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/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 (as F. Scott Fitzgerald).
But things have taken an even better turn of late for Hiddleston. 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, 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, the 35-year-old Hiddleston has appeared as a very different kind of character in I Saw the Light, a biopic about legendary American country singer Hank Williams. Much of the story is devoted to the tumultuous love life of hard-drinking Williams, beginning with his first wife, Audrey, a mediocre aspiring singer played by Elizabeth Olsen.
Hiddleston does his own singing and guitar playing the film, and audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival where the film enjoyed its world premiere applauded after he had finished performing a song of Williams’.
Currently single, Hiddleston is anxious to find a good woman, recently revealing “I like strong women. My mother 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. The older I get the more I realise how rare that is.”
Tom, it’s undoubtedly an exceptional event when a Cambridge-educated British actor finds himself playing an American country singer?
“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.”
How hard was it to be able to match Williams’ singing style?
“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.”
Were you worried about upholding his legacy?
“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 am neither American nor from the South made me even more determined to honour Hank Williams and be as faithful to his legacy as possible.”
What was it about Hank Williams the man, and the music, that made him so unique and beloved?
“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 to not just 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 of his music.”
“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 own confidence and make it real – don’t pretend to be someone you’re not.”
The Night Manager is another major event in your career. Were you familiar with John Le Carré’s work before you signed on to the project?
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.
Jonathan Pine is a chameleonic figure in The Night Manager. How did you approach playing him?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Do you enjoy playing the extremes of human character?
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.
Is it the process of transformation that makes acting so compelling?
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 illains are the most interesting characters to explore because you find they have the most complex and twisted personalities.
Most actors confess to being obsessive observers of the human condition. Would you fall into that camp?
I have a great fascination for human psychology and the contradiction between the self we project to the world and our underlying inner identity. I like exploring human vulnerability and what makes people tick behind the facade.
With all these great projects coming your way of late, do you feel accomplished?
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 centre 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.