Tom Hiddleston: playing Hank Williams was like riding a very complicated bike


Tom Hiddleston looks like country singer Hank Williams. They're both tall, pale, lean men with narrow faces, sharp noses, and easy country smiles that don't entirely warm up their thousand-yard stares. Looking at pictures or footage of the two of them, the resemblance is clear enough. But Hiddleston was still an odd choice to play Williams in the biopic I Saw The Light, which opens in theaters on Friday, April 1st. Given an opportunity to cast someone to play an Alabama-born country singer-songwriter, one of the original good ol' boys of Tennessee's Grand Ole Opry, most people wouldn't look to a London-born, Cambridge-educated classical actor who's best known for playing a campy, villainous Norse god in a series of American comic-book blockbusters.

But Hiddleston makes a perfect Williams, even if he hasn't paid the proper Southern dues. In I Saw The Light, he performs Williams' songs with the right amount of yodel and twang, without becoming a caricature. More importantly, his signature performance style fits the role neatly. In roles like Adam in Only Lovers Left Alive, Thomas in Crimson Peak, and Loki in Thor, The Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World, Hiddleston comes across as tightly contained behind a patrician mask, but perpetually wrestling with a violent inner grief and rage. The same emotions govern Williams in the film, which tracks his tumultuous marriage to Audrey Sheppard, his career ups and downs, and his early death. Writer-director Marc Abraham, working from a biography by Colin Escott, George Merritt, and William MacEwen, makes a strange, impressionistic collage out of Williams' life, with jobs, women, and ambitions coming and going throughout his short, but hugely eventful, career. Hiddleston becomes the glue that holds all the pieces together: His warm, but troubled, performance is compelling, and when he starts to sing, it's easy to see the charisma that took Williams to the top of the country charts in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

There's a lot of lurid inquiry swirling around Hiddleston lately. Stephen Colbert devoted a Late Show interview segment to the news that the actor's ass has its own hashtag. His role in the British adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise led some media outlets to ask about his thoughts on orgies; Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak led to interview questions about kink. In person, though, it's hard to associate any of this lurid wink-wink stuff with Hiddleston, who comes across as smart, careful, and deeply thoughtful about the work he had to put into making his version of Hank Williams convincing. I recently sat down with him in Chicago to talk about all the technical work that went into the role, why playing Loki got harder over time, and why he isn't worried about falling prey to the fame monster that claimed Williams.

Tasha Robinson: So which was harder, starving yourself down to a Hank Williams weight, or learning to yodel?

Tom Hiddleston: I think they were both about as hard as each other. Well, the funny thing about yodeling was, it didn't take me long. I just didn't know I could do it before. So between exactly those two things, running seven miles a day was harder.

But actually, there were parts of the singing, aside from the yodeling, which I hadn't anticipated would be so challenging. It's so interesting, the way Hank had such instinctive control over his own instrument that sometimes he would bend a single note, and glide through three in one... [Pauses, sings.] "Came in last night at a half past 10, that baby of mine wouldn't let me in / So move it on oooooooooover..." He would twist and bend that o through a series of notes. And Rodney was correctly exacting about that. Every time we'd go back and try it, if I was too metronomic and precise about the beat, Rodney wanted me to try and break that up a bit. Because Hank Williams was basically a blues singer, so I would have to be more rebellious with the beat and the rhythm, without being out of time. I think that was the most challenging aspect of it. "Lovesick Blues" was my own personal Everest, because it's such an extraordinary song, and what he does with it is unique.

What were your sessions with Rodney Crowell like? What was the goal?

We both began the journey without quite knowing our destination. But as we honed in on it, it became clear that my rendering of the music and the songs had to contain the same emotional commitment that Hank had made. So if they were mournful or sad, the audience had to hear and feel my sadness. And if they were infectious and energetic, then I had to have the same energy, inside what Rodney construed as possible musically. And the sessions were interesting — we would just get up in the morning and go into the studio and work at it. He was very rigorous about breaking it down.

I'm lucky I had a classical vocal training in theater, so I understand the work. When you're learning to sing, you talk about resonance and vocal tone, and breath support, and rhythm and pitch. Those things can be understood academically, but you actually have to experience those changes to understand them. They feel different, it's a different physical act. So when you change something, you can actually feel it in your body, and go, "Aha! There's more head resonance than chest resonance doing it this way." you have to be able to manipulate where sound vibrations manifest in your body. And you do that with physical awareness and breath. It's a very hard thing to deconstruct in a potted way that makes a nice sound bite, but it's fascinating work.

You've talked about entering a kind of Zen state when you were shooting action scenes in the Marvel movies, when you're doing primarily physical work. Can you get to that level of instinctive, automatic comfort in this kind of technical role?

