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Tom Hiddleston on Hank Williams, the hardest role of his career

Tom Hiddleston’s best-known role is also one of the most memorable characters in the never-ending Marvel Cinematic Universe: Loki, the unctuous, smooth-talking, jaded younger (or maybe older?) brother of Thor. The actor has a penchant for taking on characters whose complexities transcend the usual “bad guy” trope. But regardless of whether a given part fits the antagonist profile, Hiddleston has the ability to provoke a certain kind of empathy, no matter how unlikable the character he’s playing may be. For his lead role in the Hank Williams biopic I Saw The Light, the London native took on the challenge of portraying one of music’s most tragically iconic figures.

The role is far removed from his turn as a pensive, brooding vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive or the more affable F. Scott Fitzgerald of Midnight In Paris. Like the latter, Hiddleston’s performance as Hank Williams wasn’t afforded the safety net of fantasy or fiction, but rather the unforgiving realities of addiction, stardom, and musical brilliance—a point that Hiddleston wasted no time expressing in his recent conversation with The A.V. Club. Fitting into the boots and troubled life of this country legend presented much more of a challenge for the actor than he expected.


The A.V. Club: Did you see any similarity between Hank Williams and the other characters you’ve portrayed?

Tom Hiddleston: The similarity, I suppose, is in the experience of trying to get under the skin of someone else and tell their truth. That feels similar every time I go to work. Making the commitment to invest myself in the circumstances and emotional responses of another human being, be they real or fictional. That’s the only way that acting has any power or credibility, I think. That’s the actor’s integrity—that commitment. But everything else felt different about this particular challenge. He felt initially very far away from me, and I had to make huge strides to bridging that gap. I was born in London in 1981, and he was born in Alabama in 1923, and we had completely different lives, so I had to do a little bit of academic research. I read everything I could. I listened to everything I could. I watched everything I could. I had to change the way I looked. I had to dye my hair and lose weight and learn how to sing and learn how to play and master the nasal twang and kind of twinkling mischief of this Southern rebel and then inhabit that.

AVC: Speaking of twinkling mischief, I’m actually calling you from Alabama, so no pressure.

TH: Oh my goodness. [Laughs.] Okay, let me go over my notes. [Laughs.]

AVC: Don’t worry. He’s just considered a deity here.

TH: [Laughs.] Well, of course he is. You know it was interesting—his particular Alabama dialect, as far as I’m aware, doesn’t exist anymore. You don’t sound like him, and of course other people in Alabama don’t sound like him. He had something of the period with the way he spoke. There was a particular cadence and particular musicality there that doesn’t exist anymore, so I had to study it and study the music and the way he spoke. It was great. It was a fascinating thing to study sound and how the way people speak changes over time.


AVC: You’ve played a lot of troubled characters.

TH: [Laughs.]

AVC: Or, rather, many of the characters you’ve played aren’t good or bad, necessarily. They sort of toe that line. There’s complexity there. Are you drawn to that kind of character?


TH: I don’t know that it’s deliberate in any conscious way, and that’s just because I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who wasn’t complex. I’ve never met a perfect human being, which I don’t mean in a judgmental way. I mean that every soul and every individual is fragile and vulnerable. If you and I went out onto the street and introduced ourselves to a stranger, I bet any money you like that they’re fighting a battle we don’t know about. Maybe they just lost a loved one, or they’re having difficulty at work or relationship difficulties. The experience of being alive is complex and contradictory. I suppose I’m drawn to that in characters that I read in the material that comes to me. I think that that’s what’s so fascinating about identity, I suppose. It’s that we present a face to the world. We all get up in the morning, and we try to put our best foot forward, and we try to make the best of things, but inside we’re all going through a very complex journey. It’s one of ups and downs and twists and turns and insecurities, and I think if acting has any power it should express that. Then, of course, the way I think character is born is in the choices we make. The way we choose to respond in certain situations dictates who we become and how we are perceived in the world.

