He's created a series of performances that have taken advantage of his intensity, his brutish physique and his way around a multi-syllable sentence – and now, Tom Hardy has somehow created a role for himself that feels more Tom Hardy than almost anything else he's done. In Taboo, the new FX series the actor co-created with father Chips Hardy and Peaky Blinders showrunner Steven Knight, he plays gruff protagonist James Delaney, an early 19th-century explorer who returns home to London to find out he's inherited land sought after by the East India Company. Long presumed dead and blessed (cursed?) with some extraordinary talents procured in his far-flung travels, he has a brutal past – one that materializes in dreams and/or memories as ghost-like figures – tied to the slave trade and other peeking-out-of-the-closet skeletons. Feel like watching Hardy fight both proto-corporate fatcats and personal demons? This is the pulp/prestige-TV show for you.
At the end of Taboo's first episode, the board of stuffy white men at the East India Company meets with Delaney, hoping to take this valuable land inherited to him. They try to persuade him with flattery, threats and money, at which point Delaney hisses, "Are you deaf?" He then eviscerates them with a line that is possibly the most Tom Hardy line ever muttered: "I do know the evil that you do because I was once a part of it." He delivers that declaration with a chilling, raspy whisper; his left eyed, scarred, twitches ever so slightly as it fixes its glare on Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce), the head of the East India Company. He sounds eerily calm. He might get up and walk out of the room. Or he might pounce and rip out one of the men's throats.
This, folks, is what "peak Tom Hardy" looks like. His boorish characters are a departure from his real-life persona, chronicled through interviews, his well-documented love for dogs, and his endearingly embarrassing Instagram account, all which color the actor as a loveable, goofy weirdo – a canon-worthy Internet Boyfriend.
But on screen, he broods harder than anyone in the business. His filmography ranges from arty and critically-acclaimed (Bronson, Locke) to blockbuster-y (Mad Max: Fury Road), Oscar bait-y (The Revenant) and Christopher Nolan-y (The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, the upcoming Dunkirk), with a few in between that are just plain silly (This Means War, Legend). Each of his roles tend to rely on his ability to reveal different shades of darkness. The question is really just: Which flavor are you going to get when you plunk down your cash? We've charted out the Four Main Peak Tom Hardy Types.
The 39-year-old actor was a late-bloomer compared to his peers by the time he had his breakout part in 2008, courtesy of Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson. Hardy bulked up, went bald and became fully psychotic to play Charles Bronson, colloquially known as "the most violent prisoner in Britain." Spewing the C-word, pissing on people's heads, beating up just about everyone in his way – how could you ignore him? He is terrifying, magnetic and creepy beyond belief; within 10 minutes, you sensed you were in the presence of a performer who could completely give himself to such a physically demanding role. The more you watched his celebrity convict's dramatic monologues about prison life – delivered in theatrical sides, occasionally while wearing partial 1920s flapper makeup – the more of a glimpse you got of Bronson's batshit mentality. The man went there in a big way.
That role would help pave the way for his big-time Hollywood breakout, as the somehow-even-more-muscular Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012). If a supporting part in Christopher Nolan's Inception (2012) as a dapper mercenary made studio executives take notice – who's the guy with the Cary Grant accent and the curdled-Colonialist sense of adventure? – it was the marble-mouthed Batman villain who gave him a high multiplex-audience Q rating. "Oh, you think darkness is your ally?," Bane mumble-intones. "But you merely adopted the dark. I was born in it, molded by it. I didn't see the light until I was already a man ... by then it was nothing to me but blinding." It's a frightening delivery that paints his bad guy's backstory as someone who had been robbed of his chance at a life of light – thus rendering his grand-gesture acts of terrorism believable. He does not just hijack a flight; he hires a team to rip the plane apart, ejecting himself and a hostage out of a hole where the tail was. It's supervillainy as a performance-art piece.
In an interview with The New York Times, Hardy admitted why he tends to go for the uglier roles:
"I think as a youngster, when I started acting, there was a pressure to be or look a certain way – a six-pack, straight teeth, tan. That's just not going to be a constant that I could ever maintain. I'm a bit wonky. Even if I had a pretty face, I couldn't capitalize on that. That's not where my heart is."
Most recently, Hardy revisited the role of the psycho in double (!) by playing real-life criminal twins the Kray brothers in Legend. His Reggie Kray is suave, romantic, smart as a whip; it's his crazier twin, Ronnie Kray – a gangster who employs the kind of unreasonably brutal methods and spit-shouting that would make Bronson grin beneath his circus-strongman mustache – that feels like old-school Hardy in his off-the-leash comfort zone. Come for the sight of Tom in a slim-cut suit; stay for the sight of him acting like he needs a straight-jacket ASAP.
