TOM HIDDLESTON - THE INTERVIEW
It’s not often you meet someone who earned a double-first in Classics at Cambridge. It’s even rarer when you meet a movie star with those credentials. But that’s the kind of gravitas that gives Tom Hiddleston an added edge whenever he takes on a role. Best known for his continuing role as the villainous Loki in Marvel Comics “Thor” and “Avengers” franchises, the British actor has also distinguished himself in films ranging from the recent sci-fi drama “High Rise” to last year’s horror flick “Crimson Peak” to Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”
Things have taken an even better turn of late for Hiddleston, winning a Golden Globe for his part in “The Night Manager,” the fabulously successful BBC/AMC TV miniseries adaptation of the 1993 John Le Carré novel. Hiddleston gave arguably the most powerful, yet seductive performance of his career as newly recruited British spy Jonathan Pine. Critics not only raved about Hiddleston, who proved more than a match for Hugh Laurie’s villainous billionaire arms trafficker, but the series was such a phenomenon that there is feverish talk of a sequel.
In the meantime, as a very different kind of character in “I SAW THE LIGHT,” a biopic about legendary American country & western singer Hank Williams. Much of the story is devoted to the hard-drinking Williams’ tumultuous love life, beginning with his first wife, Audrey, a mediocre aspiring singer played by Elizabeth Olsen.
Hiddleston does his own singing and guitar playing in the film and audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival (where the film enjoyed its world premiere) often applauded after he finished performing a song in the guise of Williams.
Despite his Apollonian good looks, Tom Hiddleston is playing his fair share of dark, bad-ass characters. Last year he earned acclaim for his performance as an Iraqi war veteran turned British undercover agent in the six-part BBC series “The Night Manager,” then he finished shooting the third “Thor” film where he returns as the menacing Loki, and now he’s about to be seen as a former Special Air Service soldier taking on a 50-foot gorilla in “KONG: SKULL ISLAND.”
Hiddleston is “excited” to be starring in the $190 million Warner Bros. blockbuster that revives the “King Kong” legend, which is expected to deliver the biggest, meanest Kong of all time. Looking casually chic in a pale blue shirt and jeans, the tall, 6’2” British actor is impeccably polite and articulate in conversation. He smiles easily - rather like his “Night Manager” alter ego Jonathan Pine - and was impressed by the scale and scope of his “King Kong” adventure.
“It’s an epic story, and I loved how Jordan was determined to shoot on real and very breathtaking locations, which give a sense of the power and beauty of nature,” Hiddleston says. “I was also drawn to my character’s heroic sensibility and how he embraces the life of the explorer and the sense of adventure that comes with his mission.”
Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, “Kong: Skull Island” also co-stars Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson (who won the Oscar for “Room” last year), and John Goodman. The film is also expected to set the stage for a future Godzilla vs. King Kong extravaganza currently projected for release in 2020, which gives Hiddleston another film franchise to go along with his “Avengers” and “Thor” commitments.
The 35-year-old Hiddleston is a product of Eton and Oxford and made headlines last year with his curious and brief relationship with Taylor Swift. Currently single, Hiddleston is anxious to find a good woman, recently declaring: “I like strong women. My mothers and sisters are very strong women, immensely independent, and very capable and that’s what I feel comfortable with. My mother places a huge importance on decency and kindness and always has—and the older I get, the more I realize how rare that is.”
When asked whether he intends to follow “posh” actors Benedict Cumberbatch (one of his best friends) and Eddie Redmayne (also an Eton-Cambridge man) down the marriage path, Hiddleston demurs: “It’s great for both of them. They’re both my good friends. I’m happy for them. Marriage is not something in my life yet. I am not closed to it, though.”
STRIPLV: Tom, what can you tell us about your character in Kong: Skull Island?
HIDDLESTON: I play Captain James Conrad who is a former SAS officer with skills in tracking and jungle survival who is part of an interesting team of soldiers and explorers. The film is set in the 70’s where you can still believe that there are truly unexplored and uncharted regions left on earth and there’s this island in the South Pacific which can’t be mapped because it’s protected by a storm system. So our group is hired to head up an expedition which starts out as a reconnaissance mission, but as you might imagine becomes something else.
STRIPLV: You’ve mentioned how spectacular the shooting locations were. Was that one of the key elements to making this kind of a mythical story all the more real?
HIDDLESTON: We shot in the jungles and valleys of Hawaii, Vietnam, and Australia and audiences I think will appreciate how this film was not shot on a sound stage and how that majestic grandeur heightens everything about the story. The settings are so breathtaking and vivid that it makes you appreciate how we should have more respect for everything that is so beautiful and impressive about our natural habitat.
STRIPLV: You and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts have alluded to the importance of the man vs. nature theme to the story?
HIDDLESTON: Yes. King Kong is a very powerful emblem of nature and Jordan was anxious to explore the mythology of that and how man should show more humility with respect to power of nature.
STRIPLV: You’ve chosen to work on very diverse kinds of projects over the years ranging from your Thor films to indie projects like High Rise and also John Le Carré’s The Night Manager. Is there any one thing that guides your acting choices?
