There are only a handful of actors and actresses that Hollywood turns to when seeking to find the perfect villain who will not only present a physical and emotional roadblock for the hero, but also someone who can humanize an entity who only wants to “watch the world burn.”
Prior to his passing in 2016, Alan Rickman was often this foil. Others like Kevin Spacey, Gary Oldman, Christopher Lee, Javier Bardem and Ralph Fiennes have all held the distinction of being the best Hollywood villain at one point or other.
But as we’ve segued into an era of filmmaking where heroes are literally superheroes, a villain has also needed to encompass sheer physicality to go along with his/her masterplan.
Enter, Tom Hardy.
Ever since he introduced himself on a wider scale to audiences with his portrayal of one of the most notorious inmates in the U.K. — Michael Peterson a.k.a. Charles Bronson — people have lined up to watch Hardy continue to play off-center, maniacal, sociopathic — yet somehow relatable — characters that run the gamut from fictionalized to historically accurate.
Whereas the aforementioned murderer’s row of Hollywood villains reflected an era of storytelling when foreign accents and personal grooming told the audience who they should be rooting for, Tom Hardy’s villains reveal themselves to be monsters that fit an audience sensibility that has celebrated half-men/half-monsters like Tony Soprano, Walter White and Omar Little.
While it’s easy just to say, “Tom Hardy is a good actor,” and keep it moving, there are specific reasons why he’s risen to the top rank of Hollywood’s villain pyramid.
From past works to upcoming films, here’s why.
The Lesser Evil
Although it may not be as buzzed about as shows like Stranger Things or Game of Thrones, FX’s Taboo had one of the most interesting and well-developed freshman seasons of any show in recent memory.
Equal parts a look at a man coming to grips with the loss of his father — and what it means to assume his affairs — Taboo was also rich in historical fact involving the quest for world domination by the East India Company and the importance of Nootka Sound to both the Crown and United States.
With Hardy’s portrayal of James Delaney, a character cut from similar cloth as Bill Sykes and Hannibal Lecter (a summation by Hardy’s father Chips who helped create the show), he paints a picture of a man who is willing to stop at nothing to secure a future.
Whereas “bootstrap” is often a verb used to illustrate a person’s execution of getting out of a bad situation, in the case of James Delaney, its a literal and mucked up representation of how he will trudge through the gates of Hell and walk over family, friends, allies and especially enemies.
Even as we’re led to believe that Delaney is capable of turning his murderous tendencies on children, Hardy is still able to an illicit a reaction from the audience that makes it seem somewhat justified.
If Hardy is bad, than the East India Company is painted as pure evil.
As Taboo co-creator Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders) told Variety in 2014, “[Delaney’s] greatest struggle will be against the East India Company which, throughout the 19th century, was the equivalent of the CIA, the NSA and the biggest, baddest multi-national corporation on earth, all rolled into one self righteous, religiously motivated monolith.”
Although the character and set-up may be achieved through the action of the show’s creators, Tom Hardy is able to provide the slightest bit of humanity so that it doesn’t seem like a war between two emotionless boulders.
That’s where his brilliance exists; in a murky place where inactivity is as mortal a sin as any.
The scene stealer
Depicting the exploits of the Shelby family in post World War I Birmingham, England, Peaky Blinders is one of the most brilliant and underrated shows on television today.
Although Tom Hardy is definitely on the periphery and doesn’t show up until season two — even then just in a handful of scenes in the subsequent season — he conjured up one of the most menacing and unlikely villains in recent memory.
As Alfie Solomons, Hardy swaggers around as a Jewish baker who who also happens to be the leader of a gang that bumps up against the Peaky Blinders after having share a temporary peace against a common foe.
In one of the most riveting moments from season 3, Solomons and Cilian Murphy’s Tommy Shelby engage in a masterclass of range — seesawing between murderous rage, faux innocence, incredulousness and violence.
As The Independent noted in their coverage, “Hardy switches between a sing-songy ‘what are we having for tea’ type register and ‘I’m going to fucking kill you’ mode.”
In total, Hardy only appears in eight episodes. But without him, the series wouldn’t feel the same. It’s not so much that he legitimizes it, rather, he brings with it the idea that the world is fully formed and that his absence only indicates just how many external factors are at play against the Shelby family.
While actors like Nicolas Cage in Adaptation, Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, Christian Bale in The Prestige and Armie Hammer in The Social Network illustrated that it was possible for a single actor to portray a set of brothers, it was Tom Hardy’s turn as East End gangsters, Reggie and Ronnie Kray, in Legend which took the technique to new heights.
The director of the film, Brian Helgeland, was initially skeptical of continuing the tradition, saying, “Obviously, there’s a tradition of an actor playing twins. I just wasn’t sure about that because I didn’t want it to be a gimmick. If the audience doesn’t get past that, you’re kind of dead from the start.
Inevitably, he acquiesced after Tom Hardy showed interest in playing Ronnie.
