Dialogue: Tom Hiddleston on 'War Horse,' Defending Loki and Reading Poetry Written in the Trenches of World War I

Dialogue: Tom Hiddleston on 'War Horse,' Defending Loki and Reading Poetry Written in the Trenches of World War I

Dec 23, 2011

The best way to describe a conversation with Tom Hiddleston is by calling it oddly therapeutic. He's an actor's actor; the sort that completely gives himself up to a role in every conceivable way, transforming his soul in the process. For someone who's played the villainous Loki from the Marvel universe with such hurt and anger, Hiddleston is surprisingly warm, generous and soft-spoken. His words gracefully dance out of his mouth as if they're looking to land on the pages of today's most romantic poetry, and it's comforting to watch someone discuss their craft with such care and adoration for what they do and what they're able to add to the cinematic conversation. In short, he's a pretty nice guy.

In War Horse, Hiddleston isn't on screen for too long, but the time he does spend is rewarding and also crucial to the plot. He plays Captain Nicholls, one of many young British men asked to join the World War I effort who were, as Hiddleston describes, "educated, upper-class, decent and amateur, and blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead of them." Nicholls was a role Hiddleston took on immediately after wrapping The Avengers, where he played a character who was angry, bitter and hell-bent on destroying as many lives as he could. Essentially, the complete opposite of a war hero like Nicholls. Our conversation with Hiddleston opens up with us discussing the difficulties of that kind of transition ...

Movies.com: How is it transitioning right from playing a villain who wants to destroy the world in The Avengers to playing this war hero in War Horse?

Tom Hiddleston: You know what, I feel so lucky to be an actor, I really do. Because every character you play – and I know it sounds trite to spell it out – but it really does feel like living in the shoes of somebody else for a period of time. And I feel that that experience of trying to understand what the world looks like from another perspective is a bit like traveling around the world and visiting lots of different countries. If you met a man from one town and he never left that town, and at the same time on exactly the same day in the same town, another man was born and in sixty years one of them had been to every country in the world when the other hasn’t been anywhere apart from that town he was born in, the wisdom of the traveler would be so much greater than the wisdom of the man who stayed at home. Every character I play is like visiting a country I’ve never been to. Does that make sense? And so you come back after the experience with new knowledge about being alive that you didn’t have before.

The experience of playing Loki changed me for a moment. I was inhabiting this absolutely volatile, damaged, psychologically wounded creature with enormous power and a massive reservoir of pain, and that took a degree of recovery. I had a huge compassion for anyone who’s felt left out or abandoned or lonely, because that’s his predicament. I really did – I felt this enormous well of compassion for people who feel like they have no place. Then I pretty much went straight into War Horse and I had this sort of cathartic experience of being asked to play someone who was incredibly kind and incredibly decent, and warm and heroic. That in a way I felt was an enormously soothing reintroduction to the parts of myself that didn’t belong to Loki. Does that make sense?

Movies.com: It definitely does, but there’s a flipside to that – of being the world traveler who’s constantly inhabiting all these different kinds of roles and characters because I imagine it’s easy to lose your real self somewhere. Can you just flip that switch and turn off these characters? Is that easy for you to do?

TH: My friends are pretty good at keeping my feet on the ground. If I start getting crazy and start talking to myself, ya know. [laughs] I’m very blessed to have amazing family and friends around me who constantly deflect who I really am back at me, in a way. Sometimes you just have to go home, or go and visit someone you’ve known all your life.

Movies.com: What is your trigger? What do you do every time you finish a film to pull you out of that mode, that character?

TH: I tend to sleep a lot. I like to allow myself to sleep. I have a rigorous, physical regime – I keep very fit – and I feel that’s an ability that I demand of myself so that if a director asks me to do something – Steven Spielberg says, ‘Can you get on that horse and lead a calvary charge?’ – I can, yes, I’m in the shape to do it. If Joss Whedon says, ‘I need to put you on a wire and I’m going to send you pinging from wall to wall on this set, are you fit enough to do that?’ – I can say yes, sir. I get up in the morning when I’m shooting at about four or five o’clock and I run for 40 minutes, and I go to the gym, and when the shoot stops I literally get into bed and I don’t set the alarm, and I stop working out, and I listen to my favorite music, and I just do really normal things. It’s kind of like checking back into my normal life.

Movies.com: It’s interesting with this role because the film is broken up into sections, and we have an end for your character, but we don’t really have a beginning or a middle, unlike, say, Loki, who we follow through all these different character arcs. So how do you prepare for a character like this? Do you invent backstory?

TH: You know I did, actually, because I thought despite the episodic nature of the film, the snapshot you get of Captain Nicholls was incredibly important, and no character is truly played unless it’s played with a kind of rigorous authenticity and integrity. It’s funny because the craft of acting really is the craft of truly inhabiting another human being, be they real or fictional. For Captain Nicholls, I couldn’t just put on a uniform and make a bunch of facial expressions. This is a real guy, and also he’s an emblem of a whole army of those guys who were educated, upper-class, decent and amateur, and blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead of them. And innocent, apart from everything else. So I thought if in this film, Captain Nicholls is the face of that pre-war innocence, it’s my duty to play him properly.

I read a lot about life before the first World War, and how rustic it was, and how in a modern context it was idyllic. It was like man before the fall. It was so uncynical, and they lived such an outdoor, open, honest existence, still very connected to the land in a way that many of our lives are not. These guys lived off the earth, no matter how rich or how poor they were – everyone had animals; everyone had horses and chickens. And there were no gyms, but there was sport like horse riding and looking after the farm. Captain Nicholls is a man who would’ve done a lot of fox-hunting. Fox-hunting in a modern context is conceived of as very cruel, but these men would’ve hunted in winter as a way of keeping foxes away from their livestock – also keeping their horses fit and themselves fit. And I loved reading Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man by Siegfried Sassoon. He was one of the most famous war poets to come out of the British army. His poetry that he wrote, in the trenches, from 1914-1918, is still absolutely shattering.

But his biography talks about this lovely life he had before that, so I borrowed a lot of those details from Sassoon, watched films on military history and developed a backstory that, if the first World War never happened, Captain Nicholls would’ve been a painter because he had this artistic sensibility. That seemed to speak to me as the sensibility of an artist who was asked to wear a uniform because he knew how to ride, which distinguishes him from a professional soldier in a modern context. If you sign up for the army now, that’s a proper job, you get a pension and you become a machine. But these guys were boys who needed to become men, and those uniforms were like suits.

Movies.com: Where are you going from here? Thor 2?

TH: I’m actually in the middle of filming Henry V, which is really exciting. It’s for NBCU and BBC, and it’s part of a season of Shakespeare plays that are being mounted on film. That’s kind of a combination of all the things that I love. It’s the greatest poetry that’s ever been written, the greatest storytelling by the greatest storyteller – and an amazing character. I mean he is a warrior king, and one of the greatest England ever had.

Movies.com: Do they have you wrapped up in this Marvel universe for a long time? I know a lot of the actors signed on for something like nine films – do you have the same sort of deal?

TH: Yeah, I signed initially for six, and I’ve made two already – Thor and The Avengers. Who knows for how long people will be interested in me. We’ll see.  

War Horse is in theaters now. The Avengers arrives in theaters on May 4th.

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