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If you believe everything you read, Tom Hardy is the best actor of his generation and also the most dangerous. Descriptors like “volatile” and “mercurial” trail his name, as do tales of on-set squabbles. But as the Oscar-nominated actor, best known for his roles in Mad Max: Fury Road, The Revenant and The Dark Knight Rises, arrives at The Ritz-Carlton on a snowy Manhattan morning to promote his 19th century drama Taboo for FX and the BBC, it’s hard to reconcile that image with the man seated before me. Between puffs of his e-cigarette, a thoughtful and exceedingly self-aware Hardy, 39, who both stars in and executive produces the limited series, spoke candidly about playing “scary blokes,” learning to love the awards circuit and just about anything but those Star Wars rumors.
Profiles of you typically include references to your “dangerous” reputation …
There’s this myth, which is quite asinine, that circulates about me — usually by those who haven’t worked with me. There’s only one thing worse than being talked about and that’s not being talked about in this game so I’d rather it be that, I guess. But there are other people who I work with consistently who know that’s not the case — who just wouldn’t risk having somebody like that in their midst because there’s too much at stake. Obviously you’re going to rub people the wrong way … and I’ve been a dick. But then, who hasn’t?
Is that reputation helpful when you play dark characters as you do on Taboo?
Of course. And I play a lot of scary blokes, and there are probably a few reasons why. First, villains are much more interesting than hero leads, who are, for the most part, really boring. The thought of going into work day in and day out to play someone who is just mind-numbingly boring fills me with dread, so I don’t bother. Another part of it is when I was younger I remember being frightened a lot — of being small and skinny and vulnerable and feeling that I could have been preyed upon easily. So, everything that I play is what scared me.
I’ve heard you say that you’re not “an ambassador” in the way a Matt Damon or your pal Leonardo DiCaprio is. What does that mean?
There’s a certain etiquette that comes with a very well-trained public persona, and I’ll probably get better as I get older but there’s a lack of filter for me in conversation.
Which can be refreshing …
It can be but at the same time it also opens one up to attack. But then you create this persona and you got to f—ing live in it, man — and it’s better to be seen as fierce than it is to be seen as something else sometimes in this job because there’s an element of danger that is required to the work.
You sat out the PR circuit during Oscar season last year when you were a supporting actor nominee for The Revenant. Are you more willing to play the game now?
Where relevant, I guess. But work is king for me, so if anyone comes and says, “Listen, we need you to flounce about in a f—ing dinner jacket,” I’m like, “No, I’ve got a job to do, and I’ll stay all night to do it.” Then we can flounce around court and posture and say how wonderful each other are. But if the work is good and you did your best, that really should be the prize. Interestingly enough though, now that I have been part of a lot of teams that I really care about, I’m really excited to celebrate their success in that world. I guess I just don’t feel like I belong.
When was the last time in this business that you felt like you didn’t belong?
The Oscars. Someone once said to me, “You’re not prepared to f— politely — metaphorically speaking — and that’s what court is.” But I’m over here when you need me. I’m one of the people on the squad who can get shit done. But I’m really happy that my wife and I have a photograph of us at the 88th [Academy Awards]. I’m in a tuxedo, and she’s in this beautiful dress and she looks gorgeous, and it’s like, “Whoa, that’s actually a piece of history,” and I would never have thought of that happening.
You didn’t think you’d be there or you didn’t think you’d enjoy it?
Both. And it was a lot to take in and lots of nerves, and I was extremely grateful to have not had my name called out. When Mark Rylance won, I was like, “Yeah.”
Had you prepared a speech?
No. I didn’t expect to win and was really grateful that I didn’t because it would be really terrifying to have to speak. I’m not ready for that. I get very scared of being exposed. … You’re not a character [on that stage]. And a lot of people have a sophisticated persona but I don’t. I haven’t paid enough attention on that front.
Taboo is your first collaboration with your father, who comes from the world of advertising. What precipitated it?