Calling it, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Hardy brilliantly bounced between the overtly sexual, Ronnie, and the more subdued Reggie — both of whom could snap to violence like when they took out a pub full of rival gangsters with household objects.
While it could have been much easier to play both characters in a similar note, Hardy was able to seamlessly bounce between the two and illustrated a commitment to physicality that are also hallmarks of his villains — notably in a highly-choreographed scene that finds the two brothers fighting each other.
“You realize that, if I’m playing Reggie at the top of the day, and I’m slapping Ron, Reggie’s got rings on, I’m going to have to go back in, and shoot the Ron side of it, Hardy said. “If I’ve thrown a hard slap as Reggie, then I’m going to receive as Ron, a hard slap from Reggie. I’m getting twice the beating.”
The Revenant was steeped in Oscar praise and ultimately delivered Leonardo DiCaprio his first win for not only his portrayal of a man hell-bent on revenge, but his commitment to authenticity which included eating a real bison heart and climbing inside the carcass of a dead horse.
But perhaps lost alongside DiCaprio’s belly-first performance was that of his chief nemesis played by Tom Hardy.
Cruel and ruthless, Hardy’s John Fitzgerald wasn’t evil incarnate, at least not in my estimation. Whereas Dicaprio’s Hugh Glass was ultimately driven by this primal need for revenge, Fitzgerald’s rationale and decision making was fueled by real world logic.
Glass was mortally wounded. Fitzgerald believed he would get everyone killed. In an attempt to mercy kill him, things spiraled out of control. The motivation lines up.
Despite the period setting and a world foreign to many if not all of us — fur trading — Hardy’s portrayal never once felt like dress-up.
While other actors may have chosen a more shredded physique when it came to playing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy opted for a beefier and more menacing frame — which seemed to be an honest reflection of what years incarcerated as a child doing pushups, dips and other bodyweight exercises might achieve.
It also was a physical reflection of how Batman himself was getting older and no longer could rely on his own body and training as a means of defeating evil. In turn, Bane became known in the comics as, “the man who broke the bat.”
Although training and cultivating one’s body is now a prerequisite for seemingly all actors/actresses in a leading role, Hardy’s transformation is often so drastic that it’s taking a physical toll on him even when the film wraps.
“I think you pay the price with any drastic physical changes,” he said. “It was alright when I was younger, to put myself under that kind of duress, but I think as you get into your 40s you have to be more mindful of the rapid training, packing on a lot of weight and getting physical, and then not having enough time to keep training because you’re busy filming, so your body is swimming in two different directions at the same time. And then after the film I’m tired, and you maybe have to change your shape again and go back to your normal size for the next film. To go from one extreme to another has a cost. I haven’t damaged my body, but I’m certainly a bit achier than I used to be! I kind of miss it. Compared to Christian Bale I’ve been by no means extreme in my body changes, but for what little I’ve done, yeah, I certainly have joints that click that probably shouldn’t click, you know what I mean?”
What made this particular performance so captivating was that it was Hardy’s usage of his body to convey emotion — as his face was obscured by a mask the entire film.
This wasn’t lost on his co-star, Anne Hathaway, who played Catwoman.
“What I thought was so cool about what Tom did, because he didn’t have his face to help show the character and tell the story, he did so much physically,” she said. “You saw who this character was just through his movements. It’s something that shows later on in the movie, and you see a difference in him. I thought that was really beautiful acting. He projects a lot physically.”
Director Christopher Nolan echoed similar sentiments, saying, “Tom is somebody who really knows how to put character into every gesture, every aspect of his physicality in the way that great actors can. He’s a very, very physical actor. He transforms himself and it’s there in every movement. He’s not afraid to look at a character from the outside as well as the inside so there’s a deep psychological branch to the character but also a very, very specific awareness of how he’s going to use his body and his appearance to express that character too.
The Real Life Connections
Tom Hardy has two more films upcoming that will see him assuming the villain role. While his turn as Venom in the Spider-Man world certainly has us intrigued, his casting as Al Capone in the upcoming film, Fonzo, has us downright enamored with the prospect of him as the most infamous gangster of all time.
In a similar spirit as his commitment to playing Bane, Hardy is reshaping his body to match Capone’s 250 pound frame — whilst also losing much of that heft to reflect his body when he was dying of syphilis and riddled by dementia. The latter vision is what seemed to draw Hardy to the roll the most.
“It’s not Al Capone as I expected him, which is what I really loved about it,” Hardy said of the project. “When taking on an icon, you’re always looking for something inventive and compelling and has a new angle,” while also adding, “It’s not the classic Al Capone that you necessarily envision with the silhouette. I don’t want to give too much away about it, but there’s definitely a transformation with that role. I don’t know if it’s as drastic as Bane. I’ve probably damaged my body too much.”
There is no sure-fire thing in Hollywood. However, we can’t help but wonder if this will land Hardy his first Academy Award win.
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- Lead Image: Warner Bros