After seeing him pull out his phone, snap his fingers and jam to blues legend Howlin’ Wolf’s “How Many More Years” during our recent interview, my inclination was to find the nearest dive bar with a microphone.
“How many more years/Have I got to let you dog me around,” the song’s creator wails from Hiddleston’s device.
Then the 35-year-old actor jumps in to explain, “It’s like he’s swimming through the beat. This is such a great song, by the way,” before singing with Wolf, “… sleeping six feet in the ground.”
The London-born Hiddleston was demonstrating how he had to learn to sing off the beat, which flies in the face of what he was taught as a child, to play Hank Williams in the biopic I Saw the Light.
The vocal transformation is remarkable for someone who is mostly known for playing Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a role much more akin to his Shakespearean performances in his native country. Yet his musical acumen, combined with how comfortable he is comparing Williams to the British bard, are enough to quickly bring any country music novice up to speed.
When he’s not portraying music icons these days, he’s channeling the spy within: He stars in the miniseries The Night Manager, which debuts on AMC on April 19.
RedEye caught up with Hiddleston to discuss yodeling, what makes him feel like a kid again and Loki’s likely plans while Iron Man and Captain America tear each other to pieces.
RedEye: If Hank Williams were alive today, what do you think he would be writing songs about?
Tom Hiddleston: Gosh. Interesting, isn’t it? I think they’d still be about very basic aspects about the human condition. They wouldn’t necessarily be topical. He wouldn’t be writing about pop culture or politics. I wonder if he were alive today if he might have taken on a political inclination, like Dylan, whose politics seems to express itself very quietly in songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
RedEye: Which of Williams’ songs was the most difficult to master?
TH: “Lovesick Blues,” no question. The chord progressions are much more complex than many of his other songs. Most of his songs— “Move It On Over,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” “I Saw The Light,” “Honky Tonk Blues,” “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” — the chord progressions follow a very basic blues template of 1, 4, 5. You start on an open E and your second chord is an A and your third chord is a B7. Simple. [By contrast,] “Lovesick Blues” is about seven or eight chords and the yodel jumps so dramatically in pitch and you have to hit that yodel in a split-second right in the pocket. Because also, like anything, whether you’re riding a motorcycle or riding a horse, it’s all about a mixture of control and freedom. So playing that song I had to be so technically in control of the guitar and my own voice and yet free enough that it rocked.
RedEye: You have said yodeling is “satisfying.” Why is that?
TH: I don’t really know. The thing about singing is we listen to music so much now. It’s so much a part of the fabric of our lives but in a very remote way. We listen to it on the radio, on our phones, on Spotify. But actually if you sing it’s a very physical experience.
RedEye: Even for those of us, like myself, who don’t do it well.
TH: [Laughs.] Right, yeah. And so yodeling is a strangely cathartic emotional release because it’s a very joyful sound. It’s a joyful expression of longing; I think that’s where it comes from. Hank would always yodel in songs that are about longing, and yet the yodel itself is very joyful, so you have this kind of contrapuntal, sonic moment where actually he’s singing about something quite sad but the expression of it is quite joyful. On “Long Gone Lonesome Blues,” for example, he is basically singing about being lonely and alone, but it’s got this fantastic yodel, which sounds great.
RedEye: When you lived in a house with Rodney Crowell, the music director for I Saw the Light, for five weeks, you said he had to “shake the British out of you.” What does that mean exactly?
TH: Children, to state the obvious, are very susceptible and open to everything. And the way music reaches children I think in different countries is actually quite different. The music I was taught in England basically comes down from nursery rhymes and folk music, and I think music in America finds its roots in the blues. So what happens is as a child I grew up with an instinctive rhythm that was closer to Celtic folk music than to blues. So my inclination is to be quite metronomically precise on the beat, whereas a blues singer, somebody who’s grown up around the blues, their instinctive rhythm is to be a little behind the beat, to be relaxed [and] off the beat. And so when I was singing these Hank Williams songs, which are basically blues songs, that’s what Rodney was doing. Whenever we would lay down a demo track, he would say [breaks into Southern accent] “Oh, Tommy boy, you’re on top of the beat, your Englishman is in evidence today. We have to shake it out of ya.” So we would stop singing and we would sing “Howlin’ Wolf” or some Jimmy Reed or some Jimmy Rogers because the way they sing, they’re not singing on top of the beat at all, they’re right behind it. [Howlin’ Wolf] is like swimming through the beat.
