The complete interview:
SFX: You researched J. G. Ballard extensively before making High-Rise…
Tom Hiddleston: He was a trained physiologist; he went to Cambridge to read medicine for two years. Once he’d done ‘anatomy’ – once he’d studied the engineering of the human body – he gave up. He wasn’t interested anymore and became a writer. All the way through his life, he’s interested in the link between what you can physically find in the body, and the patterns of human behavior.
SFX: Were you familiar with his writing before the movie came along?
TH: Only in so far as I remember a friend of mine reading Super-Cannes in university and being interested in it then. I’d seen Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun which I thought was amazing, and was aware of short stories. But I was not particularly an avid reader [of Ballard]. And then I became obsessed with him after I read the screenplay to High-Rise. I read Concrete Island and Crash and The Drowned World and some of his short stories and his autobiography, which is amazing, Miracles of Life. That’s when I became aware of him as a really revolutionary thinker.
SFX: You had the novel of High-Rise with you on set…
TH: Ballard gives you beautiful stage directions. “Laing half-expected the insomnia so many of his neighbors had suffered had been some kind of unconscious preparation for the emergency ahead.” You think: what a great note.
SFX: As an actor, what can you do with that?
TH: It puts your head in a place.
SFX: Talking of getting your head in a place…why does no one leave the High-Rise as chaos descends?
TH: At a certain point, you will probably reach a new kind of relaxation and calm, where you begin to accept how it goes. You find that with people in the war zones: initially you experience body shock because of the fact you’re being bombed every day and people are dying: after a certain point, there’s only so much adrenaline your body can create and you just start to accept a new existence.
SFX: The characters in the book remain rather detached throughout…
TH: We haven’t done that all the way through the film. There has to be a way you see Laing change. And Wilder and Royal and Charlotte, and lots of the other characters. There’s a turning point. I think this is one of Sienna [Miller]’s lines…she says, “It’s as if everyone has agreed silently to cross some sort of line.” And once you’ve crossed the line, there’s no going back, like the mask is off and everyone’s true colors have been revealed. It’s sort of war from then on in.
SFX: You covered your script with copious notes. Is that your usual way of working?
TH: It really depends. This was just helpful because of the way the film’s been scheduled, actually, due to actors’ availability and location stuff. It’s been absolutely disjointed, so I haven’t had any sense of chronological progression. I’ve had to join the dots, like assembling an alphabet out of order.
SFX: Even with your notes, it must have been both testing and taxing, to hop around like that?
TH: I remember on our second day, I was doing a scene [that takes place], like, two-thirds of the way through the film. Things were on fire, the lifts were broken down. I’d been Laing for one day, and I was already having to take a wild stab in the dark of who Laing, at that point, would be. You have to live it. [Grins] It was more fun than should conceivably have been allowed. I think Ben’s tastes, mixed with Ballard’s sensibility, creates this amazing range of extremes. Some days it’s about sophistication and refinement and an air of mischief and cool – adults behaving badly. And on other days, it’s just how far do you dare go into the heart of darkness?
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