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July 13, 2018 at 12:30 PM EDT

There are a few reasons Tom Hardy wanted to star in Venom. He’s played his fair share of villains, he explains, and he was looking to try his hand at a comic book superhero for once — preferably an interesting one, with a complicated past and murky morals. His son Louis is a huge fan of the character and was more than willing to school his dad in Venom’s rich comics history. And gee, wouldn’t it be fun to play both a down-on-his-luck journalist and the goopy alien parasite who infects him?

Frank Masi/Sony

But really, it came down to one thing.

“As far as Marvel characters, I have to say for me, Venom looks the coolest,” Hardy says with a laugh. “That sounds a bit shallow! But I appreciate that he has a kind of brazen swagger and a zero foxtrot attitude.”

And so the Oscar-nominated actor signed on to bring one of comics’ most notorious anti-heroes to the big screen. See, Venom may be a Marvel protagonist, but he’s no cape-and-tights do-gooder. His human side is Eddie Brock, a journalist reeling from a recent scandal. Desperate to get back on top, he starts investigating the Life Foundation and its cryptic leader, Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Before long, Eddie is exposed to a slimy, tar-like alien known as a symbiote, which imbues him with extraordinary powers and takes up residence in his head, rent-free.

“There’s a tragic clown element, which I find funny and is harmonious with some of the work that I like to do,” the British actor, 40, says. “There’s something funny about the circumstances of having a gift but it’s a tragic gift. It’s a superpower you don’t really want, but at the same time, you love it. It makes you feel special. He’s a reluctant hero and an anti-hero.”

Sony

Venom is the first of Sony’s new films based on characters from the Spider-Man comics, although it’s a separate world from last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. (It’s also not part of the deal between Sony and Disney that allows Tom Holland’s Spidey into the Marvel Cinematic Universe). The creature first made its comics debut in the early ‘80s, where it bonded with Peter Parker before eventually setting its sights on Eddie Brock. Over the years, Venom has evolved from Spider-Man villain to misunderstood anti-hero, and after an appearance in 2007’s Topher Grace-starrer Spider-Man 3, he’s finally stepping into the spotlight.

The film leans heavily into Venom’s violent tendencies (have you seen those teeth?) as well as the body horror that comes with sharing your skin with an alien. In forming this Venom, director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) explains, “We talked a lot about a werewolf and what it is when you get infected or bit by a werewolf.”

But although a man may transform into a wolf or Jekyll may transform into Hyde, Eddie Brock and Venom don’t really switch from one to the other: Instead, they occupy the same body at the same time and have to reluctantly learn how to coexist. 

“Usually a human gets imbued with powers or an alien comes from outer space and has to figure out how to live on our Earth,” Fleischer says. “But this is really about a relationship between two people who have to work together to create this hybrid symbiotic relationship.”

That duality of the role is what fascinated Hardy, and a key part of developing each character was finding their two separate voices. “It’s a bit like Ren and Stimpy, you know?” Hardy says, laughing. “They have different sounds. I always saw Venom as sounding like a James Brown lounge lizard, and Eddie Brock is kind of…” — he switches to an aw-shucks American accent — “I don’t know, an everyday kind of guy. But he’s inherited this massive ego, this beast.”

The result is a black-and-white hero whose morals are anything but. “There’s that biting-off-heads issue,” Hardy admits, “which is not what you would expect from, say, Captain America taking down a crook.”

Venom infects theaters Oct. 5.

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