HIDDLESTON: I like to be involved in projects that can inspire and change people. I believe that art can inspire people. I remember being extremely touched by Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies and I was also struck by the complexity of the world after watching Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (also based on a John Le Carré novel - ED). I once met a surgeon who works with Doctor Without Borders who decided on his career after seeing Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields. Art is an emotional doorway to a particular theme. Film is a very powerful art form that can make us think about the world differently and inspire us to greater things and contribute to the world. I truly believe that.
STRIPLV: What does acting mean to you personally?
HIDDLESTON: Since I was little I have always enjoyed entertaining people. There’s nothing like making people laugh. It makes me very happy when people come up to me at the airport and tell me “the scene where Hulk crushes Loki at the end of The Avengers is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.” I still remember how hard people were laughing in the movie theater.
STRIPLV: How have you dealt with the growing attention and recognition that comes with fame?
HIDDLESTON: It’s very flattering in some ways, but it requires an adjustment. I can’t just go for a drink anywhere I would like anymore, and sometimes you need to figure out ways to get around that won’t attract attention. Whenever I meet people, I try my best to make the situation as comfortable and unaffected as possible. I want to be able to have a normal conversation so that the connection you make with people is real and meaningful. That’s very important to me.
STRIPLV: You attended both Eton and Cambridge. What do you feel is the greatest benefit of that kind of elite education?
HIDDLESTON: Being at Cambridge taught me intellectual discipline. My teachers expected a high level of rigor when it came to arguing a point or writing a paper. I was taught to structure my thinking so that whenever I made a statement, I needed to be able to back it up and not make unfounded assertions or arguments. I was taught to think for myself and not simply follow whatever passes for accepted wisdom which you absorb over time. In that sense, I’ve learned the value of thinking critically about the world.
STRIPLV: Like many actors, it took you time before you started getting major roles. What did it feel like when you reached that point?
HIDDLESTON: I’m glad that it took me until I was 30 or so before I started gaining more recognition. I think being a little older helps you understand yourself better and makes it easier for you to adjust to whatever success ultimately comes your way. I’m not someone who cares very much about the attention. I love acting, and I take my work seriously, but I find everything else that comes with it very ephemeral and superficial.
STRIPLV: So fame is fleeting?
HIDDLESTON: Exactly. One of the things I found interesting about playing Hanks Williams is that he was driven to be the biggest singer in the business and when he finally got there he found out that there was nothing there. Being a star didn’t solve any of his problems and didn’t make him feel any better about who he was or his personal life. There’s a good lesson there.
STRIPLV: Tom, it’s undoubtedly an exceptional event when a Cambridge-educated British actor finds himself playing an American country & western singer.
HIDDLESTON: I’ve always enjoyed entering unknown territory. There was an extraordinary arc to his life that drew me to this story, and it was exciting to take this journey. I liken the experience to that of a foreign correspondent going somewhere new and trying to get one’s bearings.
STRIPLV: How hard was it to be able to match Williams’ singing style?
HIDDLESTON: It was difficult, but I was excited by the prospect of reaching a point where I could do justice to his singing and performing. I had played the guitar as a student, and I knew six or seven of his standards like “Hey, Good Looking” and “Moving on Over” and when you sing his songs, you feel such an immense joy. Williams took huge pleasure in the connection between himself and the audience and I immediately connected to his joy of performing.
STRIPLV: Were you worried about upholding the legacy of a country icon like Hank Williams who is so revered in the American South?
HIDDLESTON: I saw it as my responsibility to be as authentic as possible. I was well aware of how revered he is and the fact that I was neither American nor from the South made me even more determined to honor Hank Williams and be as faithful to his legacy as possible.
STRIPLV: What was it about Hank Williams the man and the music that made him so unique and beloved?
HIDDLESTON: There was such a profound sincerity and honesty in his music that touched people. When he sings “I’m so lonesome I could cry” or “Why I can’t free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold, heart,” there’s an honesty to those lyrics that I needed to absorb and convey. So it was important for me not just to learn to do the songs properly but also to connect to that authenticity that audiences’ felt when they listen to Hank Williams. He sang from his heart, and this movie explores the connection between his pain and personal struggles to his music.
STRIPLV: The Night Manager TV miniseries was another major event in your career, especially now winning a Golden Globe for your performance, congratulations! Were you familiar with John Le Carré’s work before you signed on to the project?
HIDDLESTON: I’m a huge fan of John Le Carré. I haven’t read all of his novels, but I’ve always understood him and had a deep appreciation for his work. My father introduced me to his work, and I remember in my late teens picking up the book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in his library. Apart from being one of the great espionage novelists, he’s also one of the greatest analysts of the British psyche. His novels are really about what it means to be British and living in our society.
STRIPLV: Jonathan Pine is a chameleonic figure in The Night Manager. How did you approach playing him?
HIDDLESTON: The hardest thing about playing Jonathan Pine is that he’s such a brilliant actor and immaculate liar. He’s able to lie very effectively so that people believe him. He has multiple identities and five different names and is so believable in each of his various selves. What made my work so much more interesting was trying to find bits where the truth of Pine is revealed to the audience even when he’s presenting particular faces to Roper and various other characters in the film.
