Boxed In, Handcuffed, Masked

How Tom Hardy became an actor’s actor

It’s a strange thing to consider: without some sort of restriction on his performances, Tom Hardy—one of the great actors working today—becomes just another British actor. Witness his straight-ahead performances as Eames in Inception (a breakout role) or as Tuck in This Means War: they were standard, serviceable affairs, enlivened a bit by his charming accent. If he were limited to such roles, he might still rise in the ranks because of his rugged looks and attractive accent, but his career would be a forgettable one.

Time after time, however, Hardy not only has had cuffs slapped around his wrists by filmmakers, but also has slapped some on himself by his own volition. And that’s precisely why, at least within the industry, he is revered as one of the best actors working today. When confronted by a technical challenge or physical limitation within a role, Hardy flourishes: he uses the restrictions as tools to elevate his performances, bringing more specificity and nuance to them.

Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke in “Locke”

This strategy, as an actor, has also made Hardy an elusive figure in the public eye: in developing his characters, he distances his true self from the role to the point where there’s nothing left of the ‘real’ Hardy for us to see. Looking at the other half of his cultural figure — the public persona he presents — it’s clear that he hopes for the same result he achieves in his acting: for us to see nothing of the real Tom Hardy. In interviews, Hardy has been blunt in his sole focus on a film’s promotion, flat-out rejecting personal questions as irrelevant and invasive. Every bit of the Tom Hardy that he puts on view, we might say, is a performance governed by restraint. In public, he utilizes restrictions on the way he presents himself to offer nothing more than product promotion; meanwhile in film, he takes on restrictions to energize a role, to make it more than it seems on the page alone.

Two years before that mainstream breakout in Inception, Hardy became better known through his work in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson — a performance that saw him tackle the severe character restriction of borderline mental insanity and the physical limitation of being literally shackled behind prison bars. In the same year as his most vanilla role in the aforementioned romantic comedy with Chris Pine and Reese Witherspoon, Hardy took on the iconic Batman villain Bane — a role that confronted him with both the challenge of gaining immense muscle and the need to wear a mask over his mouth for the entire film. In both roles, the physical limitation —shackles, mask—is explicit. Yet the mental dimension is where Hardy shows exactly what he can do. With Bronson, Hardy tackles the mental instability in a way that avoids the traps — of being one-noted, camp or cliché — that many actors fall into. Emphasizing a tongue-and-cheek British-styled wit and playing the instability far enough to get into the deeply morbid and disturbing, Hardy turns the role into a fascinating character study.

Tom Hardy as Charles Bronson in “Bronson”

With The Dark Knight Rises, Hardy navigates around the loss of his mouth as a tool for expression and uses his eyes to make up for the limitation. As Bane explains to Bruce Wayne the perils of prisoners after he’s broken Wayne’s back and taken him to an undisclosed pit, Hardy grants a somber softness to his eyes to convey subtle sadness in that monologue; we learn later that Bane was a former prisoner of that pit. And even with the lower part of his face covered by the grim mask, he modulates his voice to establish a peculiar presence. Using a mysterious accent—seemingly a mix of general Eastern European and South African with a dash of Sean Connery—Hardy’s voice breaks the bounds of the mask, imbuing a kind of sophistication to a character defined otherwise by his brick-like physicality.

Bane explaining Bruce Wayne’s perilous circumstances in “The Dark Knight Rises”

Bronson and Bane were career-defining roles, but no performance showcases Hardy’s engagement with restrictions more so than his turn as Ivan Locke in Steven Knight’s Locke. Some actors, when presented with a physical limitation or a content challenge, might crumble under the pressure, delivering a forced performance that makes improper use of those challenges. Most actors, though, tend to shy away from the opportunity of taking advantage of restrictions, either churning out stale performances that make no use of those challenges or outright rejecting those roles.

Locke took a lot away from Hardy, by the nature of the material as well as by the conditions Hardy imposed on himself. For the role, he decided to take on a rather difficult and uncommon Welsh accent unprompted; he believed it could provide the character with the soothing voice of an ordinary man in the U.K. Any adoption of an accent or particular voice, however, makes it even more difficult to achieve a fluid and believable performance; one can lose the ‘truth’ of how a character would deliver dialogue under the technical difficulty of maintaining the accent. In addition, Hardy developed a cold before filming began, and the director decided to integrate that cold into the story. This seized-upon fluke meant that Hardy would have to deliver his dialogue through a sore throat and integrate medicine as props in his performance.

But without a doubt, the biggest restriction he faced—and the biggest that any actor can face—was the starkly enclosed setting. Locke’s 85 minutes take place entirely within a car as Ivan makes phone calls to faceless family members and coworkers, dealing with multiple problems at once. Such a restriction of environment might have crushed Hardy. The lower half of Hardy’s body is never seen and, thus, never used as a tool. He’s often shot as a reflection in the many mirrors of the car, which cut off a majority of his face. His mobility is next to nothing, and the camera, immobilized as well, can’t capture the range of face and body that it could in a normal film. He had no business making it work. But working with those limitations, Hardy provided his greatest performance.

