Drawing from tough times as a teenager, Tom Hardy’s dependably dark performances have elicited comparisons to legends like Brando and Pacino

by Susan Hornik

There is no other young actor at work in Hollywood today who has amassed a roster of tortured, darkened, sinister roles to touch Tom Hardy’s. From his breakthrough theatre performance in 2010 as a spiraling alcoholic in the Philip Seymour Hoffman-directed The Long Red Road at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, to his big-screen role that same year in Inception, and on to the parts of uber-villain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012), a murderous underworld hood in the 2013 British TV series Peaky Blinders, the predatory John Fitzgerald in 2015’s The Revenant, and the broken title character in Mad Max: Fury Road that same year —there is a long and dark shadow cast over nearly every character he inhabits.

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A few clues to this dominant cinematic identity can be found in his childhood. Expelled from school for stealing, the 39-year-old Hammersmith, London-born Hardy also battled drug and alcohol addiction as a teenager, spent a brief period in jail for disorderly conduct, and was arrested on another occasion for both gun possession and auto theft. He’s famously open about these events, and eager to describe how gratified he is in the redemptive successes of the last six years.

For his role in the just-broadcast, eight-part drama series Taboo—produced by Scott Free London for BBC1 and FX and recently picked up for a new season—the actor, compared on occasion to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, takes on another tortured persona. The series plot line—principal contours of which were written by Hardy himself, along with his dad, Edward “Chips” Hardy, and Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight—tells the tale of James Delaney (Hardy), who returns to England after a dozen years in Africa and sets about clawing his way to a new identity. With an abundance of sinister investigatory energy, he, among other tasks, investigates the mysterious circumstances of his father’s death, and has a way of putting ill at ease just about everyone he comes into contact with. The series premiere on January 7 drew an audience of 3.43 million in the U.S., a record for FX.

TABOO -- "Episode 1" (Airs Tuesday, January 10, 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

TABOO — “Episode 1” (Airs Tuesday, January 10, 10:00 pm/ep) — Pictured: Tom Hardy as James Keziah Delaney. CR: Robert Viglasky/FX

At the recent Television Critics Press Tour, Hardy was asked what it is about his bearing that seems to reliably generate intimidation.

“It’s just about changing a room, isn’t it?” he replied. “Intimidation I suppose, in its basic form, is about changing the temperature in the room…knowing how to do that. I’ve experienced in my life a lot…[much] has happened to me, so [that’s] something you can observe and reflect as an artist…[things] that I’ve experienced in real life and are truly horrible. The best place to put it is on screen, as opposed to doing it in real life. But I’m very sensitive to temperature drop and status and power games, the games that all of us play in our lives—no matter who we are—behind our public persona or our life persona. And yeah, the ability to change the energy is essential as an actor. You have to play with these things. I use that a lot in my work.”

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In Taboo, Hardy serves as both star and executive producer, and was also asked about that dual responsibility.

“I think if you’re not challenged, you’re not doing your job properly,” he observed. “So my roles are all challenging for different reasons and that’s how I try to stay sharp. I love acting, and I’ve done it for the best part of 20 years now, [but] the intention was always to do my own work at some point and be part of a production, learning how to be part of the industry from the other angle. Rather than being employed, employing myself, I thought, would be helpful in growing into the business. So it’s a bit more common sense…an evolution, I suppose.”

And while the actor has found unquestioned success in films, he added that he has no particular preference among the mediums he works in.

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“I love television, theatre, film, radio. A goldfish grows to the size of its bowl. I love all mediums of storytelling.”

Asked about finding his way into the skin of Taboo character James Delaney, Hardy said that he was inspired in part by his previous role of Bill Sykes in the 2007 British television adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, nominated for a Broadcasting Press Guild Award as Best Drama Series.

“I really enjoyed playing that character, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to take somebody like Sikes, who is kind of a villain, but then put him inside a gentleman’s body… mix the two together and create a sort of hero in a classic period drama that could transcend all classes—between the splendorous, opulent world of the high end and also the underworld of London.”

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That said, and while that past role might have inspired him from a producer standpoint, Hardy was quick to point out that none of his prior parts were drawn specifically into Delaney…that such dangerous characters need to be painted as separate beings.

“If you look into any large collective of people like that, each is an individual in their own right. There’s a massive difference between Napoleon and Stalin, isn’t there? Even though they’re both dictators and committed heinous crimes, there’s also a nobility to them; they’re people who worked 24 hours a day, who were obsessive-compulsives… they’re fascinating characters that need to be depicted as an artist [would]. They are completely different, but could easily be labeled as ‘those crazy, psychotic, brooding types.’ I can see the diversity in the same color, if that makes sense. I enjoy that terrain to find new discoveries.”

Dark Knight Rises

Hardy’s next big-screen role will be in this year’s World War II epic Dunkirk, written, co-produced, and directed by Christopher Nolan. Later in 2017 comes a turn as Al Capone in the Josh Trank (Fantastic Four)-directed Fonzo, in which Hardy inhabits the ruined physique of the 47-year-old mob boss after 10 years in prison, as he suffers from dementia and is haunted by a violent past.

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