With film and stage roles falling into his lap straight from Rada, Tom Hiddleston has become the name to watch. By Ajesh Patalay
Acontemporary of Tom Hiddleston’s at Rada describes him as ‘very talented, very charming, aristocratic hair’. And so he proves. At 27, Hiddleston is one of our most exciting young actors, particularly for his stage work. 'Remember that name,’ urged one critic, following Hiddleston’s dual role as Cloten and Posthumus in Cheek by Jowl’s production of Cymbeline last year. 'One day that lad is going to be a star, and deservedly so.’ For his Cassio in the Donmar Warehouse production of Othello last November, in which he starred opposite Ewan McGregor and Chiwetel Ejiofor, he was deemed 'first-rate’ and 'a name to watch’.
'It was pressure,’ Hiddleston admits, 'but you felt everyone just wanted to make it work. You raise your game.’ Both plays earned him nominations for the Olivier Award for Best Newcomer. He won for Cymbeline. 'In one sense that meant every-thing. I felt like I had been invited to the party.’
Next Hiddleston is starring alongside Kenneth Branagh in a new Donmar West End production of Chekhov’s Ivanov, adapted by Tom Stoppard. 'I could listen to him all day,’ Hiddleston raves about the playwright when we meet a week into rehearsals at a restaurant in Waterloo. 'He’s so knowledgeable and articulate, it’s quite special to have him in the room.’
Hiddleston himself proves bright, eloquent, easy company; and today sports a glowing tan (from two weeks spent visiting his sister in India) plus a goatee beard, which he has grown for his role as Lvov, the self-righteous doctor in Ivanov.
'Tom has a number of things that come very naturally to him,’ Michael Grandage, the director of Othello and Ivanov, says. 'His height, his look, how he carries himself. Plus he has an exceptional ear for making language that is 450 years old sound alive, which is why I cast him in Othello. The reason he is in Ivanov is that I enjoyed working with him so much and found to my delight how astonishingly versatile he is.’
Hiddleston wanted to act from an early age, but wasn’t always confident about making it his profession. 'It seemed too mysterious and precarious a life to commit to.’ There were no actors in the family (his mother is a stage manager, his father a physical chemist) and although he acted at prep school in Oxford and then at Eton (the first in his family to go), it wasn’t until he reached Cambridge, to read classics, that he changed his mind.
In his first term he was spotted by a casting agent in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which led to a role in an ITV production of Nicholas Nickleby and to his securing an agent. 'It seemed a ridiculous thing to be given when so many people at Cambridge were struggling to get an agent. At that point I allowed myself to want to be an actor as much as I think I’d always wanted to be.’
Still at Cambridge, he landed roles in Conspiracy, a BBC/HBO co-production, starring Branagh, about the Wannsee conference (a 1942 meeting of top-level Nazis in 1942 that resulted in the Final Solution), and the Winston Churchill biopic The Gathering Storm opposite Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave. Then, having graduated with a double first, he set off for Rada.
'I thought theatre people wouldn’t see me if I hadn’t trained. I didn’t want to just be the Brideshead guy, to spend the rest of my life wearing waistcoats.’ He relished the experience. 'I got the chance to try everything. Not just Romeos, but pimps and grandfathers and even one role as a woman in a Naomi Wallace play called Slaughter City.’
In 2005, fresh from Rada, he was cast in his first film, a British independent called Unrelated, directed by Joanna Hogg, which won an inter-national critics’ award at this year’s London Film Festival and is released next month. In it Hiddleston plays an 'irresponsible, devil-may-care’ 19-year-old whose 'way of interacting with the world is to flirt with it’.
As for Ivanov, it is as much a reunion with Branagh as it is with Grandage. The two actors have just spent 12 weeks in Sweden filming a television series called Wallander based on the detective novels of Henning Mankell. 'Ken is calling it his Hiddleston year,’ Hiddleston says.
For the future, who knows? Hiddleston hopes perhaps for more films. He has been to LA once, he says, but they didn’t know what to make of his wildly diverse tastes: Judd Apatow (the producer of Knocked Up) and Ibsen in the same breath. But for now, it’s all eyes on Ivanov. His evident focus recalls something Grandage says: 'He is clearly one of our younger actors who is going places. But in his head he seems to be taking everything at a good pace. That’s what I love about him.’