Tuesday, 11 April 2017


In the recent BBC series Taboo, Tom Hardy delivers a masterclass of screen acting as the protagonist James Delaney. 

Alongside him many excellent actors are working skilfully with a deep understanding of the medium, Jason Watkins, Oona Chaplin and Tom Hollander among them, but it is Hardy who dominates the series and several elements show his total mastery of his craft.

Firstly he utterly commands the screen whenever he appears.  It’s easy to put this down to the blessing of charisma but its cornerstone is deep concentration.  Additionally his stillness and use of silence draw you into his world.  His movements are few and highly controlled and the viewer’s eye never has to search for him.  Whenever an actor moves, or the camera moves, the viewer's eye unconsciously has to readjust to find the point of interest –  usually the character's eyes as we seek to understand what he or she is thinking but not saying.  For this reason it is usually best for actors to move and then speak, or speak and then move, but not to do anything of emotional significance whilst in motion.  Hardy personifies the art of stillness when not in action.

And his eyes, of course, are mesmerising.  Every blink, every shift of gaze is telling. He left the Drama Centre before I started teaching there so I can claim no credit for his brilliance but he is magnificently working I call the doughnut – the area around the camera – in which the character’s inner world is available to the audience.  It has only recently occurred to me that drama schools should include in their movement training the small facial expressions and eye movements that are so revealing and frequently underpin screen performances.  Many actors I’ve trained lack any real understanding of this, and the limited time devoted to screen acting in the curriculum does not allow for more than a superficial exploration of it.  Hardy, of course, is a virtuoso.

In addition his inner world is deep and rich.  Haunted by past experience, Delaney is an educated European, made savage by the brutality he has witnessed and committed in tribal Africa.  He is frequently seen incanting in a strange language and enacting unfathomable rituals.  In the hands of a lesser actor this could easily look glib and silly.  But with Hardy it looks dark and unnerving.

Like all world class professionals in any field he clearly does huge amounts of behind-the-scenes work.  But he feels no need to show anything.  Instead he trusts, rightly, that the viewer will perceive it as long as it's there. 

There is a leap of faith that actors must make in their preparation. Creating a really lived past experience, as vivid as the actor's own personal memories, is emotionally demanding and time-consuming. It is easy to skimp on as, even with the best of intentions, self-doubt can creep in.  Will it pay off?. Will the audience really notice?  Hardy's performance demonstrates the difference between the superficial and the profound. Occasional moments throughout the series, and especially a beautifully judged scene in the last episode, allow us fleeting access to the deep well of guilt, pain and regret Delaney has carried with him for years.

And lastly, his technical abilities are exquisite.  In many, many scenes the light casts a harsh shadow across his eyes, a central part of the aesthetic being that he is half dark/half-light.  For this to work, Hardy must minutely control his positioning.  Most actors are familiar with finding their light – it shines in your eyes.  But to find your half-light, where one eye is lit and the other is in shadow, requires a level of physical control that is exceptionally demanding.

Vocally too, his command is magisterial.  A man of few words, Delaney speaks in a low register, sometimes barely audible, but, with one or two exceptions, he is always comprehensible.  And yet the viewer is left in no doubt that if he roared, he could flatten those around him.

And all this is achieved without compromise to the emotional truth of character and situation.

Hardy is, in my opinion, one of the very best actors of his generation, and any young actor developing his craft would do well to study him.

Monday, 20 February 2017


While the four leads give a strong ensemble performance, there are also some valuable lessons in this film about the intangible depth that preparation can bring to a screen role.

Without the structure offered by theatre rehearsal, and the fillip provided by the approval of the director and other actors, it can be hard for screen actors to do an equivalent amount of preparation.  (In fact I believe that even greater preparation is needed because of the intense scrutiny of the camera.)  And, let’s be honest, there’s a leap of faith required that the time and emotional energy spent, alone, developing a character’s backstory will pay off.

