Tom Hiddleston is that most modern of English actors, classically trained in theatre but gaining ground in Hollywood. He’s created diverse characters in diverse genres including horror, sic-fi, art and historical drama. But he goes southern country in I Saw the Light, as American country western legend Hank Williams. Hiddleston not only portrayed Williams’ troubled character but learned guitar and country singing well enough to perform live in the country-mad American Mid-West. We spoke with Hiddleston in Toronto.
Did you know of Hank Williams and his music? That world seems far from anything you’ve played to date.
I maybe knew about five or six songs and then I spent six weeks Tennessee which was just about immersion in all of it. I knew it was a challenge but the best kind of challenge. And of course it was daunting. I felt this massive responsibility to him and to his family and to people who knew about him and loved him. But to me as an actor I’m always excited by foreign territory. I feel like a kind of correspondent heading into the jungle and that’s the most exciting.
Why do you think that Hank Williams was so influential?
I think it’s because it was so searingly honest. He was the real deal, he was authentic. He wrote about what he knew, he wrote about his own life. There was nothing insincere about it, it was all so genuine.
And men and women all over the south and all over America and all over the world really picked up on that. There was just an authenticity to what he was doing.
Who was he as far as you were concerned, what was motivated him?
It’s funny because in all the research that I did, it’s felt almost that there is a noble quality at the center of him. For someone with such generosity of spirit and such powerful charisma, there was something very deep and private about him.
He used to say that the sunset, the evening was the lonesomest time of the day. And many people say that’s a beautiful time, it is magic hour, and for him it was a private time of solitude.
I found enormous meaning in his Luke the Drifter recordings. That seemed to lend a clue to who he was. These recordings he released under a pseudonym of Luke the Drifter, poetic recitations, kind of intoned in the style of this American preacher and often about death and dying and they’re very mournful and they’re accompanied to music. People say that he actually invested more in his Luke the Drifter recordings that in his songs.
I took a lot from the wit of his stand up between songs in his concerts. There are a lot of lost recordings where you hear how witty and funny and charismatic he was. So it was sort of trying to understand where his love of music came from, understanding it came from gospel and blues.
What about the way he treated women?
He writes such brilliant songs about heartbreak yet he treats women in his life very badly. I wonder if you know that. I think he loved women and he was surrounded by them and he needed them. Women were the people in his life. It’s just that he was a firework and he was a wild man, he was just uncontrollable and he fell victim to all the temptations of fame in that time.
You’re on YouTube playing a surprise gig at the Wheatland Music Festival in Michigan. What was that like for a guy who only just learned to sing and play?
Basically in order for me to do this thing, Rodney Crowell who is a huge Hank fan and admirer came on as a musical director. He invited me to live at his house in Tennessee for five weeks before we started shooting.
And we’d get up in the morning and we’d make a cup of coffee and a bowl of porridge and then he’d say, “Okay Tommy boy, you want to sing Move it on Over or Lovesick Blues?”
And within a day he said, “Listen, I got something I got to take care of, I got a gig in Wheatland. I figure you get on the road and see what it’s like.” We went to this festival and he had a gig with his own band and it was just a thrill for me to be on the bus seeing how that is, seeing what professional musicians, how they are, the rhythm of their day, even though the tour bus is a little more well-furnished probably than it was in Hank’s day.
So we get to Michigan, play this festival and I was thinking I’m just going to be a fly on the wall and watch him play. And just before we went out there, he said, “How about we get you on the stage?” And I was like, “I’ve been in America for one day.”
So we stopped off at this motel for a cup of coffee in the morning and we were sitting outside this diner and he would say, “Let’s try Move it on Over.” And I knew Move it on Over quite well. It’s very simple rhythmically, this is three chords, E-A-B7, 1, 4, 5 and I knew the words and he said, “I think we should sing that. We won’t make a big deal of it. I’ll play six or seven songs in my own set and then I’ll just introduce you and you’ll get a sense of what it’s like to play for 20,000 people.”
Well he was sweet, he said something like, “A good friend of mine from England –” he said, “He’s classically trained,” and he said, “He’s going to come out here. He’s playing Hank Williams, he’s going to come out here and sing a Hank song.”
And then I went up there and it honestly was the most extraordinary feeling, unrepeatable in a way. I don’t think I particularly sounded like Hank. I didn’t look like him, I still have blonde hair and I was wearing a pair of jeans.
But the thrill of simply playing that song for that many people and getting the response back and understanding how passionate people are about his music and the power that it has simply to delight. It gives people so much joy.
And I got to rush off stage and I can’t remember his name, there was an old folk guitarist sitting in the green room backstage and I came on, he said, “It’s a rush, ain’t it?”
So it was worth stretching out to Middle America and playing an iconic American entertainer?
I feel very strongly at my core I really believe in cinema and I believe in its power to bring people together and show us that we’re all actually much more similar than we might think. There are a lot of forces in our society and cinema is actually a very unifying one. And so I suppose when I play characters far away from me, it reminds me that actually we’re all the same, we’re all human, we all strive to be the best we can be and we’re undone by our weaknesses. So it comes from a place of compassion, an interest in human beings.