Tom Hardy Blows Up

The most explosive actor of his generation has a new TV show, a new baby and a new outlook on life

At some point in the not too distant future, Tom Hardy needs to book himself in for a new tattoo. The 39-year-old British actor has already got quite a few, as the markings protruding from his T-shirt — and the many topless shots that exist of him on the internet — attest. He's had the London skyline, a Chinese dragon, his wife's name (and his ex-wife's initials), a Madonna and child and a Buddha with an AK47. This latest one though, he's dragging his heels about. "I haven't got it yet," he says cheerily, taking a deep lungful from his electronic cigarette, "because it sucks."

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Hardy had a wager with Leonardo DiCaprio, with whom he starred in last year's The Revenant, a story of betrayal and vengeance among 19th-century fur trappers. DiCaprio predicted that Hardy would get an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as a feral frontiersman who leaves DiCaprio's character for dead after the latter is mauled by a grizzly bear. Hardy bet a tattoo of the winner's choosing that he wouldn't. Hardy lost. Hardy recreates DiCaprio's design on a Post-it note for me. "He wrote, in this really shitty handwriting: 'Leo knows everything.' Ha! I was like, 'OK, I'll get it done, but you have to write it properly.'"

And he probably will. Hardy's body art is very much a statement of his commitment: to his lovers, to his family, to himself. Also, to his agent. He has her name, Lindy King, tattooed on the inside of his arm, which he said he would do if she ever got him into Hollywood. Thanks to gigs like The Revenant, in which Hardy brought a magnetic savagery to every scene; or 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road, which saw him knock the stuffing back into the moth-eaten action movie franchise; or playing Bane in 2012's The Dark Knight Rises and thereby creating an instantly iconic super-villain who was as terrifying as he was kinky — she most certainly did.

But Hardy is both in Hollywood and not in Hollywood. He's matinee-idol handsome, with plump lips, smouldering eyes and those much-papped pecs, but he resists playing the pretty, heroic roles his physiognomy was made for. He prefers to play gangsters, villains and psychopaths. And he's very, very good at it. He has an innate, undeniable charisma on screen that puts him at the top of every director's wish list — all right, as we'll get on to, perhaps not all of them — but often forgoes behemoth movies in favour of smaller, weirder films in which he can experiment, cut loose. He is steadfastly tightlipped about his personal life, but refreshingly candid about his profession. His friendship is something to be treasured; his enmity is something to be feared.

Also, have you seen the pictures that go with this article? They were Hardy's idea. All of them, from the makeup to the location, to the outfits, to the gun and fruit props. Amazing, right? But also, WTF? Tom Hardy is not your average actor, not your average movie star. In fact, he's not your average man.

He started out averagely enough but quickly demonstrated a reluctance to stay so. Tom Hardy was born on 15 September 1977, the only child of Edward (aka "Chips"), an advertising executive and sometime comedy writer, and Anne, an artist. He was raised in East Sheen, a pleasant suburb of west London. He went to nice private schools, where, he told me when we met once before, he "wasn't the best student". Drama was a passing interest, though it was encouraged by Chips and Anne because, as he said, "from a very privileged position I was underachieving and my desperate parents were like, 'Fucking hell, we've got to find something for Tom to do.'"

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Then things got worse. Underachieving turned into serious misbehaving — including getting caught with a friend in a stolen Mercedes-Benz with a firearm — which eventually spiralled into a debilitating drink and drug addiction. "Inside I wanted it to stop," he told me when I interviewed him last time for the cover of the May 2015 issue of Esquire, "but if you get caught out you keep putting your hand in the fire because you're a bad dog and that's what's expected of you. And it's just a waste. Such a waste. I know plenty of people who were born with a nice silver spoon or whatever — very dead. And died painfully, and unnecessarily."

He did find his way to the Drama Centre in London and got his first professional gigs in Steven Spielberg's WWII drama Band of Brothers and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, both of which came out in 2001. But even with such a high-calibre start, he was in serious danger of losing it. He once admitted, "I would have sold my mother for a rock of crack," and has described the moment he woke up lying in a pool of blood and vomit on London's Old Compton Street with a crack pipe in his hand. He's also told a story of the time he was supposed to meet director John Woo in Hollywood but instead found himself passed out in a bed in downtown LA alongside a naked man he didn't know with a gun and cat (whom he didn't know either).