The performances of Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller stand out in ways that suggest extensive emotional preparation.  (I’ll try to write about them without spoiling the plot)  I worked with Ewen on the very first piece of film I directed, when he was in his early twenties, and he was the actor who stood out for most people who saw it.  So he started his career with the kind of screen presence that we’d all love to have.  But there is a weight and maturity to his performance in T2 that is really moving.  Yes, there are scenes of his Narcotics Anonymous group that underscore his ongoing struggle with addiction, but even before these, when he says baldly “I’m a junkie” you can sense the painful personal history. 

Similarly Jonny Lee Miller has a richly imagined strength of feeling about Renton’s betrayal of him twenty years previously. The sense of long-nurtured hurt and resentment and rage is palpable.  And the love too.  When he announces his desire for revenge to Veronika (an excellent performance by Anjela Nedyalkova) you know his feelings are not as simple as he describes and it’s no surprise when things don’t work out as planned, not for plot reasons, but because of the complexity of his emotions.

Contrast them with Ewan MacGregor’s Renton talking about his life in Amsterdam.  Now, I like Ewan MacGregor and his likeability carries the film forward perfectly well.  But if I have a criticism it’s that I’ve no real sense of how the intervening years have been for Renton because, I suspect, the actor hasn’t much imagined them.  As Judi Dench once said “acting is not what you say, it’s what you don’t say” and both Bremner and Lee Miller make the gaps between the words richly eloquent.  But when MacGregor speaks about his life in Amsterdam and his divorce, do I have a sense of his relationship with his wife and job?  Not really.  I read a print interview recently with MacGregor in which he said he’s not one for a lot of preparation.  Well maybe a bit more here would have been worthwhile.

Meanwhile Begbie, surprisingly, is almost light relief.  Yes, his thirst for vengeance provides the threat to our hero(es).  But the eviscerating psychopathy Robert Carlyle brought to the original – a man driven by some implacable inner demons – has been replaced by something that’s more comic than scary.  I understand Robert Carlyle sometimes gives his characters a secret – something he shares with no one, not even the writer or director – and that in the original Begbie’s secret was that he’s gay.  If this is true, it makes so much sense.  His terrifying and unpredictable lurches into psychotic aggression were his response to his own unwelcome sexual attraction to a man.  (I hope it goes without saying that I’m not suggesting this is anything other than the specific self-loathing homophobia of one character)  The Begbie on display here has no such inner conflict.  My guess is that this is a deliberate choice by Carlyle and Danny Boyle and it certainly works, thanks to the actor’s skill in walking the line between menace and buffoonery.

But the acting plaudits belong to Bremner and Lee Miller. Whenever Spud talks about Gail and “wee Fergus”, you fill in the blanks of the last 20 years, imagining just how life has been for him and how it has impacted those he loves: the disappointment, the despair, the let-downs.  Shirley Henderson, who plays Gail, is an in-demand actress and I doubt she’d have signed up for a part with so little screen time, so I suspect there were other scenes teasing out the tragedy of her and Fergus’s relationship with Spud, but that Ewen’s performance was so vividly imagined they ended up on the cutting room floor.  It’s the very opposite of the void I felt when watching Dave Johns in I, Daniel Blake.  Spud has so evidently lived these bad times that there’s no need to dramatise them.

On the Graham Norton show, Jonny Lee Miller made a jokey reference to his own bitterness at how the intervening years have been for him. I have no idea whether this was simply self-deprecation or an unintentionally-revealed truth.  But if it is true – it’s certainly easy to imagine someone who was married briefly to Angelina Jolie having regrets - then he has bravely channelled these feelings into a wonderful performance.  And if he is a happy, contented soul off-screen then it’s all the more credit to him for imagining the passage of time so richly. 

For what does an actor draw on to create characters as fully developed as these?  It’s either imagination – which I explore in Section 3 of my book – or personal experience or, most often, a mixture of both.

However they have approached it, both Ewen Bremner and Jonny Lee Miller have put in the time to create something with real depth and, to my mind, awards recognition would have been entirely justified.