The Backlot Interview: Tom Hiddleston

Tom HiddlestonWhile 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.

Tom Hiddleston
Tom Hiddleston as King Henry V in
Great Performances: The Hollow Crown

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.

Tom Hiddleston

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, Tom Hiddleston

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

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