The British actor joins up with director Jim Jarmusch and actor Anton Yelchin to talk about their very un-Twilight movie Only Lovers Left Alive, and why he fell in love with Detroit.
TORONTO — Fun fact: Tom Hiddleston can recite Hamlet on demand.
The formally-trained British actor, 32, has long been enthralled — and in the debt of — Shakespeare. Yes, he recently starred in The Hollow Crown, a production that stitches together four Bard-penned plays for PBS, but he’ll also tell you that he reached deep into The Globe Theater’s greatest hits to inform his performance as the evil god Loki of the Marvel universe; and, he borrowed just as heavily when shaping the character of Adam, a brilliant romantic poet and musician that is suffering through eternity as a vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s new film, Only Lovers Left Alive.
The film, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, is a pitch black comedy that centers on Hiddleston’s Adam — a dark, tortured, and morosely funny blend of Lord Byron and early British goth rockers — and Tilda Swinton’s Eve, a brilliant and sunny vampire who is his devoted, long-distance lover. Twilight, it is not; they drink real human blood and find their angst in the centuries of human potential they’ve seen wasted.
“Hamlet was a big inspiration because he is a doubtful, melancholic, sad sort,” Hiddleston said. “It’s amazing; when I was filling myself up with Adam, I went back and read Hamlet, and so much of Shakespeare’s poetry seemed to speak to me in a way I’d never reconsidered… All of his plays are a constant source of inspiration for me.”
And then, he provided proof, reciting a series of lines from the play that he found particularly helpful and had at the ready to plug into scenes upon Jarmusch’s request.
“How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world!” Hiddleston began, suddenly finding himself in the midst of an impromptu and understated private performance, firing out two more lines as if from muscle memory. “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” he whispered, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.”
It was impressive; its spontaneity made it almost entrancing.
Hiddleston laughed when asked if he had all of Hamlet memorized; Jarmusch deadpanned that he had “only half” committed to memory, which made the actor a tad bashful.
Adam lives in Detroit, a semi-abandoned city portrayed as a haunted, almost magical graveyard, with a local rocker named Ian (Anton Yelchin) his only friend. He puts out music anonymously online — the world’s few remaining vampires must keep their identities secret — and communes with the famous playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who the movie posits wrote all of Shakespeare’s work.
Yes, Only Lovers Left Alive freely riffs on a well of deeply-considered topics, and in a sit down interview with BuzzFeed on Friday, Hiddleston, Jarmusch, and co-star Anton Yelchin continued that conversation. A potpourri of discussion about classic texts to garage rock to the ghost town of Detroit, the three interviewees found transitions and seams of interest in every word.
There’s been a lot of vampire movies the last few years, and this kind of takes back the genre.
TH: Thanks, that’s lovely of you to say that. I don’t know how this came to be, but when it came to me, it came to me after I’d met Jim. I met him in New York and we sat down and had a cup of tea and he said, “I want to make a film about love, and at the center of it, there’s a man and a woman and they’re refined and sensitive and creative and literate and intelligent and they’re outsiders and they’re in love with each other. They’re the sun and the moon, they’re yin and yang. He’s very dark and she’s very light… Oh, by the way, they’re vampires.”
The vampire thing was his framing of the love story. The vampire framing allows his characters to be immortal, so you can extend this concept, you can suddenly ask the question: If you live forever, what does that do to your commitment?
Were you nervous about making one given how many have been out?
JJ: No, not at all. First of all, this idea was seven years in the making, so it predates Twilight and that stuff, which I haven’t seen — but I’m all for it, because I like the genre. But our film isn’t really a vampire film. It’s a love story with some vampires in it. It’s not a horror film, like, Oh my god!
What made you reach out to these two guys?
JJ: They work cheap [laughter all around]. All you had to do was feed them bananas.
TH: It’s true.
JJ: No, they’re fantastic. Are you kidding? This is like a dream to me. Not only the cast to work with, but they’re such damn nice people, it was such a pleasure. If they were assholes, I’d still want to work with them because they’re fantastic, what they do. And then the good news is, they’re the exact opposite of assholes! It was like being in heaven.
Tom, you’re really the ultimate goth rocker in this movie because you’re actually undead. Did you model the character or look after anyone?
JJ: Well a little Syd Barrett in there.
TH: A little Syd Barrett, yeah.
JJ: Hamlet in there, whatever he might look like. Little things that Tom brought, Tom was very instrumental in his wardrobe. We all collaborated on it with our designer, but Tom had to, he had to okay with all these things. I wanted them to look a certain way, I did have a kind of hair fetish.
TH: We wanted them to look like animals. They had this feral beauty to them, they didn’t look like they were humans. They had hair that might be the hide of a wolf.