At every turn, Hardy makes strides to overcome the lack of a larger environment. Deprived of the use of his legs or lower torso, he injects a swaying rhythm to his chest and head, managing a well-oiled spine whose twists and turns are smooth and quick. In the heat of conflict, we see graceful aggression in how Hardy slams the steering wheel, how he reacts with lively fervor to people who aren’t physically there. In moments of emotional consequence, we see the stress shoot through his shoulders as he locks his hands on the steering wheel; he bears a weight that only his body can portray.

His accent takes on a flexible set of cadences, quickening with rage, lengthening in moments of nervous repentance, hitting beat after consistent beat in a steady, fluid pace. The dialogue, as he makes each phone call, turns into symphonic back-and-forths, with Hardy reacting in complementing tune and rhythm to choreograph a dance between himself and the voice on the other end.

Hardy’s crowning achievement in Locke, however, is how he uses what seems to be his trademark tool: his eyes. One of the dramatic hooks of the film is that Ivan is trying so desperately to right his wrongs so that he does not end up like the father he despises. Despite the establishment of Locke’s father as dead, the film has Ivan speak to him by looking up into the rearview mirror and at the backseat. These shots of the rearview mirror prove the most gripping because of what Hardy does with them. His eyes become both wide and firmly locked in their anger and resentment as well as soft and melting in their deep fatigue and slow realization that he may can’t win all of his battles. In the film’s most frightening moments, Hardy moves his eyes with a Bronson-esque sense of mental insanity, which perfectly conveys the desperation Ivan feels in this tiny box of an environment.

Through such use of his eyes, the entire car comes to be permeated with a sense of chaos and uneasiness. It may have the smallest possible setting, but Locke feels like an immeasurably grand story. In collaboration with director Steven Knight, Hardy renders Locke a modern-day tragedy, an almost Shakespearean fall-of-man drama—despite the fact that the man is, as the director says, someone “you wouldn’t normally make a film about.”

Creating full characters leaves nothing of Hardy himself in them —making him quite different from actors like Chris Pratt and Tom Cruise, who play characters that are essentially extensions of themselves. Yet that’s by design. Hardy doesn’t want his true self to become an object of consumption. This withdrawal from self-expression has shaped his engagement with the world of publicity too. He throws up boundaries as a public figure, sometimes cuffing himself because he wishes solely to promote his films and public image, and sometimes because he wishes to protect his personal life.

Take his approach to talking about his sexuality, which has evolved over time. Before Hardy was noticed as an actor by the larger public and, thus, before he was burdened with a completely new kind of fame, he gave an interview in 2008 to the British gay lifestyle magazine Attitude, in which, when asked if he ever had relations with men, he said, “As a boy? Of course I have. I’m an actor for fuck’s sake. I’m an artist. I’ve played with everything and everyone. But I’m not into men sexually.” But once that public image was fully formed after his role in Inception, he was subject to invasive publicity about sexuality, causing him to take a more measured, less revealing approach to publicity in general.

Tom Hardy at the TIFF press conference for “Legend” — photo courtesy of Darren Calabrese / The Canadian Press

In a 2011 interview with Marie Claire, he clarified by saying he hadn’t been given a chance to explain himself and that he’s never had sex with a man. Since then, Hardy has been rather quiet and reserved about his sexuality. At a 2015 Toronto International Film Festival press conference for his film Legend, in which he plays notorious twin gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray (who were both rumored to have been gay), Hardy was asked about his own sexuality — a question he firmly rejected as out of place considering he was there to promote the film; he saw the question as trying to elicit a reaction for journalism’s sake.

In response to the prying eyes of the paparazzi and the celebrity tabloids they service, Hardy has limited himself in ways that even most celebrities do not. In an interview in early 2016, he revealed that he and his family go through burner phones, untraceable phones that they dump and replace consistently. “My mum and dad don’t need to have their photos of stuff gone through or any of their private messages just because people want to find or piece together something maybe prurient or salacious,” he said.

So while there’s a parallel between the restrictions present in his offscreen, public life and in his acting, there is also a clear difference in the approach to each. Hardy welcomes restrictions in roles as a way for his performance to thrive, as a tool that he uses to extract every detail. Such talent has made him the sort of name that, when announced for a film, draws immediate excitement. But as celebrity culture has developed, Hardy has put restrictions on his life out of personal necessity — whether to keep things focused on his career or to protect the lives of his family. He doesn’t allow for any detail to be extracted. The enigmatic nature of such personal restrictions and the fervor with which he upholds them, however, does in fact bring gravity to his public image and his characters alike.

Tom Hardy in his Oscar nominated role as John Fitzgerald in “The Revenant”

The fascinating endpoint is the convergence of the two as performances, as shields meant to create the same effect. We never see Tom Hardy. He lives in his roles, but as completely other personas. And when he’s not ‘acting,’ he refuses to allow anyone to see who he is out of the spotlight (a private self that itself might be another act). Yet we know his method, and that method has created one of the best actors of this generation. For that, he can hide.