RedEye: Country music can be uplifting and spiritual, but Williams’ life really didn’t play out that way. One of the most well-done scenes in the movie, for me, is when his wife, Audrey, has just gotten an abortion. Hank comes to confront her and they are so at odds with each other. Is a scene like that as emotionally draining as it appears on screen?
TH: The pleasure of it as an actor is I’m opposite someone as accomplished and open as Elizabeth Olsen, who is able to put herself in Audrey’s situation with such intense empathy and compassion and defend Audrey’s point of view. And in a way like a tennis rally, the bouncing of the ball over the net is what gives you a strange, perverse pleasure in what you do. But for both of us we were very relieved when the scene was over because we had an obligation to step inside that despair for a moment and experience it. And there is despair that arises from the awful tragedy of Audrey’s abortion, but there’s a secondary despair that arises from their detachment from each other in that moment, that they are living two different lives in two different worlds and they are unable to connect. These are two people who are married and have a child. They are both very lonely in that moment, and I certainly felt that on the day we shot it.
RedEye: Williams has been called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare.” What parallels do you see between Williams and the bard himself?
TH: I do see an ability in both of them to distill very profound aspects of the human condition into very simple poetry. That is something they share as writers. Shakespeare was a lyrical poet, he wrote in poetic form, and Hank is lyrical in that his poems are set to music, and so there is form and structure. I think if there’s a reason he’s been called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare,” it’s because he found new ways of expressing things everybody could relate to in very beautiful and accessible simplicity.
RedEye: In one of the lighter movements in the movie, Hank is absolutely fascinated with his garage door opener. Has anything in your life entertained you to no end and you’re not really sure why?
TH: [Laughs.] I mean, what I loved about that is … Hank’s doing really well, it’s Christmastime, he’s having a party and he’s playing with his new toy. He’s got the latest technology, being able to push a button and the garage door opens [dramatic pause] on its own! Goodness. The first time I got Sonos in my house two years ago … basically it’s a sound system whereby you can have speakers in every room in your house and you can control it from your computer or your phone, and you can stream music and it plays everywhere. You can have it a little bit quieter in the kitchen if you’re cooking, louder in the living room, and you can control it remotely and it’s wireless. The first time I got it I was so overwhelmingly excited I was running back and forth between my kitchen, my living room and my study. And you can play different songs in every room. It’s crazy. Suddenly you are the master of the soundscape of your domestic kingdom, and I was as giddy as Hank was in that moment.
RedEye: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Loki. In the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, do you think he’s on Team Cap or Team Iron Man?
TH: Let’s not forget that both Iron Man and Captain America were unkind to him in Avengers, shall we say. [Laughs.]
RedEye: Indeed, to put it mildly.
TH: So I don’t think he’s going to pick sides anytime soon. I feel like he’s sitting on a rooftop somewhere with a big bucket of popcorn amused that the children are playing. And I think he finds it delightful that they have fallen out and has a ringside seat, as it were, for the big fight.
RedEye: Who do you think was in more anguish: Loki being denied the throne of Asgard or Cookie Monster when you did the delayed gratification lesson with him on “Sesame Street”?
TH: [Laughs.] Probably the Cookie Monster. Yeah, yeah, even though without cookies he’s a very sad Cookie Monster, let’s face it. But he got his cookies faster than Loki got a throne.
WHAT’S BRITISH FOR … ?
In truth, there’s no shaking the British out of London-born actor Tom Hiddleston. Not that anyone would want to. RedEye called upon the actor’s British-ness (that’s a thing, right?) to make comparisons to American cultural staples.
Country music: “Folk music. I think it’s Irish folk music, Scottish folk music, the stuff that you hear at a ceilidh.” (That’s a party with music, dancing and sometimes storytelling.)
Ten-gallon hats: “You see, we’ve appropriated so much of American culture in Britain. You see people walking around in baseball caps and beanies. What’s the equivalent of a ten-gallon hat? Probably a flat cap.”
Cowboy boots: “Oxford shoes.”
The Kardashians: “Goodness, they’re their own different, extraordinary species.”
LeBron James: “David Beckham.”
The Walking Dead: “Sherlock.”
Deep-dish pizza: [Laughs.] “Fish and chips.”
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