JJ: And not Ian, because he’s not a vampire. But Adam, Eve, Ava and Marlowe, their wigs were made up of a mixture of human hair and yak and goat hair mixed in. We wanted it to look not quite human; a little wild and a little strange.
TH: Also with Adam, there was this idea that whenever he was turned into a vampire, it was around the very kind of peak the Romantic movement, that somehow that Byronic — the idea of the Romantic poet, being consumed by it, it was almost like rock n’ roll before rock n’ roll. That’s Adam, the dark, dark spirit.
Do you see yourself in that?
TH: We contain multitudes. If I’m a piano keyboard, those are my black keys, I guess.
How would you spend your time if you had to live forever? It’s almost a punishment.
TH: Or a blessing, if you’re Eve, who takes the long view and rejoices in the small things. My favorite line in the film is one of hers, when she says, “Life is about surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship, and balancing.”
JJ: Which she wrote, by the way.
Did you get dialogue input yourselves?
JJ: Oh, always. But I asked them specifically for that scene, where they have this argument or whatever, a conflict. I ask them to write their own speeches and I asked them to make them as long as they wanted and they made them quite long and then we edited them as we shot, and then I edited them down more. But that was the procedure; they wrote those things, and Tom, that’s his line about the zombies being afraid of their own imaginations.
TH: That’s a true statement about the world. From Adam’s perspective, the reason he gets sad is because the human race is so afraid of its imagination.
JJ: There’s a lot of beautiful things that they wrote, it’ll be in the outtakes, where Anton wrote this part about all the bands from Detroit, from The White Stripes-Dirtbombs period, and he jumps up and is all excited about, “It’s gonna come back! Just think of all those bands.” But there are things in the film that he brought, of course; I don’t even know what was written when, and it’s not important. Because filming is about gathering the material that then you’ll make a film out of.
Any lines you were especially proud of?
TH: Sometimes just saying “Fuck” at the right time.
Anton, we don’t know much about Ian. What did you do to figure out the character, for yourself?
AY: I ended up hanging out with a bunch of guys in Detroit that I met at a barbecue. I saw this band, Danny and the Darleans play, and Danny is in the Gories, and I met this one guy named Scott Dunkerly, who I’m really indebted to. Just because the things he talked about, how he felt about Detroit, how he felt about his time and place in Detroit, the fact that he was living in a city that everyone was saying was dying, and he felt that was no way to live and that he felt you can’t live in a city and say it’s dying, you have to bring life to it.
And it made me realize why Ian loves Adam so much, because he’s his light in his life. He meets this man and he’ll do anything for him, because he convinces him that there is something going on, and I felt like it was just incredible that I got to meet Scott and talk with him for a while. He put out a record — he felt all the garage rock in Detroit, people just talk about The White Stripes and that was it, it’s done. So when he was in high school he collected all these bands that he knew. He gave us copies of the record, it’s awesome. In his van he had these CDs, and he was lamenting the fact that no one gives a shit about CDs, he has stacks of them.
I’m indebted to him in understanding what it’s like to be a young guy in the music scene in Detroit. What do you have to look forward to?
JJ: Because he met him and used his research, we brought his essence into the film, with the guy in the club who he gives the All Black records — the guy’s named Scott, and that wasn’t in the script, I wrote it in after he did this research. I met Scott, too, through Anton.
AY: And Scott’s in the movie, he’s one of the rocker kids outside.
So you shot this in Detroit — what’s that like?
TH: I fell in love with the place. It’s kind of America’s lost soul. It’s its aching heart, there’s a line that isn’t the movie anymore, where Adam tries to explain to Eve why he loves it so much. He says, “It’s like watching time lapse photography of a flower, as it grows from a seed and bulbs and blooms and blossoms and then shrivels and fades and dies and turns to dust.” I think Adam finds that really beautiful. Once upon a time it was the center of the world. Henry Ford made his first car, the Packard plant. People emigrated to Detroit for work, and that’s why it became this extraordinary place of cultural diversity and that’s how Motown came about. Rock, and soul, and R&B all kind of blended in, and suddenly you have this movement.
I think it’s the most beautiful city, and it gave me a very different perspective, as an Englishman, of America.
What’d it make you think of America?
TH: Well it made it seem older than I had become accustomed to; it’s such a young nation in the course of the history of the world, and that’s its greatest strength, I think. It really feels like America has such an amazing confidence, which I’ve always felt is really vital and energetic. And places like Europe, where I’m from, it’s older, the buildings are older, it’s rain-soaked and cynical. In America it’s always up and upbeat, but Detroit has a different flavor, and I loved it. I really, really loved it.