Tom Hardy Is Esquire's May Cover Star

The most exciting film actor of his generation had a privileged childhood, a troubled youth and an inebriated early career. Now 37, clean and sober, a father, married for the second time, Londoner Tom Hardy stands on the precipice of international fame. And he feels OK about it. On location in Calgary, Canada, the star of the long awaited Mad Max: Fury Road enjoys an afternoon of driving, talking, eating, more talking, shopping and, inevitably, coffee mug decoration

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"I've never done anything like this before, have you?"

Tom Hardy asks me, picking up a butter dish. No, I can honestly say I haven't either. We are standing in front of a wall of pallid clay shapes in Crock A Doodle, a paint-your-own-pottery place in a retail park in a suburb of the Canadian city of Calgary. There are plates and cups and platters and also piggy banks and rabbits and frogs. The 37-year-old British actor is staring intently at the shelves, pulling on his wispy beard, trying to make his mind up.

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"Oh!" he says. He's spotted a mug on a lower shelf with a thick strongman's moustache. "Bronson!" he says; he means Charles Bronson, Britain's most notorious prisoner, whom he played in the 2009 movie directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. It was also the role that made it clear to the film world that here, at last, was a contender. You should totally do that, I say. "Totally, right?" he says.

We've come to Crock A Doodle because Hardy wants to paint a mug for his wife, the actress Charlotte Riley; she made them a matching pair a while ago but then smashed one in the sink, so he's scouting for a replacement. The place is empty today, apart from two teenage girls quietly working away on ceramic martini glasses with fine-liners.

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"This is like a CIA meeting," Hardy says, as we take a seat at a low table with laminated placemats and a big pot of brushes, Hardy with the moustache mug, me with a box shaped like a bunny rabbit. "No one will ever know we were here." No one, that it is, except the two girls, who have spotted Hardy – he's a little conspicuous what with being foreign, male, and, oh, the world's most exciting movie star right now – and their eyes widen like the saucers on the shelf behind them.

A woman comes over from behind the counter. "Do you guys know what colours you want?" she asks. "I'd like to do the whole thing in butterscotch, and then black for the 'tache," Hardy tells her. "And a bit of buck naked as well, please. Get that in there. Can I also ask you for some coffee and cream? Just a little bit please? Whoa whoa whoa! What's tha…. Teal! Absolutely. That's fantastic."

And so we begin.

Calgary is Cowtown. It got the name when the Canadian Pacific Railway arrived in the 1880s, and it became the centre of Canada's cattle and meatpacking trade. Nestled at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers, it has always been a useful spot, for the aboriginal First Nations peoples and then for the Europeans, when the Mounted Police set up an outpost here to protect the fur trade. The three wooden huts the Mounties built have been recreated on their original spot, in the shadow of the crystalline clump of skyscrapers emblazoned with the logos of oil companies that now looms out of Downtown. To the south-west of the city, the craggy jawline of the Rocky Mountains runs along the horizon.

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From time to time, Calgary is also Actortown. A healthy wedge of tax incentives has attracted all kinds of notable film-makers to shoot movies in the western province of Alberta, from Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992) to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain (2005). Christopher Nolan came here to shoot the snow sequences in 2010's Inception (if you can remember it without your brain melting, it's the dream-within-the-dream-within-the-dream), which Hardy acted in, playing the rakish colonial fraudster Eames.

Now he's back in Calgary to shoot The Revenant, the new film from the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. Based on the semi-fictional book of the same name by Michael Punke, it tells the story of Hugh Glass, a 19th-century fur trapper who is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, and then robbed and left for dead by the two men, John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger, who are assigned to look after him. Glass survives against the odds, and sets out for revenge. Hardy plays the dastardly Fitzgerald, fellow British actor Will Poulter plays the impressionable Bridger and Leonardo DiCaprio plays Glass.

Hardy thinks it was probably DiCaprio who gave him the nod for The Revenant. The two worked together on Inception and became friends. "He's a tough kid actually, Leo," Hardy says. "Brilliant bloke, really supportive." That tends to be how he chooses what to do these days: a conversation with a friend, an email here and there.

