While seldom seen in American films, the British actor has a reputation for his strong stage work and experience in period dramas and genre work on film. Of course, his reputation may have been strongest with “Thor” director Kenneth Branagh, who worked with Hiddleston in an acting capacity on the past including on the UK TV series “Wallander.” Asked if that professional respect played a heavy role in his nabbing the part of Thor’s villainous, silver-tongued brother Loki, the actor expressed surprise and excitement upon being called up to become one of Marvel’s signature trouble-makers.
Dressed in all black on the set of the anticipated May, 2011 superhero epic, Hiddleston looked rather brooding as a villains should, but kept his spirits up and a few secrets hidden (including Loki’s signature horned helmet). Below, he describes what it’s like to play the mischievous Asgardian god, the way Branagh and producer Craig Kyle may have tricked him during the audition process, his ability with the movie’s epic weaponry and his rapport with director and cast.
Tell us about how you landed the part of Loki.
Tom Hiddleston: I was told I was being tested for the role of Thor and I had half a day. So in mid-March last year, I came in and met with Craig Kyle and met Ken Branagh and did a test for Thor with Thor’s blonde wig and facial hair and 20 pounds of extra muscle which I managed to find somewhere. And yeah, I think it was about a month later that I was back in London and Ken, Craig and Kevin called and said, “I just want to let you know that we have definitely and definitively found someone else for Thor, but we’d like to offer you the part of Loki.” At which point I screamed and had to sit down on the pavement somewhere outside of a grizzly pub in North London and think about the rest of my life for a bit. Contemplate my existence. So that’s how I got the part, yeah.
Now, did your history with Ken [Branagh] play into that decision?
You’d have to ask him. It’s thrilling to work with him and to be directed by him because I’ve only ever acted alongside him, and in very different things. And I think, initially, I probably felt like I was understood and he knew what I could do, so I suppose I didn’t feel nervous about meeting him or acting in front of him in any sense. I was just ready to go. Jump straight in. Take risks. Be as big and broad and wrong, and risk being wrong, basically knowing that he would steer me in the right direction. So it certainly has given me a greater freedom, I feel, because I feel like I can cook up whatever my instinct is cooking up and he will just say, “A bit less of that, a bit more of this.” It’s a thrill. It’s a great privilege to continue to work with an actor that way, to keep a relationship going and moving, you know?
Go back to that moment where you found out you got Loki – you had this reaction. Was that a, “Thank God I got something in this movie,” or is that really the part you felt most comfortable with?
Well, it’s funny, because I knew I was being considered for both. Craig tells a story that actually, I was always going for Loki, it’s just that I didn’t know that. Ken had intimated that he was looking for someone in the role of Thor with a raw and physical intensity, that the actor playing Thor had to have a physical instinct that was immediately present and readable and that he knew I could be that, but it wasn’t the first thing that came to mind. And he was very flattering about what I have and what my kind of gifts are as an actor, and that maybe they’d be better suited in a slightly more psychologically complex role that was less about the physicality and more about the machinations of his brain and what’s going on. And speaking English badly, I’m sure.
Could you talk a little bit about the journey [Loki takes in the movie]? A lot of us are familiar with the comic, we know your character…
We’re starting at the beginning, I think it’s safe to say. I start in the film as Thor’s younger brother, and I think in the manner of all younger brothers, I have a greater sense of freedom. I’m not the oldest, therefore the parental expectations aren’t as heavy, so it’s like a lot of younger children in sibling groups; I think Loki has a bit more freedom. He’s not going to be King. He knows that. He has less responsibility on his shoulders so he’s freer to have a bit more fun. Everybody at Marvel has been very clear and brilliant about coming into this that Loki just has…they’re both enormously gifted. Thor and Loki are a two-man team and they’re both going to run Asgard when Odin steps down.
Thor has an ability and a physicality and a presence – a physical presence that is, the type of man you follow. In the same way they used to talk about all the leaders and the captains and the generals that came out of both World Wars, that those captains and generals weren’t necessarily elected just in battles. There were certain men who were followed. You know, leaders who were born, and Thor is that guy. Loki’s gifts are different in that he is sharper, he’s cleverer, he’s more interested in tactics and strategy. He’s capable of thinking ahead and he enjoys chaos. So he enjoys reacting to chaos and that affects how he’s the God of mischief. Mischief is essentially chaos. He likes stoking the fire of chaos and seeing what happens as a result. And so, I think that’s where we start in that he’s just physically not as strong, but he he’s quicker and sharper, I guess that’s fair to say.
Yeah, quicker, sharper, more playful. And then, I think over the course of the story there are a couple of major shocks about Loki and his history and who he is. There are certain things that fans of the comics will already know, but hopefully you see Loki learn certain things about himself for the first time. So, it’s a journey of self-awareness. He doesn’t, at the beginning of the film, know his own power and I think, through the course of the film, he comes to learn his true nature and the extent of his power. But with a propensity for mischief. I think. as soon as he knows how powerful it is. that’s when it becomes dangerous.
