There was much excitement when rumors recently surfaced that Tom Hardy may one day play James Bond, the super-spy created by the novelist Ian Fleming. It’s unclear whether there’s any veracity to the rumors, but that didn’t stop the hearts of countless Twitter users from fluttering much faster at the thought that the British actor, whose iconic roles have been infused with a unique blend of violence and vulnerability, might take up the mantle of the world’s most famous secret service agent. Bookmakers began to slash the odds on his appointment, while fans carefully prepared yet more Photoshops of their hero in that trademark tuxedo. In reality, though, none of this commotion was necessary because, in truth, Tom Hardy has been playing James Bond his whole career.
The first rule of James Bond Club is that there are many members of James Bond Club. It is often argued that Bond is a one-dimensional character, a monolith of imperial pomp and rampant masculinity, but that is not true. In fact, there are as many versions of Bond as there are Barbie dolls, and Hardy has inhabited them all. There is Cold War Bond, played by Sean Connery in Dr. No; Hardy reprised the role as Ricki Tarr in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There is Patriot Bond, the man who sacrifices all for the ailing Crown when he is most needed. Daniel Craig showed us that in Spectre, where it was only him and his body between the collapse of British intelligence, and Hardy followed up as the fighter pilot Farrier in Dunkirk, whose elite skill saved the lives of thousands of fellow soldiers on the beach below, even as he gave away his own. In Skyfall, there was Shootout Bond, played by a suitably ruthless Craig: The film’s climactic scene took place against a fittingly bleak backdrop and featured a devastating fatality, that of his mentor M. In Lawless, Hardy displayed his Shootout Bond: His character’s surname, Bondurant, may as well have been a homage to 007, because the film also ended in a bleak setting, with the devastating fatality being his own.
Of course, this being James Bond, there must be a moment when a woman manages to crack through his tungsten-tough veneer to reveal some sort of soul within. There must be a tentative attempt to change his essential nature, which is eventually doomed to fail. We can call this character Slightly Sensitive Bond, and Craig introduced us to him in Casino Royale, as he briefly threatened to settle down with Vesper Lynd. But, of course, Eva Green’s character betrayed him, and he ended up back in his old routine of murder and vengeance, mainly because a happily domesticated secret agent does not really make for spilled popcorn at the box office. Eight years after Casino Royale, Hardy duly gave us his Sensitive Bond in Mad Max: Fury Road. He was so consumed by testosterone in this role that it was not until the film’s closing moments that he provided Charlize Theron, his female confidant, with his own name. Of course, the lure of staying in place with Theron’s Furiosa was too great for Hardy’s Max, and so soon enough, he was off again on the open road in reassuring search of murder and vengeance.
Yet it must not be thought that Craig’s fresh interpretation of Bond gave the character the nuance that made it right for Hardy. That is because, a full decade ago, Hardy gave his quintessential Bond performance for a director who has been nudging his way toward making Bond films for years. This summer, Christopher Nolan released Tenet, a movie widely regarded as a 007-style spy thriller, and 10 years earlier, he released Inception. In that blockbuster, Hardy took the role of Eames, a master of deceit who was extremely comfortable in the field of combat (and, one suspects, in the field of seduction), and who wore a suit as naturally as if it were a dressing gown. The character of Eames is Business Lounge Bond, the version that is the most confident, the most alluring, the most fun. Business Lounge Bond was played with the greatest enthusiasm by the late Sir Roger Moore, who winked and smirked his way through seven movies in the series, including the fabulously camp Moonraker. It was Eames who provided arguably the most James Bond moment ever seen outside a Bond film. Having watched his colleague Arthur engage in a firefight with an opponent on a distant rooftop, Eames strolls over to him and asks him to step to one side. Arthur, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is merely using a machine gun, and so Eames suggests a more decisive method of conflict resolution. “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling,” says Eames, and then produces what can most accurately be described as a nuclear grenade launcher. He fires one shot from that, and the entire rooftop disintegrates.
It can be argued that Tom Hardy was born to play Bond, who is that most curious of characters: a supposedly secret agent who operates in plain sight, whom everyone knows by face and by name and whom everyone sees coming but is utterly unable to stop. Hardy, like Bond, is an unstoppable cinematic force who is often in the spotlight, but is wary of revealing too much of his inner self. This wariness is maybe most clear in an interview he gave to promote Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Here, the only time he did not look awkward was when describing the hallowed craft of acting itself, which has more than a little in common with being a spy. “That’s what I was trained to do,” he explains. “You try and hide yourself as much as you can, because that’s the key to longevity, really. And it’s also quite fun.” Looking at Hardy there, and looking at the sheer range of guises that 007 has taken over the years, the question is almost not whether Hardy will play Bond, but how often he will do so; and whether, at some level, he will ever truly want to stop.