Eventually, he says, reality bit. "There were systematically, constantly, things that were put across my path where it was, 'Tom, you need to wake up because there are more important things to do. And you keep on doing stuff that's nonsense, and you of all people have been born with opportunities.' So I had words with myself about the reality of wanking about when there's such a lot to be getting on with." He's been sober since 2003, though the impulses are still there. In Canada, he told me about "Arthur", the orangutan who is the metaphorical manifestation of his destructive urges, which he likens to Winston Churchill's "black dog" of depression. Always present, never to be ignored.

There's an idea that actors should come to roles as blank slates, so that your knowledge of their real lives doesn't detract from the role they're playing, but with Hardy it feels that his experiences add another layer to his performances. It's why he was so captivating as a homeless drug addict in the 2007 BBC adaptation of Stuart: A Life Backwards, so terrifying as Britain's most notorious prisoner Charles Bronson in 2008's surreal biopic Bronson, so convincing as both Ronnie and Reggie Kray in Brian Helgeland's Legend, the 2015 film about east London's most feared mobsters (though they did love their mum). He doesn't have to channel the time his pet goldfish died in order to play characters who have been brutalised or broken; he can play men who stare into the existential abyss because he has stared into it himself. He's got a unique perspective. Or as he told a fellow addiction survivor in a video for The Prince's Trust charity, "I'm an addict and an alcoholic so I have my ups and downs. My head is a bit wonky."

It's early November when we meet in a postproduction house in Soho, central London, and Hardy has a deadline. He needs to finalise the edit on the third episode of Taboo, an eight-part BBC drama which he created with his father, and which he both stars in and is executively producing. Taboo is set in 1814, and Hardy plays James Delaney, an adventurer who returns home from 10 years in the Congo to discover that his recently dead father has bequeathed him an unusual inheritance, which is of interest to both the British and American governments and the East India Company. But, of course, given that it's come from the brain of Hardy, Taboo is not your average costume drama.

However, on that front you're going to have to take my word for it. Before we sit down in an edit suite to watch the episode, I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement. "You can write what you think," says Hardy, "just not why you think it." So we sit there side by side on a black leather sofa as an editor called Serkan plays back the episode on a large screen, Hardy scribbling continuously on an A4 pad and working his way through a stack of four (yes, four) pizzas and a bottle of Diet Coke; me making notes in my own notebook, mostly about the pizzas.

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What I can tell you is that Taboo is seedy, gritty, knotty and complex. There are twists and subversions — even perversions — of character tropes that make most period dramas look like an episode of Peppa Pig. It was conceived in some ways, says Hardy, to be an "anti-Downton", and despite having lush production values that make London, where it is mostly set, look dank and grubby and decadent and sumptuous all at the same time, and boasting a cast of period drama stalwarts including Jonathan Pryce and Tom Hollander, Taboo goes to places that other shows of that genre don't. Let's just say, the title of the show is no accident.

When it finishes, we move to the kitchen area of the production house, which is off a windowless corridor of closed doors, next to each of which is a sign identifying the programme being edited inside: Poldark, Endeavour, Fortitude. Our conversation is occasionally interrupted by vitamin-D-starved TV types popping in to make cups of coffee, as well as some loud male and female groans repeating over and over from an edit suite across the hall (fighting or schtupping? "Sounds like a bit of both," says Hardy).

Hardy seems fairly relaxed, given that he's under a reasonable amount of pressure. His production company, Hardy Son and Baker, which he runs with a producing partner, Dean Baker, has to send the finished series to the BBC and the American broadcaster, FX, by Christmas so that it can air in January. "And I've just handed in 14 pages of notes on episode three," he points out, without much evident contrition. I ask him how he feels watching the episode back. "I know every line, and I know where everything is in every scene, and I know where most candles are," he says. "So yeah, I'm never happy."

