As he prepares to resurrect the villainous Loki in Thor: The Dark World, Tom Hiddleston reveals what it’s like to be wanted by Spielberg, Allen and Branagh and why this is only the beginning of his A-list adventure…
If you need an illustration of how fast and how far Tom Hiddleston’s star has risen in the past three years, compare and contrast his last two appearances at San Diego Comic-Con, the convention where studios tout their forthcoming wares to a ravening army of geeks by whose tweets and posts an action movie will stand or fall. In 2010, Hiddleston sat on stage as Thor director Kenneth Branagh outlined plans for his forthcoming movie, introduced Chris Hemsworth as the titular Norse god, and Hiddleston as his adopted brother and nemesis, Loki. There was a brief Q&A, Hiddleston answered one question, and everyone went home.
Fast forward to 3pm, Saturday 20 July 2013, and in Hall H of the San Diego Convention Centre, ahead of the imminent release of Thor: The Dark World, an army of 6,000 fans repeatedly scream “Loki” in a manner so fevered as to make One Direction concert-goers look like a chapter of tongue-tied Trappists. Hiddleston, both in character and full Loki costume, is berating the audience, hissing, “Humanity! Look how far you’ve fallen, lining up in the sweltering heat for hours, huddling in the dark, like beasts!” By the time Hiddleston has borrowed a line from Avengers Assemble and addressed the crowd as: “You mewling quim!” and advance footage has shown him appear to chop off Thor’s hand, the roof is ready to blow.
The stunt has been three weeks in the making, beginning with a phone call from Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige to Hiddleston, who was at Wimbledon for the ladies’ quarterfinals. They knock a few ideas back and forth, Hiddleston insists he must stay in character throughout and plans are put in place to maintain complete secrecy. This involves Hiddleston arriving at Comic-Con disguised as Star Wars’ bounty hunter Jango Fett (the only place in the world where such behaviour wouldn’t arouse suspicion). At 3pm, as Feige is about to address the crowd, Loki appears on stage.
“It was a riot,” recalls Hiddleston a few weeks later, sitting in the calmer surroundings of the paved garden at the back of his Haverstock Hill local in north London with a pint of Amstel at hand. “It was mayhem, I [was] in costume, giving a speech, getting people to kneel at my feet. It was deranged and bananas.”
Both adjectives which could equally be applied to everything which has happened in Hiddleston’s life over the past three years, a period which has seen him transform from a respected stage actor with a malnourished film and TV CV to the man who delivered a show-stealing performance complete with epic cavalry charge in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse, who Woody Allen asked for by name for his comeback hit Midnight In Paris, who won the part of Prince Hal/Henry V in the BBC’s epic Shakespearean tetralogy (four-parter, to you and me) The Hollow Crown and, as the aforementioned Asgardian bad boy, starred in the biggest film of 2012, Avengers Assemble, which is also the third highest-grossing film of all time.
How did that happen?
“Maybe it’s just getting older,” reflects the 32-year-old. “You become so palpably aware this is not a dress rehearsal. There’s a big sign in blazing neon that says You Haven’t Got Long. But I think it takes a beat to learn that. Life has to knock you down in order for you to realise it, because when you’re a kid you think you’re immortal.”
“Basically, I’m a madman.”
Conscious perhaps of not repeating himself, over the course of the afternoon Hiddleston prefaces only one of his many stories with the above phrase, but in actual fact, the phrase would fit more than a few. Not that Hiddleston in person fits the description. As he ambles into the pub today, sans entourage, a fleeting look of semi-recognition crosses the barmaid’s face, but it’s clear she hasn’t quite clocked him. He could be the villainous star of the third biggest film of all time, or he could, at a push, be doing well in a digital marketing company in Shoreditch. I ask him if he’s ever worn the Loki hairstyle when he’s out on the town to aid recognition, but he answers in the negative.
“It’s very Seventies,” he says, laughing. “If we ever did a Loki origins story he should be running a Seventies nightclub, I think. Opening scene, you’d see him burst through the double doors, wearing a really lean floral suit, ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ on the soundtrack, say hello to a few girls, get on the decks to spin a few tracks, his hair looking sleek and menacing. I should say my mum’s not sure. She came to the Avengers premiere and she said, ‘Darling, it’s a bit severe, isn’t it?'”
His Avengers’ co-star Scarlett Johansson has warned me that “he has a secret sweet tooth – I’ve never seen anyone devour sugar the way he does”, but his physique – like all actors he is startlingly (OK, sickeningly) slimmer in the flesh – betrays no evidence of this dark habit. Is he handsome? It’s a question that seems to exercise a sizeable slice of the internet with his dedicated army of “Hiddlestoners” – like their near-relatives, the “Cumberbitches” – prepared to fight to the death on the point. Of course he is, although with features which betray his Celtic lineage, it’s more of an old Hollywood look. Spielberg has likened him to Errol Flynn and it’s a comparison which seems most relevant.
He seems considerate, too. Certainly, he’s the only person I’ve ever interviewed who’s worried that the rustling noise inherent in the transporting of crisps from packet to mouth might affect the quality of my recording.
So where does the “madman” stuff fit in? Well, here’s one of his favourite memories of playing Loki: “We were shooting on top of a volcano in Iceland,” he recalls with a grin. “There was a fight sequence where Loki has to take a big hit. He’s sort of thrown back and falls on to the ground. I did a real-life high jump, I took a run-up to a mark, did a Fosbury Flop and then, smack!”
On to a mat?
“No, on to the surface of the volcano! But then I saw the shot afterwards and whatever was happening in my face, I could never have acted that.”
He segues from this to describing the positives of being accidentally punched in the face by Chris Hemsworth during an action sequence shot for the original Thor.
“You don’t make any facial expression when that happens. Just before the blood starts to flow, your face goes incontrovertibly still. It looks great in the film.”
Then with the next breath, Hiddleston – whose interpretation of Loki has been such a success that Thor: The Dark World director Alan Taylor is shooting extra scenes with the actor for the new movie – outlines his ideas about the character. He speaks of Loki occupying “that liminal point between order and chaos”, delivers a brief but erudite tour of the major developments in modern psychology – he will later mention Mark Ruffalo’s “hulking manifestations of the Freudian id” – and concludes by offering several areas of mythological comparison.
There are probably a few actors out there who would be prepared to suffer the kind of knocks that come with hurling oneself backwards on to a rocky volcanic outcrop, but how many of those could also hold their own on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg?