Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, and director Christopher Nolan discuss the highly anticipated summer blockbuster

Until recently, Anne Hathaway could imagine only one actress playing Catwoman, and it wasn’t her. In her mind, Batman’s nemesis (and sometime love interest) could only ever be Michelle Pfeiffer, who memorably clawed and pawed after Michael Keaton’s rubber-suited Caped Crusader in director Tim Burton’s 1992 goth-pop hit Batman Returns. ”It was fun and shocking and radical and left a strong impression on me as a kid,” recalls Hathaway. So when director Christopher Nolan asked to meet with her about starring opposite Christian Bale in The Dark Knight Rises, without specifying what part he wanted her to play, an excited Hathaway made a curious assumption — and a strategic blunder.

She convinced herself that Nolan wasn’t interested in reinterpreting a character who had already been done well enough and was instead casting a lesser-known villainess from Batman’s rogues’ gallery named Harley Quinn, the Joker’s sidekick. Nope. ”About an hour into the meeting he said, ‘It’s Catwoman’ and I went, ‘Oh, no, I played this wrong,”’ says Hathaway. ”I didn’t think they would revisit that character, because Michelle’s performance had been so iconic. But Chris just does his own thing.”

It’s worked well enough so far. The director’s sophisticated reinvention of the 72-year-old comic-book superhero has produced two of the most critically acclaimed studio thrill rides of the past 10 years, one of them a certifiable, game-changing cultural phenomenon. The Dark Knight — released in the summer of 2008, three years after Batman Begins — tallied $1 billion worldwide and earned the late Heath Ledger (who died six months before the movie’s release) an Academy Award for his fearless and fearsome turn as the Joker. The movie was also so infamously snubbed for a Best Picture nomination that it is partly credited for the Academy’s brief expansion of the field to 10 nominees in 2009. Sensational success brings inflated expectations for the encore. So The Dark Knight Rises — Nolan’s third and final Batflick, with a reported (and unconfirmed) budget of $250 million — arrives with blockbuster pressures and Oscar hopes. (The film is distributed by Warner Bros., whose corporate parent also owns Entertainment Weekly.)

The movie certainly won’t be lacking spectacle. ”He has created an epic disaster film,” says Hathaway of a movie that includes an exploding football field, a stunning skyjacking, and the sacking of Gotham City by a militant mob. And in the same way that his first two films dealt with heady ideas about terrorism, justice, and morality, Nolan seems to have crafted another cracked-mirror reflection of the real world. Says Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a dream thief in Nolan’s Inception who joins the franchise as police officer John Blake, ”I would say The Dark Knight Rises, even more so than the first two movies, speaks to our specific moment right now.”

We know, we know: Some specifics would be nice. But the notoriously cagey and spoiler-phobic Nolan is loath to reveal much. (”So what can I not tell you about my film?” he says by way of greeting.) Rises is set eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Gotham City is at peace and prospering, but Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is still recovering physically and emotionally from his tragic battles with the Joker and Harvey Dent, the crusading DA-turned-cynical psycho who shot cops and crooks alike in a mad rash of violence. Batman, who took the fall for Harvey’s crimes so Gotham could remain inspired by the lawman’s former idealism, continues to be reviled and MIA as the story begins.

While old allies Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and potential new love interest Miranda Tate (Inception alum No. 2 Marion Cotillard) try to revive Bruce’s spirits, two new threats to Gotham force Batman to end his exile. First, there’s high-society grifter Selina Kyle, a.k.a. Catwoman. And then there’s Bane (Inception alum No. 3 Tom Hardy), a cunning, hulking terrorist of mysterious origin. Bane has a small army, a mean muzzlelike mask (visual inspiration: baboon mouth as painted by Francis Bacon), and a theatrical mumble that perhaps you’ve heard about…or heard and didn’t understand. (More on that in a minute.)

”The Joker didn’t care — he just wanted to see the world burn, and he was a master of chaos and destruction, unscrupulous and crazy. Bane is not that guy,” says Hardy, a British actor who’s earned acclaim for highly physical performances in indies like Bronson and Warrior. ”There is a very meticulous and calculated way about Bane. There is a huge orchestration of organization to his ambition. He is also a physical threat to Batman. There is nothing vague about Bane. No jokes. He’s a very clean, clear villain.”

The Bane of the Batman comics was born in a fictional Caribbean country, a brilliant lad forced to serve out his revolutionary father’s prison sentence. He’s physically dependent on a drug that makes him monstrously strong but yields painful, debilitating side effects. No one involved in Rises will say how closely the film’s Bane hews to the source material, but Hardy says the much-talked-about voice he developed for the role was inspired by his desire to honor the comic character’s brains and heritage, albeit in an elliptical way. He wanted a sound that conveyed both malevolence and old-soul wisdom.

”There were two doors we could walk through,” says Hardy. ”We could play a very straightforward villain or we could go through this very quirky door, which is totally justified by the text but may seem very, very stupid.” Not surprisingly, Hardy decided to go for the second option. ”It’s a risk, because we could be laughed at — or it could be very fresh and exciting,” he says. While some found his dialogue incomprehensible in the IMAX-exclusive sneak peek attached to Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol last December, the actor asks for patience. ”The audience mustn’t be too concerned about the mumbly voice,” says Hardy. ”As the film progresses, I think you’ll be able to tune to its setting.”

Bane’s motivation as a villain remains one of Rises‘ best-kept secrets — although the trailers suggest his master plan requires the razing of Gotham and the death of Bruce Wayne. Does Bane represent a specific political or philosophical complaint? The answer is…maybe. ”I think the politics of the film are going to be hotly debated one way or another, as they were in the last film,” says Nolan.

For Hardy, the potentially breakthrough role of Bane came at exactly the right time. In June 2010 the actor confirmed his role as Mad Max in Fury Road, director George Miller’s long-in-the-works reboot of the Australian franchise that made Mel Gibson a star. But just a few months later, while shooting This Means War with Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon in Vancouver, Hardy learned that production on Fury Road had been delayed by a year. (The movie still doesn’t have a start date.) Hours after that call, Hardy’s phone rang again. Christopher Nolan was on the line. ”It was a complete downhill plummet when I heard about Mad Max — and then I was hauled into the heavens,” says Hardy.

Of course, Nolan being Nolan, the director avoided specifics about the character he wanted Hardy to play, and seemed especially concerned about the actor’s willingness to wear a face-obscuring mask for the whole movie. ”I think he worried it would be something I might not consider because wearing a mask might damage my career or something. He thought I’d be worried that the audience couldn’t see my beautiful face,” says Hardy. ”Like I care. It’s Chris Nolan! I would wear a paper bag over my head for that man.”

There has never been an explicitly detailed, thoroughly mapped-out master plan guiding Nolan’s Batman franchise. ”The approach has always been to put every damn good idea you have into each movie, so that when you’re done, you feel like there’s nothing left,” says co-screenwriter Jonathan Nolan, Christopher’s brother. However, the director has always aspired to create a unified trilogy with a continuous character arc for Bruce Wayne, and one detail has been in place for years. ”From a fairly early stage in the process of making the three films,” says Christopher Nolan, ”we knew how Bruce’s story would end.”

And so Rises was conceived and written to bring a sense of unity — and finality — to the whole franchise. ”It stands alone, yet completes a cyclical work,” says Hardy. ”Think triplets instead of one child after another — the Dark Knight triplets.”

Listening to Team Nolan talk about the film, you find yourself wondering: Will Batman actually survive till the end credits? In the comics, after all, the brutish Bane did break Batman’s spine by literally cracking the hero across his knee like kindling (he eventually recovered). ”We wanted to show a character who is aging, who is damaged, who may not be in his prime,” says Bale. ”He has never encountered anyone with such blunt force as Bane, and this is not the best time for him to encounter him.”

Nolan says that he’s naturally drawn to Batman’s more iconic villains — as long as they can live credibly within his more realistic neo-noir treatment of Gotham. ”Our starting point has always been, Who could this person be in the real world?” says Nolan. Hence Catwoman was irresistible to Nolan both because of her pop culture stature and the fact that the crafty cat burglar is Batman’s earthiest of baddies. That said, Nolan’s Selina Kyle (it’s unclear if she’s ever referred to as Catwoman in the movie) is presented as an enigma, maybe even to herself. As Hathaway says, cryptically, ”Who is Selina Kyle? She’s someone who wants you to think you can answer that question.” Nolan cast Hathaway because he believed the actress could handle the role’s biggest challenge: suggesting a whole history for the character that’s not in the script and never spelled out for the audience.

Hathaway prepared by devouring old comic books and watching movies starring Batman creator Bob Kane’s two inspirations for Catwoman, Hedy Lamarr and Jean Harlow. She also found herself a trainer. ”I had to physically transform,” says Hathaway. ”Chris sat me down at the beginning and said, ‘Joseph Gordon-Levitt did all of his own fighting in Inception. That one zero-gravity fight? He trained for two months.’ I basically left his office and went to the gym and just came out about five minutes ago.”

After a 115-day shoot that began in England in the spring of 2011 and wrapped in New York City last November, Nolan is now in L.A. editing what is arguably the most anticipated film of the year. He tries to shut out the cultural noise about the movie: the snarky tweets about Bane’s voice, the message boards filled with ecstatic expectations and wild theories. Even so, he couldn’t resist taking a peek at the recent viral-video sensation that synched the dialogue from a Rises trailer with footage from The Lion King. ”That one got thrust in front of me,” he says. ”I thought it was pretty epic.”

While many moviegoers can’t wait to see the grand finale of Nolan’s Batman opus, Hathaway can. She’s one of those actors who can’t stand to watch themselves on screen, and she’s more spooked than usual to watch her performance as Catwoman. ”I need to have a helmet, and Chris needs to sit next to me and press a button whenever I appear on the screen so I can have sensory deprivation,” says Hathaway. ”I know the story. I won’t be lost.” And if the tech isn’t quite there by July, she can always just close her eyes and imagine Michelle Pfeiffer.

Gotham City’s Newest Citizens
Seline Kyle
Anne Hathaway
The next-generation Catwoman is no campy vixen or gothic ghoul like previous versions of the feline character, but a wily, witty con artist armed with tools like high-tech night-vision goggles. Says director Christopher Nolan, ”She has a very strong way of protecting herself and those she cares about, which implies an underlying darkness.”

Tom Hardy
A more nuanced version of the pumped-up, ‘roid-raging comic-book villain, Nolan’s Bane is a brilliant brute whose harrowing ambitions target Gotham’s rich and powerful. His mask is a respirator that helps him manage a painful malady. ”He represents formidable physical strength, combined with absolute evil of intention,” says Nolan.

John Blake
Joseph Gordon-Levitt
He’s a Gotham City beat cop who works directly for his hero, Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). ”I felt like I was jumping in during senior year,” says Gordon-Levitt of joining the final film of the series after appearing in Nolan’s Inception. ”There was a big sense of completion, as well as a sense of confidence.”

Miranda Tate
Marion Cotillard
She’s a do-gooding suit who sits on the board of Wayne Enterprises and takes a shine to glum, emotionally frozen Bruce. It seems The Dark Knight Rises isn’t all doom, gloom, and damaged adults in scary Halloween costumes?there’s also romance! As Nolan says, ”She represents the hope that Bruce can be brought back to life again.”