It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly the moment in which Tom Hardy transitioned from the dependable, somewhat memorable supporting actor of Band of Brothers, Black Hawk Down and various Brit-crime films to the monolithic and chameleonic leading man we see today. It certainly didn’t happen overnight – looking back over his filmography thus far there isn’t any one role that we can definitively call his “breakout” one. Could it be his unhinged depiction of the titular character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s biopic of Charles Bronson? His charismatic Eames in Nolan’s hit Inception? Or did it come even later than that, as the muffled yet terrifying Bane in The Dark Knight Rises?
These roles among many others could stake a claim, but Tom Hardy’s present fame and success seem to have come as a result of taking incrementally higher profile – and always interesting – roles, ranging from leads in indie films to supporting roles in larger productions to the point that he is now able to lead a massive (and risky) rebooted franchise to critical plaudits and huge box office success in Mad Max (even if he might not actually be the lead). His awards season credentials this year are already being talked up for his dual portrayal of the Kray twins in this week’s crime biopic Legend, and should Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman follow up The Revenant be even remotely as incredible as all the signs suggest, it’s not outside the realms of possibility that Hardy could be picking up gongs for three separate roles this winter.
One of the major things that impresses about Tom Hardy is that despite his imposing, highly distinctive look and figure, he is able to take on and convince in a huge range of different roles. One of his best performances is perhaps one of his least-seen, in Steven Knight’s (Peaky Blinders) absorbing and experimental Locke. In this 2013 film, Hardy plays the titular Ivan Locke – a Welsh family man and successful construction worker on a night-time drive to London, during which his life begins to fall apart through a relentless series of phone calls. The character of Ivan has a cold – an ailment written in to explain Hardy’s real-life illness during shooting – and Locke’s sniffles, chunky knitwear and soft, lilting Welsh tones set him a world apart from, say, Bane, or the hulking Tommy in Warrior (the latter a particularly memorable turn). Perhaps closer formally to his early-career theatre work, Locke represented Hardy’s biggest acting challenge so far in his film career – as the only onscreen actor in the film (with others appearing only via phone call) and visible only from the chest up, the success or failure of Locke rested entirely on his ability to sell the audience on the high-stakes emotion and devastation caused by Locke’s familial and career dramas. If you’ve seen it, you’ll know that it’s a test he passes with aplomb.
In a world where everyone and their mum stars in their own tentpole comic-book franchise, it seems absolutely bizarre that Tom Hardy is yet to appear in a comic-book role other than Bane. He certainly doesn’t need one to boost his career in the way it has for every other actor to take a superhero role – he is already among the hottest actors on the planet and essentially has his pick of roles in all manner of films. Which isn’t to say he hasn’t come close: he was originally cast in David Ayer’s Suicide Squad as Rick Flagg, though the well-publicised difficulties on the set of The Revenant caused that film to go way over schedule and Hardy had to drop out. He was replaced by Child 44 (the film, disappointing; Hardy, excellent) co-star Joel Kinnaman.
There are certainly stronger actors in the world than Tom Hardy – it remains to be seen if he’ll be able to deliver a performance of the level his very best contemporaries are capable of – indeed, in Hardy’s own words, his Drama Centre London classmate Michael Fassbender was the best in the class. But it’s his ability to disappear into a role, and to make it appear to be one he was born to play (no matter how disparate one role to another) that makes him such a magnetic, engaging, often terrifying screen presence. Hell, he even managed to make wearing a cardigan look as manly as Ron Swanson’s moustache in John Hillcoat’s Lawless.
With no fewer than eleven projects in varying stages of development at the time of writing – including biopics of both Elton John and Al Capone (?! – there’s that shape-shifting quality again), a film based on the Splinter Cell video games and a Mad Max sequel – Hardy’s work rate of the last couple of years is showing no sign of letting up. Aged still just 37, the world is very much his oyster, and we can’t wait to see what he’ll start working on next – just as long as he brings his dog to the premiere.