Tom Hardy: From Teen Tearaway to National Treasure
As Tom Hardy once again plays the dual role of Eddie Brock and the antihero alien Venom in Venom: Let There be Carnage, our resident film-buff, Lee Adams, takes a look at the British actor’s colourful career to date...
If you visit Youtube, you can check out a very early Tom Hardy appearance as a contestant for a modelling competition on The Big Breakfast. Sat on a bed next to Denise van Outen, he looks cocksure but also a little daunted by the brassy host.
Skip forward 20-odd years and he sits in the CBeebies garden, now with a little grey in his beard, gravely and calmly telling the story of Felipe, a young cactus who just wants a hug.
Tom Hardy reading Hug Me on BBC CBeebies
Between these two television appearances is the majority of the actor’s career so far. He often demonstrates the same qualities in public that contribute to making him one of Britain’s most interesting actors. He’s macho but softly spoken; self-confident but not in-your-face; dignified and polite, but not afraid to tell an obnoxious reporter to do one.
Sometimes in interviews he is gruff and barely paying attention; at other times, he is quite effusive. For someone so charismatic, he often seems a little awkward when the attention is focused on him. There are dualities, contradictions, and they are often reflected in the parts he plays. Twins, clones, two personalities in one body - a notable theme. For a heartthrob who has mums all a-quiver with his voice during bedtime stories for kids, there are many roles where his face is covered by a mask or obscured by cartoonish facial hair, or he experiments with a wild accent. It is not unusual for an actor to display chameleonic talents, yet with Hardy, there is a sense that at least part of it is to distract attention away from himself.
It’s fair to say Hardy has been a busy guy since that appearance on the bed next to van Outen wearing Maharishi trousers and sandals. His ascent to fame was swift. While winning Big Breakfast’s “Find Me a Supermodel” contest in 1998, he briefly attended Drama Centre London before he was picked up for a part in the acclaimed wartime mini series Band of Brothers. Shortly after, he broke into movies with a small role in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, before landing a far showier role as the villain in Star Trek: Nemesis. Playing Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s clone, Praetor Shinzon, Hardy acquitted himself well opposite the much-lauded thesp Patrick Stewart.
Several smaller roles followed, including parts in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (Hardy in a powdered wig is one of his strangest looks) and Layer Cake with Daniel Craig, one of the better Lock, Stock ripoffs for which he would develop a partial reputation.
2008 brought two roles that kicked Hardy’s career to the next level. First was an eye-catching turn as the appropriately named Handsome Bob, the gay driver for a gang of small-time crooks in Guy Ritchie’s Rocknrolla; then came a grandstanding turn as Michael Petersen, aka Charles Bronson, aka “Britain’s most notorious prisoner”, in Nicolas Winding Refn’s stunning English-language debut, Bronson.
For what remains Hardy’s best performance to date, he bulked up and went literally balls-out to portray the man who was sentenced to seven years for robbery and brawled his way to over thirty years inside, many of them in solitary confinement. In just five weeks before shooting, Hardy gorged on pizza and ice-cream to add a layer of fat to the muscle and match Bronson’s bare-knuckle boxer physique. He also met with the real-life villain several times in prison to study his voice and mannerisms.
His next big break was playing Eames the Forger in Christopher Nolan’s dream heist thriller Inception. It was a supporting role but Hardy created a memorable impression as the raffish, slightly disreputable character he imagined as an “old Graham Greene-style diplomat”.
Hardy stayed with the spy theme with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and then played an ex-marine competing against his brother for an MMA championship in Warrior. All the bulking up for tough guy roles paid dividends when he was cast as hulking supervillain Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, the wildly anticipated conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s epic trilogy. Sprawling and over-ambitious, the film failed to reach the heights of The Dark Knight and Bane was a prosaic presence compared to Heath Ledger’s mercurial Joker.
That was kind of the point. Yet despite committing fully to the role and cutting a foreboding figure, Hardy’s Bane became the butt of many jokes and parodies, largely thanks to his peculiar muffled vocal performance. According to Hardy, the accent was partly inspired by Bartley Gorman, a Welsh bare knuckle boxer dubbed “King of the Gypsies”. It was also the first of three major roles where Hardy’s face was obscured by a mask for a large part of his screen time. While Hardy wasn’t to blame for the movie’s major faults, it didn’t help that his mask combined with the strange accent to render many of his lines barely intelligible.
Hardy’s next notable performance was a complete inversion of his role as Bane. In Locke, a one-man-show where Hardy is the only character on screen for the whole movie, depended very much on seeing his facial reactions. He played a construction foreman who, via several speakerphone conversations, must deal with the fallout of a one-night-stand several months earlier. Such a lone feat of acting required a top-notch performance and Hardy delivered, receiving widespread acclaim. Despite all the plaudits he didn’t trouble the awards circuit, receiving just a solitary Best Actor gong from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
After solid performances in The Drop and Child 44, Hardy entered the most fertile period of his cinematic career. 2015 saw four remarkable roles in four very different films. First, he played Max Rockatansky in George Miller’s incredible Mad Max: Fury Road. While he received top billing and played the eponymous character, it was very much Charlize Theron’s movie, with Hardy seemingly content playing second banana to her Imperator Furiosa. It was a selfless performance from Hardy, which felt like a passing of the torch from a character once embodied by the now-problematic Mel Gibson to a modern female badass. Once again, Hardy’s face was covered for a decent chunk of the movie, and also on a number of the movie posters.
