Esquire, Jun 2016
… is a terribly charming young man.
Photos by Eric Ray Davidson
Also at Esquire
As soon as we sit down, in the far corner of the Four Seasons lounge in Beverly Hills, Tom Hiddleston spots my pages of questions on the table and thanks me. “Wow, I’m so honored. Thank you for going to so much trouble,” he says.
He thanks me for watching his television series and his movies and for attending that screening last week and reading all those articles in his press file, particularly the one he wrote himself for the Radio Times. When my questions are too personal for him to answer, he apologizes. Not a mumbled apology, but a full eye contact, sunken shouldered “sorry”. He’s so sorry that I’m sorry for asking. He’s also sorry that he showed up five minutes late, and that his crazy schedule means we’re stuck in this bar on a Monday evening instead of, “oh I don’t know, playing pool or going for a walk in the canyons in this lovely weather. So I totally appreciate you making the time to accommodate. Thank you.”
Manners this impeccable are rare in anyone, let alone a movie star. And combined with his polished, plummy accent, the rich timbre to his voice, and that winning smile – by turns delighted, boyish and, yes, apologetic – the effect is so extreme as to seem a parody of English charm. Only it’s not, it’s real. Every sorry and thank you is earnest. The thing about Hiddleston is he’s never just being polite.
This is what people say about him, journos and co-stars alike. That he’s a talented mimic who does a great Owen Wilson and Al Pacino. He even did Robert De Niro for Robert De Niro on Graham Norton’s couch, which takes some stones. But mostly, that he has this terrific attitude, so “earnest” and “enthusiastic”, probably the biggest words in his word cloud. And manners are not the half of it. Hiddleston brings a certain energy.
Scarlett Johansen described him as “clinically enthusiastic” on the set of Avengers. Hugh Laurie told me that on the set of The Night Manager, the bingeable spy series on the BBC, “Tom never stops running. Before work, after work, during work. And it adds hugely to the common tank of energy that a film crew runs on. Every time someone yawns, or scratches their arse, the crew leaks a little energy – Tom’s the one who tops it up.”
I can tell. For two hours, we talk about class, movies, JG Ballard and politics, and Hiddleston’s energy is unflagging. He answers every question with care and intelligence. (Laurie again: “he’s much brighter than a good-looking man ought to be.”) He quotes song lyrics and whole chunks of scripts from memory. There are beers, there are snacks, it’s all flowing wonderfully. And it’s especially impressive considering he’s come here straight from a press junket for his Hank Williams biopic, I Saw The Light – six hours of repeating the same anecdotes to a cattle call of journalists. He’d be forgiven for wanting to hit the heavy bag at this point, or to lie down in a darkened room. But instead, he’s here, clear-eyed and chipper, giving yet another journalist the best possible interview he can.
Within a few minutes in the full beam of the Hiddles, I begin to feel my own cynicism burn off like morning dew. And it becomes clear to me – the question I really need to ask here is how? How does he do it? And how can I do it too?
No doubt, there’s plenty to keep Hiddleston chirpy these days. He seems to be everywhere at once. There’s a coveted slot in the culture reserved for the plummy English gent, posh totty for the nation’s housewives. It was once the domain of Colin Firth and Hugh Grant – and now Hiddleston appears to be heir apparent. Lately he’s been busy fielding Bond rumors thanks to The Night Manager, but there are other projects in the air, each one starkly different to the next. There’s High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley’s brilliant rendering of the JG Ballard novel, which came out in March to tremendous reviews. The reviews for I Saw the Light have been less tremendous – the New York Times called it “inert” – though to be fair, they often praise Hiddleston’s part in it, his portrayal of Williams, an alcoholic country singer from Alabama in the 40s, a considerable leap for the Eton and Cambridge-educated actor. He may yet emerge from the wreckage not just unscathed, but glowing.
And for the last 88 days, he’s been travelling the world shooting Kong: Skull Island, a reboot of legend set in the 1970s. He can’t say much other than it’s a fresh take which it doesn’t end with a monkey on a building. But he can say that it was a blast to make on account of the activity weekends in Hawaii and Australia. Go-carting with Brie Larson, anyone? Admittedly, he has spent the last couple of weeks wading through a swamp in Vietnam – “and they don’t tell you about the swamp spiders and things that can get inside your wetsuit and nestle in the warm spaces” – but there’s time to heal yet. The third Thor doesn’t start shooting until June, so he has a couple of months to kick back at home in Chalk Farm, with his cat Bentley and his two sisters, one older and one younger, who live close by. And his fans, the Hiddlestoners – not to be confused with Cumberbitches (a word that Tom would rather not say out loud) – are likely sending ointments for that rash as we speak.