STRIPLV: Your career has taken off in recent years with your playing Loki in the Avengers films and now playing the lead in several new movies. How does it feel?
HIDDLESTON: I am so grateful for everything that has happened to me. I never really expected to be in this position and to be able to reach large audiences with my work and have fans who are chanting “Loki, Loki.” I’m surprised and delighted at the same time.
STRIPLV: How do you deal with the increasing scrutiny that your life and work are receiving now as compared to four or five years ago when you were still a relatively unknown actor?
HIDDLESTON: I’m still in the process to adapting to this new context, but I haven’t tried to change how I behave. I try to be myself at all times and not try to create a false public image.
When I give interviews, I try to be as honest and direct as possible. I don’t see the point in trying to pretend to be someone else. But I try to speak my mind openly, and I hope that people come away with a real sense of who I am as opposed to the characters I play even though of course you still need to keep some things about your life private.
STRIPLV: Do you enjoy going from playing extreme characters like Dr. Laing in High-Rise or Loki in The Avengers films and then playing a real-life character like Hank Williams?
HIDDLESTON: That’s the beauty of being an actor. I believe that we start out in life being born clean slates and then in the course of things we all have the innate capacity to turn into many different types of individuals. We can be good or bad, nasty or noble.
STRIPLV: Is it the process of transformation that makes acting so compelling?
HIDDLESTON: Being an actor involves approaching your character from the perspective of both an anthropologist and psychologist. You’re constantly digging around to discover what motivates them. Acting involves throwing yourself into many different types of people, and there’s a cathartic effect in that. What is remarkable about this kind of profession is that over the course of a career you
can play both Romeo and Iago. You can go from playing Shakespeare’s greatest lover to playing his greatest sociopath. And often villains are the most interesting characters to explore because you find they have the most complex and twisted personalities.
STRIPLV: Most actors confess to being obsessive observers of the human condition. Would you fall into that camp?
HIDDLESTON: I have a great fascination for human psychology and the contradiction between the self we project to work and our underlying inner identity. I like exploring human vulnerability and what makes people tick behind the facade!
STRIPLV: You must have a great sense of accomplishment with all these great projects coming your way of late?
HIDDLESTON: It’s such a privilege. But I never quite feel that I’m there yet. Maybe that’s the predicament of being creative - you always feel that the center is somewhere else. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied. I’m always chasing; I’m always thinking how can I do better, how can I expand, how can I communicate something more deeply or profoundly.
“I enjoy singing and playing the guitar. I still have my Gibson J-45. Sometimes I even travel with it. It’s addictive.”
“One of my favorite TV shows of all time is Fawlty Towers. John Cleese is so brilliant.”
“Doing Shakespeare which is where it started for me. Shakespeare led me to superheroes.”
“Loki changed my life. I was predominantly an actor in the British theater. I’d worked with Kenneth Brannagh in television and the West End, then he cast me as Loki, and within a year I was a part of this phenomenon...I am continuously amazed at how much people like Loki but...there is this old phrase that ‘the devil plays all the best tunes.’ There is a kind of freedom to being bad, an embracing of one’s most rebellious instincts.”
“Honesty is a gift. Be honest about who you are and how you feel because it encourages intimacy, and intimacy is really where it’s at. Be ready in life to nurture your confidence and make it real - don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.”
“We’re all vulnerable to criticism and people are perfectly entitled to exercise their right to criticise anything. Personally, I’m so aware things are more complicated than they seem – before I judge, I think, ‘Do I know the whole picture?’” You have to be very careful not to be drawn into the riptide of the most destructive and cynical aspects of it.” “I’m not pretending I don’t have bad days, but making those feelings public? Feelings are transient, but if you make them public, (if you) post them, it’s forever. You can’t eradicate the record of what happened yesterday. There’s more than enough negativity in the world and I don’t feel like I need to contribute to that. I should add that I believe in accountability. If you’ve got something to say, then you should say that in person to somebody, as opposed to hiding behind anonymity, just throwing it over the wall like a paper airplane.”
“God, it’s so embarrassing. I was on a Korean chat show doing a Q&A, there were 7,000 people there, and I was taking questions from the audience. Somebody asked: ‘Of what body part are you most proud?’ “That’s just a wrong question, of which there are only wrong answers. So I said: ‘My feet’ and they said: ‘Why?’ and I said: ‘Without my feet, I couldn’t run and I couldn’t dance.’ And they said: ‘Well, now we have to see you dance.’ So I danced... and I created a monster!”
CLASS DISTINCTIONS IN BRITISH ACTING
“Wherever you are from you should be able to follow your passion. Wherever you went to school, if you have something authentic to contribute, you should be allowed to. There is an acknowledged problem of access and inequality of opportunity – I don’t know how to remedy that. But yeah, I’m on everyone’s side; I’m on the side of the actors. I’m not there to divide the world into pieces.”
“I was very fearful and lacking in confidence when I first when to boarding school. Fear is very inhibiting and robs you of your willingness to explore life. It took me some time, but once I overcame my fears, it opened up the world to me.”