Before we’d even sat down to chat with Tom Hiddleston, he had us pegged. As soon as he heard the words ‘Den of Geek’, he beamed and joked, “I’m armed. I have so many filters. No spoilers here!”
Well, wouldn’t you, faced with one of the stars of the upcoming Marvel supergroup blockbuster The Avengers, squeeze in at least one question?
It turns out that Hiddleston was more than happy to chat about the preparation for The Avengers, and the subtle changes made to his character, Loki, under Joss Whedon’s direction. However, there were plenty of other things to chat about, not least Hiddleston’s rather rapid rise to fame over the last eighteen months, and his current peak, working with Steven Spielberg on his equine epic War Horse.
You seemed to come out of nowhere. Archipelago was at the London Film Festival at the back end of 2010, and then in 2011 you were in Thor, The Deep Blue Sea, Midnight In Paris, and now you’re starting this year with War Horse. How did this all come about?
It’s so weird. I’ve lost track of it myself. I went to drama school, and I left in 2005. And I made Joanna Hogg’s first film, Unrelated – it was my first job. Then I went into the theatre for about four years. I did lots of Shakespeare and some Chekhov. And Kenneth Branagh came to see Othello at the Donmar Warehouse, and then I did Ivanov with Ken. And Unrelated opened at the same time as Ivanov.
Lots of people were coming to see Ken in the show. And it was a double introduction to people who were in the film industry, because they were [also] coming to see Ewan MacGregor in Othello, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky. Ken and I really enjoy working together. Archipelago came about because of my previous relationship with Joanna, and the fact that we’d wanted to work together again. So I went off to do Archipelago, but at the same time I’d already been cast in Thor. And I really credit Ken with more than I can really articulate, because it’s a tough business, and there are so many people in it, and it’s very, very competitive, and Ken was the first person who was brave enough to say that I could be trusted with a big movie.
A film like Thor costs $150 million, and studios are careful about who they pick. And I’ll always, always, forever be in my debt to him for that. It was a massive, massive break he gave me. And then it rolled from there. I met Woody and Steven and Terence, and here I am sitting in front of you.
And in the process you’ve worked with directors who actors go their whole careers wanting to work with.
Yeah! I’m really stunned. You ask me that question, and I find myself telling the story, and I can’t quite believe it myself. It’s weird!
And I guess Steven Spielberg is near the top of anyone’s list.
Right at the top, I think. I grew up watching E.T., Indiana Jones, Jaws… I remember being 12 years old, on the opening Friday of Jurassic Park, and I needed to go to the loo so badly in the middle of the T Rex sequence, when they’re all stuck under those yellow cars in the rain, but I couldn’t, because there was a Tyrannosaurus Rex on screen! I was completely gripped. And my dreams to be an actor were formed in no small part by Spielberg. And then later that gets developed, and you go to the theatre, and you started learning about Shakespeare, and I became interested in foreign cinema.
Your taste broadens and disseminates. But still, he was at the top of the list. As an eight-year-old, I wanted to be Indiana Jones: a man, in a hat, on a horse, with John Williams playing the theme tune. And, suddenly I’m in a hat, on a horse, and John Williams is playing the theme tune! I believe the phase is living the dream.
Did working with Spielberg on the set live up to the dream?
Do you know, it exceeded it, because I wasn’t prepared for his humility. The thing is, all this sounds so pat, that Steven Spielberg’s a really great guy. [But] he’s a really extraordinary man, because to be at his level, and to have his stature and his power, and his experience… he’s so kind and generous and inclusive and collaborative and yielding. He makes you feel like you’re such an important part of the creative process. You’re never part of some Spielberg factory – it’s an artform for him.
He’s still curious, he’s still digging around in his experience of the world, and trying to get to the truth, or tell stories that he finds moving and exciting. And then, of course, on set, he’s an absolute master. And his ability to tell a story visually, that’s his gift. I was saying that some people are gifted with being able to run fast, some people are brilliant cooks, some people can speak five languages – and Steven’s gift is he can understand stories. It’s just in him. It’s a very unique ability he has.
That must be what keeps his filmmaking fresh, even though he’s moving into his later years.
Yeah. I think he can’t tell a story unless he cares about it, and he’s gone on record saying that. And War Horse is very much like that. I remember all of his crew – he’s got this faithful 20 or 30 people who’ve always worked with him in the camera department, sound department, hair and make-up – they were all saying, “This is the very best Steven Spielberg you’ll ever meet, he cares so much about this film, it’s such a personal project for him.” And that’s quite moving, in a way, because his name’s become associated with such an enormous, global brand, and people tend to forget that there’s a man behind that name, with a particular heartbeat, with a particular taste.
You’ve now worked both sides of the Atlantic, working at all levels of budget, and you must be learning so much working on all these different kinds of films. The Avengers is up next, and that’s the first film where you’re playing the same character a second time around. But not only that, you’re also doing that under a different director than in Thor. What was that experience like?