His north London life, he says, is remarkably normal. The Hiddlestoners may inundate him with teddy bears, but they leave him alone in public, as do the paparazzi. Hiddleston was never one to fall out of night clubs, and there’s no girlfriend to speak of either – “still single dude! Last of the Mohicans!” So Tom can go to his local Waitrose without the full parkha. He can pop into his local to watch the game without doing a bunch of selfies. And that’s exactly what he plans to do.
“I can’t wait for the European cup,” he says. “Any sports, actually. Tennis, rugby, athletics. I get so moved. When Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah won their golds, I was weeping on the sofa.” He rubs his hands together.
The waiter arrives with his Heineken, and as he pours, Tom quickly grabs the glass to tilt it.
“Otherwise we’ll have too much head,” he says.
“How much head do you want?” the waiter asks. “I’ve had plenty of practice.”
“There,” says Tom, straightening the glass. “The perfect amount of head.” And for a moment, they look at each other, Tom’s guileless, innocent face, facing a waiter who just isn’t sure whether he’s allowed to get the joke. And Tom could milk the discomfort if he wanted. He could let the waiter go, and we could laugh about it to ourselves. But Tom’s just too decent for all that. To cause discomfort, to laugh at someone else’s expense – it’s not him. So he does what he does so well. He apologizes.
“If you’ll pardon the expression,” he says, and winks.
The waiter grins. “You got it.”
Things took off rather suddenly for Hiddleston around 2010. He’d been a jobbing actor turning heads on the stage if not on film and TV. And then Thor came out. As Loki, the Norse God’s trickster nemesis, Hiddleston went global. There were two Thor movies and the Avengers, one of the biggest movies of all time. But he also worked with Spielberg in War Horse as the heroic Captain Nichols, and with Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris as Scott Fitzgerald. Hiddleston had arrived.
At home in England, however, his success was framed as part of a posh wave in British acting, at least among the boys. Hiddleston was in the year above Eddie Redmayne at Eton (and Prince William too). Benedict Cumberbatch, meanwhile, went to Harrow. That they’re all peaking at a time of vast inequality in Cameron’s Britain, might suggest a symptom of a wider problem, but in previous interviews, Hiddleston has bristled about this characterization, calling it “socially divisive”. Not any more.
“I’ve been getting more political with age,” he says having just turned 35. “I understand why people bring it up. There’s a justified anger about inequality of opportunity. People feel that spheres of influence like politics and the arts, have become the preserve of a privileged few. I do think the debate can become unnecessarily prejudicial when individuals are singled out – I’ve known Eddie since 14 and I’ve never seen anyone work so hard. But actors who didn’t come from privately educated backgrounds, like Julie Walters and David Morrissey have said, ‘if I was an actor now, I wouldn’t make it.’ The grants aren’t there. When I went to college, RADA cost 3300 pounds for three years. Now it’s 30,000. That needs to change.”
He’s too diplomatic to pick sides, red or blue. But he did make High-Rise, a scabrous satire about class in England. He was the first actor to sign up. “I could see that in its DNA, it was political, and it was time to turn my face to the wind of that,” he says. “I’m inspired by something Alan Rickman said: ‘if you want to know who I am, it’s all in the work’.”
The film is merciless about the rich who live on the upper floors of the high-rise, fretting about cocktail onions while civilization collapses all around them. Hiddleston’s character, Laing, is a physiologist, caught between the upper and lower classes who are in open conflict. “’The building is a diseased body’,” says Hiddleston, quoting from memory. “’The lights are like neurons in a brain, the elevators are like pistons in the chambers of the heart.’ He was so prescient, Ballard. The book talks about how the residents are shooting these orgiastic parties and projecting them against the wall for their neighbors. And that’s the beginning of social media. He saw it all coming.”
Certainly Hiddleston’s accent and manners might suggest he hails from the upper floors, as it were, but in fact, his story is one of middle class striving. He was never to the manor born. His grandfather was a shipyard worker in Glasgow, whose son, Tom’s father, went onto run his own biotech company in Oxford in the 90s. Tom’s mother Diane was an arts administrator, and between them they decided to give their children the best education possible, even as their marriage was falling apart. Tom was sent to Eton at 13, in the year of their divorce. In the emotional tumult that followed, he sought sanctuary in the drama department.
“As a teenager you’re developing these more sophisticated feelings and attitudes about the world, but you don’t have the language to express them,” he says. “Plays gave me the articulacy to express what I was thinking.”
The divorce made him “more compassionate”, he says, but he won’t elaborate. It’s difficult territory. “My family is so beyond it all now, I’m sorry dude,” he says. And he really is. “But also, I don’t want to mythologize the narrative either. Events in anyone’s life become these coathangers on which you can hang your identity, and I’m wary of reinforcing the infrastructure of those things. It’s only retrospectively that you join the dots up. Life is so much more accidental than any of us like to imagine.”
Here’s an accident that shaped his life, for example. In the first year of his classics degree at Cambridge, he starred in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He played Mitch – not the Brando character, but the Karl Malden character who was going through a mid-life crisis. Though he was a first year, the rest of the cast were about to graduate, so they invited agents along, and the following week, Hiddleston got a call – would he like a part on an ITV production of Nicholas Nickelby?
“I got my agent, Lorraine Hamilton, who also represented Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson and Tilda Swinton, a whole slew of Cambridge actors. And I wonder – if I hadn’t been spotted in that production would I have had the courage to be an actor? I don’t know. All I know is that having an agent when I left college meant I was definitely going to try. And I had saved enough money from my acting jobs to pay my way through RADA.”
Life isn’t planned, that’s what he’s telling me. Years later, in 2008, there was another major milestone in his career, again built on chance. He’d been offered a play in London where he was enjoying a steady stream of theatrical work, but he turned it down to come to LA on a whim. He was curious. “I thought I might not do this forever, so I want to have a little walk around the horizon so that I’ve seen all the little pockets of it,” he says, walking his fingers around the table. “It was the best thing I could have done. Even though I turned down employment for unemployment, earning money for spending it, and every job I auditioned for I didn’t get. All except one. Right at the end, I auditioned for Thor. Massive gamechanger.”
We know what happened next: He came, he Thor, he conquered. And the moral of the story is..? “When people say, ‘I shouldn’t say yes to that opportunity because I’ve made all these plans,’ what if you don’t attach so much significance to it and just turn up? Many of the most interesting things in my life have come about because I’ve said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.’”
He may be on the precipice of an adventure right now, of course – the whole Bond business. It’s time we addressed it. Everyone else is. “No no of course,” he says. “It’s one of our favorite national conversations. It’s up there with ‘when is the England national side going to live up to its potential?’ and ‘who’s going to win X Factor?’…”
This is the schtick he trots out on chat shows. It’s his way of talking about it without talking about it. But however much he downplays his chances, the fact is, he’s a serious contender. Of course he is – he’s spent the last year as Jonathan Pine on The Night Manager, effectively auditioning for the role.
“It is similar,” says Hiddleston. “He’s a British spy, with a military history, he’s a solitary figure, heroic, he’s in a tight spot…”
There’s a Moneypenny. He wears suits. He beds blondes.
So – would your Bond be like Pine?
“I can’t, I… It’s very flattering but…” This always happens. He has no choice, really. He tells me how “sensational” Daniel Craig is, how his favorite movie is From Russia With Love. But he can’t wait to skip off the topic to something more meta, less personal. In fact, he’d sooner talk about why Bond is such a national obsession. “I think it’s because he represents an archetype,” he says. “There’s this idea of British strength which doesn’t draw attention to itself, but gets the job done. That’s our brand. We know it’s inelegant to blow your own trumpet and impolite to show how much you care, and yet we expect you to win! You don’t find it in France or Spain. Captain America is dressed in the American flag – the heroism is so much more overt. But Bond is debonair, detached, good humored, well mannered, efficient, charming…”
And with every adjective it’s hard not to notice just how well they all apply to him. One might argue that after Daniel Craig’s brawny Bond, Hiddleston would seem a bit boyish and slim-shouldered. A preppy Bond with the body of a salsa dancer. Perhaps it’s time. But the core duality of 007 – suave and deadly – is firmly in Hiddleston’s wheelhouse. He does well with characters who present a charming front but conceal a darker, more complex interior. There’s Jonathan Pine, of course. And Laing in High-Rise – a dapper scientist who ends up killing and eating a dog. In Crimson Peak, by director Guillermo Del Toro, Hiddleston’s character Thomas Sharpe is a dashing baronet who turns out to be a murderer.
