In the recent BBC series Taboo, Tom Hardy delivers a masterclass of screen acting as the protagonist James Delaney.
Alongside him many excellent actors are working skilfully with a deep understanding of the medium, Jason Watkins, Oona Chaplin and Tom Hollander among them, but it is Hardy who dominates the series and several elements show his total mastery of his craft.
Firstly he utterly commands the screen whenever he appears. It’s easy to put this down to the blessing of charisma but its cornerstone is deep concentration. Additionally his stillness and use of silence draw you into his world. His movements are few and highly controlled and the viewer’s eye never has to search for him. Whenever an actor moves, or the camera moves, the viewer's eye unconsciously has to readjust to find the point of interest – usually the character's eyes as we seek to understand what he or she is thinking but not saying. For this reason it is usually best for actors to move and then speak, or speak and then move, but not to do anything of emotional significance whilst in motion. Hardy personifies the art of stillness when not in action.
And his eyes, of course, are mesmerising. Every blink, every shift of gaze is telling. He left the Drama Centre before I started teaching there so I can claim no credit for his brilliance but he is magnificently working I call the doughnut – the area around the camera – in which the character’s inner world is available to the audience. It has only recently occurred to me that drama schools should include in their movement training the small facial expressions and eye movements that are so revealing and frequently underpin screen performances. Many actors I’ve trained lack any real understanding of this, and the limited time devoted to screen acting in the curriculum does not allow for more than a superficial exploration of it. Hardy, of course, is a virtuoso.
In addition his inner world is deep and rich. Haunted by past experience, Delaney is an educated European, made savage by the brutality he has witnessed and committed in tribal Africa. He is frequently seen incanting in a strange language and enacting unfathomable rituals. In the hands of a lesser actor this could easily look glib and silly. But with Hardy it looks dark and unnerving.
Like all world class professionals in any field he clearly does huge amounts of behind-the-scenes work. But he feels no need to show anything. Instead he trusts, rightly, that the viewer will perceive it as long as it's there.
There is a leap of faith that actors must make in their preparation. Creating a really lived past experience, as vivid as the actor's own personal memories, is emotionally demanding and time-consuming. It is easy to skimp on as, even with the best of intentions, self-doubt can creep in. Will it pay off?. Will the audience really notice? Hardy's performance demonstrates the difference between the superficial and the profound. Occasional moments throughout the series, and especially a beautifully judged scene in the last episode, allow us fleeting access to the deep well of guilt, pain and regret Delaney has carried with him for years.
And lastly, his technical abilities are exquisite. In many, many scenes the light casts a harsh shadow across his eyes, a central part of the aesthetic being that he is half dark/half-light. For this to work, Hardy must minutely control his positioning. Most actors are familiar with finding their light – it shines in your eyes. But to find your half-light, where one eye is lit and the other is in shadow, requires a level of physical control that is exceptionally demanding.
Vocally too, his command is magisterial. A man of few words, Delaney speaks in a low register, sometimes barely audible, but, with one or two exceptions, he is always comprehensible. And yet the viewer is left in no doubt that if he roared, he could flatten those around him.
And all this is achieved without compromise to the emotional truth of character and situation.
Hardy is, in my opinion, one of the very best actors of his generation, and any young actor developing his craft would do well to study him.