This time it was a phone call. "I shamelessly don't read scripts," he says. "But Leo called me up and said, 'Dude, you have to check this out, I think it's a brilliant piece and Alejandro's a genius – will you read it?' I was supposed to be doing Splinter Cell [the film adaptation of Tom Clancy's hugely successful black ops novels/video games], so I was like, 'I'm going to jump out of helicopters, mate. I want to go and play soldiers!' and he said, 'Just read it, you idiot!' I was like 'Mmm, all right'."

So he read it at least?

"Half of it. Because Leo told me to do it. 'All right then, we'll meet this genius and we'll see,' I said. 'But until then I'll be sitting watching Come Dine with Me with the dog.' When I met Alejandro, it turned out he's fucking funny. Really lovely. Inspiring. Potty."

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And so here he is.

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Since September last year, Hardy has been living in a house in a suburb of Calgary with his actor friend Paul Anderson, who has a small part in The Revenant and whom Hardy calls Panda; Jacob Tomuri, also an actor who in this instance is working as Hardy's stunt double; and Hardy's assistant, Natalie Hicks, whom he calls Nat. And not forgetting a St Bernard-cross called Georgia, whom Hardy has borrowed from a friend who runs an animal shelter. His wife Charlotte, whom he calls Charlie Monkey, isn't here. "She's in London doing Monkey business," he says. "Fucking right."

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It's been a long shoot because Iñárritu is using only natural light, and had been filming the story chronologically until the warm, dry Chinook winds pushed the temperature up unexpectedly when they were supposed to be filming winter scenes. They've since been bringing in snow on trucks. The film is due to be finished in May. "However, he's now just won all those Oscars," says Hardy, "so maybe we'll be here forever."

The night before we meet, the 87th Academy Awards took place in Los Angeles, and Iñárritu picked up four statuettes including Best Director and Best Picture for his movie, Birdman. Hardy, 12 years a teetotaler, watched on TV and toasted his boss's success with a crate of mineral water. He did, however, get dolled up for the occasion: he shows me a picture on his phone in which he's modelling a fetching black-and-white mini dress and red lipstick, while Anderson sports a peculiar leather trouser suit. The stunt man was less keen. "Jacob 'Fearless' Tomuri showed fear in the face of wearing a nice little number," says Hardy, with a sigh. "I got him one anyway, but he wouldn't get in it."

We're sitting in Hardy's truck, a monstrous silver Ford that he shares with his housemates. Wedged in the dashboard is a biography of Lt Col Blair "Paddy" Mayne, one of the founding members of the SAS; a friend recommended it to Hardy, who has a keen interest in the military and lots of soldier friends (including one he mentions with a nickname so eyebrow-raising he asks me not to put it in print). On the back seat is a shearling jacket and what looks like a sleeping bag. The trunk is covered in a tarpaulin; the housemates have a running gag in which they ask someone to fetch something from it, then push them in. Recently, they did it to a Warner Bros exec. "Nobody's sacred, mate! Hur hur!" laughs Hardy. "To be fair, we didn't give him the full shove: he was an officer. But we indicated that we might."

The truck is my first sighting of Hardy, when he comes to pick me up from my hotel. It is clearly the de rigueur mode of transport in these parts: at least 100 drive by before he arrives (his time keeping, he admits, is not the best). Hardy himself, behind the tinted windows, also blends in seamlessly with the native Calgarians, in a sensible green fleece and jeans, a baseball cap and wraparound shades. He sucks sporadically on an e-cigarette; he's not trying to give up smoking, just changing it up. He's ruggedly handsome, not crazily tall at 5ft 9in, and not as bulky as he has been for certain roles that have made him famous. In The Revenant, Fitzgerald and his fellow fur trappers survive on rabbits and buffalo jerky, so Iñárritu would like Hardy to lose a little more weight, he says later (sadly, Hardy was tucking into a hamburger at the time).

