In acting, there are few things that will divide an audience like a performer’s accent.
Under most circumstances, it’s something you don’t want to notice while it’s in front of you, like the score or the set design, because you should be too immersed in the world of the TV show or film. Ideally, any accent or affectation blends seamlessly into the picture being painted.
So when a voice or accent sticks out, it’s usually an indication that something somewhere has gone horribly wrong.
I will never forget the cataclysmic implosion that was Abbie Cornish’s voice in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. And the only thing I can remember about Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is that Kevin Costner’s English (?) accent seemed to be operating on its own, coming in and out like a broken radio transmitter.
We like to think of actors being “good” at accents. In other words, authentic. Her divisive Evil Angels accent notwithstanding, Meryl Streep has a reputation for being really good at them. But a great performance doesn’t need authenticity in its voice. It needs to be genuine. Unique.
I can’t for the life of me tell you what accent Gary Oldman is doing in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but it’s a special performance and certainly the most memorable part of what is considered a bad movie, largely because of all the bad accents. Does Oldman sound like a real person? Can you imagine anyone in any period speaking like that? Of course you can’t. No one can. And it doesn’t matter, because the result is intense, dramatic and entertaining.
It’s this kind of performative voice that’s at the heart of any great Tom Hardy role.
To create a voice, Hardy borrows elements in the voices of people he encounters. He has been known to use a dialect coach, but it’s hard to say if he’s been consistent, because even his British accents are all over the place (he’s from southwest London).
But what I’m saying is that his performances aren’t great in spite of his accent – but because of it.
Now, I’m not a historical linguist and, odds are, neither are you. But while I don’t necessarily know for sure if a Hardy voice is accurate, I always believe that whatever wack job he inhabits would speak like that. He’s the guy that, as soon as he leaves a conversation, the other people say, “So weird. He grew up next door to me. Why does he talk like that?”
Why? Because it’s his process - finding what he calls a “vocal silhouette” to create a character. And it’s not about verisimilitude or accuracy. It’s about evoking a feeling, an idea.
“I think it’s important that you always transform if you can,” Hardy says. “That’s what I was trained to do. You try and hide yourself as much as you can — that’s the key to longevity.”
And when you look at the voices he's created over the years (which we're about to do - in no particular order), you can see that the formula is working...
James Keziah Delaney - Taboo (2017)
In one sense, Delaney, an explorer who returns to 19th century England to reclaim his father’s shipping business, is the most Tom Hardy of Tom Hardy roles. He created and wrote Taboo (now streaming at SBS On Demand) with this father Chips, so everything you see comes from him.
But because he had to do so much behind the camera, there was less energy to focus on the character itself. As a result, Delaney’s certainly has a look – the scar, the top hat, the tatts – but his voice is less distinct and otherworldly. Instead, it’s. Slow. And. Tortured. Almost staccato. And, like his other great characters, there are many inspirations.
“On the page, there was also a bit of Marlow from Heart of Darkness, and a bit of Hannibal Lecter, Oedipus, Heathcliff, Sherlock Holmes, Robert De Niro in The Mission, and Klaus Kinski in Aguirre: The Wrath of God,” he says. “A lot of different classical characters amalgamated into one. My father was like, ‘Tom, that’s an awful lot of people to put into it.’”
There’s also A LOT of fantastic grunting:
Leo Demidov - Child 44 (2015)
I had no idea this movie even existed, despite an incredible cast that includes Gary Oldman, Vincent Cassel and Noomi Rapace. And if we’re being honest with each other, I’m still not sure what it’s about.
What I do know is that (A) Hardy is in it and (B) he does a Russian accent.
What else do you need?
John Fitzgerald - The Revenant (2015)
Hardy said his Oscar-nominated performance was inspired by Tom Berenger in Platoon, but that didn’t help people appreciate his accent, which truly takes you on a journey through space and time. Some couldn’t understand a word he said. Others thought he sounded like he was from Philadelphia or maybe Baltimore. I hear a bit of the American South and some California gold prospector.