Morally Fraught Everyman
Yes, he can play subtle just as well as psychotic. On the heels of Bane, Hardy stepped into the shoes (and car) of Ivan Locke in 2013's Locke, directed by future Taboo co-creator Steven Knight. In this single location film, the actor proved he could accomplish a lot even when given oh-so-little – except for a brief preamble, the entire film takes place during a 80-minute drive, in which his construction foreman juggles work drama while toggling between Bluetooth calls between his mistress (who is about to give birth to his child) and his wife. Most actors would feel the need to overact given the constraints of the premise; Hardy goes for a sort of weary realism that underplays the capital-D Drama scenes. Even an imaginary conversation with his late father doesn't read as an Oscar-reel clip. Listen to how quiet he stays:
The next year, Hardy appeared in The Drop, in which he again plays the everyman type – a non-hipster Brooklyn bartender named Bob, who goes to church religiously, adopts a pitbull pup and leads a rather mundane life … sort of. The tavern he tends at is owned by his cousin, played by James Gandolfini (his final role) and also happens to be a "drop" for criminal money exchanges. Bob is not as simple as he initially comes off, of course; he's a man who wants to do good, but also happens to have an alarming past that suggests he's not nearly in over his head as viewers think. After the film's climax, Hardy sits in a car, contemplating his life, with this morally fraught narration: "There's some sins that you commit that you can't come back from no matter how hard you try. It's like the devil is waiting for your body to quit because he knows he already owns your soul. And then, I think, maybe you know there's no devil. You die. And God he says: ‘Nah. Nah, you can't come in. You have to leave and go away. You have to be alone forever.'"
Hardy has mastered the "been-through-some-shit" hero – the way Taboo's Delaney is haunted by his past and can often be found murmuring things in a Native American dialect fits right in with this particular speed. In the MMA drama Warrior (2011), the actor goes the full thousand-yard-stare route, as the hoodie-wearing, mumbling ex-Marine Tommy Conlon, who throws a punch here and there and takes swigs of alcohol from a paper bag. He's clearly the black-sheep brother of this clan – so of course he's going to ends up facing his schoolteacher sibling Brendan (Joel Edgerton) in the ring. He's rugged and enraged, warring with the good and bad within him due to years of hardened life. This is another one of those extremely Tom Hardy-ish roles that not only mixes antithetical characteristics and Devil v. Angel internal conflicts, but also gets our man in a bulked up, physical space (it's almost feels like you're watching his training workouts for The Dark Knight Rises at times). He gets knocked down. But he gets up again.
So yes, he'll take a beating or three, or walk 20 miles in the snow after he got his throat slit (the 2012 bootlegging drama Lawless), or, when push comes to shove, wander for days in the untamed tundra with an Oscar-winner hot on his trail. His trapper character in The Revenant (2015) is no Bane or Bronson; he's just a selfish survivor who ends up on Leonardo DiCaprio's hit list after he leaves the man to die after a savage bear attack. The bastard is just about as rugged as they come, and it's not hard to recall this Oscar-winning story of a man hellbent on revenge when thinking about Hardy's Taboo antihero – another man familiar with the wild, the primal and the evil that men do in the name of survival.
A fact: Tom Hardy would never go for a straight hero role. If he's going to take on, say, the lead in the reboot of a popular Eighties franchise, he's going play it strong, silent and psychically shattered. It's especially amusing that Hardy's mask in Mad Max: Fury Road resembles the one he wore as his Dark Knight villain – they almost feel like two sides of the same scarred-up coin. Remember: This is the star of a major summer blockbuster with brand-name recognition, and he's barely given any dialogue. He's still the good guy, but he's almost a sidekick to Charlize Theron's Furiosa, the one-armed avenging angel who will rescue the harem held hostage by the postapocalyptic Trump-lite known as Immortan Joe. Given a chance for A-list neo-John Wayne status, Hardy will play in the shadow (and dust) of the women in the film. Most stars would demand a memorable, go-for-broke exit. His Max quietly nods at his female counterpart, who's lofted high on a perch as thousands cheer, and fades into the crowd.
And now, in Taboo, Hardy wades through an even bigger moral mess. James Delaney is often called "savage"; he may have lingering incestuous desires and almost certainly has a cannibalistic past. Hardy has mentioned that the character was influenced by Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist, Sherlock Holmes, Philip Marlowe, Hannibal Lecter, Jack the Ripper and a splash of Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Darcy – and somehow, he makes the mash-up feel like a no-brainer once you see a few episodes. He also mentions that he was interested in observing people of Taboo's time period who wanted to change, despite having become products of their society and upbringing. By doing so, he has managed to tap into a little bit of every aforementioned "Peak Hardy" trope. It's too early to tell, but by creating James Delaney, he may have given himself the ultimate Tom Hardy anti-hero.