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The plan for our interview had not been to paint pots, but to shoot guns. This, on the face of it, seemed like a much more Tom Hardy thing to do. As an actor, Hardy has wielded more weaponry than most – he's played tough guys (fighter Tommy Conlon in 2010 Mixed-Martial-Arts movie Warrior), criminals (bootlegger Forrest Bondurant in 2012's Lawless), maniacs (Heathcliffe in a 2009 TV mini-series of Wuthering Heights; his future wife Charlotte played Cathy) and criminal maniacs (most notably, psychotic mouth-breather Bane in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises from 2012). He's clearly drawn to roles that come with a sprinkle of menace.

The gallery section of the website for our proposed destination, the Calgary Shooting Centre, has a page called "Celebrity Sightings" that features only pictures of Hardy and pals brandishing a variety of firearms. It's a slightly unnerving setting for an interview with an actor who has a reputation for unpredictability – more than one journalist has noted a funny turn in the atmosphere when the wrong question has come up, and there's still a dispute over whether or not an uncomfortable appearance on The Jonathan Ross Show in 2012 was a prank or if he was genuinely offended (Ross unearthed footage of him winning a modelling competition on The Big Breakfast in 1998). Adding to my consternation, the local news that morning was running a story of an accident at a Calgary shooting range that ended with the not-entirely-reassuring line, "The young man is expected to survive."

But then it turns out Hardy isn't that bothered about shooting. He could talk me through some weapons, he says, jabbing at his unruly satnav, but actually there's this other thing we could do. "Guns are very loud. And you don't have anything to show for it apart from holes in a bit of paper. And it's like, 'Why did you do that?'" he says, inhaling deeply on his e-cigarette. "We're going somewhere else. Somewhere wonderful. And we'll have something to show for it at the end of the day. Shooting range: too obvious, innit."

And so we find ourselves on our secret, CIA-style assignation.

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In many ways, Tom Hardy shouldn't be here. Not just in a paint-your-own-pottery joint, but in the movies. Or perhaps even on the planet. The only child of Edward "Chips" Hardy, an advertising executive, and Anne Hardy, an artist, he was born in 1977 in East Sheen, an affluent suburb of southwest London. His parents sent him to public schools, but he was a restless, disaffected kid and didn't get on too well. Soon things started to spiral.

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"I was responding in the way that any teenager would who's had enough. I was responding to geography by saying, 'Fuck it, I'll go out and smoke. Who's going to stop me?" Aged 15, he and a friend were caught driving a stolen Mercedes-Benz. They also had a gun. "The police would come, people would beat me up, but it never killed me, so I was like, 'All right then, what else you got?'"

He was encouraged to act by his GCSE drama teacher, who saw something in him. It sounds like one of those feel-good, Oh Captain! My Captain! stories. "Yeah, but in this case it's not like Billy Elliot or anything because I went to a nice school and I was given loads of fucking lifelines. What a fucking arse I must have been to my poor parents. 'Oh, go on Tom, just take one…' At the same time as accepting that I had a really good home environment, I went balls-out to fuck that up. I was committed."

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On his second attempt, he got into the Drama Centre in London (alumni include Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth), and part way through landed his first professional gig: in the 2001 WWII mini-series Band of Brothers. He was somewhat out of his depth.

"When you go to drama school, you get a certain amount of camera classes but nothing really prepares you for, 'You'll now be working with Steven Spielberg's company and you've got to be on this mark.' And you go, 'What's a mark?'" His voice rises to falsetto as he tries to suppress a laugh: "What's a fucking mark? Though I didn't say that, I said, 'Yeah, course I'll be on my mark.' Till somebody said, 'You're not hitting your mark.' 'Course I am.' 'It's this thing on the floor.' 'Course it is.' You never admit you don't know something, do you? Not when you start out, that's a sign of weakness. Only that's what keeps you stupid. Make mistakes: that's when you fucking learn."

