An exclusive interview with Tom Hiddleston, famous as Loki in the Thor films and now wowing all with his Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse
There is an electric atmosphere in the auditorium of the Donmar Warehouse – more befitting a rock concert than a Shakespearean tragedy – as the audience waits for a preview performance of Coriolanus to begin. Five years since he last appeared on this small stage as a little-known actor, Tom Hiddleston is returning as a bona fide film star.
At 32 Hiddleston has achieved the kind of success that most young actors can only dream of. His performance as Captain Nicholls in Steven Spielberg’s 2011 adaptation of the National Theatre’s War Horse was by far the film’s most memorable. But it is as Loki in Marvel Comics’ blockbusting Thor franchise that Hiddleston has generated an obsessive following.
When he made a surprise appearance in character at the international Comic-Con convention in San Diego last summer, some members of the hysterical 7,000-strong crowd actually knelt in worship. At last count, his Twitter following was approaching a million.
‘It’s mad and bananas and amazing,’ Hiddleston tells me, over a restorative full English breakfast at a central London hotel, the morning after the Coriolanus preview. ‘But I can handle it for the simple reason that it genuinely feels like it’s not real. You know when you go to a fancy dress party and everyone looks incredible and there are crazy things hanging from the ceiling? For about five hours or so, you enter into another world and then, when you come out of it, you are sitting at home with a cup of tea and a biscuit and you’re thinking to yourself, “Well, that was weird. Fun, but weird.” That’s exactly what it feels like.’
Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is a masterclass in layering; a celebrated warrior with matinee-idol looks who is part venomous despot, part isolated soul-searcher. For a full two and a half hours, the 6ft 1in actor commands the stage with a complexity that leaves the audience in silent rapture. ‘Hiddleston gives a powerhouse performance,’ was the Telegraph critic Charles Spencer’s verdict. ‘The mixture of charisma and emotional truth in his performance is very special indeed.’
Little wonder that Coriolanus will be only the second Donmar Warehouse production to be shown live in cinemas around the world when National Theatre Live broadcasts the January 30 performance. ‘It is a huge and slightly overwhelming privilege,’ Hiddleston says. ‘I feel incredibly excited about it.’
Whatever it is that makes someone a star, Hiddleston has it in abundance. ‘Tom has a timeless leading-man quality,’ says the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who will direct him alongside Jessica Chastain in the gothic ghost story Crimson Peak after Coriolanus closes next month. ‘He is simultaneously vulnerable and magnetic.’ ‘I’m painfully aware of the fragility of things,’ Hiddleston admits. ‘Because the hard bits are always just around the corner from the easy bits.’
Born in London in 1981, Hiddleston moved at the age of 10 to Oxford, where his father, James, managed a company that helped university researchers commercialise their work. Like his older sister, Sarah, and his younger sister, Emma (‘my best friends in the world’), Hiddleston was privately educated, at the Dragon School in Oxford and Eton. Cambridge University followed.
While much has been made of his elite education – he has been lumped in with the current wave of privileged young actors that is flooding stage and screen – less has been made of the determination that enabled it. James Hiddleston was a self-made success story. Born in Glasgow, the son of a shipyard worker, he used education to escape the social confines of his background, via the local grammar school and Newcastle University.
So when it was time for his son to go to secondary school, he was determined that he should have the very best. ‘My dad made himself from the ground up,’ Hiddleston has said. ‘So, once you’ve seen that, someone who’s come from nothing trying their hardest to give their child the best education, and then you get out the other side and everyone throws fruit at you…’
‘The labels that are attached to me are, I would hope, the least interesting things about me,’ he says now. In general, Hiddleston is much more comfortable discussing his present than he is his past. When the subject of his parents’ divorce – he was 13 and had just started at Eton – comes up, he looks pained. ‘I like to think it made me more compassionate in my understanding of human frailty,’ is the most he will say of this period when he first found himself drawn to the catharsis that acting offered.