AVC: Which is something that would play significantly into portraying Hank Williams, who was incredibly complex and troubled and incomparably talented. Was that something that made this an especially difficult role to take on?


TH: Yeah. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Only because there were so many facets to the challenge. I really sharpened my untrained and amateur interest in psychology. I had to try and study the psychology of this man—his self-destructive instincts, his demons—and get to the bottom of who he was. Addiction is not the problem. Addiction is a symptom of something, and I tried to understand why he was so self-destructive. On top of that, to sing and to play like he did, and to inhabit his charisma and his gift and his genius, and then the physical transformation on top of it—any one of those things would be challenging to take on, but to do all of them at the same time was a sort of perfect storm. [Laughs.]

AVC: As far as physical transformation for a role, you gained a good bit of weight for the role of Loki and now you’ve gone to the other end of the spectrum. That physical challenge, as you mentioned, is daunting enough.


TH: It is, but I must say this as an aside: I don’t want to give undue significance to the weight loss. I think sometimes too much weight is contributed to the commitment of changing one’s body shape for a role. For this, it was just part and parcel of what I had to do. Nobody was going to believe me as Hank Williams unless I looked like him. It was part of the obligation inasmuch as changing my natural baritone to a tenor register was part of my obligation. I tried to do it in the healthiest way, too, by the way. I just tried to run a bit more and eat a bit less. [Laughs.] It’s a dangerous game, though, when you’re trying to represent the sickness and ill health of someone. As an actor, you have to be careful that it doesn’t actually affect your own health. There’s a very fine line between professional commitment and honorable obligation, and then just putting yourself in harm’s way.

AVC: Is that something of a challenge in recognizing that line of distinction between making the role about oneself and making the role about the character?


TH: A character is like a costume which you stitch together. You know, you choose the fabric, and you cut the fabric, and you do this by reading about the subject, so by reading about Hank and listening to his music and watching the surviving video footage and listening to the radio shows, and all the while you’re stitching this costume, and you have a shape. You hang it up on a coat hanger, and it looks like Hank Williams. You’ve done all you can in bringing together the pieces of his biography, but that’s not enough. You have to put the costume on, and you have to wear it and fill the gaps with yourself, which is to express all of the things in his life on your own terms. I have to bring my capacity for joy and my excitement for performance, and my own sadness and anger and my own emotional truth, which is then expressed through the filter of this costume.

AVC: Going back to 2001 with your first film, The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, have you seen your approach or relationship to your characters evolve in that time?


TH: Not to be hubristic, but I think I have more discipline now. I’m more aware of the obligation, and I really see it as a job, as a profession which has value in the world. I’m not curing cancer. I’m not making laws. I’m not solving the world’s big problems. But the discipline of creating characters in film and in theater which people believe in and which one hopes has a cathartic impact and which may entertain and delight or move is something I see as a real job that requires discipline and dedication. I think perhaps back in 2001, I just enjoyed it. [Laughs.] I just enjoyed the performance aspect of it, but now it means something else for me. And of course, the more you do it, you get practiced at it, and there’s a responsibility, I think, in telling stories. We need it so much. I think the world would be greatly impoverished without storytelling in literature, in drama, in music, and in film. You have to take it seriously, and it’s such a privilege that I get to do this. There’s so many things I could’ve done, I suppose, if I’d taken a different turn at that age, but I chose to do this, and I’m so lucky that I get to do it.

AVC: Is that importance of cinema and the portrayal of stories, fact or fiction, something you see as more important now than even 20 years ago?


TH: It’s something that’s been deliberately put together. It’s been thought about and deliberately cared for. That’s what art is. It’s something that’s been considered and committed to, and it’s much more challenging to make that kind of work than to basically just drive traffic on social media. It’s harder to make and prepare a film, shoot it, cut it, edit it, and to release it than it is to take a picture on your phone and put it on the internet. But the world is changing, and it’s changing very fast, and we’re all part of it, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us.

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