And it’s glorious.
Just listen to him say whatever this word is over and over again:
Max Rockatansky - Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Again, Hardy is wearing a literal mask for a good portion of what was probably the best movie of that year (Spotlight was okay, but come on). And again, he barely speaks. Nevertheless, the voice was the most difficult part of playing Mad Max.
“Normally, I like to get that sense of character with a vocal silhouette, and that was the toughest thing for me was to find Max's voice,” he said.
And yet, I have no idea what kind of voice he was doing. Is it Australian? Maybe? Sort of?
Again, it doesn’t matter. It’s all part of the perplexing ferocity he conjures for scenes like this:
Ronald and Reggie Kray – Legend (2015)
Playing twins with very different voices, Hardy elevates this average movie with two fantastic accents – one sounds very Cockney and I don’t know what the other one is, but they’re both very entertaining.
Bob Saginowski – The Drop (2014)
The Drop is probably best known for featuring James Gandolfini’s final performance (not counting the unaired pilot of The Night Of), but Hardy’s intensely strange Brooklyn accent should have gotten top billing. Peppered with what he calls “Neanderthal sounds,” the voice kind of sounds right, but it also sounds terribly wrong. It’s hilarious. And yet it works.
The Drop is a small movie and Hardy’s performance is understated, so it’s hard to make real There Will Be Blood or Gangs of New York comparisons. But we’re definitely in Daniel Day-Lewis territory here.
Alfie Solomons - Peaky Blinders (2014)
I barely made it through the first season of Peaky Blinders and refused to watch the second – until I found out that Tom Hardy was in it.
We’re first introduced to Hardy’s character (above) through his Cockney voice and it’s a serious treat. First of all, he sounds like he’s got a cold of some kind and may be delirious. He talks fast, then slow. High, then low. He slurs random words. I don’t know if it’s accurate, but it’s magic and you can’t take your eyes off him.
Sadly, he doesn’t seem to be in enough of the series to justify sticking around for the whole thing. Not in these troubled, Peak TV times. But until we all find more time in the day, we have this supercut of Solomons cursing and making noises to keep us warm:
Ivan Lock - Locke (2013)
This surprisingly effective movie is an hour and a half of Tom Hardy sitting in a car, driving and talking, so it’s a little curious that I spent a good portion of it thinking his character was Russian, and sometimes Turkish.
Apparently he’s neither!
Hardy based him on his Welsh guide in Afghanistan, who actually turned out to be English. But Hardy was aiming for Richard Burton anyway...
Bane – The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Has there ever been a more fun bad guy to mimic than Hardy’s Bane? Heath Ledger’s Joker has some amazing lines – “Why so serious?” – but they’re all a little too real and scary to do when you’re around the kids. So in my house, Bane’s darkness speech (above) is on constant rotation.
A lot of people wrote the Batman villain off at the beginning, complaining that they couldn’t understand what he was saying - so much so that director Christopher Nolan cleaned up the audio for these people. People with limited imagination and no lust for life.
The finished product has been described as similar to Mr Belvedere, a New York City subway announcer and "James Mason being drowned in the Mediterranean". But Hardy said the he got the voice from the English bare-knuckle boxer Bartley Gorman, who doesn’t really sound like Bane to me. But he also said that the character was inspired by Richard Burton. I can hear a souciant of Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick character in there too.
But that’s the beauty of Bane: He’s whoever you think he is. Just listen to this stadium speech and tell me you don’t want to have fun with it, like Hardy does with his dog…
Forrest Bondurant - Lawless (2012)
It’s almost worth enduring this very average Shia LaBeouf vehicle (written by Nick Cave) about Virginia bootleggers to experience Hardy’s over the top hard man. He’s got some kind of southern American accent, doesn’t really matter where it’s from – Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi… This role is about intensity.
Tommy Riordan - Warrior (2011)
This movie, about two brothers trying to improve their lives through mixed marital arts, was my first exposure to Hardy’s brilliance. Curled up in a foetal position, I was weeping like a baby during the fight at the end.
