Taboo: Tom Hardy Explains the Supernatural Side of the Period Drama

Tom Hardy discusses the mystical side of his new series, Taboo.

The trailers for Taboo paint a mystical picture of main character James Keziah Delaney, played by Tom Hardy. From describing him as a “ghost,” a man with “mother’s madness” seen walking around in tribal garb, to flashes of images that hint at witchcraft and other taboo magic, it’s understandable than some might have thought the new FX/BBC co-production was more Penny Dreadful than Peaky Blinders.

While Taboo, which airs its second episode tonight, certainly does have threads of supernatural storytelling woven through its plot, it’s much more focused on exploring the traumatized mind of Delaney than revealing whether he’s some sort of shaman. Tom Hardy told IGN that the parts of the story that might seem supernatural are more just a way for Taboo’s storytellers to play around with the show’s tone, explaining the first season is “more of a ‘f–k you to the establishment’ story.”

“There’s plenty of opportunity to use elements of mystery and magic and potential of what we superimpose, project upon that, that must be mystic in some aspect,” said Hardy. “But what’s more interesting to me is I was watching The Mission with Robert Di Nero, I was watching Taxi Driver and you look at the concept of PTSD now, with trauma and how imagery represents something and is projected, internalized, unconscious volition of trying to understand what’s going on, like dreams, what is going on. Things and visions that come to James are his direct reflections of he may believe is.”

Taboo - Spoiler-Free Thoughts on the FX Tom Hardy Drama

As Taboo‘s first season is only eight episodes long, it will continue to grapple with whether there really is any magical, voodoo side to Delaney, or if he’s just suffering from mental health issues. But Hardy said the focus is more on what happened to his character in the past in Africa and how that is affecting him going forward in his conflict with the East India Company.

“What’s interesting is that if a person’s third eye is opened up, then their dreams, they dream while they’re awake and they’re processing it. Those dreams take on imagery of what he’s projecting and mixing together. So they’re not specific, they’re an amalgamation of imagery that he deciphers,” Hardy explained. “He’s firing images about what he doesn’t know and trying to process that. It’s not supernatural, it’s about processing traumatic stress.”

Hardy conceived the character of James Delaney almost a decade ago, and the project has grown out of that initial character portrait: a villainous character like Oliver Twist’s Bill Sikes, mixed with the likes of Heart of Darkness’s Marlow and Jack the Ripper, and put inside a gentleman’s body. Because this is the first project Hardy has seen from conception to completion, he feels “accountable and responsible” for the show more than he ever has before.

Tom Hardy stars as James Delaney in Taboo

Tom Hardy stars as James Delaney in Taboo

“I’d just say to people on set, ‘You cannot f–k this up. The only mistake you can make is not making effort to just try anything. Even if it just sucks balls,’ you know what I mean? The endeavor is worth trying. You make the endeavor to try. It’s my f–ing fault anyway. It all falls on my head if it goes to s–t,” Hardy said. “It’s just my responsibility, which was a bit shocking when it came out. Normally I’m just playing a role in somebody else’s film and if it turns to s–t I can just go, ‘It ain’t my fault, is it? That’s on you.’ But it’s a slightly mercenary thing to work for somebody else’s badge of honor. But when it’s your own badge of honor…”

Hardy asks people to have patience with Taboo if they’ve found themselves intrigued by what they’ve seen so far. The format of the eight-episode mini-series is to have the end payoff any confusing narrative developments introduced in the first few episodes.

“I have respect for the audience because for me because I like when I rewatch something. I don’t want to be given all the answers straight away,” he said. “The thing is, I’ve also had the benefits of having all eight episodes and I can go and watch through and then go back and look and see are we tying these up properly? But it’s a slow burn. For me it kind of draws you in like a novel, if you like it. If you don’t like, that’s purely subjective and that’s fine. But I can’t try to please everybody either. This is the exercise we’re trying to do, let’s be true to that.”

Tom Hardy stars as James Delaney in Taboo

Tom Hardy stars as James Delaney in Taboo

Moreso than exploring taboo topics, it’s Delaney himself who is meant to be the embodiment of the show’s title. Hardy describes James Delaney as someone “as grubby as Bill Sykes on the street but who could also walk into high society and traverse between all the classes, who is an outsider but also intrinsically part of the fabric of the inside too. And somebody who is deemed to be insane and dislikable and actually is the direct reflections of the insanity of the socialites who are saying he’s mad, when actually everybody around him is actually disgusting themselves and mad themselves.”

“That was the taboo nature of it, juxtaposing the concept of class and financial and judgmentalism,” he said. “Saying this guy is a bad guy because he’s done this, but he’s the tip of the sphere of what we’ve turned a blind eye to, but he’s just come home to present the truth in some aspect. So how is madder than who? This is quite nice within a period setting to have some of the hypocrisy of the human paradox — the paradox of the human condition.”

And as for that thread of supernatural storytelling, Hardy wants to emphasize that it’s less an integral part of the narrative they’re weaving and more a way to get inside Delaney’s head. “He very well may be shamanistic. He very well could have a third eye. But he could actually just be damaged,” he said. “We have to start with a slow burn so it feels like a novel so by the time you establish who they are, hopefully people stick with it because the payoff in eight is in a different place than we start off. So then when you rewatch it, that’s a nice contained piece which can continue on.”