a drama starring gemma arterton and chris evans as a problematic couple struggling to make the ends meet. as his drug addiction forces her to put money on the table by taking her clothes off, it all crumbles down after one is forced to kill.
From a suave spy in the latest John le Carré to an alcoholic country star in the new Hank Williams biopic, Tom Hiddleston is set to have the year of his life. Elizabeth Day finds him utterly charming – even in an argument. Photographs: Daniel Stier
Tom Hiddleston and I are having an argument. It is about who followed who on Twitter first. Hiddleston is insisting I followed him. I didn’t. And for some reason, this is important to clarify. What happened, I explain, is that I woke up this morning and checked my phone and there was a notification saying you had followed me. So I thought it only polite to return the favour. And then I got hounded by several thousand Tom Hiddleston fan accounts, all of which told me how lucky I was.
He shakes his head politely.
“I just woke up and the first thing my phone told me was that you followed me,” Hiddleston says, leaning back in his chair. We are in Côte Brasserie in Hampstead, north London, just up the road from where he lives. He is wearing a grey T-shirt, the hem of each sleeve perfectly bisecting his biceps. The muscles are evident but not overwhelming. They are, like the rest of him, scrupulously amiable and unwilling to announce themselves with too much fanfare.
“This is a ridiculous conversation,” he says. “But it’s fine, by the way. I mean, you were doing your homework.”
And just like that, he wins the argument so effortlessly I almost don’t realise it’s happened. But perhaps that’s what Eton and a double first in classics from Cambridge does for you. It teaches you the ability to charm someone into submission without them noticing they’ve lost ground.
Perhaps it’s also why, in the BBC’s forthcoming six-part spy thriller The Night Manager, adapted from the eponymous John le Carré novel, Hiddleston puts in such an exceptional performance as the suave Jonathan Pine. Pine is a former soldier turned night manager of luxury hotels who goes undercover for the British intelligence services to infiltrate a criminal arms-dealing enterprise. Hiddleston stars opposite an impressive roster of British talent, including Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander. To prepare for the role, he shadowed the night manager of the five-star Rosewood Hotel in London.
“I found the performance fascinating,” he says now. “The manager had impeccable courtesy. If somebody asks where the bar is, you say: ‘Allow me to escort you.’ It’s about making every guest feel looked after.”
I can’t imagine it was too much of a stretch. Over the next hour our conversation covers Platonic philosophy, Graham Greene and Bob Dylan. At one point I say he has a titanic brain.
“Which means it goes down,” he bats back. “There are no survivors.”
Hiddleston, 34, is solicitous company. He admits that, in preparation for this interview, he bought my first novel and is 100 pages in. But then he is known for due diligence. To prepare for his break-out film role as Loki in the 2011 Marvel Studios film Thor, he trained in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. When he took on Coriolanus in a critically acclaimed production at the Donmar in 2014, he would listen to Holst’s The Planets to get himself in the right mood and run up and down the theatre’s fire escape before going onstage.
In I Saw the Light, which is released in March, Hiddleston stars as the American country singer Hank Williams, who died of heart failure at the age of 29. Before filming started Hiddleston embarked on a gruelling diet and exercise regime to lose the requisite weight, spent two hours a day with a dialect coach to master the Southern accent and learned to mimic Williams’s singing voice with such accuracy that he was able to perform “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in front of 1,500 people at a Michigan country music festival.
Rodney Crowell, the Grammy award-winning country star who coached Hiddleston through it, commented afterwards: “I’m as respectful of the man’s work ethic as I’m mystified by his trans-formational skills.”
Hiddleston says he is “very” proud of the film. “I mean, that sounds arrogant. I’m just proud to be in such a…” He breaks off. “It was so far away from me; it was really not my life experience at all.”
Performing onstage in Michigan was “absolutely terrifying” but you wouldn’t know it to look at the YouTube clip. He seems calm and confident: the essence of self-possession. What happens when he gets nervous?
Hiddleston smiles. “I think I may have played the song a little fast. My inner tempo accelerates.”
That tension between the frantic inner tempo beating hard underneath an unruffled exterior is, I think, what makes him such a compelling actor. Onscreen or onstage his smoothness hints at psychopathy, an elegance that masks villainous intent.