Next up was an interesting change of pace for the actor, playing a singing taxi driver in London Road, Rufus Norris’s verbatim musical based on the Steve Wright murders in my home town of Ipswich. It also starred Olivia Colman and Anita Dobson, best known as Angie Watts in Eastenders.
In a year full of important supporting roles, Hardy also supported himself in Legend, Brian Helgeland’s stylish but deeply uneven biopic of the Kray twins. He played both East End gangland brothers, portraying Reggie as a suave lady’s man and Ronnie as a violent, deeply disturbed nutter. All surface flash and no substance, the film was just about saved by Hardy’s acting exploits. His Kray twins are pure pantomime, but it is thoroughly entertaining watching him play off himself.
Hardy rounded out the year with his first Academy Award nomination for his turn as John Fitzgerald, the grizzled trapper who leaves Leo DiCaprio for dead in The Revenant. In an otherwise low-key performance, he once again demonstrated his penchant for elaborate accents. Variously identified as a Baltimore or Philadelphia dialect, Fitzgerald is even harder to understand than Bane, even without a mask obscuring his face. The one thing you can say about Tom Hardy’s accents is that he really goes all-in, for better or worse.
Those four performances jointly earned him the British Actor of the Year from the London Film Critics Circle, but then we had to wait until the summer of 2017 to see Hardy up on the big screen again. It was another Nolan joint, Dunkirk, and another masked man as he played Farrier, an RAF Spitfire pilot tasked with defending the evacuation of British troops across the English Channel. He then played an enthusiastic redneck Stormtrooper in a deleted scene from Star Wars: The Last Jedi - once again wearing a mask.
The last three years have felt like Hardy moving into another phase of his career. Compared to his previously prolific body of work, it has also been pretty sparse. He played another dual role with another questionable accent in Venom. He starred as Eddie Brock, a down-on-his-luck investigative journalist who ends up sharing his body with a violent shapeshifting alien symbiote, for whom he also provided the menacing voice.
The movie was a hit but the critics were not impressed, yet Hardy once again demonstrated his talent for making a mediocre film compulsively watchable. Playing like Steve Martin’s All of Me with more decapitation jokes, Hardy’s twitchy performance is so deeply odd that I’ve watched it three times, although the movie itself is garbage.
He reprises the roles again this year in Venom: Let There Be Carnage for more body-sharing mayhem, riffing on the mismatched buddy routine with violent results. The addition of Woody Harrelson to the cast should also amp up the over-acting stakes even further.
In between the two Venom movies, Hardy also played Al Capone in Capone, which vanished thanks to Covid-19. The reviews suggest that was probably a good thing, although I can neither confirm or deny at this point…
That’s just Hardy’s film work. On the small screen, his brooding persona has made him a great fit for characters like Heathcliff and Bill Sikes in TV adaptations of Wuthering Heights and Oliver Twist respectively, as well as high-profile roles in Taboo and Peaky Blinders. He has done stage work too, receiving a Laurence Olivier Award nomination for Most Promising Newcomer for In Arabia We’d All Be Kings.
Hardy has also found time to devote himself to charity work, acting as an ambassador to the Princes Trust, becoming a patron of Bowel Cancer UK, and contributing to other worthy causes.
It hasn’t been plain sailing for the actor, though. During his teens, he was kicked out of school, got involved with drugs and alcohol, and was nicked for joy-riding while in possession of a gun. He was lucky to avoid a 14-year prison sentence and went clean in 2003 after checking himself into rehab. It may be those past demons that inform his restless public and screen persona. As he said in an exclusive interview with the Mirror in 2014...
“I’m just a frightened bloke…Everything scares me. Not being in control, not knowing, anticipation, waiting for something to go wrong. Fear itself. I’m in a really good space today, but I can always find something to moan about, even sitting on a pedestal. It’s never that far away from me.”
It’s remarkable that Hardy managed to go from modelling contestant and drama student to knocking on the door of Hollywood while battling his addictions, then went on to become a national treasure, reading bedtime stories on CBeebies and receiving a CBE for his services to drama in 2018.
Will he mellow further in the future, or get more intense? What accent will he try his hand at next? Whichever way Tom Hardy goes, it’s bound to be interesting stuff.
Thanks Lee! Venom: Let There Be Carnage hits the big screen in the UK on 15th October. If Tom Hardy is one of your favourites, you can search for his movie posters here.
Adam and the Art of the Movies team.