We got to play with some of those fantastic weapons. How have you learned to wield them?
It’s been fascinating, actually. One of the first things I did when I came on board was start with stunt training. We thought it would be boring if Thor was a tank and it’d be boring if Loki was another tank and they were just running into each other. So we thought, if Thor is thunder and power and muscle and brawn, and he’s got his hammer, Loki should be quick, like the wind. If Thor is heavy, Loki is light. We thought, what would be the weapon that Loki would be fighting with? So we thought throwing knives, because I think Loki doesn’t like to get his hands dirty in a fight. He likes to be quick, efficient and lethal. It’s like one blow – slam. I thought, if Loki could fight in a way that was as impressive as Thor’s, but was completely different, so in a way, Loki is too quick and Thor can’t catch him. I kind of conceived of Loki as a kind martial artist, almost a dancer. He dances his way out of combat. These knives are his way of keeping his foes at arm’s length, but it’s lethal. When you get one of those knives in, you’re gone.
I had a great time when we were shooting on another set, shooting a big battle sequence. The set was made of this stuff that looked hard, but it was soft foam. And my stunt knives were rubber so they didn’t take out the grip or the camera operator. But we found I’d always throw them and Russell Bobbitt, the props master, would always go and retrieve them for me for the next take. He couldn’t find one of the daggers, and we were like looking all over the set for this dagger. About half an hour later, we’d thought we lost it somewhere in the green screen when he said, “Tom,” and he pointed up and this rubber knife was stuck clean into the set. I knew then, I was throwing them with some kind of velocity.
Can you talk about how heavy and cumbersome or difficult is it acting with this giant horned helmet?
The horns are amazing! It was the last thing I got to try on when I did the costume fittings, and for me it was the most important thing. As soon as I got the part, I had nine months to prepare. I read all the comics. I read right the way through the history and I thought the horns are, well, it’s like Spider-Man’s suit. Loki isn’t Loki without those horns on. Initially we were fitted, and it was a conversation of how much does it cover his face? How much does he use them as like a weapon, or is it just a statement of intent? It’s kind of a representation of his soul in some way, like, back off because I’m dangerous. And it has been. We’ve had to work with it because they are very heavy. And because my ears are closed off, I can’t hear very well and it becomes quite claustrophobic. It’s a strange thing acting in it, but I know it looks so good because I’ve seen it in playback, so it’s worth it.
I read a story about Christian Bale complaining about the [discomfort of the] Batsuit and saying he’s trying not to complain because he gets to be Batman. So, I’m trying not to complain about the horns because I get to be Loki, you know?
Marvel has said that you’re going to factor into the Avengers movie. Is that affecting your performance, your thoughts at all these days?
I may do, I may not. I know in the comics I do. [I’m] hoping I will. I genuinely know nothing. I haven’t seen a script. Kevin mentioned it way back, but I think it’s a long way off.
Does it affect your thoughts at all that maybe you could do this performance a second, third, fourth time? Did you bring any bread crumbs or anything like that?
Yeah, I feel that way, certainly. I don’t start the film with [Loki], like, immediately gone to the dark side. I think it’s good to see that Loki is genuinely Thor’s brother and there is a complicated relationship there. So, it isn’t just like he’s an out and out villain. He isn’t all black. He isn’t someone who the audience can immediately say, “He’s the bad guy.” And I think that’s more interesting. No character, in real life or in comic books or any play or film or anything, nobody thinks they’re a villain. You always think there’s a complete logic to what you’re doing and you know what’s best and you know what’s right. I think it’s really interesting to see Loki’s actions from his perspective. He’s just someone who becomes more and more damaged by a sense of isolation from his family and a sense of a kind of deep loneliness. I think when the world makes you feel rejected, you bite back. Over the course of the film, that’s what you see in Loki. He feels continually cast out by different sets of people, and his brother particularly, and at a certain point he’s pushed too far and he comes back with a vengeance.
A lot of the actors have been talking about working with Ken. Shakespeare is definitely a touchstone – is that something that’s come up working with Ken?
I’ve talked to him very much about subtlety, because I don’t want to do any eyebrow twitching or mustache twiddling. I don’t want to do sort of like a caricatured villain. I’ve tried very much to make Loki psychologically plausible. Someone who’s damaged and very, very intelligent and is able to sow the seeds of deceit. Like he’s the Oscar winning liar, you know? He’d stand up there and you you’d buy anything from him. He’s the perfect salesman. Because my background is in Shakespeare as well, I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare in London and Iago is kind of a touchstone for me. Edmund in “King Lear,” if you know that story.