“I’m fascinated by characters like that,” he says. “Because it’s so universal. We put our best foot forward and we’re optimistic and engaging, but that often masks a more turbulent private life. I think that’s true of everyone that I’ve ever met.”
And you too?
“Absolutely. It’s what makes people interesting, that tension. We’re all frail, as Angelo says in Measure for Measure. We are all consistently inconsistent.”
To illustrate life’s frailty and its accidental nature – something of a theme, this evening – he tells me about the time he saw a guy get chopped up on a slab. He was preparing for a scene in High-Rise where Laing cuts open a man’s skull. So naturally, Hiddleston did his homework. He’s known for taking his research seriously, a vestige from Eton. For Thor, he learned capoeira. For The Night Manager, he shadowed a night manager. And for I Saw The Light, In order to achieve the gaunt frame of Hank Williams, his co-star Elizabeth Olsen says “he ran ten miles and cycled 25 miles a day, and all he ate was peanuts and salad.”
So it surprised no one when Hiddleston contacted a forensic pathologist in Nottingham and watched him perform a full autopsy. The body belonged to a young boxer who’d died in the ring. His brain was removed, the full nine. “It was a very, very tough experience,” he says. But the reason he brings it up is something the pathologist told him afterwards. “He said the symptoms of behavioral dysfunction cannot be physically found in the brain. So if you’re depressed or a schizophrenic or whatever, you can’t open up the brain and see it. It’s all just chemicals and nurture. Isn’t that fascinating?”
What’s fascinating for me is Hiddleston’s enthusiasm for this fact, for his job and for life in general. I’d happily look inside his brain, if it would show me where that enthusiasm comes from, that inassailable positivity. It’s easy to assume, as some have, that it gushes from an endless well, that he’s just built that way, happier than thou, and success has come rather easily. But it’s about as true as his alleged silver spoon upbringing.
“Enthusiasm can be dismissed as rather Tiggerish,” says Kenneth Branagh. “And Tom isn’t that at all. He’s passionate – about ideas and art – and actually I think it’s a blessing that he’s not cursed with that kind of enforced sense of ‘cool’ that requires him to be a bit underimpressed, almost as a badge of honor.”
Branagh is a long time friend of Hiddleston’s – he hired him on his detective series Wallander, then in a Chekhov play, and ultimately on Thor which Branagh directed. And along the way, he has witnessed some cracks in the armor. During Thor, Branagh recalls the young actor as “a bit scared and vulnerable, and at times pretty lonely. I think he withstood isolation pangs that might have thrown some people. But what I admire about Tom is, he’s not trying to present the idea that a tortured individual lives alongside this gilded youth. He has a lot of the personal challenges that most people have, but he doesn’t look for sympathy by trying to convince people that there’s trouble in the kingdom.”
When I ask Tom where the shade might be in a life that seems to exude sunshine, all he says is that he has scars like anyone else, which he regretfully can’t talk about. Partly because he’s been working with UNICEF lately, to make a documentary about rehabilitating child soldiers in Sudan. “So really, who gives a shit about my middle class woes!”
But there are clues. In the novel of The Night Manager, Pine is described – as Hiddleston quotes – “a perpetual escapee from emotional entanglement, a collector of other people’s languages, a self-exiled creature of the night, and a sailor without a destination.’ I read that to my sisters and they said, ‘it’s you!’”
And on the set of the Avengers, Hiddleston asked Mark Ruffalo the same kind of question I’m asking him now. “I said to him, ‘you have such a sunny disposition!’ And he does. He’s such a nice man, the rumors are true. And he said, ‘the bigger the front, the bigger the back man!’ And he gave me this look like, ‘you know what I mean.’ And I think that’s true of me too.”
The truth about Hiddleston’s bushy-tailed enthusiasm is that it’s neither forced nor easy. “It’s a choice,” he says. “Not a natural disposition.” It’s how he sees the world. Branagh sees it as a piece of “Tom’s intuition about the brevity of time on this planet and the responsibility to relish every moment.” But also as an aspect of his respect for other people, even journalists on junkets. “He’s a generous spirit,” says Elizabeth Olsen. “As an actor, he always says, ‘ you don’t think about yourself. You think about who’s in front of you. You’re trying to get them to respond.’ He’s a deeply kind person.”
“Here’s what I’ll say,” Hiddleston tells me, as another round of beers arrive. “I believe that nothing is certain and fixed, so you have to make the best efforts to treasure things, and not fall into the trap of letting things be destroyed. Because they can be.”
Bond could do worse.