Hearing Tom Hardy speak about James Delaney doesn’t feel that far removed from watching the Oscar-nominated actor play the enigmatic lead of FX’s drama.
“He’s silent on the outside because inside, he’s got a very, very busy head, which is kind of terrifying for him in some aspects,” Hardy recently told IndieWire at Pasadena’s Langham Huntington Hotel. “And [his thoughts are] unprocessed. He’s kind of figuring it out.”
Hardy knows the character inside and out, but there are so many elements thrown into the mix — Hardy cites Bill Sikes from “Oliver Twist,” Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” Hannibal Lecter, “an irascible kind of Duke” and “maybe even a werwolf!” in his ever-growing description of James Delaney — it’s easy for him to spark to an idea he just had and shift the conversation down that path. Yet he always returns to two conflicting perceptions of the man made of many men.
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“My interest with James Delaney was the difference between, ‘Is he shamanistic and truly has the third eye — the ability to see what’s happening? Or is he so damaged from trauma that his processing is literally the affectation and a symptom of traumatic experience, i.e. post traumatic stress disorder?”
It’s a good question. “Taboo” is chock full of inexplicable occurrences, and Hardy’s character is at the center of all of them. During the first six episodes — an intense, compelling adventure Hardy balks at labeling a “revenge story” — the actor was tasked with building Delaney through mysterious, intimidating, and confounding exchanges like these:
Old Man: “Do you want to talk to him?”
Delaney: “No, I’m not a fit man to talk to children.”
Atticus: “In your travels, what was the smallest thing you ever saw?”
Delaney: “Human kindness.”
Dumbarton: “You were mad to even come here. We’re an angry nation.”
Delaney: “I’m counting on it.”
“But we’re not sure if that’s a gift or a madness,” Hardy said of Delaney’s predilection for risky decisions. Is he insane and uncaring of his fate, or filled with belief from powers found in far away lands?
If we’re meant to believe in Delaney’s madness, look no further than his fireside spells. Often seen in white face paint, contrasting nicely with his block, black, body tattoos, spitting into a fire, Delaney mutters incantations and gets results. Once, these methods managed to transport Delaney — or his spirit — into his half-sister’s bedroom, sending her into orgasmic convulsions.
“There’s a certain amount of serendipity and slightly odd spiritual coincidence that’s going on [in “Taboo”],” Hardy said. “There’s a hint toward the supernatural, but there is none. There are certain concepts of mystical negro territories, and the concern of the abolitionists. […] His ability to instinctively smell and sense things that are going on is from having his third eye opened at a very early age.”
Hardy says all this while seated between a window overlooking southern Pasadena and a desk filled with an abnormally expansive tray of fruit. Appearing untouched, Hardy politely offered the spread while shaking hands, but it didn’t take long before the conversation turned to a far less appetizing edible.
“The cannibalism — that really happened,” Hardy said, quick to justify one of the more illicit acts on a series literally named for them. “Soldiers would have to live off their own dead during a battle.”
Despite bringing up the idea early enough for fans to fondly label the series “that show where Tom Hardy eats people,” “Taboo” hasn’t overindulged on Delaney’s distinct discretion. Though he did take a vicious bite out of a would-be assassin in Episode 2, Hardy hasn’t binged on human flesh like, say, Drew Barrymore in “Santa Clarita Diet.”
It’s a combination of taboos that interests Hardy. While eating people and a carnal attraction to your half-sister are far more unsettling concepts to modern audiences, Hardy is quick to point out that everything Delaney does violates 19th century societal laws, thus bringing into question our own modern standards.
“In that period of time, if you had anything wrong with you, you were sent to Bedlam and were mad,” Hardy said. “There was no mental health. You were just fucking mad.”
But how can a man of such ill-repute remain a protagonist? His banishment from polite society is marked with racial undertones — Zilpha’s husband, Throne, the show’s most reviled villain, repeatedly calls Delaney a “nigger” for the culture he adopted abroad — that make it easy for viewers to identify who’s being “particularly narrow-minded,” as Hardy calls it. His spirituality is another formerly condemned practice that’s now widely embraced, and Delaney’s other disturbing desires are based in survival (cannibalism) and love (incest); both of which audiences can forgive, even if they’re a bit creeped out.
When asked if he had to make such character choices in order for audiences to empathize with Delaney, Hardy said, “You totally do. Can you judge somebody for something when they’re not the same person as they were before? Or if they had no other choice? Or when they do have the choice and they awake from being part of something? How can they redeem themselves, when they can’t ever wash themselves clean of the damage that they’ve caused?”
But Hardy isn’t ready to let Delaney off the hook. For a man thought dead at the beginning of the series, Delaney has certainly killed a lot of people. Some were acts of self-defense, like his brutal dispatching of two assassins, but Hardy doesn’t consider Delaney to be wholly innocent even then.
IndieWire: Delaney doesn’t really seek out the fights. The fights kind of come to him.
Hardy: I think he seeks them out, as well.
And Hardy laughed. More of a chuckle, really, with a secretive smile appropriate for an actor and creator who knows more about his character than we do. Delaney’s backstory is constantly being reevaluated as more decisions are made and more secrets are revealed. It’s because of these secrets from his past — secrets we’re still waiting to fully understand — that helps explain Hardy’s long-term view of Delaney: a man with no hope for change.
“I think he’s irredeemable. I think that’s what’s interesting about it. With any irredeemable character, what’s interesting are [those questions of judgement].”
Whether Delaney is irredeemable or salvageable, a madman or a shaman, will ultimately be determined as “Taboo” hurtles toward its finale. His motivations for killing, for love, and for living are tied up in a ever-deepening world of commerce, and Hardy sees that as the primary battle facing Delaney now and in the series’ future.
“[Delaney thinks of] going back to the trees, the plants, the animals, and the natural world; so far from where we are with big business, corporations, avarice and greed, and money and power. He’s almost trying to get back there, to plug into the Earth, because he’s totally damaged by man’s desire to own and possess. So he’s that kind of figure in a black hat, of scrupulous means, who can’t really [escape]. That’s the taboo of it, if that makes sense?”
It does and it doesn’t, Mr. Hardy. But we’re eager to answer that question ourselves.