Handsome, talented and a master of animals; is there no chink in Tom Hiddleston’s armour? Andrew Dickens has a good, hard look
Tom Hiddleston is about to leave the riverside flat where we’ve just photographed him with a cat on his shoulder. He picks up the guitar that’s been lying on the living room floor all day. I hadn’t realised it was his, so, considering he appears as Hank Williams in the forthcoming biopic I Saw The Light, I ask a prize-winning dumb question: do you play?
I mean to say, “Do you play in the film?” The polite way of asking, “Were you dubbed over by a more proficient country and western musician?” Hiddleston understands this and asks if we’d like to hear something: his own daft question. He whips out his Gibson (no euphemism) and delivers, to these ears, an emphatic Hank (again, no euphemism). It’s one way of answering a question, though – thankfully for the purposes of this interview, the rest of his responses are delivered more traditionally. Well, sort of, but we’ll come to that later.
This impromptu performance also proves that Hiddleston doesn’t do things by halves. He played the guitar before making I Saw The Light, but he wasn’t an alcoholic, womanising country legend. Work was required. The kind of work you’d pay to do.
“I’ve felt a huge responsibility to not screw it up,” the 34-year-old says. “I perhaps didn’t fully appreciate how iconic he is in the US until I arrived in Nashville. I went there six weeks before we were due to start shooting,” he says.
“I stayed with a musician called Rodney Crowell for five weeks and we sang and played every day, and he was amazing. Being in Nashville, being in the whole atmosphere of country blues music, the history – he loosened me up.
“There was one long night in the studio; we had to record some of the tracks ahead of time. Everyone was in a really good place and we didn’t want to stop and come back the next day, so Rodney got out a bottle of whiskey and said, ‘Here ya go, boys!’ and we kept singing and playing all night. That’s when I realised how privileged I am to do this job."
BUSY, BUSY, BUSY
I Saw The Light is one of three Hiddleston films coming up over the next few months. Before then, you can grip the velvet at your local cinema while watching Guillermo Del Toro’s elaborate ‘gothic romance with ghosts’ Crimson Peak, in which Hiddleston plays Thomas Sharpe, a mysteriously suave and suavely mysterious Victorian British aristocrat seeking New World funds for his family pile’s mine. Then, early next year – as well as I Saw The Light – you can see him as Dr Robert Laing in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise: a Kubrick-esque adaptation of JG Ballard’s rats-in-a-cage exploration of the human psyche, in which the occupants of an avant-garde Seventies apartment block descend into a primal chaos.
Other than indulging in some natty period dress, the films are very different, but I suggest that the characters are not. They are each what you might call devilishly charming. Essentially good, but flawed.
“I’d have to really think about it. There must have been something to make me do them in that sequence. What fascinates me about all three of those characters, is that underneath the exterior is an interior life that is chaotic and vulnerable.
“Sharpe, Williams and Laing present a persona to the world, which we probably all do. Behind that is a much more complex spiritual turbulence. The complexity of the interior life as contrasting to the external charisma. Sharpe is desperate to leave Allerdale Hall and cut his ties to his past. Hank Williams was wrestling with having to present an even surface, because the business of country music at the time didn’t accommodate character flaws. Yet part of the genius of his songs came from how rough his life was. He struggled with trying to airbrush out all his interesting creases.”
Hiddleston’s analysis of character and story, his attention to detail and research, are pretty remarkable. There’s his adventure in Nashville and an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Ballard. He also ploughed through a gothic romance reading list supplied by Del Toro, to the point where he sounds somewhere between Ann Radcliffe superfan and Emily Bronte biographer.
He describes his approach and appetite as “almost academic". Not surprising, perhaps, for a man with a double first in classics from Cambridge University.
TRIALS OF A DEMI-GOD
It was also at Cambridge that Hiddleston got his acting break, spotted by a talent agent during a student production of A Streetcar Named Desire. From there it was off to Rada and a steadily upward career path that led, eventually, to global recognition as Loki: black sheep of the Odin household in Thor and The Avengers. Nothing gets you noticed like a Marvel film.
“It’s so interesting now,” he says. “I haven’t actually played the character for three years. Marvel is clearly on a roll, and so my association with the company and with the universe of its films is always there. Loki did change my life. I was predominantly an actor in the British theatre. 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.