I draw my inspiration from all over the place. I’ve been listening to lots of the Prodigy. Like there was an album they released in the ’90s called “Music for the Jilted Generation,” which has a real rage in it. It has a real kind of like “don’t piss me off because I’ll bark at you” [vibe]. And I find myself listening to that sometimes. Ken talked a lot about some of Peter O’Toole’s greatest performances and how in “Lawrence of Arabia” or “The Lion in Winter,” he is on the edge of darkness. He’s on the edge of sanity. You can see it in his eyes that he’s been pushed to the brink and you’re not sure if you can trust him because there’s a madness in there, you know? A greatness, too, and a charisma and a power that you want to get close to and you want to see inside, but it’s a little bit dangerous. I drive to work every morning and I try and light some kind of bonfire under myself which is adrenalized and hot and alone. It’s a strange feeling when you’re playing a character that feels so alone.
I hope and I believe that when the film is out that there will be a real sense of you just won’t be able to tell when he’s telling the truth and when he’s not. And I want people to be like, “Is he lying?” and then later, I hope that if people watch the film for a second time, they’d be like, “I can’t believe he did that,” because a lot of the time he’ll do something and all of the other characters in the story have no idea the depth of what he’s doing. Like he’s sown in seeds so deep and so invisible that if the super hero detective came in and tried to look for fingerprints, he just wouldn’t find any.
Are there certain iconic gestures or poses from the comic book that you’re trying to use, because when I think of Loki I always think of him kind of slouched in the throne and kind of brooding.
I recall that Ken talks about the racing mind. He said every time I put the camera on your face, I want to see your brain going at the speed of light. But I don’t want anyone else in the scene to see it. So, this is a very private thing of someone who’s just thinking ten steps ahead of the game every time, but not making it so obvious that it’d be like, “Guys, somebody look at Loki because he’s cooking up something.” Bad ass, you know? But I do feel like he’s a sort of person who never sleeps. His brain never stops working. And he’s always cooking up something. You’re never quite sure if you can trust him and – what was the question again?
Yes, facial expressions. Certainly, there’s this fantastic shot of me on the throne where it’s like straight out of that sort of iconic image where he’s got the staff and he’s slouching in it. He’s like, “Got a problem with that?” You know? But yeah, I guess as an actor I start from the inside out. Like the costume is enormously helpful, but I always think, what makes him tick? What is human about this character? I don’t want to play a cipher. I look at someone who is damaged, broken, alone, isolated from his family, doesn’t feel like he belongs, someone who’s been lost, abandoned. And there are physiological tropes for those things, you know? And you see the lost and damaged and abandoned children of our world. It’s no accident that they grow up to fill our prisons, you know? And that’s kind of who Loki is. He’s just really clever. He’s good at hiding his own intent and feeling angry with Thor because he gets everything. He’s the favorite son. I think just the process of living inside that anger, that rage, that hurt every day creates an intensity on my face which I’m not aware of. It’s not like I’m creating expressions, but absolutely there’s a kind of a raw intensity that Ken said from the word go that he wants to see me every day with a layer of skin peeled away.
Jaimie Alexander told us earlier that she has closely modeled her accent on yours. And used you as sort of a reference point.
And several of the non-UK actors have done the same thing. Is that something that you were aware of?
No, actually, it’s not. I don’t even know what my accent is, you know? Obviously it sounds very English, but yeah, I’m flattered that they have. I think there’s something about portraying gods and how do the gods speak without sounding ridiculous, you know? Because you want to be accessible, but at the same time, you don’t want to be like, “Hey, can I get a Venti Cappuccino,” you know? You need to believe that they’re gods and they’re old gods. I think it’s kind of standard that classical English does the job in some sense.
It almost sounds like the way you’re describing the character, if [“Thor”] had been made 20 years ago, it would have been played by Kenneth Branagh.
Maybe. The first time I heard Ken tell me he was directing the film, I was on stage with him playing a Russian doctor with a goatee and a pair of wire rimmed spectacles, wearing a waistcoat and a pocket watch. And I picked up an empty water cooler as if it were MjÃ¶llnir and he roared with laughter and said Loki’s the part. Loki’s the part I want to play. So, yeah, maybe he would. I don’t know. Who knows?
The accent thing is interesting. A friend of mine sent me a text message with a quote from Neil Gaiman. He wrote this book called “American Gods.” And it was just before I started shooting. It was this thing of like, he said you’ve got to get with the god thing. It’s not about being big or being broad, it’s about being the you that people believe in, about becoming the part, becoming the wind, becoming the thunder. I thought that was great. It’s like something to do with when you’re playing a god you’re just ever so slightly more than you normally are. Like everything about you is a little more heightened, a bit more accentuated? This all helps, too. I mean, I was born with blonde, curly, Gene Wilder hair, so this is a good look, I think, for me. Everything’s been dyed black and my skin’s been made paler than it normally is, so I’ve got black eyebrows and black hair. Yeah, and I’m wearing a pretty sick costume thanks to Alex Burns.