockbuster action star with the sharpest knack for picking surprising projects: films about violence and its consequences, films where he’s dazzlingly unlikable. He played a con man in Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film Inception, which earned more than $800 million at the box office; two years later, he played the metaphysical terrorist Bane in Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which raked in over $1 billion. This summer he tackled the title role in the high-octane franchise reboot Mad Max: Fury Road, which earned plaudits for its unlikely feminist sensibility; in December he will star opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, a grisly tale of revenge set among fur trappers in the 1820s. Projects like these have branded him as one of Hollywood’s most savage movie stars, and he knows it. “I’m not going to fit into Love Actually. That’s not my cup of tea,” he says. “I’m not Hugh Grant. I’m not Eddie Redmayne. Love Eddie, but that’s not me. I’m not interested in that spectrum.”

“Tom, in his heart, is a character actor,” says Legend director Brian Helgeland. “But he’s so compelling that he’s become a leading man.”

In person, Hardy is less brooding than the men he’s best known for playing–he’s warm and funny, prone to colorful digressions. He’s similarly lively in Legend, which traces the Kray brothers’ ascent to power as they crushed a rival gang and flexed their muscle across London. Hardy deftly inhabits both the suave, calculating Reggie, whose wife Frances (Emily Browning) serves as narrator, and the impulsive, sociopathic Ronnie, who was openly gay. “The two of them together was like the animus and the anima in play,” Hardy says.

Instead of shying away from Ronnie’s sexuality, the film revels in it. Ronnie is typically flanked by a pair of handsome younger men and regales fellow crime lords with a tale of “twisting up a Haitian boy like a pretzel.” There’s a sly progressivism at work here–the idea that a gangster in an action movie can also be openly gay, even at a historical moment when that was unusual. Hardy was drawn to that. “He was the most interesting character to play,” he says of Ronnie.

But the project also came with the technical challenges of playing two central characters at once, in both emotional scenes and elaborately choreographed fight sequences, including a nightclub brawl between the two brothers–which is a lot to tackle, even for an unusually ambitious actor. When asked about his process, Hardy is blunt. “There’s two types of acting: convincing and not convincing,” he says. “People describe me as intense. It’s because I care. I am a pain in the ass because I care. Do I know what I’m doing? No. Do I have the best of intentions? Yes. Does that lead to hell?” He cocks his head. “Sometimes.”

Earlier this fall, Black Mass earned Oscar buzz for Johnny Depp as another real-life gangster, Whitey Bulger, who was unambiguous in his villainy. Legend is different–it’s a slick, crackling movie that asks us to root for two murderers, which is risky. But Hardy says he likes that element of danger. “What would I like to do today–phone it in and do a film that pays a sack of money, or do something that I’m passionate about?” he says. “Let’s play characters that everybody loves or absolutely hates. It’s going to get a response, even if it’s ‘Tom Hardy was sh-t in it.’ That’s O.K.” He grins. “It’s a response.”

This appears in the November 23, 2015 issue of TIME.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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