While Tom Hiddleston effortlessly oozes sex appeal whether he’s battling hunky on-screen brother Chris Hemsworth in the Thor and The Avengers films or, more recently, singing ‘Bare Necessities” at this past weekend’s D23 Disney Expo, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything hotter than Hiddleston letting the written word of William Shakespeare fall from his oh-so-divine lips.
While playing Loki in the Marvel Studios films may get him buckets of exposure these days, spend some time sitting across from the engaging Hiddleston talking about his role as King Henry V in PBS’s Great Performances: The Hollow Crown miniseries next month, as this reporter did recently, and you’ll see the Brit’s eyes light up and his enthusiasm become more than a little intoxicating.
The Hollow Crown, which begins September 20th on PBS, features productions of Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and 2 and Henry V. Besides Hiddleston, other actors in the various productions include Ben Whishaw, Patrick Stewart, David Morrissey, Jeremy Irons, Michelle Dockery, Simon Russell Beale and Julie Walters.
Outside of Hiddleston’s obvious affection for Shakespeare, we also managed to ask about his first experience with The Royal Bard as well as seeing his eyes light up again when he was told about his gay fans voting him onto TheBacklot Hot 100 list.
TBL: I personally didn’t understand Shakespeare until I acted it in a college theater class. Did you feel anything similar to that between reading it and then acting it?
TH: My first Shakespearean production I ever saw, I was 13 years old. It was the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I thought some bits were funny but, to be honest, a lot of it went over my head, and it was really being taken to see Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and sort of being dragged, kicking and screaming because it wasn’t an action film and then go, “Oh. Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves are in this. Oh. This is hilarious and I understand everything and it’s great.”
And then becoming interested in Kenneth Branagh and watching his Henry V and watching his Hamlet and then also as I was reading it at school – I did English Literature at school – and we were reading Othello and around the same time I went to see this production directed by Sam Mendes before he was a film director. With David Harewood playing Othello and Simon Russell Beale playing Iago and for whatever reason, I was 17 years old, I understood and was riveted by every single word and I thought, ‘Who the hell is this genius?’ and that’s when I was turned on to it.
As soon as I went to Cambridge, I didn’t study English. I studied classics but in my spare time I spent the entire time doing plays and I played Romeo, I played Angelo in Measure for Measure and my love for Shakespeare’s gotten bigger, bigger and bigger.
I was 15 when Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet came out so it’s as if he made that film for me. The soundtrack to that film was my soundtrack. Romeo or Juliet, I can’t remember which character, one of them is actually supposed to be 15 and it seemed so romantic and so true.
So I’ve been used to this idea of Shakespeare as being democratic, as being open to interpretation and reinvention and revision in many senses. I just want to keep doing it. It really makes me feel alive. And the older I get, of course, the older we all get, the more you realize how right he is about everything, about love, about fathers and sons or fathers and daughters in King Lear or mothers and sons in Hamlet and Coriolanus or brothers in Lear or lovers in Much Ado... he just gets it. He understands life with such compassion and breadth and depth and he understands the courage and ability and inspiration and fear and doubt and shame and jealousy. I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare.
Allison Pill and Hiddleston as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight In Paris
TBL: How difficult is playing the scene when King Henry banishes Falstaff, especially when it’s so iconic?
TH: Actually, it was the first scene I did with Simon so I banished him before I caroused with him, and it’s amazing because that was one of the things where I wished I knew how I was going to feel about him. I wished I had done that in reverse. I wish I had done the carousing before the banishment, but in a way it made it easier because we hadn’t bonded so I was able to just quite clinically understand from an intellectual point of view this is what Hal has to do at the end of that play. He is the figurehead of the nation. He is the newly crowned king of a country, which is only just recovered from civil unrest. And in order to secure his position he has to be seen to be taking the job seriously, and Falstaff in the eyes of everyone else is a thief and a beggar and a liar. He is a man who is incredibly dishonest and dishonorable and he interrupts the coronation with the presumption that because he’s an old drinking buddy of Hal’s that he’s now going to be given the King’s right ear. It’s embarrassing and Hal has no other choice than to publicly humiliate him and say, ‘I know thee not old man. Fall to thy prayers.’ And then he says, “When thou dost hear I am as I have been, approach me and thou shalt be as thou wast, the tutor and the feeder of my riots, till then, I banish thee on pain of death not to come near our person by ten mile.” That’s like he’s literally being given a restraining order.