From a young age, Hiddleston had been exposed to the theatre by his mother, Diana, a former stage manager and opera fanatic whose parents ran the Aldeburgh Festival. ‘She loved it, and she recognised that I loved it as well, which made it a very special thing to share,’ he says of the trips the family regularly made to the RSC in Stratford and the National Theatre in London.
He reels off the shows that made the biggest impression on him as a teenager: Richard Eyre’s 1996 production of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman starring Paul Scofield (‘an epiphany’); Trevor Nunn’s 1997 production of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People starring Ian McKellen; Sam Mendes’s 1997 version of Othello starring Simon Russell Beale. ‘I saw that three times,’ Hiddleston says, laughing. Exactly a decade later, Hiddleston himself would give a stand-out performance as Cassio in Michael Grandage’s production at the Donmar.
While his mother (to whose house in Suffolk he retreats ‘to keep my head straight walking along the beach, throwing stones in the sea, and eating fish and chips’) has always nurtured his career choice, his father was a little harder to persuade. ‘He was genuinely worried that I would be bored and unfulfilled,’ Hiddleston says. ‘Acting was completely other from anything he knew and he just couldn’t see that it was a real job.’
But Hiddleston (whose agent signed him during his second term at Cambridge after seeing him in a university production of A Streetcar Named Desire) continued undeterred. He acted throughout his time at Cambridge – where he gained a double first in Classics – and then went from there to Rada for three years.
These days, Hiddleston points out, his father views his work very differently. ‘He’s seen that it takes six months to make a Thor film. I’ve described my working process to him; the fact that, some days, I get up at four in the morning and don’t get home until nine at night, and he’s absolutely acknowledged that that’s real work.’
‘Tom takes everything he does very, very seriously and works unbelievably hard,’ says Josie Rourke, the artistic director of the Donmar, who is also the director of Coriolanus. The morning that Hiddleston started rehearsals, he had come straight from the airport, having flown overnight from Los Angeles.
The city had been the last stop on a whirlwind promotional tour for the second Thor instalment, Thor: The Dark World, which had an astonishing eight premieres around the world: ‘Australia, Korea, China, London, Paris, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles. Cut! Door closed. Done. On to the next,’ he says, laughing.
Hiddleston’s ferocious intelligence, rigorous work ethic and driving ambition have their edges rounded by a natural charm and self-deprecating sense of humour. Impeccably well-mannered, he holds doors open, insists on paying for drinks (with money kept, student-style, in a bulldog clip), and by giving much more time than he needs. It is arguably this extra dimension that has seduced Hollywood and his ever-growing number of fans.
Google Hiddleston’s name and you get sucked into a bizarre world: witness him teasing the Cookie Monster with a huge bag of cookies, doing uncannily accurate impressions of fellow actors (and even Joey, the War Horse), dancing in front of tens of thousands of screaming Thor fans in South Korea. ‘What can I say?’ he says, grinning. ‘I just can’t say no. I’m basically a circus bear.’
An increasingly famous – and bankable – circus bear. Then he adds, almost apologetically, ‘Truly, everything that has happened to me has been beyond any reasonable expectations that I may have had.’
His career had a few false starts. Fresh from Rada in 2005, he was cast in Unrelated, a British independent film directed by Joanna Hogg. Despite being a critical success, it failed to get Hiddleston noticed immediately and he had to endure the young actor’s obligatory round of rejections.
While his film career faltered, his reputation in theatre started to gain momentum. ‘Remember that name,’ one critic wrote of his dual performance as Cloten and Posthumus in Cheek by Jowl’s 2007 production of Cymbeline (for which he won the Olivier Award for best newcomer). ‘One day that lad is going to be a star, and deservedly so.’
It wasn’t until Michael Grandage cast him in Othello at the Donmar in 2007 that Hiddleston’s ascent really began. Watching the dress rehearsal was Kenneth Branagh, who was sufficiently impressed to cast Hiddleston as Christian in a Radio 3 production of Cyrano de Bergerac.