It was really interesting, because it’s very collegiate at Marvel. Kevin Feige, who’s the brilliant president of the studio, he’s the head of the whole thing. And each character has been taken possession of by different directors. So Iron Man was inhabited by both Mr Downey Jr and Jon Favreau; and Thor was given the Kenneth Branagh heartbeat and the shape and character of the magnificent Chris Hemsworth; and then Captain America with Joe Johnston and Chris Evans.
And Ken and Jon and Joe all swapped information, and Joss was brought on at a very early point on Avengers, and Ken showed him Thor, I think. They just sat down and watched it together, because Joss had asked, “Can I watch the film before I start writing, I just want to see what you’ve done with Thor and Loki”. And Joss really loved what Ken had done, and what we’d all done together.
And so we took that as a template, but then understood that, of course, in the Avengers, all those characters, not just Thor and Loki, but Iron Man, Captain America, The Hulk, Black Widow, Clint Barton, Nick Fury, they have to move forward and evolve into something else.
And that was just a real privilege. It’s like meeting an old friend after years of not having seen them. Coming back to play Loki, having played F Scott Fitzgerald, Captain Nicholls and Freddie Page in the interim, it was like meeting an old friend. But also, having the confidence that I’d already spent six months inhabiting him. I’d already built the house, I just had to move back in, and redecorate. And the thrill of changing him… I remember saying, “Let’s make his hair longer”.
Working with Alexandra Byrne, who was the costume designer again, saying let’s take the regality of the lost prince of Asgard, and make him a damaged pirate, so there’s evidence of some kind of experience beyond what happens at the end of Thor. And then talking with Joss about his evolved psychology and how, in the space between the end of Thor and the beginning of The Avengers, Loki has gone through a whole bunch of stuff which will register on his mind and on his body and will change who he has to become. It’s really exciting!
Here’s a fun, odd question… about Classics, as you read Classics at university. The Classical world both historically and mythologically is full of great stories and great characters. Do you harbour any secret ambitions to play a particular character from that canon?
Oh my god, that’s a great question, man! Wow. Gosh. I’d need about three hours to go back and look at my notes. My two favourite characters, I think, are Odysseus from the Odyssey and Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and song.
Odysseus is, I think, the greatest hero in any story, because he spends ten years in Troy, and then it takes him another ten years to get home. And when he gets back, of all the Greeks who fought in Troy, he’s the only one whose wife is still faithful, Penelope. And the journey, just the journey of it! I remember someone told me the story of the Odyssey in a picture book at age seven, and those monsters, the Cyclops!
The fact that Odysseus’ men are told not to eat the cattle on this island, because they belong to the sun, but they’re so hungry that they eat the cattle of the sun, and then they’re punished by the Cyclops. Or the sea god, Poseidon, has this massive vendetta against Odysseus, and doesn’t want him to get home.
Or King Aeolus, who had all of the adverse winds in his command. He loved Odysseus, he thought he was a good guy. He said, “I’m going to help you get home. I’m going to give you a bag, and inside this bag are all the adverse winds, which means that you’ll have a favorable passage back to Ithaca, and you’ll be home in three days. Don’t tell your men, and don’t open it, and don’t sleep.”
So they sail for three days, and on the morning of the third day, as the sun’s coming up, he sees the shores of Ithaca, only five hours’ sail away. And he’s so happy, that he sits down at the prow of his ship, and with tears in his eyes and the sun on his face, he falls asleep.
His men on the ship think that he’s got a bag of money that he’s not going to share, and they’re whispering between themselves, saying, “Look, Odysseus has clearly got this bag of money and loot, and he’s not going to share it out, let’s nab it before he wakes up”. So they take the bag, and they open it, and all the adverse winds blow around the sky and blow them all the way back to where they started.
The moral of the story is, be careful at the finish line. It ain’t over, ‘til it’s over. This is one of the great metaphors. If you’re undertaking a job, whether it’s cleaning a kitchen or finishing a movie, or writing a book, or going to the gym, or running a race, be careful at the finish line.
And you’ve got Scylla and Charybdis, and Calypso, this crazy witch who falls in love with Odysseus and keeps him on her island for two years… I could just go on with that story, I think it’s amazing.
And then Dionysus would be great, because I think that Dionysus is such an interesting character, because he’s the god of so many things. In Athens, one of the very first theatres, the formal theatres of performing arts in Western civilisation was a festival in Athens called the City Dionysia, which was dedicated to him. And they had this competition, it was a bit like the X Factor. All these playwrights came together and competed for who had the best play. And they were dedicated to Dionysus, and Dionysus was… I guess he was the god of performing. Without him, there’d be no actors.
Mr Hiddleston, thank you very much!
War Horse is out now.