By that measure, Hardy did some serious learning as his acting career started to take off: while picking up roles in Black Hawk Down (2001) and Star Trek: Nemesis (2002), he was also becoming increasingly reliant on alcohol and drugs, from beer to crack and everything in between. He doesn't specify what it was that prompted him to get help, though there is speculation that the breakdown of his five-year marriage, to Sarah Ward, then a TV commercials producer, might have had something to do with it.

He also has a six-year-old son, Louis, with his ex-girlfriend Rachael Speed, a producer he met on TV period drama The Virgin Queen. "There were constantly things laid in my path where it was, 'Tom, you've got to wake up because there are more important things to do.' I had to have words with myself about the realities of wanking about." He went to rehab in 2003.

But then in the ways that matter, Tom Hardy most certainly should be here. He's one of those actors who has it in his bones. He's instinctual, primal, with a brutish physicality – and yes, the Marlon Brando comparisons are frequent. He knows how to use his body – or as he calls it, "the real estate" – to fill a screen, to ensure that you keep your eyes on him at all times (or else). Whatever the hell "presence" is, you know that he's got it.

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Perhaps this is because he's seen – and done – things in his real life that most other actors haven't. In another of his breakthrough roles, playing a homeless drug addict in the 2007 TV drama Stuart: A Life Backwards, he walks with an authentic junkie-shuffle that no amount of drama school workshopping's going to teach. Or perhaps it's that he's been canny with his choices. He's played a lot of bad guys, in part because there's a lot to explore – "I have to play with different graphic equalisers, not my own; but I have to tweak mine a bit" - but also because he knew it would get him noticed. "You try to make a noise, to get attention. 'I'm over here, I'm employable, please look. I'm quite good at this.'"

And now he's landed the big one. This month, Hardy appears in Soviet-era thriller Child 44, but after that he will star in the fourth instalment of George Miller's dystopian car-crash action movie series, Mad Max. This one will be subtitled Fury Road. It's the fourth film, but also a reboot, because Max Rockatansky, the law enforcement officer turned nihilistic nomad, will be played not by Mel Gibson, who portrayed him in the first three but got too old (not to mention toxic) in the 30 years it took this film to happen, but by a youngish British actor who has never led an action movie of any kind, let alone one with a budget conservatively estimated at $150m.

Warner Bros wasn't able to screen the film before Esquire went to press, but it's not hard to imagine what convinced George Miller to cast Hardy. Rockatansky is a character who says little – Hardy estimates he has between four and 20 lines in the whole of Fury Road – but still wrestles with the weightiest questions. At the end of the first film, which came out in 1979, Max's wife and child are killed. ("You always wonder, why doesn't he just top himself?" says Hardy.) But in this dusty, post-apocalyptic world where fuel and water are scarce and empathy even scarcer, Max is a character "who has humanity within him still, despite the hopelessness of his environment. He has no home and he has no hope, but he's reluctant to give in."

As for the pressure, Hardy says it's enormous. "I've never been more excited and out of my comfort zone." He's seen the film, and says it's "fucking unbelievable". He's attached to a further three Mad Max films, though as he says, "Everything's based on figures and how things are perceived. Inevitably it's a business."

The film itself has had a notoriously troubled genesis. Not only did it linger in development limbo for the best part of three decades, but just when shooting was finally about to begin in 2011 in Broken Hill, New South Wales, the location for much of the original trilogy, the rains came. The dusty desert turned into a meadow. The production was delayed by a year – which, happily for Hardy, meant he could do The Dark Knight Rises – and relocated to Swakopmund in Namibia, on the edge of the Namib Desert, where they would be based for six-and-a-half months.

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"We were in the middle of nowhere," says Hardy, "so far away from the studio system that [Warner Bros] can't really see what's going on, and just getting things to and from the set was a nightmare. We'd lose half a vehicle in sand and have to dig it out. It was just this unit in the middle of x-million square-kilometres of desert, and then this group of lunatics in leathers, like a really weird S&M party, or a Hell's Angels convention. It was like Cirque du Soleil meets fucking Slipknot."