The following year Hiddleston teamed up again with Branagh, this time playing his sidekick in the BBC detective series Wallander. In 2008 the two actors starred alongside each other in Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov at the Donmar.
It was during this run that Branagh found out he had got the job of directing the first Thor film, and the following spring Hiddleston was in Los Angeles auditioning for the title role. Despite putting on 18lb of muscle in the gym he missed out (Chris Hemsworth got the part), but he was cast as Loki, Thor’s evil adopted brother.
Together, Branagh and Hiddleston created a character who was, in many ways, the film’s centre point. ‘We made Loki out of Shakespearean characters,’ Hiddleston says. ‘We talked about King Lear with its two brothers, Macbeth with his ambition, the way Iago spins every situation for self-interest. In every possible way, Kenneth Branagh has been my inspiration; there is no way that I would be where I am now without him.’
‘Tom sees beyond the surface of things both as an actor and as a man,’ Branagh writes in an email. ‘After excellent work already, I feel sure his best is yet to come.’
After Thor, Hiddleston’s career began to snowball. First came the handwritten letter from Woody Allen offering him the part of F Scott Fitzgerald in his quirky comedy Midnight in Paris. Then Spielberg (Hiddleston’s childhood hero) offered him the part of Captain Nicholls in War Horse at their first meeting (he has since likened Hiddleston to a young Errol Flynn).
Last year, as Loki once more, he all but stole the film from the likes of Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo in the superheroes extravaganza The Avengers Assemble (the third-highest grossing film ever). ‘A Hamlet among hunks,’ one American critic wrote of his performance in Thor: The Dark World. If the internet is to be believed, Marvel has been inundated with fans pleading to give Loki his own spin-off film.
‘Who knows,’ Hiddleston says with a smile. ‘I have certainly loved every moment of playing Loki. The first day of filming on The Avengers was definitely one of the great moments of my life; a bunch of fully grown adults, most of whom were stonking great movie stars, all pointing and laughing at each other. “Look at you in your Spandex!” “Well, look at you in your Spandex!”’
The best thing about being part of a hugely successful franchise, Hiddleston says, is the doors that it opens. ‘In the past, I would turn up at an audition and be told, “Great, but nobody knows who you are.” I don’t have that any more.’
In the past two years he has been throwing himself into a varied range of roles. Next year will see him star as a Byronic vampire opposite Tilda Swinton in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, put in a cameo in the Muppets Most Wanted and take on the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s The Pirate Fairy.
And then will come Crimson Peak – in which he replaced Benedict Cumberbatch as the charming hero with a mysterious past. ‘Tom can totally transform himself into another human being,’ Joanna Hogg says. ‘Stretching himself in new directions and surprising [us] each time. It would be fun to cast him in a musical. I’d like to do that; he has an exceptional sense of rhythm and moves like a dream.’
For all Hiddleston’s excitement about his stellar status, in his darker moments he worries – as his father once did – that in his chosen career he is not contributing much of any importance to the world. But then he thinks about all the keys on a piano. ‘We have the capacity to experience every aspect of life, don’t we?’ he asks, looking intently down at the imaginary keyboard on the table in front of him.
‘There’s love, generosity, hope, kindness, laughter and all the good stuff. And then there’s grief, hatred, jealousy and pain. The way I see it, life is about trying to get to a place where you feel happy with the chords that you are playing. I’m lucky because I can experiment with all the different notes, via my work. And when I hit the right notes, I like to think that I’m conveying some sort of truth.
‘That’s what, in my dreams, I’m hoping to do with Coriolanus; at its absolute best, a play like that can unite its audience. They can go into the theatre as strangers and leave as a group, having understood and been through something important together. If I am somehow contributing to that then surely my work is of some consequence.’
Hiddleston looks up from his imaginary keyboard and fixes me with his clear blue eyes and smiles hopefully. ‘Isn’t it?’