Thor’s Nemesis Makes Some Thunder
Tom Hiddleston Gets Mythic for ‘Thor: The Dark World’
LONDON — In a scene close to the end of the 2011 superhero film “Thor,” the two central characters confront each other. They are brothers, although Loki, played by the British actor Tom Hiddleston, has just denied this. “Loki, this is madness,” says Thor (Chris Hemsworth). “Is it madness?” Mr. Hiddleston responds, his face quivering with intensity, his breath ragged, his eyes filming with tears. “Is it? Is it?”
For a few memorable moments, a multimillion-dollar, wham-bam comics-based action movie is a study of fraternal love and hate, of familial rage and thwarted hope, of the strange combination of nature and nurture that governs an individual’s actions. It’s not the only moment in “Thor,” and its sequel, “Thor: The Dark World,” which opens Friday, when Mr. Hiddleston achieves this kind of Shakespearean resonance.
There’s a reason for that. Mr. Hiddleston, 32, is a classically trained British actor of the most classic kind, and the latest in a long line of British performers to move with remarkable dexterity between Serious Theater and mass-market cinematic fame. (He also makes a fine contribution to the noble tradition of evil, soft-voiced British villains.)
His résumé is impeccable: He attended Eton, Cambridge University, then the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts — each on its own a notable producer of acting talent. He was a member of the celebrated Cheek by Jowl ensemble and recently portrayed both Prince Hal and Henry V in the BBC-PBS Shakespearean series “The Hollow Crown,” to much critical acclaim. He has played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” had featured parts in projects as varied as Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” and the television series “Wallander,” and has starred in several small-scale movies.
But it wasn’t until he won the role of the nefarious (or is he?) god of mischief, Loki, in the Disney-Marvel Studios franchise that includes “Thor” and “The Avengers” that Mr. Hiddleston hit the A-list. Now he has fan clubs, a serious Twitter following and gossip column inches.
“The fame thing is so odd,” Mr. Hiddleston said in a recent interview at the Wolseley restaurant here, just a few minutes before a woman stopped by to congratulate him on his role in a coming Jim Jarmusch movie. He continued, speaking of Loki, “It’s interesting that I’ve had that wide impact in a role that is so unlike me.”
It’s true that the real-life Mr. Hiddleston doesn’t much resemble Loki, with his vampiric pallor, long black hair and impassive, mocking stare. In person, he is unobtrusively handsome, with light brown curly hair, an open, friendly manner and the physical elegance of a (very tall) dancer. He is also articulate, thoughtful and given to poetic turns of phrase.
Asked if he wanted to be an actor from a young age, he said it wasn’t that cut and dried: “It’s rather like a murmuration of swallows. You can’t tell which bird made the first move, it just takes shape.” He added: “I’m wary of imposing narratives from a safe distance. It’s always more arbitrary than it seems.”
Mr. Hiddleston grew up in Oxford, the middle child of a Scottish father who ran a pharmaceutical company, and an English mother who had worked as a stage manager. He was 13 or 14, he said, when he first thought seriously about acting.
“I saw Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s ‘John Gabriel Borkman,’ and it hit me like a train,” he said. “I had that wonderful Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole experience of developing an insatiable appetite for watching and reading that I think is very particular to those adolescent years.”
He acted as much as he could at Eton, and in his final year, the school took a production of “Journey’s End,” the 1928 R. C. Sherriff drama about World War I soldiers, to the Edinburgh International Festival, where it won rave reviews. It was a turning point, Mr. Hiddleston said, the moment when he made a silent decision to become a professional actor. He nonetheless went to Cambridge to pursue a degree in Latin and Greek (“I had worked too hard to get there to miss out”), joined the university’s famously strong drama club and was spotted in his second semester by an agent, who told him she would get him jobs during his vacations.
Professional work, including two HBO productions, “Conspiracy” and “The Gathering Storm,” soon came his way — although never during the vacations. Mr. Hiddleston found himself “reading Cicero on set in full costume,” but managed to graduate with top marks. (Yes, as well as handsome and poetic, he is also clever.)
He could have gone straight into acting, but decided instead to attend drama school for three years. “I thought, ‘I’m not trained, and I’ve been lucky,’ ” Mr. Hiddleston said. When he graduated, he found that memories were short. “I kept a diary, with all the details of every audition,” he said. “After about three months, I had to stop, because it was a catalog of failure, a long list of jobs I had failed to get.”
Nevertheless, he eventually won the main role in his first film, Joanna Hogg’s“Unrelated,” from 2007, and theater productions followed that brought him to the attention of Kenneth Branagh, with whom he subsequently worked in a stage production of “Ivanov” and on “Wallander.”
Still he decided to try his luck with the television pilot season in Los Angeles. “You would turn up for every audition, and there would be a line of identical tall, blond 29-year-olds,” he remembered. “It was incredibly stressful. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t get any parts.”
Then came his big break. Mr. Branagh, who was directing “Thor,” called him to audition for the title role. He made the shortlist, and was told to put on as much muscle as possible for a screen test six weeks later.
“I think before, my own fear of both success and failure would have stopped me,” he said. “But I knew Ken knew what I could do, and I remember thinking: ‘I am never going to get closer. I might as well go for it.’ I put on 25 percent more muscle, got down to 7 percent body fat, knew my lines inside out. I was a man possessed.”
Mr. Hiddleston did not, of course, get the part, but the studio was so impressed by his commitment that he was offered Loki. While “Thor” was dismissed by many critics (“the programmed triumph of commercial calculation over imagination,” A. O. Scott wrote in The New York Times), Mr. Hiddleston has generally garnered applause.
“It’s Hiddleston’s show,” Charlotte O’Sullivan wrote in a review of “Thor: The Dark World” in The Evening Standard.
Mr. Hemsworth said he thought Mr. Hiddleston’s performance made Loki a more important character than originally envisioned. “Amongst the chaos and madness of that character, there is an incredible vulnerability and charisma,” Mr. Hemsworth added. “That’s tough to pull off.”
Both Mr. Hemsworth and Natalie Portman, who plays the scientist Jane Foster, Thor’s love interest, said Mr. Hiddleston’s training had brought an unusual rigor to the filming.
“It is much less common to have his level of seriousness and attention to detail on this kind of film,” Ms. Portman said in a telephone interview.
Fans certainly agree: More than 30,000 of them have signed a petition urging Marvel to produce a Loki film. But Mr. Hiddleston has other projects on the horizon. Notably, he will be seen as a disaffected vampire, Adam, alongside Tilda Swinton’s Eve in the Jim Jarmusch film “Only Lovers Left Alive,” due in the spring.
“When I met Tom, I wasn’t thinking of him for Adam, but after talking to him, I knew he would perfectly embody the character,” Mr. Jarmusch said in a telephone interview. “He understood all my references, to English rock ’n’ roll in the ’60s, to Hamlet. His character is very sophisticated, which he also is, but I also wanted him to have an animalistic quality, which he found. He is not a violinist, but he worked for several months to appear to be playing the Paganini in the film. You could throw anything at him, he would incorporate it.”
Mr. Hiddleston returns to theater next, in the title role in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” at the Donmar Warehouse in London. Asked how he adapted to the shifts between stage and screen, Mr. Hiddleston said that essentially the task was always the same one.
“Your job as an actor is to find a way of being truthful in those particular circumstances,” he said. “After that it is simple.”