My dad writes, too. I went to him and I said, “Dad, I have this idea. I’d really like to play this character who does this.” I pitched him the world and the tone and the character, and he was like, “Thanks, son, can you get out of my office? I’m working on a book.” (Laughs.) I was like, “OK, just so you know, that’s something I would really like to do.” And I left it at that. I kicked it around a bit with some other people, and then it died a natural death. Then about eight months later, he came through with a treatment. He’d been quietly chipping away on it, and his treatment was awesome. We pitched it to Steve Knight, who I had done Locke and some Peaky [Blinders] with, and he came onboard.
This was the first time you’ve worn multiple hats on a project. What did you learn about yourself?
It was like university for me because I’d never done a short film or anything like that. I never really finished school properly or got my degree or anything. What was nice was I was allowed to observe from a position of having a relative amount of experience from working with some amazing film directors and talents in my career. But learning to move between departments was different to being employed to participate in somebody else’s infrastructure. I learned that I actually feel very comfortable as part of that infrastructure and that there are parts of me that really do enjoy the benefit of being able to look behind the curtain at what the problem could be, whether it’s financial or logistical, and help find a solution. When you’re working on somebody else’s job, you’re not allowed behind the curtain so you just get fed a lot of bullshit. Which is cool because you don’t need to know necessarily — it’s not your business — but there is a part of me that goes, “But I could help and I really want to help.”
As soon as you wrapped, you went to work on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. How challenging was it to go back to wearing just one hat?
It was great but that’s because Chris is firing on all cylinders in every aspect. There’s a genuine feeling of security with him. He has his signature on absolutely everything and he is still open to best idea wins, which is a profoundly confident [place to be]. But I used to irritate other directors, I’m sure, before I had the opportunity to do Taboo because I had that drive to be a bit more than just an actor. Not just because I want more meat in a hamburger or I want to be heard; it’s that I really care about problem-solving. I can do the acting relatively easily at this point, so my energy is kind of, “Oh, how can we make it better? I want to help the team.” But the team just wants you to “shut up because the team needs to think.” (Laughs.) It’s like, “But I’m on the team! I want to help you think.” “Just f—ing shut up, OK.” So now I have that place where I can go.
Taboo is being billed as a limited series. Would you like to do more?
Yeah, there is a mythology to it so we can and I love being in production. I definitely want to continue down that road. I have no desire to be an auteur visionary director but I do love being part of the machinery and the infrastructure, as well as the writing and acting.
At this stage of your career, how are you choosing projects?
It’s always been first come, first serve, whatever is interesting, whenever I’ve got time.
Leo was the one who brought you The Revenant, yes?
Yeah, I read that [script] a bit and I was like, “It’s Davy Crockett. I ain’t feeling it.” (Laughs.)
That wasn’t an easy shoot …
Actually, it was a lot easier than Taboo. But I had no control on The Revenant whereas in Taboo I was responsible and accountable for so many different things.
Did you call up Alejandro Inarritu, Revenant’s director, after Taboo and say, “Now I get it”?
No. (Laughs.) I do get a lot of things now, but also I’m aware that there were certain things that I did get at the time — that there were things that I wasn’t privy to because of my position in the team that I could have probably helped with and instead I irritated people. But I was right to pursue going into production of my own. I have a place to go now. So yeah, I do feel sorry for producers now to a degree, but also I’ve created a monster in that now I know as well.
Final question: Rumor has it you’re going to be a Stormtrooper in the next Star Wars movie. True?
I don’t know if I can even say that. Where did you hear that?
Ah, the internet is a glorious web of deceit and misinformation, isn’t it? (Laughs.)
So that’s misinformation?
It could be, couldn’t it?
The eight-part 19th century drama, in which Hardy stars as an adventurer, presumed to be long dead, who returns home after years away to find his recently deceased father has bequeathed him an unusual inheritance, premieres Jan. 10 on FX. It airs first on the BBC.
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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