Ben Hardy: Soaps are like rep theatre... a great place to learn your craft
He's landed two huge films in the US, and now former EastEnder Ben Hardy is starring in a new BBC thriller. Gemma Dunn reports
Change has been good to Ben Hardy. In the two years since he swapped Walford for Hollywood, the former EastEnders star - better known to soap fans as Peter Beale - has made his film debut as the villainous Archangel in X-Men Apocalypse and found himself cast to play drummer Roger Taylor in Bohemian Rhapsody, the forthcoming biopic based on the life of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury.
"I have been very fortunate," Hardy (27) says of his success. "I was very fortunate to get X-Men - that helped me a lot to get other things.
"But I do feel that there's less of a stigma about soap actors these days. You see a lot more soap actors working on British television, American television and film. I like to think of soap as the rep theatre - it's a great place to actually learn your screen craft."
Yet, while all eyes might be on Hardy Stateside, the modest star's latest venture - a leading role in the BBC's latest period offering, The Woman In White - brings him back to home turf.
The five-part psychological thriller - a haunting adaptation loosely based on the 1859 novel of the same name by Wilkie Collins - follows artist Walter Hartright (Hardy), who, after an encounter with a ghostly woman dressed all in white on a moonlit road, finds himself drawn into a mysterious and disturbing world.
For Hardy, the 19th century classic is another tick off the proverbial bucket list. "I've always been a fan of BBC drama growing up," he says. "I'd always watch it in my household with my family every Sunday night. It's part of my upbringing, so it's definitely something I've always wanted to do.
"I wasn't keen on the idea of doing a Victorian piece, because I'd recently done a film called Mary Shelley, which was set in a similar time period. But what really struck me about The Woman In White was just how ahead of its time it was.
"The actual themes of the piece, they're more relevant now than they were when we filmed. This idea of these two women living freely within the strict structure of Victorian society and then a heinous patriarch coming in and spoiling everything ... it felt very relevant and I think it's always important to choose something relevant, ideally.
"It's very filmic, very Gothic, and it's very high-quality. There's so much suspense and I think it does keep you on the edge of your seat, too. A lot of Victorian literature is very descriptive, but this is more modern in terms of pace and hopefully a modern audience will respond to it."
While you'd assume getting to grips with the archaic language might prove tricky, it was getting into the creative mindset of Hartright that proved Bournemouth-born Hardy's biggest test.
"Walter is an artist by trade and by passion, and the challenge for me was to get into his world," he says.
"We only had four weeks before we started filming, so I did as many art lessons as I could, but I was never going to be Picasso in four weeks.
"I am not a particularly talented artist. I just wanted to capture an essence of how he saw the world, but I do sometimes think after the end of every project, within a month or so, you look back and it seems like a million years ago."
Has he learned to play the drums for his turn as one of rock's legends in Bohemian Rhapsody?
"Yeah, I have, which was a great experience," he reveals. "I couldn't really cheat drumming as much as painting, so I had to really try and nail that one."
Of meeting the iconic band, he adds: "We did work with them quite a bit - Brian (May) more so than Rog (er Taylor), but they were involved to an extent, which was great.
"I remember when I first met Roger, I had so many questions. I had just been reading various articles and watching so many videos on YouTube. It had been a few weeks at that point since I got the job, but I felt like his stalker, so I had to dot the questions here and there."
While Hardy might be enjoying his foray into film, he's the first to admit LA isn't "his scene" - and he's not about to write off more small-screen gigs.
"I just want to do the best work, so it depends where that is," he says. "It's tricky, really. Some of the best work is TV, but I think it's so hard to know if you're onto something special. And often when an actor signs up to those things, you do sign your life away. It's just finding the right thing and then getting them to give you the job.
"But I can't be that picky. I think every actor, or most actors, wants to have a pretty diverse portfolio and that's definitely true for me as well.
"I want to try and do as many different characters as I can. I was very pleased to play a villain in X-Men, because usually I end up playing a nice boy, believe it or not.
"And this is different again - a very free-spirited artist."
The Woman In White, BBC One, Sunday, 9pm