Yes, and the only way to do that is through hours upon hours upon hours of practice. I worked so hard in preparation because I didn't want to have to think about these things when I was shooting. I wanted to be free. When you're learning how to ride a bicycle, you have to really think about. How do the handlebars work, the pedals, the brakes? It's all very conscious. You can't have a conversation with someone, you couldn't ride side-by-side. But after a while, you just get the hang of it, and you can ride with one hand on the handlebars, looking at your phone, thinking about something else. It was similar with Hank. After a while, the guitar playing, the dialect, the singing, became unconscious. Or second nature. I did feel free. I went to the Zen place, I was able to improvise and not worry whether I was going to sound like Hank if I did. You can only do that once you've done the work. It's like most things — you can only drive a car with confidence if you've spent a lot of time behind the wheel of a car. It's the same with horseback riding.

I Saw The Light

(Sony Pictures Classics)

You've talked in the past about how you put on 20 pounds of muscle to audition to play Thor, and took it off again when you got the role of Loki. You practiced capoeira for that role. Are you drawn to physically transformative roles? Is there a special appeal in them, or a special challenge?

Yes, there is a special challenge, and I think the reason I love acting is that it's a personal exploration of the multiplicity of identity. That sounds grand, but it's actually very simple. I believe that we all have so much potential, and we all contain many different people, many sides of ourselves. There's a complexity and contradiction. "Contradiction" has a negative connotation, but by playing lots of different roles, and physically transforming, it becomes an expression of my belief in dramatic art, in cinema and theater, as a unifying force. To be able to say, "I am all of these people, and yet I am none of them at the same time."

I suppose it's expressing different sides of myself. But also, I hope the stories, the characterizations, illuminate aspects of the human condition which are universal. We're all capable of courage and heroism. We've all experienced joy, we've all felt pain. And every time I go to work, that's really what I'm trying to communicate. Whether I'm playing Loki, or Hank Williams, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Coriolanus, or Henry V, or Jonathan Pine, I hope there's some expression of something that people relate to.

When you're deciding whether to take a role, do you consciously sit and think, "What is this role communicating about the diversity of the human soul?" Or is it a more subconscious reaction that phrases itself as "This looks exciting," or "I could have fun with this"?

Again, it isn't as grand as that. I believe people finish work on a Friday and go to the theater because that's the experience they want. They want to sit and be delighted or entertained or moved by representations of their lives on the screen. I want that too. I just instinctively choose things, honestly. I chose this role because it scared me, and because I love music. It's a huge inspiration. I wasn't sure if I could do this role, and I wanted to see  if I could. Maybe that's an expression of my own insanity, this relentless self-challenge.

Have you come to other roles with that level of fear?

When I was cast as Loki, that's what it was like. I was no more likely to be cast in that role than I am to be in this role. I remember seeing that role and thinking, "Well, there's an opportunity to stretch, and play, and shape-shift, and try something on."

Of course, it's different when you're playing a real person. You feel a greater duty and responsibility to be precise about certain things that are true to them. But honestly, it's always a gut feeling, "Can I do this? Do I want to?" I know I'm speaking to you in intellectual terms, but I'm just trying to break down something I genuinely believe in, which is the cultural importance of cinema. But when I'm looking at roles, it's a gut process.

With Loki, though, you've played the same character three times now. Does the sense of challenge and adventure go away?

The challenge is actually even greater, as I've tried to find new ways to make it interesting, for myself and for the audience. The challenge is always to bring something new to the table. That's the thing also in life. People don't stay the same. People grow and change. And coming back to characterizations, they also must grow and change.

Hank Williams came from a time and a culture when men didn't give much away emotionally. You can assume some of his interior landscape from his emotional songs, but artists are never just the sum of their work. How did you get into his head?

The things I found helpful were things that illuminated the contradiction in him, between this very charismatic performer and this very tortured soul. The Luke The Drifter poems. The accounts of [his backup band] The Drifting Cowboys. People like Don Helms, his steel guitarist, and Lum York, his bass player. And old friends of his, like Danny Dill and Merle Kilgore. He was a man haunted by fame. Danny Dill said something: [Southern drawl]. "Hank, all his life, he wanted to get up there on that stage and be somebody. And then he got up there and he found there weren't nothin' there." And that's tragic. He had this driving ambition to be on the Opry and be a star, and then when he became a star, it isolated him and made him more alone. And to me, that's really sad.

Do you ever worry about being in a similar position? Haunted by fame?

Ha, I knew that was coming. No, I don't, because I don't actually attach any significance to it. And I should qualify that by saying, the only thing that matters to me is the work. Other people's opinions of me are things I can't control, and that's all fame really is, is a collection of other people's opinions. I can only control who I am, and how I commit to the work, and how I am in the world. And how that's reflected or refracted through other people is their business. And I've got amazing friends and an amazing family to keep me grounded, so I don't worry about it.

I mean, I'm still learning. There are adjustments you have to make as you become more well-known. But my situation is very different from his.