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A Friend of Mine: Tom Hiddleston on "I Saw the Light"

Like many U.S. moviegoers, filmmaker Marc Abraham first saw Tom Hiddleston when the tall and lanky British actor—who had paid his Shakespeare dues on stage and did highbrow made-for-TV fare such as the cop series  “Wallander” opposite his early mentor Kenneth Branagh—burst onto the cinematic landscape in 2011.

More than a few became ardent fans (aka Hiddlestoners) after catching his suave turn as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s romantic fantasy “Midnight in Paris.” They also might have fallen under the spell of his puckish mischief-maker Loki as he handily stole the titular superhero’s thunder in the comic-book blockbuster “Thor.”

But when Abraham spied Hiddleston onscreen as a World War I army captain astride a mighty steed while attending the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” he had a different reaction. The director, writer and producer says his gut told him that he had finally found the right candidate to embody the revered country-music pioneer Hank Williams in the just-opened biopic “I Saw the Light.”

“We got the script out and had heard from every agent in town,” Abraham recalls. “I wasn’t convinced that any of the people I met was the person I had in my mind. Then, as I was watching ‘War Horse,' I saw this guy who stood out. He was charming and magnetic. I thought, ‘This guy looks a lot like Hanks Williams.’ He popped out in that movie and not everyone in that ensemble cast did.”

Turns out Abraham should trust his gut more often. “I Saw the Light” has earned  nearly universal praise for Hiddleston’s performance, including his emulation of Williams’ unique singing style and his dedicated rendering of the brief and troubled life of such an original talent who died from heart failure abetted by drug and alcohol abuse at age 29.

Not only that, the 35-year-old actor’s hot streak continues apace. His performance as a spy who infiltrates the network of an international arms dealer in “The Night Manager,” a TV miniseries based on a John le Carré bestseller that arrives on AMC on April 19, has already wowed audiences in the U.K. He then plays a well-off occupant of an apartment building whose floors reflect the social standing of those who live there, from the dirt poor to the ultra-rich, in the twisted universe of “High-Rise," which opens April 28. 

Meanwhile, Hiddleston has just finished shooting “Kong: Skull Island,” a big-budget origin story about the legendary giant ape that stomps into theaters in March 2017. And the actor will reprise his role as Loki for a fourth time in “Thor: Ragnarok,” which comes out in November 2017.

Why does Hiddleston remain a much-wanted entity in projects both big and small? Says Hollywood vet Abraham, who has produced such Oscar contenders as “The Hurricane” and “Children of Men”: “He is a great-looking guy with a smile that literally blows you over. He is 6' 2", and very bright and facile. He can articulate what he wants and what he doesn’t want. Tom never settles. If given a chance, he would never ever not do another take. He is committed 100 percent.”

Such commitment includes doing countless interviews to promote his current project, including one with RogerEbert.com. We addressed such topics as his graceful handling of the pressures that often come with fame, the invasiveness of social media and rumors that he might play the brother of a certain TV super sleuth.

Do you still find yourself suddenly bursting into a Hanks Williams song in the shower these days?

I routinely do. I will always be a fan. Hank has a very special place in my heart. I put my iPod on shuffle and when one of his songs come on, I leave it and sing along. Although I have no personal connection to Hank, he feels like a friend of mine. I have no reason to say that except I spent five months walking in his shoes. I’d like to meet him, shake his hand and then ask him, “What the hell did you do?” It was simultaneously the most challenging role I have ever done and the most fulfilling.

What struck me about Williams while watching “I Saw the Light” is how much he disliked how creating the music he loved became a job. The need to go on the road and make money while he risked his health made him miserable. You, on the other hand, seem to happily embrace all that is required to be a successful actor these days. I read that Scarlett Johansson, who co-starred with you as the Black Widow in the first “Avengers” film, described you as “clinically enthusiastic,” and that is exactly how you come across—whether showing off your dance moves on a talk show, posing for silly photos or patiently answering fan questions on Twitter. How did you come by this healthy attitude?

That’s a good question. I think the answer is, the only thing I really care about is the work. Any actor would say that. That is where my energy goes. I have been very lucky to work with the very best at a young age. At age 20, I was onstage with Vanessa Redgrave and Albert Finney. When I left drama school, I worked with Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh. I did small parts and supporting ones. What unites great actors is that they take the work very seriously, but they don’t take themselves very seriously. Getting caught up in one’s own narrative is the fastest route south. You can lose your sanity if you get caught up in the perception of others. I try to keep it light and keep my sense of humor. That helps in everything.

Speaking of exposure, this probably won’t come as a shock to you: One day recently, when a certain episode of “The Night Manager” aired on the BBC, suddenly my Twitter account and Facebook feed was filled with comments, photos and GIFs involving your backside being exposed during a steamy encounter. Does a sense of humor help with that?