Listening to his character now, Hardy doesn’t sound like anyone from Pittsburgh I’ve ever met, but he’s got a wild eyed desperation and hopelessness that makes you love and fear him. Just watch him tell his father, played by Nick Nolte, that he doesn’t need him in the clip above. I can’t remember the last time I experienced that much male damage onscreen.
Initially, Riordan was supposed to be Hispanic. And while I certainly wouldn’t want to repeat the vocal cultural crimes of Al Pacino in Scarface or Carlito’s Way, there is a big part of me that would love to know what Hardy would have done with a Latino accent.
John A. Janovec - Band of Brothers (2001)
It’s not likely that anyone would consider this a great performance, but it’s significant because we get an early taste of Hardy’s American accent. We have to assume it’s an American accent because the character is in the US army – because the accent itself certainly provides no indication of where he’s from.
That same year, you could hear him (and several other British actors) do an American accent in Black Hawk Down – again, with mixed results. But everyone has to start somewhere…
Charles Bronson – Bronson (2008)
A true Cockney masterpiece, this performance marked a new era for Hardy’s career. After a series of unremarkable roles as vaguely posh period Englishmen or average Londoners, Hardy totally transformed himself to play the notoriously violent English convict. He’s funny, unpredictable and completely menacing, whether proposing marriage or serving tea.
After this, nothing would be the same. With a few exceptions like This Means War, every Hardy role would involve some kind of physical and vocal transformation.
Handsome Bob - RocknRolla (2008)
In RocknRolla, Hardy plays a closeted gay man and his coming out (in the above clip) is handled with about as much sensitivity and nuance as you might expect from a Guy Ritchie movie. But what’s most illustrative of the sequence is Hardy’s sensitivity in the face of Gerard Butler’s brutishness. And if you listen carefully, you can actually hear their careers veering off in wildly different directions.
Shinzon – Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
Of those early roles, without question the most interesting is Shinzon in Star Trek: Nemesis, a movie I had no idea existed prior to researching this article. (Seriously, what is it? It sounds made up.) But it’s significant in the Hardy voice pantheon because it shows hints of the force he would become. The screen test is pretty funny – and at 1:44, you can hear the birth of Bane:
Farrier - Dunkirk (2017)
In Dunkirk, Hardy barely speaks and wears a mask for most of the movie, so the performance isn't really about his voice. But I'm giving it a special mention because Hardy is the best thing about what is essentially a beautifully shot, by-the-numbers war movie with a twist of old timey jingoism that put me right to sleep. He's more effective in one extraordinarily tense moment than the rest of the movie is with hours of bullets and bloodshed whatever Harry Styles is doing.
Eddie Brock – Venom (2018)
When I found out the Spider-man villain Venom was getting his own spinoff after a truly disastrous appearance in the terrible Spider-Man 3, I thought, “My God, are they bringing Topher Grace back?!”
And then I thought: “Hard pass.”
But then I found out that Hardy was in it and everything changed. Whatever happened, he would not let us down. In the trailer (above), he does two American accents. He starts with a softer, subtler voice as New York journalist Eddie Brock. Then he becomes Venom and he tosses the rulebook out the window…
“It’s a bit like Ren and Stimpy, you know? They have different sounds,” he said. “I always saw Venom as sounding like a James Brown lounge lizard, and Eddie Brock is kind of… an everyday kind of guy. But he’s inherited this massive ego, this beast.”
Next, Hardy will play Al Capone in Fonzo, about the notorious Chicago gangster’s later years suffering from dementia in prison. Of course, there will be the inevitable Robert De Niro in The Untouchables comparisons – and that performance will be hard to top. But with Hardy, you know he’s going to give it his best shot. I mean, look at this guy:
I can’t wait to hear him.
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The entire series of Taboo is now streaming at SBS On Demand:
Or watch it when it's broadcast Wednesdays, from 1 August at 10:35pm on SBS.