It’s at 1.2M followers, I’m conceited enough to know that,” says Ben Hardy, his features and gentle Dorset inflection slightly softened over Zoom when we speak in late September.

This isn’t some sort of not-so-humble brag – we’re talking about Hardy’s Instagram, which is looking a bit different these days. He handed the reins over to Black Lives Matter for the past three months, who ran three different takeovers, including one by the African Rainbow Family , an organisation working for equality for LGBTIQ people of African heritage; and one by activist and model Adenike, who campaigns for both BLM and Extinction Rebellion.

The content – powerful black-and-white shots from the BLM protests in July; brightly coloured squares detailing the facts about the struggles faced by the black community – is a definite departure from his previous posts.

Before the takeover, there’s a shot of Hardy slurping a milkshake alongside the words: “Getting my Kelis on.” Other posts include group shots from movie premieres, posed images from photoshoots (complete with self-deprecating captions) and silly BTS photos from last years’ Oscars.

All in all, it makes for quite the contrast – and it’s safe to say you wouldn’t initially have come to Hardy’s Instagram page to broaden your horizons on racial issues.

Instead, the 29 year old is probably better known for his roles on screens big and small. He first made his way into national consciousness during his stint as Peter Beale on EastEnders. From there, his career has made a stratospheric leap. He went on to play Archangel in X Men: Apocalypse in 2016, and in 2018 took on the role of Roger Taylor in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody.

The latter saw him earn a nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture at the 25th Screen Actors Guild Awards, while the film was also nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Most recently he plays lead character Frank in new comedy thriller Pixie, out in October.

And he isn’t only known for his acting talents. He has a plethora of Instagram fan accounts including one with the handle @hardyhoe (10k followers), populated by candid shots and details of his comings and goings.

Part of me thinks if I were braver, I would say something myself

So no, activist content isn’t his bread and butter. “The egotistical part of me did think, ‘What if people stop following me?’ But if they only start following me for inane selfies and would unfollow for a positive message, then I don’t want them to follow my account anyway.”

While I get the impression there’s some small element of him that does care about social media, there aren’t all that many inane selfies as far as I can see. And as for being conceited, well, I don’t get much of that vibe either. Confident, yes; but also playful, and he clearly loves his work.

Yes, the person speaking to me from his parents’ house in Sherborne, Dorset, where he’s been seeing out the pandemic, is a bit different to what I expected. “I don’t want to sound like I’m taking praise for doing these takeovers on Instagram, because really I’m not saying anything myself, I’m just handing it over,” Hardy says as soon as we broach the topic of the BLM takeover.

“But having a platform like that – there’s a lot of people following that account – it just seemed to make sense to allow someone more educated [on these topics] than I am to use that platform to educate those followers and educate myself.”

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Throughout the interview, he speaks carefully, with acute self-awareness. Never is this more obvious than when he muses, “Part of me thinks if I were braver, I would say something myself. But an element of it is that I’m too scared to do that, which is part of the issue. I think it’s a step in the right direction. I mean who knows, maybe I will one day say something myself.”

When I ask where the takeover idea came from, Hardy says he “stole it off another actor to be completely honest. I was reading an article and it was about an actor who had done it. It was an article about allyship and how to be a good ally. I approached the author of that article and I looked at some of her posts and I thought they were very informative and they educated me. For personal reasons she didn’t want to do it, but she recommended other people and then eventually I reached out to lots of different people.”

From the way Hardy speaks, it strikes me that these takeovers aren’t something he would have taken on lightly. They were an incredibly considered move.

I’d never want to preach. Sometimes I see celebrities preaching, and I hate it

So why Black Lives Matter? “This is [a cause] that’s resonated with me. That implies that I have an intrinsic knowledge of the Black Lives Matter movement, which I don’t. But I think coming from a small town and witnessing racism...”

He pauses. “I’m hesitant to even talk about this in case I get something wrong.” Another pause. “It’s a message I’ve been supportive of, whether just supportive by thinking about it, for years or for a long period of time, so it’s something that when this came about, it felt like something I should do because it’s something I care about. Obviously there are other causes that I do care about, but I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

We talk about how having a massive social media following – and a platform to support these causes – is an unexpected side effect to fame. Of course, not that many celebrities have used theirs in the same way Hardy has, and we go on to discuss whether actors have a responsibility to lend their voice to certain movements.