He says something like, ‘Make less thy body hence and more by grace’ as in, ‘Look at you, you fat man.’ ‘Leave gormandizing. Know the grave doth gape for thee, thrice wider than for other men” and then Falstaff tries to get silly and says, ‘Reply not to me with a fool born jest. Presume not that I am the thing I was.’ It’s an amazing turn and it’s one that seems very cruel, but he has to do it because what other choice does he have? He’s the King of England now.
Next page… playing Loki and making the Hot 100
TBL: The whole thing with Loki and the Thor and The Avengers…there’s always this thinking that once you hit something that big in Hollywood then that’s the path to keep going. But you’re obviously not doing that.
TH: You know what. It’s never really been something I’ve consciously chosen. I really want to stay an actor and it’s wonderful to have success like The Avengers. It’s honestly one of the great unprecedented strange accidents of my life. I was cast in Thor and Avengers with some idea in Kevin Feige’s head and then it became the biggest thing I’ve ever done without question, and on a level that’s actually difficult to process.
But the actors I respected are the ones who just keep acting through thick and thin. It’s John Hurt. It’s Ian McKellen. It’s Anthony Hopkins. They’re still going, so whatever moments of flourishing that I pass through, it’s all temporary. And the thing that keeps you grounded is doing the thing you love. And actually I was cast as Prince Hal before I shot The Avengers. It was around the time that Thor was coming out, and it was so odd because I had five films in the can and none of them had come out and I knew I was making Avengers and I wasn’t being strategic and I didn’t know how any of those films were going to play…those films were Thor, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, The Deep Blue Sea and Archipelago. And by the time I got around to playing Prince Hal, half of those films had been seen by the world and so my position, I suppose, is a bit different but, anyway, it was never a kind of big conscious thing.
TBL: Back to Shakespeare real quick, Alan Cumming just did a one man show of Macbeth in New York.
TH: He’s a brilliant actor. I love that man.
TBL: I agree! Is that a challenge you would ever want to try and do? Not just of that play but anything you’d be taking on by yourself?
TH: I don’t know. I’d have to really think about it. I’m sure Alan had his own reasons for wanting to do…I mean the thing is, Alan has such a unique Scottish-ness that kind of pours out of him, and I can imagine…I didn’t see that production actually but I can imagine his own personality pouring through those characters because he actually has an amazing ability to inhabit himself in extremis. In that he’s not afraid of his wildness, and Macbeth is a play that really is about that liminal point between order and chaos that Lord Macbeth and Lady Macbeth spill into. I can imagine Allan inhabiting that shape in a very courageous and exciting way.
I’d love to do a one man show at some point because I think it challenges you in a way that’s very unique with no one to pass the buck to. You can’t say, ‘Well, someone’s not pulling their weight.’ If the audience isn’t interested, it means you’re not being engaging enough.
TBL: Also, on TheBacklot, you were on our most recent Hot 100 list. Were you aware of this?
TH: My goodness, I did not know that.
TBL: You were number 39 and it’s 100% reader voted so obviously you have a lot of gay fans. What do you make of that? Were you aware of this?
TH: I did not know that. This is the first time I’ve heard of this.
TBL: It’s a surprise for you I can tell.
TBL: What do you make of that? There’s something in your roles or something about you that the gay community definitely likes.
TH: Honestly, I’m flattered and proud. I’ve never made a distinction, to be honest. I feel very proud that I’ve grown up as part of a generation that simply doesn’t make a distinction between gay and straight really…it just really isn’t an issue or actually it is. You know you read about what’s happening in Russia and it’s shocking but for me and the circle of friends that I grew up with, the places where I mostly spend my time, it’s like, ‘Oh. So you like strawberry ice cream and you like vanilla ice cream.’ It’s all good. It’s all ice cream. Anyway, I have many, many gay friends and so I am thrilled that they are fans.
TBL: Tell your friends you made the Hot 100 list.
TH: I will!
The Hollow Crown begins airing September 20th. Check http://pbs.org for the channel in your area. The sequel Thor: The Dark World is set for US release on November 8, 2013.