Hardy had the idea for the show when he was playing Bill Sikes in a 2007 BBC adaptation of Oliver Twist, and conceived the character originally as "a Sherlock Holmes-type detective, a bit more physical as well as smart, but who has that hyper-vigilance; a spiritual, hybrid shaman-cum-cannibal-serial-killer-type thing". He spent the next nine years going through many different iterations of the idea trying to get it made; and now he has. As Dean Baker puts it, who lets me into the edit suite before Hardy arrives: "It's very much Tom's baby."

Black wool hat, £145; black denim jeans, £480,both by Gucci. Necklace, trunks, watch, Hardy's own.

To make matters more complicated, Hardy also had an actual baby at the end of October, with his wife, the actress Charlotte Riley, whom he met on a 2009 ITV adaptation of Wuthering Heights. (He also has an eight-year-old son, Louis, with his ex-girlfriend Rachael Speed.) Three weeks later, he started shooting Taboo, and during those months of production he says he was getting between four and six hours of sleep a night, waking up between 12 and two with "the little one" (he lets slip the baby's gender, though he asks me not to print it; he never tells me "its" name) and then getting up for work again at 4.30 or 5.30. The sleep deprivation, he says, was a killer: "If anyone else did that to you you'd have them up at the Hague for war crimes."

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Now he's nearly finished on Taboo, he plans to book some time off as he's officially "pantsed". To be fair, he doesn't look too shabby. In dark jeans and trainers and a The Wolf of Wall Street T-shirt, with a neat-but-not-too-neat beard and short back and sides, he is handsome and looks positively fresh. Which is not exactly how I remembered him.

When I interviewed Hardy before, it was in Calgary, where he was already several months into shooting The Revenant, which was being filmed in the foothills of the Rockies. (The production would later relocate to Argentina in search of snow.) He was living in a rented house with some friends who were also in the film, apparently whiling away his downtime playing computer games and boxing. He looked hunched, smaller than his 5ft 9in, with a wiry beard and sensible, outdoorsy clothing. He could almost have passed for a local. We were supposed to go to a shooting range; we ended up going to a paint-your-own-pottery shop in a retail park on the outskirts of town. His suggestion.

It was only upon seeing what he did in The Revenant — his character John Fitzgerald is wild, amoral and animalistic and yet somehow still sympathetic and human, a balance that Hardy is a master at striking — and then meeting him again in London that I understand quite how much the role must have been absorbing him (and why dabbing glaze on a mug might have made a pleasant change from the day job). Though he resists the pompous terms that surround the craft of acting, calling it "just face-pulling at the end of the day", you can't help but feel there's a bit of Method in his madness, whether it's intentional or not.

In Calgary, he was having a little contretemps with the director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu over "some sexy stuff" Iñárritu wanted his character Fitzgerald to do, which Hardy was resisting. "It's just fucking nauseating having to listen to it every day. Going, 'Yeah yeah yeah; love it, love it, love it; but no.'" A little later, when he was calmer, he added, "He's a scallywag, and I'll end up doing it to please him, and there'll be no Oscar at the end of it for me…. Ha ha ha! There might be for him." (He was, on both counts, correct.) Later, photos will emerge of Hardy wearing a T-shirt of his own design featuring a picture of Fitzgerald putting Iñárritu in a choke-hold.

In London, he admits he's only just recovering. "Because it's a good two years away it feels… There are still echoes of exhaustion from it, but I think it's a beautiful film," he says. "I want to watch it again now because I have got a really healthy distance. It's always the way, when people say, 'It was a really tough time in my life when I was in it,' in hindsight it's a very fond memory. At the time it was aarararaghgh" — he makes a noise like a fatally wounded buffalo — "never ending! The Forevernant. It went on forever and it was confusing. The Forever-and-evernant! It was never-ending, confusion, chaos, none of us were in any form of control, we were being controlled, you know? And that was frustrating and stressful."

It's worth noting how unusual that statement is. Not least because it gives you a glimpse into how he speaks — how his synapses fire off at a mile a minute and you have to grab on to the subject and object of the sentence, if you can find them, and then just hang on for the ride — but because it's so frank. Though he will add, "I love Alejandro", it was very clear that there were large periods during the making of that film that he did not. Unlike so many — maybe all — actors at his level, there's none of that game-faced, media-trained blandness from Hardy. And thank God for that.

It's why stories seep out from productions he's been involved with of spats between him and directors or fellow cast members. About how he told a journalist he was "ready to punch" Nicholas Winding Refn, his director in Bronson. Or the reports, from both sides, that he'd had a fist-fight with Shia LaBeouf, his co-star in the bootlegging drama Lawless (Hardy said LaBeouf, somewhat implausibly, "knocked me out sparko"). Or how he had run-ins with both his co-star Charlize Theron and director George Miller on the set of 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road; he publicly apologised to the latter at the film's Cannes Film Festival press conference.

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But you don't hire Tom Hardy if you don't want Tom Hardy, and for the most part, he'll make it worth your while. It's the friction that creates the spark. "If I come in as an actor," he says on the sofa outside the edit suite in London, "I check the fragilities and the breaking points for the whole piece and the team, because that's what I get paid to do. So if I don't do that, then I'm not doing you a service or me a service, because that's what we came to do. If someone says, 'No Tom, I don't want you to do that, I just want you to come down the middle in a bat suit,' — not the Batman suit, I mean literally, in a bat suit — then you know what? I probably won't do that film."

Hardy obviously inspires loyalty in those directors who know how to handle him. On the subject of Batman suits, Christopher Nolan is clearly one such employer, having cast Hardy first in 2010's Inception, as louche dream-cracker Eames, and then in the career-rocketing role of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, whose costume included a restrictive respirator that proved Hardy could eye-act with the best of them. He has recently finished shooting a few days in an unspecified role in Nolan's Dunkirk, a drama based around the 1940 evacuation of Allied troops from the coast of northern France, which is due to come out in summer 2017 and which, like all Nolan productions, is largely shrouded in secrecy until then (though pictures that leak online appear to show Hardy in the guise of a Spitfire pilot).

Nolan is a director whose approach stands up to Hardy's scrutiny. "He's a great on-set leader," he says, "as well as a fucking brilliant film-maker and a visionary. I do have thoughts, but the thing about him is that he can contain them — they don't shock him. And he doesn't want to miss a trick, so if you've got something he'll want to use it. He'll soon tell you, 'That's enough now, thanks,' which is great. Because then you know your boundaries."

(Another director who seems more than happy to see Tom Hardy is Daniel Espinosa, the Swedish director of Child 44, a 2015 crime thriller in which Hardy starred as a Soviet soldier on the trail of an infanticidal maniac. Espinosa is in the postproduction house editing something of his own and during our interview he bounds in to say hi, sporting what must be a newly grown ponytail, as Hardy's first reaction upon seeing him is to cry out, "Yo! You look like a girl!" before hugging him warmly.)

It's not surprising to hear Hardy describing the usefulness of boundaries. He is a person for whom structure is clearly essential — not surprisingly then, he shows a keen interest in the military and has lots of soldier friends — as he seems to possess an internal drive towards flux, maybe even chaos. His mood, as some reporters have discovered, can change with the wrong question, and you won't necessarily be able to predict which one it will be and why. Interviewing him, you feel like you could ask him anything, but you also have to be prepared for any response: it's a definite don't-give-it-if-you-can't-take-it deal.

Tan gabardine trench coat, £1,840; dark red mohair-wool suit, £1,600; Grey silk tie, £140; sky blue/white cotton shirt, £345; brown leather belt, £220, all by Gucci

My experiences with him have only been good ones — he's friendly, entertaining and funny — but you still feel you have to be on your toes. At one point I bring up his accent, which often meanders from well-spoken London public school boy (which he is), to London rude boy (which he isn't, though like many London public school boys he probably learned the art of camouflage). At our second meeting, unlike our first, he seems to have acquired a northern twang, saying things like "loovely" and "fuhn". I ask him, innocently enough, if he's rehearsing something set in the north of England. He replies, with a flicker of annoyance, that his wife is from Middlesbrough and his mum is from Yorkshire and it's probably that. Right you are, Tom. I beat a hasty retreat.