“I’d never want to preach. Sometimes I see celebrities preaching, and I hate it when a celebrity preaches in a way that says, ‘This is what I think so this is what you should think.’ Why? Why should a celebrity know better than anyone else? That being said, if someone has a following – and there are people who have much bigger followings than I have – then there is a responsibility to promote a message. It makes my skin crawl when these actors make it sound like they’ve got it all sorted out.”

Ben Hardy

Hardy is a man who takes his position in the public eye seriously. In fact, despite his playful nature, he seems to take everything pretty seriously, particularly his craft.

Hardy says he was a “wanky 16 year old, reading Stanislavski and obsessing about it.” Why did he want to become an actor? With what I have come to learn is his characteristic self-awareness, Hardy doesn’t hide his initial motivation.

“An element of me liked the adulation, I suppose. A lot of actors deny that, but that’s the reason a lot of them get into it in the first place. Then once you get there, it’s whether you actually enjoy the craft and get something from it.”

And acting is definitely something Hardy enjoys. Indeed, it was his dedication to his craft that saw him move on from his two years as Peter Beale in EastEnders, where you have less time to focus on the scenes. “The reason I had to leave is because I felt myself slipping into not caring, which is a place I never wanted to go. For me personally, I found the lack of time so infuriating that I almost felt a desire to want to give up.”

I thought, ‘If I’m a theatre actor until the day I die, that’ll be brilliant

But he doesn’t downplay the benefits the show had: “I was very fortunate to come out of EastEnders with the jobs that I got. And I’ve worked hard. I still have a lot of respect for that world and don’t regret having done that show. It’s a hard gig. It’s a really hard gig and a lot of respect to the actors that do it day in day out.”

Hardy began in the theatre, where, he says, he was planning to return until Covid-19 put a kibosh on all that. Despite his success, he’s always had modest ambitions: “I had no real concept of money, but I just thought, ‘If I’m a theatre actor until the day I die, that’ll be brilliant. If I’m just acting in plays, that’ll be great.’ I enjoyed it, and I loved being on stage.”

But Hardy didn’t just act in plays. And so we come to his most recent star turn in Pixie, directed by Barnaby Thompson (who directed Spice World, FYI. Also Wayne’s World and the Oscar Wilde comedy An Ideal Husband. Eclectic).

Pixie is a comedy thriller set in Sligo, Ireland. Hardy plays Frank – as Hardy describes him, a “self-dubbed wild man” – who, alongside Olivia Cooke (Pixie) and Daryl McCormack (Harland), finds himself on the run from gun-toting priests who are after a “boat-load of MDMA” that the trio steal accidentally on-purpose. As you do.

“If I was going to choose two movies to hybrid it, it would be a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid mixed with In Bruges,” Hardy says of the script. “That sounds very optimistic, but hopefully it’ll live up to that expectation.” He describes it as a coming-of-age movie, albeit one in your mid-twenties. As for Frank, “he’s so loose and free and I had a lot of fun with that. That was partly a choice and partly what was written.”

From our 40-minute Zoom conversation, I can definitely imagine Hardy has fun with it, leaning on his own experience of wanting to get out of a small town to flesh out the role – not to mention his own mischievous, good-natured character. 

“I can definitely relate to that. I’m from a small town myself, and I was always itching as a kid to go to London, I didn’t really know in what capacity. And I’ve definitely stolen parts of my story to weave them in with Frank in terms of just wanting to go on and have great aspirations.”

Similarly to Frank, he also fell for Pixie in real life: Cooke and Hardy dated for a spell, although the pair ended their relationship during lockdown. “Olivia’s great, we had a lot of fun on set together,” says Hardy.

Hardy is both charming and a bit cheeky, sometimes turning my own questions back on me, asking what I wanted to be when I grew up (architect) and did I drink more during lockdown? (Er, yes.) It’s clear he takes his work seriously, but not himself.

And he’ll always have time for his fans, telling me he was recently sent a “lovely knitted jumper.” Has he worn the jumper? “Don’t put me on the spot like that! Yes, I’ve worn the jumper.

Of course he has. Ben Hardy: fine actor, staunch ally, and a thoroughly decent bloke. 

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Pixie is in cinemas from 23 October 2020