Created by Steven Knight with Tom Hardy and Chips Hardy, the drama series Taboo is set in 1814 and follows James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy), a man believed to be long dead. After returning home to London from Africa to inherit what’s left of his father’s shipping empire and rebuild a life for himself, he quickly learns just how poisoned his father’s legacy is, as he discovers enemies lurking everywhere. With conspiracy, murder and betrayal all around him, he must unravel a dark family mystery and hope to survive it.
While at the FX portion of the TCA Press Tour, Collider got the opportunity to speak with actor/series executive producer Tom Hardy, both during a 1-on-1 interview and after the show’s panel. Hardy talked about how this evolved from an idea for a character into a full-blown TV series, what he finds fascinating about James Delaney, how he approaches his characters, the complex relationship with Delaney’s half-sister, being aware of what was going on, every step of the way, and how he loves all mediums and genres. Be aware that there are some spoilers.
Question: When you came up with the idea for this character, and then you went to you dad with it and said that you wanted him to write this, did you think he would just say, “Sure, son, let me get right on that!”?
TOM HARDY: No. It was just another one of those, “All right, Tom, very good. Well done. Can you leave me alone, so I can write my book?” That’s really what I thought it would be. And then, he went away and came back with a treatment for it. He’d fleshed it out in 1860, and Steve [Knight] then changed it to earlier, in 1814. Getting to work with Steve was massive. It went from just a little idea between me, to dad doing the footwork to write a treatment that we could then present to Steve to say, “Please, will you write this with us.” And then, he came on board and we had an unofficial agreement of, “You do Locke, and I’ll do your treatment.” I said, “Absolutely!” It was a win-win because Locke was fucking brilliant, and I love Peaky Blinders, as well. So, Steve came in and just ripped everything apart and started imbuing. He wrote these wonderful scripts, and we started the journey and brought more team members together, with Ridley [Scott]. All of these creative talents came out of the woodwork, and we had a lot of fun.
What do you find so fascinating about James Delaney?
HARDY: There’s a mythology to him. It’s about trying to find a character in a real world situation, who can also be a fantasy character, as well. He stands as a metaphor for change, but is also a very complex and varied character, who has equal parts dark and light. He’s somebody who’s capable of doing something pretty dark, but has a noble and ethical quality to him, as well. He’s a fantastical character.
Where do you start with the characters you play?
HARDY: It depends on what I’m playing. Normally, I’ll see things in the script in pictures in my head, and then I’ll follow what I see in my head.
When you came up with this concept, did you have those ideas about Delaney, right away?
HARDY: Yeah, I knew who Delaney was nine years ago. We just didn’t have a story.
You’re so great at being intimidating. What do you tap into for that?
HARDY: It’s about changing a room. Intimidation, in its basic form, is about changing the temperature in the room and knowing how to do that. I’ve experienced it in my life, a lot. It’s happened to me. That’s what it is. It’s something you can observe and reflect, as an artist. It’s something I’ve experienced, in real life, and it’s truly horrible. It’s better to experience on a screen than it is in real life. I’m very sensitive to temperature drop and the games that all of us play in our lives. It’s about who we are behind the persona and the ability to change the energy in a room. It’s essential, as an actor. You have to play with those things. I use that a lot in my work because I quite like it.
How do you feel about the relationship that James Delaney has with his half-sister, Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin)?
HARDY: It was interesting because Game of Thrones has done an incestuous relationship for years, so the tonality of it was not to be salacious with lots of sexy stuff going on. It was much more of a curious, what if? In creating the relationship, it was in Spring Awakenings territory. Zilpha is the daughter of Horace Delaney’s second wife, and she was a child who Horace probably preferred to James. It’s almost a punishment, but he’s unaware of that. He’s obsessed with her, in a way that’s punishing. But Zilpha, although she plays meek and down-trodden, she’s not, at all. She’s an absolute firework. She’s playing a game. You’ll start to see that there’s much more to Zilpha than meets the initial eye. It’s an interesting relationship between James and Zilpha that’s about madness, the family dynamic, what that love is about and obsession. That grows. We didn’t want to feed the audience lots of cliffhangers in Episodes 1, 2 and 3. We wanted it to slowly grow, so that by the time you see Episode 8, you can go back to 1 and rewatch it , and it will mean something different. There are details in there that we worked really hard at. It’s really hard when you launch something because you don’t know if you’ve got everything in the right place. You’re never finished. In the first three episodes, we have to introduce the world. It’s set up like a gothic horror, and then it turns into a Western, and then it goes into Revolutionary territory, and then it moves into going West.
Did you have any idea just how interesting and layered this character would ultimately turn out to be? Were you involved with the development, along the way?
HARDY: All the way through, yeah. Absolutely, I was part of that whole process. We were shooting on the floor, and we were casting and interviewing directors to find the right people to collaborate with. It was really important that there were no leaders. It was a collaboration, in the truest sense. We needed the script. We needed to bring in talent that wanted to be passion about the project, so that the head of each department had a full say in what Taboo was going to look like and feel like. It was driven by the tonality of the scripts, but those were considered over a couple of years, between the writers’ room, Steve and Chips [Hardy] and I. There’s nothing in Taboo that I wasn’t part of, but I couldn’t really tell you what my job description was. I’m just a witness, I guess, but I witnessed quite a bit. I couldn’t tell you that any of the ideas were mine, but I was keeping track of the ideas that I thought were the best. I would say, “I think we should hang onto that one,” and encouraged everyone who had a better idea to speak up and put it in. That was a really wonderful experience.
Did you feel a different kind of pressure in creating a character for your own project, instead of just being an actor for hire?
HARDY: For this one, it was more of a question of every single character being an extension of Steven’s, my and my father’s desire to create a show that has a lot of life in it. Acting is 5% of this job for me. It helped that I knew who he was nine years ago, so that I could start looking at the other parts of the story. It was more about producing and being a witness to the other departments. The other characters of the story were more important, as part of my job for this production. And then, I had to go and play James, as well. It was a different experience from anything, and it’s a huge responsibility. If it goes wrong, I feel personally responsible because it was me who went out and asked people to join me on it. The rest of the team can’t make a mistake ‘cause it’s not their fault. If it goes wrong, it’s my fault. So, they can do what they want because they can’t fail.
Do you like producing?
HARDY: I love it. I think it’s something I would like to do more of. It is hard, though. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be.
How do you like working in television vs. film?
HARDY: I love television, theater, film, radio. I love it all. A goldfish grows to the size of his bowl. I love all mediums of storytelling.
Do you have any preference for genre?
HARDY: No preference. I’m pretty much into anything. I just love working.
Now that you’ve set all of this up, there’s no way you can’t continue on with this character.
HARDY: Yeah, I want to keep going! This is just the introduction.
Taboo airs on Tuesday nights on FX.