“I suppose I’m fascinated by the private vulnerability and the exterior of people,” he says. “I think that’s an essential truth. I sort of quite like trying to find what makes people tick behind the construction of their identity.”
It seems to be working for well for him. After a childhood in London and Oxford, he was sent to boarding school at the age of seven and then went to Eton. A lot of actors these days seem to have gone to Eton, I say. Does he ever worry that…
“There are so many successful actors who didn’t go there,” he interrupts. No, I say, they went to Harrow.
“Like Michael Fassbender and Daniel Craig and Domhnall Gleeson and Luke Evans and Gemma Arterton and Andrea Riseborough,” he continues, ignoring me. “There’s so many, the list goes on and on and on. Idris Elba.”
He says he finds the current debate about the number of middle-class actors in the profession divisive. “It’s socially divisive in a way it shouldn’t be, because I think wherever you are from you should be able to follow your passion. Wherever you went to school, if you have something authentic to contribute, you should be allowed to. There is an acknowledged problem of access and inequality of opportunity – I don’t know how to remedy that. But yeah, I’m on everyone’s side; I’m on the side of the actors. I’m not there to divide the world into pieces.”
From Eton he got a place at Pembroke College, Cambridge, before studying at Rada. He graduated in 2005 and went straight into his first film role in Unrelated, directed by Joanna Hogg, who later cast him in Archipelago. Numerous television credits followed before Thor came along. From there Hiddleston has starred in everything from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris to Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (he has a special affinity with soldiers and feels “a sense of responsibility and a duty to their bravery and courage”) and Guillermo del Toro’s gothic horror Crimson Peak. Later this year he takes the lead in Ben Wheatley’s hotly anticipated High-Rise, adapted from the novel by JG Ballard. Despite his stated curiosity for understanding what makes other people tick, Hiddleston is not particularly good at turning his attention inward.
What was he like as a child? He looks down, shifts in his seat. “I think intermittently quiet and playful.”
Did that change when you went to boarding school?
“It must have done. I mean, this is not exceptional. I was very vulnerable when I first went. I went to boarding school when I was seven and then I sort of learned how to deal with it. So I must have somehow got more independent through that experience. I don’t think it was… I’ve never sort of had analysis about this or anything, so I have no idea, but… You just kind of move on. It wasn’t damaging, but I’m sure it made me independent. It must have had some…” he drifts off.
Later he’ll apologise for vagueness over the matter. He wants to be truthful, he says, but it’s “difficult, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s so hard to unpack.”
He looks up plaintively. “Am I making any sense? Am I being extremely worthy and self-regarding? I hope not.”
His parents, Diana, a former arts administrator, and James, a physical chemist, divorced when Hiddleston was a teenager. The experience was clearly painful but, he says, made him “more compassionate”. He is the middle child, with a sister either side. His younger sibling, Emma, is also an actor. The eldest, Sarah, is a journalist. Sensible woman, I say. He grins: “The most sensible.”
He has a four-year-old niece, and when he talks about her the tone lightens and he seems less anxious that I might be trying to psychoanalyse him.
“I’m called ‘Uncle Yay Monster’ because when we run, she basically wants to run as fast as me but she can’t, so after a while I just pick her up and she screams: ‘Yay!’ It’s exhausting, but enormous fun.”
And there is a lighter side to Hiddleston. I know this because if you search for “Tom Hiddleston dancing” on Google, a plethora of videos will pop up showing him busting his moves on various chat shows around the world. Watching him, it strikes me that Hiddleston approaches his dancing with the same intense commitment he approaches his acting. There is a total immersion in the moment, even if that moment consists of doing the running man in front of a Korean chat-show host for no reason other than having been asked to do so and being too polite to say no.
“God, it’s so embarrassing,” he says. It all started a few years ago in Korea. “It was a big public Q&A, there were 7,000 people there, and I was taking questions from the audience. Somebody asked: ‘Of what body part are you most proud?’ That’s just a wrong question, to which there are only wrong answers. So I said: ‘My feet’ and they said: ‘Why?’ and I said: ‘Without my feet, I couldn’t run and I couldn’t dance.’ And they said: ‘Well, now we have to see you dance.’ So I danced… And I created a monster. There we go.”
He created a monster. But, as with everything, he did so with charm. Later I go to the loo and when I return I find he has paid the bill for our drinks and dinner without my knowing. Still, he definitely followed me first on Twitter.