Tom Hardy doesn’t really have one of those faces.

Well, maybe he does now, as today, on the actor, model, and sex symbol’s 40th birthday, we’ve seen him in dozens of leading or second bill roles, ranging from iconic characters like Bane and Max Rockatansky to indie dramas like The Drop and Locke to obligatory romantic comedies (he doesn’t get a pass on This Means War). But in the beginning, he didn’t really have one of those faces.

It’s hard to say when it shifted, but there was a point not long ago when Hardy, for whom one could now easily make a case as being the best actor in any movie he’s been in, was one of those actors whose performances casual movie goers would Google search and say “Oh, he was in that, too?”

In fact, if you could find someone who has been unplugged from mainstream cinema for the last few decades, show them pictures of Hardy’s most important watermark performances mixed in with stacks of random headshots of unnamed stars, it’s almost certain that film-blind individual would have trouble picking out all of the images of Hardy. In a way, that’s understandable, as Hardy is an actor who builds from masks and disguises.

I don’t mean that explicitly in a literal sense, though there are plenty of examples that. The thick handlebar mustache in Bronson, the mad scientist pain medicine delivery system in The Dark Knight Rises, the nozzle on his face for the first third of Fury Road, and, most recently, the fighter pilot oxygen mask he donned in Dunkirk. And even here, at the most basic discussion of Tom Hardy’s masks, it took critical and consuming audiences a while to shift into recognition of his talent. Where Hardy’s turn as a Batman villain was at first derided for his muffled voice and limited expression, his recent re-teaming with Director Christopher Nolan has been widely applauded for his ability to act with his eyes, or at least with the muscles and space between his nose and his forehead. Retroactively, applying that same optimistic assessment, we can see the gap between the second and third Dark Knight villains closing a little, with Bane holding as a powerful next step in Gotham-targeting evil; where Heath Ledger’s mythologized Batman is preserved by lore and cinematic poetry as the personification of a singular chaos element, Bane is similarly transfixing and enigmatic as the thundering arrival of systemic anarchy. And all of that power is expressed, again, exclusively through stature (those traps and shoulders are really something) and maddened eyes.

But working outward from these roles, one can distinguish that perhaps Hardy is so good at working around and with physical masks because all of his characters are costumed by performance-within-performance.

In nearly every major role that Hardy has taken on, he has built his performance of a character from the character’s performance. An oft-shared piece of acting advice from Tom Hardy explains, “Whatever character you play, remember they are always doing something. They are not just talking. They are alive; going through a drama in which they will go through some sort of dramatic human experience.” What Hardy seems to understand and pursue as cleanly and usefully as any actor this side of Brando is that, oftentimes, the way real humans deal with personal drama is through pantomime and performance, by putting on masks. In nearly every movie, Hardy plays his character as someone playing a character.

Bane is almost consciously aware of his manifestation of Plato’s Cave metaphor while hiding his true motivations and presenting himself as an untethered agent of lawlessness. In 2011’s undervalued Warrior, estranged brother and MMA wrecking ball Tommy Riordan hides behind a willed emotional callousness, an AWOL soldier trying to keep the principles of being a soldier, snarling like a wounded dog at anyone who attempts to disrupt that hardness. In 2015’s The Revenant, Hardy goes toe-to-toe with eventual Oscar winner Leonardo DiCaprio as pioneer man John Fitzgerald, whose personality is built on a survivalist performance, a man determined to move forward by doing what life has told him he must do, in a turn that overshadows all of the film’s contrived method acting and element-survival publicity. The Drop, an understated stage-play of personality politics and whodunit uncertainty, is constructed wholly around Hardy’s ability to hide his character’s true nature, and it lands as anything but a novelty trick. Lawless has Hardy playing larger-than-life, living backwoods myth Forrest Bondurant, a character who is actually called out for his belief in his own projection of fiction when Maggie Beaufort (Jessica Chastain) informs him that she carried him to the hospital when he had his throat cut open and Forrest is surprised to learn he didn’t walk himself, as the legend says.

But perhaps the two best examples see Hardy performing while literally piloting. I think the small scale indie drama/thriller Locke is the best performance we’ve seen from the actor, one where his ability to build a character through performance while hiding within that character’s own performance is put through a strenuous test. Locke tells the story of a man driving to deliver an illegitimate child with his mistress while talking on the phone, interchangeably, to the pregnant lover and the family he betrayed in infidelity. For the full 85 minutes of the film, Hardy is the only character physically on camera. His only action is driving and answering the phone. And he builds his character, a contractor by the name of Ivan Locke, not out of expressions, but by fighting away expressions as a practice of masculine control. Everything is an exercise in control to Locke, a mindset which likely created his current conflict. For 85 minutes, Hardy performs as Locke who in turn is performing as a man who has control of every situation, even this the most uncontrollable of situations, and in the space of these two separate performances that share one body, in limited shots, there manifests a strange psychological thrill-ride of tension and empathy that many larger films with broader casts and more expansive sets could only hope for.

And in Dunkirk, Hardy plays fighter pilot Farrier as a soldier bound by dutiful performance. He is strategic and tactical, matter-of-fact, his language limited to communication with the base and his two accompanying dog fighters. But Farrier flies toward the certain doom of Dunkirk beaches carrying much more than that, arrives to deliver more than military relief. Strange how in a bloodless film from a director who is often questioned for his lack of earned emotion within exposition-heavy stories, the emotional delivery of an entire nation is packaged in the barely visible eyes of a masked actor whose spoken lines contain no personal dialogue.

It was Oscar Wilde who famously said “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In less than a decade of stardom, Tom Hardy has built a career of this concept. His filmography is filled with characters whose humanistic truth is revealed to us with Hardy’s putting his mask upon their mask. In this way, Hardy delivers richness in characters through their chosen performances, and through showing the most naked and vulnerable humanity possible when the masks fall off and the performances are tripped over, when a moonshiner dances a happy jig beside a winter river, when a defeated MMA fighter reaches for his brother’s hand, when a nihilistic fur trapper gives a fireside speech about God being a squirrel that he once ate, or when a steadfast fighter pilot runs out of gas, takes off his mask, fights off tears, and cruises his plane quietly into a victory for his country, and into the next phase of an acting career for which we should all be very, very excited.

Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures