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Tom Hiddleston: Life beyond learning lines

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He has a role in Steven Spielberg’s latest film War Horse and has also appeared in hit plays including the Donmar Warehouse’s Othello alongside Ewan McGregor and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Natalie Woolman talks to rising star Tom Hiddleston about why he isn’t prepared to ever wing it with his career

Tom Hiddleston is fumbling around his “pigsty” of an office trying to find the Tennessee Williams quote he is looking for. After a few seconds of scuffling and shuffling, he comes back on to the phone and, without any introduction, reads the snippet in a perfect Southern drawl. Later, he emails me another quote from the Williams’ short story – which he will read on stage at the Criterion Theatre this week – because it “succinctly illustrates its subject”. It seems that Hiddleston is, above all else, a walking definition of the consummate professional.

“The one thing that I do every time is immersion. I completely immerse myself in the world of the play, the film, the story, the character and try and plaster the walls of my own imagination with extra knowledge and images and music and trivia.

“I have a little office in my house and it is an absolute pigsty but I know exactly where everything is and there are little things stuck all over the walls, and papers in in-trays and files I have saved on my computer and playlists I have made on my iTunes – things that take me to a place that I think is appropriate,” he describes.

Hiddleston says he goes through this process whether he is working on a theatre production, a TV drama or a film. His career has been littered with credits in all three including BBC dramas Wallander and Return to Cranford and films Thor and War Horse. Meanwhile, his performances in Cheek by Jowl’s production of Cymbeline and as Cassio in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse opposite Ewan McGregor’s Iago earned him two nominations for best newcomer at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 2008. Is there any other techniques he employs regardless of the medium he is preparing for?

“Just learn the script so well that I could be run over by a bus and still say the line. There is a kind of spontaneity that all actors are chasing and I never want my delivery or any of my scenes to come across as pat or prepared or pushed or in any way preconceived. I think the way to really free yourself in performance is to know it so well that you don’t have to worry about knowing it. It’s like musicians – when musicians know a piece by heart they can start to play with the rhythms of it. I always think of bad metaphors for this but it is like playing jazz with a classical concerto. A musician would never be free enough to jazz it up if they didn’t know the structure of the piece.”

It sounds pretty heavy-duty, and Hiddleston says he has friends who tell him he works too hard, that he could cut loose and “wing it” but he doesn’t want to be caught out. When he is in the audience, he says performances that show any glimmer of acting technique leave him cold so “I suppose I do all this work to make sure I am being true. I know that sounds relentless but that’s the way I do it”.

This could all make Hiddleston seem overly ponderous, pompous even. But he isn’t. He is worried that his words might seem pretentious and has a wicked giggle. He reels off the great Shakespearean roles he wants to play – Benedick, Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago – and then immediately backtracks, saying “I should be so lucky if I get to do any of that”. He also has an endearing habit of calling stars he has worked with by their full names, as if it might be disrespectful for him to use Jeremy Irons’ first name.

These fluctuations between confidence in his convictions as a performer and modesty about his place in the industry should serve Hiddleston well as he takes on the role of Prince Hal, and the grown-up Henry V, in the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of the Henriad. The character’s growing maturity and self-belief seem to mirror Hiddleston’s own.

However, because of the filming schedule, Hiddleston has performed almost all the scenes in reverse order meaning that he has embarked on Hal’s spiritual journey in reverse.

“My first day of the whole engagement – no word of a lie – was, ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends’. That was shot one, day one, slate one, take one. Jump off a horse and say probably the most famous line in English literature.

“It is as if I started with the weight of war and responsibility on my shoulders and as we have moved along the shooting schedule, I have just been shedding responsibility as I go so the very last things that I will commit to film are the scenes in the Boar’s Head in Eastcheap with Falstaff where it is just full of smiles and laughter and irreverence,” he says.

The Sam Mendes-produced instalments of Richard II, Henry IV i and ii and Henry V are part of the Corporation’s Cultural Olympiad offering. Hiddleston remembers the first time he was moved by Shakespeare. He says: “I went to see Much Ado About Nothing and the 14 year old [in me] went to see it for Denzel Washington and I came away with Shakespeare.

“I do feel that the whole point of Shakespeare is that it is for everyone, it is not just for academics who want to quibble over scansion and line readings. Shakespeare is meant to be performed and played with and cut and pasted and reinvented and reinvigorated for every culture in every time. I think if film is a way of popularising it or disseminating it into the broader demographic, then we will have done our jobs.”

He says that the adaptations use “proper mud and blood” and he hopes the battle sequences will “combine all the best elements of what it means to shoot something as opposed to staging something”. This distinction is something Hiddleston is particularly aware of after working on the film of War Horse. He saw the National Theatre production soon after it opened, and then again after he was cast in the film.

He describes the key difference as he sees it. “The show is possibly the finest example in my memory of pure theatre magic. Those puppets are utterly breathtaking in their theatrical architecture. What you see on stage is really happening – it is an illusion into which the audience have to suspend their disbelief.

“Film is a much more literal thing because rather than suggesting the landscape of Devon, the trenches of northern France, the rain, the thunder, the guns, the mud, the barbed wire, all the horror of the First World War with sound and music and theatrical conventions, Steven Spielberg can employ his entire production team to recreate those circumstances to the best of his ability and then shoot it for real.”

Hiddleston was spotted by an agent as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It seems appropriate then, after his RADA training, after appearing in international blockbuster Thor, that he is returning to the author for the staged reading he is giving. He will appear on the stage of the Criterion alongside Niamh Cusack, Russell Tovey and Sarah Solemani for an anti-Valentine’s Day special of “twisted love stories”. Hiddleston’s reading, from Williams’ The Kingdom of Earth is about lust. What would lure him back to the stage for more than one night?

“Every time I think, I will carve out four months and I will do a play, somebody asks me to do a film project which is completely un-turn-down-able so it is quite hard,” he says.

“I would love to have a crack at all the great classical parts eventually but so many of these productions go on and you have to be a huge TV or film star to be able to ask to do them.”

It is surprising that he needs someone else to point it out but Hiddleston is well on his way to becoming one of those himself.

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