Miller, who has described this film as "a Western on wheels", had essentially devised a two-hour-long car chase across the desert, of which as little as possible was to be rendered in CGI. Despite the extensive safety precautions there were, says Hardy, a lot of accidents. "Luckily nobody died."

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There were reports of other kinds of problem, too. Between Hardy and Charlize Theron, playing a new character called Furiosa, who enlists Max's help to cross the desert. Both have since played down the gossip, but it's not the first time Hardy has been rumoured to have had some co-star beef: Shia LaBeouf (pun fully intended), who starred with him in Lawless, hinted to a journalist they had had a set-to, and that LaBeouf had triumphed ("He never did that roughhouse stuff with me again").

Hardy responded in another interview with a visceral description of the encounter: "He just attacked me… He was drinking moonshine. I was wearing a cardigan, and er, I went down… I was like, 'What was that?' It was lightning fast. And [my friend] said, 'That was Shia.'"

But then again there's no smoke, as Hardy is the first to admit. "I have a reputation for being difficult. And I am. I am actually. But I'm not unreasonable. It used to be that if somebody hurt me I'd lash out a bit, in order to get them to stop. It ultimately comes from fear. If I cause enough of a mess, then people will never ask me again to do something I don't want to do. But that sort of backfires after a while so you don't want to do that. You grow up."

Right now he's in another little pickle. At the pottery place, between slopping coats of beige onto his Bronson mug, he gets a text message. He reads it out in a barely audible mumble and then says, louder, "No means no! But some people don't fucking understand the word, 'no'." Although he doesn't mention any names, it seems someone, who may or may not be Iñárritu, wants him to do something unseemly that wasn't in the script.

"Let's say somebody wanted you to jerk off on a chicken…"

At this perfectly timed moment the two teenage girls pluck up the courage to come over for a picture ("So cool! We knew that you guys are, like, in town!"). By the time they leave, Hardy is muttering something about a three-year-old. Wait, I thought we were talking chickens. "Well, let's up the ante. Character-wise, it's comprehensively brilliant. But I don't feel comfortable about it. I'm hardly Mr Ethical when it comes to my work. I'm happy to go to lots of nasty places, but I didn't see this one coming. I say, 'If it's all right with you, will you let me think about it and do it in my own time?' 'Oh yes, absolutely.' Twenty-four hours later it's on the call sheet to do tomorrow morning. Now you've entered a situation where everybody's on set…"

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And you're the arsehole?

"… For not going with it. Not playing ball. And it's like, you know, you've got to watch how you behave. Because I've got the 'he's volatile' thing."

You can't help but feel for him a little. Of course, his are first-world problems, as he'd be the first to admit, but as an actor he has all the exposure and the pressure, but little of the power or the control. "In this game you're going to come up against the machine, which is built to win," he says at one point. (He hints later that whatever it is that he may-or-may-not be being asked to do by a person who may-or-may-not be Iñárritu, he'll probably relent and do it.)

Also, he's got to appease Arthur. Arthur is the orangutan in underpants – "because he's got some modicum of shame" – who lives in Hardy's head. He's the beast inside him, the one who acts out, makes the rash decisions, even though his heart is in the right place. Arthur came about as a way of explaining to himself and to others some of his more inexplicable behaviour: his habit of hitting the button marked "carnage", usually when he had had a drink, but by no means always. But I'll let Hardy explain him:

"If you tell him you don't want him on the treadmill because he's breaking it, he'll get upset. There goes the treadmill. You know what I mean? And he'll get angry and give you a little slap – not a big one, but he'll knock you out, because he's massive. You'll wake up cradled in his arms, and he's howling that he's hurt you, because if you die, so does he. He'll bring you back round and apologise, bring you twigs and all kinds of shit. He'll make up for it. But he's still an orangutan. One has to have respect. Hee hee!"

Yes, Tom Hardy's brain is a magical, mesmerising, befuddling thing. He talks a lot, and with synapses that are constantly firing in all kinds of unexpected directions, like a plate of electrified spaghetti. Conversations constantly veer off wildly. At one point, while driving in the truck, he asked me, apropos of nothing, if I own a Himalayan rock salt lamp. I had no idea what he was talking about, but was pretty sure I didn't. Before I knew it we were in a New Age shop, the kind of place that sells ceramic angels and books called All Women Are Healers, and Hardy was buying me one to take home to sort out the ions in my bedroom, as well as a few trinkets for his military friends – "They can always do with a little bit of help".

Tom Hardy is both a hard man, and a massive softy. And he doesn't do either half by half. On the left side of his chest, as he lifts up his shirt to show me (steady, lads), he has a tattoo of a Buddha holding an AK47 assault rifle. He says he's thinking about becoming a vegetarian, then suggests going for a burger ("I did say thinking about it," he points out). He admits that he enjoys a good scrap, but also says that he went fishing recently and couldn't bring himself to kill what he had caught; the whole "taking another life" thing is also the reason he'd never want to join the Armed Forces.

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And he sweats the small stuff. He's the only human being I can think of, let alone Hollywood A-lister, who, after we finish our burgers, puts the unused ketchup sachets back in the tub so as not to waste them. He berates himself for taking up two parking spaces, even though the lot we're in is vast and there are hardly any other cars. Maybe it's because he knows I'm watching, but it doesn't seem like it. Hardy is a man who, after a few mixed-up, muddled-up years, is trying to do the right thing.

But first he has a mug to finish. He's done with the beige, he's painted the moustache black and made two teal circles for eyes. In black fineliner he writes "Bronson" on the back in impressive, spidery script. I point out that a mug dedicated to a notorious hard man might not be the romantic gesture his wife was expecting and he laughs uproariously – "I'm such an idiot! You go with what you know, don't you?" – before drawing a lipstick-red heart inside. He admires my bunny and asks what I'll do with it. I say maybe I'll keep my daughter's teeth in it. "Nice one! Yeah, Idi Amin! Lateral!" he says. Baby teeth, I clarify. "Oh yes, of course."

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He offers me a lift back to my hotel and on the way we talk about how he'll achieve what he describes as "joining the normal". He wants more time with his family: he's working on a Ridley Scott-produced BBC drama called Taboo with his dad; also, Louis is about to turn seven so he wants to be around more. But Mad Max has all the makings of a monster, and even though he's pretty famous now, after the summer he might be really very famous indeed. You don't see Leo down Crock A Doodle, I say.

And then he's off on a monologue that, like most of the things that happen when you're bumbling around with Tom Hardy, goes off in twisty-turny loops and comes out somewhere you didn't in the least expect:

"I don't think Leo chooses to do that stuff, and I don't think it would necessarily be wise for him. But I'm 37, how fucking mega-famous can I get at 37? If I stop myself from going to Crock A Doodle, what a fucking Crock A Cunt I am. Hee! A proper knob. I've properly left East Sheen, haven't I? Never happening. If someone stops me from going to Crock A Doodle they're going to have man-words. From a grown man. Not in a Russell Crowe way, because I don't drink, and I don't have any poetry I want to read you, or a rock'n'roll song I want you to listen to, I have no delusions of grandeur – in that nice way, because actually he's a fucking cool guy – but if I want to go down with my little boy to Crock A Doodle and paint ceramics, I'm doing that. And nothing's going to stop me. Anything else that gets in the way of that goes first. I don't say that lightly. Because I'm financially secure enough to say that, within my means. I'm not a multi-multi-millionaire; I haven't got enough money to survive my whole life and look after my friends and family, but I would rather be able to go to Crock A Doodle, and be with my dogs, and walk down the street, and people know me and say hello. That's great, it's like being a local in an old fashioned sitcom, Cheers or whatever, but in real life. You know me? Great. That's cool. Totally. Brilliant. Love it. At least I know I'm not alone in the world."  

Child 44 is out on 17 April; Mad Max: Fury Road is out on 15 May

The May edition of Esquire is available from newsagents from Tuesday 31 March, or you can subscribe online.

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