Who is Tom Hardy, as far as we know? He’s the BAFTA-winning, Academy Award-nominated actor who’s one of today's most critically acclaimed performers. He’s also about to appear as goo-covered superhero Venom and he filmed a cameo in the last Star Wars movie as a stormtrooper with a southern accent.
Hardy's iconic roles are more physical than verbal, like his mumble-mouthed bad guy Bane or his taciturn Max in Mad Max: Fury Road. Often he’ll play characters that are either literally performing a role (his seemingly meek bartender in The Drop, flamboyant prison lifer “Charles Bronson” in Bronson). Other roles feel like stunt performances (playing the twin Cray brothers in Legend).
According to some, Tom Hardy has a volatile reputation, yet he had a regular stint reading children’s bedtime stories on the BBC. He’s not someone it’s easy to get a handle on, but there is one big clue: Taboo.
Set in 1814, Taboo follows one James Keziah Delaney (Hardy), a man long presumed dead who returns to London from Africa to claim his share of his deceased father’s shipping empire. But his interests lie beyond mere business. It quickly becomes clear that whatever might have brought him back, profit is merely part of what he seeks.
Plenty of other actors have nurtured and brought projects to the screen out of personal passion, from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ to John Travolta’s notorious flop Battlefield Earth. But with Taboo, Hardy takes passion projects to a new level. He created the series, produced it, financed it (and supposedly incurred a hefty loss) and he stars in it.
It’s a story he clearly wants to tell. Is it also a story that tells us something about him? Hardy came up with the idea for Delaney close to a decade ago. In one version of the origin, he wanted to play a character that was a combination of everyone from Doctor Faustus, to Hannibal Lecter, to Sherlock Holmes, to Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, to Marlow from Heart of Darkness. In another, he simply wanted to play a character that was “heinous”.
Who did he trust to give birth to this character and build a world for him to inhabit? His father, Edward “Chips” Hardy, who has an extensive career in both TV writing and advertising. According to Hardy, his dad’s first response was “f—k off, I’m writing a novel”, which isn’t all that surprising given the laundry list of attributes for his leading man. But then, according to Chips, “I went off to build context and themes around his character brief” – which is another way of saying “I tried to come up with a story where my son could play the kind of character he was interested in playing”.
Eventually the pair came up with a treatment they took to Stephen Knight, with whom Hardy had worked on the film Locke (fun fact: he also co-created Who Wants to be a Millionaire). Fast-forward a few years – past Hardy taking on a role on Knight’s series Peaky Blinders – and Taboo is a reality.
So what does the character he created on the show he produced and paid for tell us? For starters, despite his obvious physicality, Delaney’s prime attribute turns out to be his skill at planning; he’s always one step ahead with his schemes, and he’s always working at making those schemes come together. Could this be a reflection of the actor who took on making a television series because “I really care about problem-solving”? Seems like a safe bet.
Delaney’s also a character who has experiences outside of the world in which he finds himself - but those experiences make him more suited to that world, not less. His globetrotting has made him aware of the horrors of slavery; he’s not a man who leaves debts unpaid, nor does he bow down to unearned authority. For an actor with a history of on-set feuding with his directors, this feels like a bit of self-mythologising.
What about Delaney’s attitude towards his father? Hardy brought his own dad on to help him with a series that begins with his character returning home to find his father dead – and not exactly being all that broken up about it either. On the flipside, the story is driven by the legacy left to a son by his father; it’s safe to say there’s a bit of a conflict going on there. And we won’t even go into Delaney’s incestuous relationship with his half-sister Zilpha (Oona Chaplin).
Most of all, Delaney’s a man with secrets. His experiences in Africa may or may not have involved cannibalism; it’s hinted that he may now have mystical abilities, and he’s definitely learnt a new language or two. While a mysterious and ominous past is traditional for this kind of character, it does also seem to reflect Hardy’s own desire to keep a bit of mystery around himself.
That’s a lot to digest, but don’t worry: even if after all eight episodes you’re not sure you’ve cracked the Hardy mystery, the long-awaited second series of Taboo has just been confirmed...
Taboo airs on SBS every Wednesday night at 11:05pm, and the full first season is available at SBS On Demand.