“When you meet children and they have that really authentic response, that’s really cool. They are so generally enthusiastic and you realise they love these characters unashamedly. The enthusiasm is so genuine and so infectious. I am continuously amazed at how people like Loki." Another devilishly charming type?
“Yeah, he’s got mischief – he’s a bit bad. I don’t know where it goes from here. It feels like Marvel is expanding at such a rate, with so many new characters and so many new films, so I don’t know what my place is in all of that."
At the risk of this becoming the most sycophantic collection of words this side of Piers Morgan’s internal dialogue, Hiddleston is tall, good looking, wears a suit exceedingly well (see evidence on these pages), plays a mean country blues tune, is brighter than a neon button, charming and generous to a fault. It’s enough to make you wonder if, while the characters he’s drawn to have their flaws, there are any creases Hiddleston needs to iron out.
WHERE’S THE JUICE?
If there are, you won’t find it on the gossip pages. Hiddleston is of a rare breed: an A-list actor who barely registers in such dark corners (though he did once feature as Perez Hilton’s Man Crush Monday). Not that this magazine gives a monkey’s if he’s dating the ghost of Nefertiti; it’s just that his own phantasmal presence in that world is a fascination in an age when pictures of celebrities buying couscous light up the Mail Online’s cheap hits alarm.
“I just try to keep my head down, and the work for me is the far more interesting thing,” he says. “That’s why I’m in it. Acting for me is about curiosity and imagination, and I get a real kick out of scratching around doing my research and building characters.”
It’s not the first time an actor has carefully moved an interview along to their work, and it won’t be the last. It’s a legitimate tactic; it’s not their job to give writers juice and, frankly, you can share too much. And with Hiddleston, you don’t get the impression of a man with something to hide.
“I try to be myself [in interviews],” he says. “Pretending to be someone else, you’re just setting yourself up for a fall. Or it can just be confusing. So, honestly, there are things that you want to keep private, but I can simply say I try to be myself.”
He’s also considerate in his answers. When I met him on the set of High-Rise last year, he summoned me back to his trailer three times simply because he’d thought of something else he’d like to say. Today it’s similar. Questions are pondered. They’re not given stock responses, or dismissed. Instead, after the main interview, Hiddleston will say things like, “I’ve been thinking about that question. Have you got your recorder?"
This, he explains, comes from his time at Cambridge, where he learned that, even in the pub, any comment or opinion needed to be backed up with evidence and reason. So rational, so intelligent, so nice; all things which, of course, really wind some people up.
So, does he ever encounter bitterness? He is, after all, active on that battleground for brave-on-the-internet warriors: Twitter.
A BALANCING ACTOR
“I can’t control what anyone’s opinion is of me as a human being, good or bad,” he says. “I can only be myself in every context. I’d like to think, if anyone did have any ill feelings towards me, that if I meet them I’d say, ‘Hey man, did I do anything to offend you?’ It would be unhealthy to worry about that. I guess we’re all in the age of increased transparency. 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?’
“I’m not pretending I don’t have bad days, but making those public? Feelings are transient, but if you make them public, 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 aeroplane.”
A little later, guitars have been collected, cameras packed and the cat (Bentley is his name, in case you’re wondering) is returned to his cage, unaware he’s likely to get more attention than his co-star. We’re about to say goodbye when Hiddleston asks me to get my recorder out. He’s been pondering.
“I don’t think I gave you a proper answer, when you asked if I’d encountered any bitterness,” he says. “I’m sure there’s negative energy out there, but the last thing I want to be is divisive. I’m an actor because I believe in the power of cinema to bring people together. I get disheartened when things are interpreted along divisive lines. That’s not the business I’m in. I’m not saying I’m some kind of unifying force – I just like being a part of it. That might just be the most sincere thing I’ve said today.”
Unlike Williams, Sharpe and Laing, the exterior and interior don’t seem at war with each other. If there are two sides to Tom Hiddleston, I’m not seeing them here. And that might just be the most sincere thing I’ve written today.
Crimson Peak is at cinemas from 16 October; I Saw The Light and High-Rise are out early 2016
(Photography: Charlie Gray)