That is a strange thing. I close my ears and I close my eyes to that. There comes a point where it is just unhealthy. At the time of shooting that scene, I didn’t think twice about that part. We shot it very fast. It is an integral part of the narrative and shows the beauty of actors being able to commit themselves to every aspect of the craft. It is odd by any reasonable trajectory.

On a more serious note, it has been observed more than once that your role in this espionage series serves as an audition for you to possibly be the next James Bond. I am guessing that was not what was foremost on your mind when you signed on.

Well, no. That is something created by the audience. 

So there are no martinis and casinos?

There is some of that. So much of it is a part of the palette of the serious milieu of an arms dealer. Hugh Laurie's character is very seductive and lives a life of luxury. I loved making it. Le Carré is a master storyteller, especially when it comes to matters of the psyche. It is about people with courage and moral integrity. The fact that we live in a cynical time. An individual who is affable and charming can make money off of violence. There should be more moral anger about that. It was a thrilling thing to make. It has a bit of cat-and-mouse chase about it.

You are one of these actors who is able to bounce from small indie films to giant blockbusters without breaking a sweat. Do you find them equally satisfying?

Honestly, I love making both of them. I know that sounds hard to believe. I’ve been asked this question often, because to audiences, they seem so different. But in a way, they both have a purpose. Entertainment is important and art is important. They go hand in hand. Great art can be dressed as entertainment and entertainment can be found in great art. The job of an actor is to invest the character with emotional truth. Human drama propels the story forward. In a Marvel movie, the CGI is basically theater. If you are in a Chekhov play on Broadway or London’s West End and imagining you are in Moscow, not on Broadway, then there is no difference, really. It’s funny how acting in a movie with computer generated images is considered poor acting when it is the same imaginary circumstances.

You probably could play Loki unto infinity considering how successful the "Thor" movies and their offshoots have been. Are there benefits to being the villain rather than a hero?

I don’t know. I just wrapped “Kong: Skull Island” last week. I am the leading protagonist and it is a much more heroic role. I enjoyed it. I don’t want to be just one kind of actor. I love having the facility of moving between roles.

You originally were considered for the part of Thor. Would things be different if you hadn’t been cast as Loki instead?

The way things shook out with Thor is what makes those movies work. Those films— the first “Thor,” particularly, and “The Avengers”—were life-changing for me. They introduced me to many more people. Their success at the box office made financial investors less fearful of including me in their movies. When a movie like “Thor” is a big hit, there is more opportunity for creative freedom apart from being a great experience and fun to work with Kenneth Branagh and Anthony Hopkins.

About “Skull Island,” there isn’t much information out there about it save for that it is an origin story. Did you get to work with any animals?

There are no animals on Earth that size.

True, but then his mother must have been really big.

We might just address that issue in the film. We are trying to keep it secret. The first trailer is quite exciting.

Did you ever see the original “King Kong” from 1933?

I must have, but I can’t remember when I first came across King Kong. He is an icon that has been handed down. It is part of the lexicon. We are becoming part of that legend. There was a day when the whole cast was hiking through a valley in Oahu, Hawaii, and Samuel L. Jackson turns around and says to me [puts on his best Samuel L. Jackson voice], “We are in a King Kong movie!”

Does this story pick up from the other versions of the story? What sort of character are you exactly?

The movie itself is a whole new invention. Without spoiling too much, I am a guy with a particular skill set. I have natural experience in the jungle. It is a very physical role for me. I enjoyed that. It involves being healthy and weightlifting. I like to make a physical distinction with each part. I do that with everything. I practiced guitar for Hank Williams until my fingers bled. With “Kong,” it is staying fit. I got to go to Australia, Vietnam and Hawaii. The thrill I get, that no one else sees, is when I can go through a swamp in Vietnam on Friday and then sit in a West Hollywood hotel on Monday talking to the Hollywood Foreign Press.

There are rumors that you and Benedict Cumberbatch, who also was in “War Horse,” might be reunited on the upcoming fourth season of his TV series “Sherlock.” And you might be his other brother besides Mycroft, who apparently is known as Sherrinford. Any truth?

No. It’s absolute nonsense. Pure speculation. Let me be the first to tell you that the creator of “Sherlock,” Mark Gatiss, is a friend of mine. We did “Coriolanus” on stage and he became a great pal. Mark has never mentioned it. If there were any truth to it, I would know it by now.

Will you and Benedict ever work together again?

I will at some point. He is a very good friend, an old friend. Since “War Horse,” we have stayed in touch and our paths will cross again.

Was there one movie that you saw growing up that made you think, “I want to do that?”

There were so many, including "Indiana Jones" when I was a kid. I loved that character. But my opinion changed when I was a teenager and was exposed to different kinds of films. I was profoundly moved by Anthony Hopkins in “The Remains of the Day” when I was 14 as well as Mike Leigh’s “Secrets & Lies.” I might have been young, but I still understood what they were about. Those kinds of films have the power turn you onto something and change your perspective. 

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