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On the face of it, it might look like Hardy is starting to toe the Hollywood line. With the release of Mad Max: Fury Road he became a bona fide box office star — as well as garnering critical acclaim, it grossed close to $400m worldwide — and with The Revenant he got his first Academy Award nomination. When DiCaprio won the Oscar for best actor, the first person he thanked in his acceptance speech was Hardy, whom he called "my brother in this endeavour". Hardy was in the audience, too, with Charlotte, to watch Mark Rylance beat him to the award for best supporting actor. On the TV coverage, Rylance appeared to say something to Hardy as he walked up to the stage; I ask Hardy if he remembers what it was. "I think he said, 'Fucking amateur.' Hur hur! Or, 'This is how it's done.' Hur! I can't remember. But it was just amazing to be there."

The year before, he had watched the ceremony on TV in Calgary with his friends while, for reasons best known to themselves, prancing about in ladies' clothing. Then suddenly he was there in his dickie bow, being praised by DiCaprio and applauded by the establishment. "I don't think I ever expected to be welcomed to one of those events," he says. "I always felt like a bit of a naughty boy, and I always thought part of me would be like, 'Nah'. And then actually I was like, 'Oh yeah! I'll have a sniff of that.'"

The whole Oscars experience was made even more surreal by the fact it was the Hardys' first trip away from their new baby. "Obviously there's that pull and we were both jetlagged and nervous, but fuck me, if you're going to leave home and do anything we really ought to do this," he says. "I've got a photo of us in our outfits underneath the 88th Academy Awards logo, and that's a piece of history, isn't it? That's mum and dad in their heyday. They were there. Wicked." [When a reporter approached Hardy while he waited outside the Dolby Theater, he explained, with perfect Enlightened Dad poise, that he was waiting for Charlotte to finish breast-pumping in the bathroom.]

Whether he likes it or not, Tom Hardy is now a major movie star. So what should his next career move be? A romantic comedy? A superhero flick? Somehow you can't quite see him in tights and a cape (unless the Elton John biopic he's been signed onto for ages finally gets off the ground — and wouldn't that be something?). With his artistic singularity and his mercurial temper and his mutating accent and his scattergun syntax and his monstrous pizza consumption, he's just too wonderfully, blessedly odd. Even if he does have a nice jawline, sticking him in the Batsuit would be a wasted opportunity.

And sure enough, one of the projects that is looming at the start of next year is Fonzo, from director Josh Trank, in which Hardy will play — wait for it — an ageing and syphilitic Al Capone. Yes, it's another baddie, and another gangster for that matter, but that hasn't escaped his notice, either. There's clearly something in his psyche that is lured to the darker side of the human experience, perhaps because he's been there himself.

"There's a part of me that wants to do different stuff," he says, "but there's a part of me that goes: do you know what? I want to carry on playing gangsters because every time you go a little bit deeper in that study. Why switch it up and be rice-paper thin? 'Oh, he's good because he's doing a musical now!' You know what I mean? It's like, 'Look at me! I'm trying to please people!'"

Or as he put it to me more bluntly in Calgary, "I enjoy the nuttery in my work. So that's probably why when somebody goes, 'Do you want to play another loony?' I go, 'Yeah, I would actually, yeah.'"

There's also supposed to be another Mad Max film, though he's hazy on the timings, plus McCullin, a feature film about the war photographer Don McCullin that Hardy Son and Baker will produce and he will star in. The experience of working on his own stuff should, says Hardy, give him a certain catharsis when returning to his bread-and-butter work as an actor for hire. "That energy that I had is just misdirected on other people's shows," he says. "As long as I've got an outlet elsewhere then I'm happy to go and fit bathrooms. If someone's built their own house and they want me to come and fit a bathroom, just tell me what you want and I'll come and do it."

Maybe. But part of you hopes he won't. Part of you hopes he'll reimagine your bathroom so it's not at all what you were expecting. Or maybe he'll take a sledgehammer to your bathroom and build you a kitchen instead. Or a jungle gym. Or a fucking submarine.

Because you don't hire Tom Hardy if you don't want Tom Hardy. And who wouldn't?

Styling by Nicole Schneider.

Taboo is on BBC1 from 7 January.