My first exposure to Hardy was his role in 2002's Star Trek: Nemesis, in which he portrays Praetor Shinzon, a Reman rebel who turns out to be a clone of Captain Jean-Luc Picard (if you don't understand all that, it's OK). It was one of his first prominent roles, and he disappeared into the persona of the bald, sinister alien leader (an acting style which would serve him well in the future). While I admired his performance, and I thought he held his own in his scenes with Patrick Stewart, I took no especial notice of him at the time. Between 2002 and 2010, I saw two more films in which he appeared - Ridley Scott's 2001 war film Black Hawk Down and the 2004 Daniel Craig crime drama Layer Cake - but to be honest, I don't remember seeing him in either of them. I presume his roles were small, and in the case of Black Hawk Down, it was rather difficult to keep all the actors straight amidst the constant chaos of the battle scenes.
Then, in 2010, I saw Christopher Nolan's mind-bending blockbuster, Inception, and all of a sudden, there he was. Although part of a strong ensemble, Hardy nevertheless stands out as the character known as Eames, who uses his impersonation skills to manipulate people inside their own dreams. In what was an otherwise very serious film, Hardy was given the lion's share of the film's humor, including the crowd-pleasing line, "You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling," dryly delivered as he pushes an assault rifle-wielding Joseph Gordon-Levitt aside and takes out a dream-generated "bad guy" with a grenade launcher. (By the way, it was Hardy's idea to add the "darling" at the end of that line, which makes it that much more sublime.) Hardy gives a delightfully assured performance as the prickly, playful and roguish Eames, and this was the first time I really thought to myself, "Who is this guy?"
My ultimate acknowledgement of Hardy's prodigious talent came earlier this year. I had become a fan of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (the Pusher trilogy, Valhalla Rising, Drive), and I was working my way through some of his films that I hadn't seen. In the process of doing so, I watched Refn's 2008 film Bronson, starring - you guessed it - Tom Hardy. The film tells the fact-based story of Charlie Bronson (born Michael Peterson), known as "the most violent prisoner in Britain." The real-life Bronson, who adopted the name of the tough-guy actor, has spent the majority of his life incarcerated, and is notorious for repeatedly assaulting prison guards, taking hostages and damaging property. Hardy essays the title role, and his acting is nothing short of astounding; I would go so far as to call it one of the best performances I've ever seen. He dominates the film, completely inhabiting the role in a way I've seldom experienced. To be completely honest, I didn't fully grasp that it was the same actor I had seen in Inception until well after the film was over - he was that unrecognizable.
Refn's film ingeniously presents its main character in a multitude of ways: Hardy as Bronson narrates the film via voiceover; he breaks the fourth wall and directly addresses us, the audience; he performs a one-man stage show in whiteface makeup before an audience that we suspect isn't really there; and, of course, he interacts with the film's other characters, whether that consists of politely serving tea to a prison guard or engaging in a brutal brawl with five of them while dressed in, well, nothing. Hardy masterfully navigates throughout these wildly divergent styles without missing a beat. He becomes Charlie Bronson, and according to a filmed interview with one of Bronson's close family friends, he absolutely nails it. Refn's film has been compared to Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, in that it presents us with a frankly sociopathic protagonist who is seemingly incapable of being rehabilitated but nevertheless worms his way into the audience's psyche and firmly lodges himself there. It's to Hardy's credit that this often morally reprehensible character still manages to come off as charming and even likeable without downplaying his brutishness one iota. Although he won the British Independent Film Award for best actor for Bronson, Hardy's performance in this film remains undeservedly obscure to just about everyone but film buffs; this is easily Oscar-caliber material, and it should be seen by anyone who appreciates great acting.
Hardy doesn't just occupy his roles in a thespian sense. Like Christian Bale (his co-star in The Dark Knight Rises), he's not disinclined to drastically alter his physique to suit a role, but while Bale endured a dramatic weight loss for his role in The Machinist, Hardy often does exactly the opposite, bulking up to various degrees for films such as Bronson, The Dark Knight Rises and the 2011 drama Warrior, in which he portrays a troubled mixed martial arts fighter. Watching Hardy in something like Guy Ritchie's comedic caper film RocknRolla, it's difficult to comprehend that the svelte actor who plays the genial Handsome Bob in that film is the same one who plays the hulking, psychopathic villain Bane in TDKR. Bane was intended to be a formidable adversary; one who could not only outsmart Batman but also best him in a physical confrontation, and it's not at all difficult to believe that Hardy's Bane is fully capable of taking down The Dark Knight.
Spending essentially the entire film (save for one brief flashback) behind a mask that covers his nose and mouth, Hardy overcomes this obstacle to deliver another fantastic performance relying on his voice, his eyes and his body language. Unfairly comparing Hardy's Bane to the late Heath Ledger's widely-renowned portrayal of The Joker in The Dark Knight, some critics and moviegoers were seemingly disappointed with the character, complaining that he lacked the Joker's charisma and humor and finding him difficult to understand due to the mask (his lines were redubbed after some initial screenings), but these complaints hold no water with me. The two characters are vastly different, as they should be, and Christopher Nolan knew exactly what he was doing when he cast Hardy, who once again vanishes into the character and earnestly portrays the larger-than-life Bane without once devolving into absurdity, which was a very real concern with this role. Bane is scary and intimidating because Hardy makes him that way.
I'm not the only one to have taken notice of Tom Hardy; his star has definitely been on the rise over the past several years, and if all goes well, he's poised to become a household name in the very near future. The Hollywood Reporter recently referred to him as a "New A-Lister" and one of "today's hottest stars." It certainly doesn't hurt that he's become a go-to-guy for Christopher Nolan, one of the most sought-after directors working today; his prominent roles in Nolan's Inception and TDKR, both of which have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars (TDKR is on track to break the billion dollar mark any day now), ensured that he was seen by legions of audiences worldwide, and if the two of them should happen to work together again, it will undoubtedly be yet another blockbuster. His Depression-era gangster epic Lawless opens this weekend, and his upcoming turn as the iconic character Max Rockatansky (the role that made Mel Gibson a star) in George Miller's reboot Mad Max: Fury Road will only raise his profile even higher. His success is well-earned and well-deserved, as he's got the talent to back it up, in spades. While the list of my favorite actors might be somewhat short, it should be pretty obvious who's at the top of it.