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What a time to be alive — especially if you happen to be one Tom Hiddleston, alumnus of the prestigious Dragon School, of Eton College, Cambridge, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; that Tom Hiddleston — star of stage and screen, recently removed from a romance with megawatt dream girl Taylor Swift.
For Hiddleston, life is so good that it comes with a few too-good-to-be-true conspiracy theories — the best of which goes something like, Hiddleston, at 35, is a front-runner to replace Daniel Craig as the next James Bond, and PR teams staged his relationship with Swift in order to elevate his star power. As if he needed the help.
Hiddleston’s star has, of its own volition, and powered by his plentiful talents, been in perpetual rise since he was cast as the mythological baddie Loki, a recurring character in the ongoing Marvelverse of films, in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011). Cinephiles may likely remember the actor most fondly as the centuries-old vampire/rock’n’roller in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) across from Tilda Swinton. But talent scouts would have noticed Hiddleston’s work far earlier, in a variety of theatrical and television roles — alongside Branagh in the BBC’s Wallander, for example — platforms where he has continued to thrive, all the way up to and including Susanne Bier’s miniseries adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager this year, in which Hiddleston starred as a field agent, spying on the world’s most sinister arms dealer.
Next year, on the strength of two monster-sized blockbusters (Thor: Ragnarok and Kong: Skull Island) — and, maybe, okay, that very buzzy relationship — Hiddleston’s star will likely settle up there in the upper firmament where the A-listers live. Whether or not that ascent will bring him to Bond or beyond, the intrigue will likely follow him wherever he goes. In August, while filming in deepest underest Australia, Hiddleston got on the phone with his friend and Marvel-mate Benedict Cumberbatch to talk about the perils and potential power that comes along with the public eye.
TOM HIDDLESTON: [laughs] Thank you, Benedict. W
e should just thank each other for our time. For the rest of our lives.
CUMBERBATCH: And then, in typical British fashion, we should just apologize for everything as well.
HIDDLESTON: I’m sorry for disturbing you.
CUMBERBATCH: I’m more sorry than you.
HIDDLESTON: [laughs] How do you feel about …
CUMBERBATCH: My role as a journalist?
HIDDLESTON: I feel conflicted. [laughs]
CUMBERBATCH: I feel my role here is much more as a real friend than a journalist. There will be no curveballs, I promise. But just to get us started, what is it like donning the hair and horns, working with Chris [Hemsworth] again, and working Down Under with Taika [Waititi], your director?
HIDDLESTON: Well, it’s so exciting because I haven’t played Loki for four years. The last time I wore the costume was at San Diego Comic-Con in 2013.
CUMBERBATCH: You’re kidding me!
HIDDLESTON: The best thing about it, honestly, is working with Chris again. I first met him in Kenneth Branagh’s house in England in 2009. We were mere children, in the very beginning of our acting journeys. We made an instant connection, and it’s been extraordinary to share the ride with him — this mad journey with Marvel. Anthony Hopkins has been on set this week. And Taika Waititi is magnificent. He has found a way of honoring everything that came before but doing his own thing. And he’s so funny. His films — and if you haven’t, you must seek them out: What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople — they have this combination of light-hearted, good humor and emotion. They’re very moving. Everyone’s really happy. Of course, we’re just at the beginning.
CUMBERBATCH: How many more weeks have you got to go?
HIDDLESTON: I will be here until the beginning of November.
CUMBERBATCH: Gotcha, you’ve got a long way to go still. So you’re having an Australian winter, which I imagine is pretty bloody lovely compared to an English winter.
HIDDLESTON: [laughs] That’s what they keep saying. We’re in on the coast of Queensland, and apart from the fact that the sun goes down very early and very quickly, it’s been blue skies and sunshine. It’s preferable for my Celtic complexion to their summer. I was here in exactly the same place in January doing Kong: Skull Island, which was lovely but incredibly hot.
CUMBERBATCH: That’s a neat segue. Let’s talk about that, since that was your last outing. You had pretty harsh conditions — I think it was Vietnam where you were filming in the jungle, and then a very hot Australian summer.
HIDDLESTON: Vietnam was unbelievable. I feel so lucky that I got to go with that production, being part of the traveling circus of a big film like that … We shot in Oahu, Hawaii. We shot in Australia. And we shot in Northern Vietnam, in and around Hanoi, Ha Long Bay and Ninh Binh. And I think what’s exciting about this is that there is landscape in Vietnam that very few people have ever seen. And the people I met in Vietnam were overwhelmingly excited. From the minute I landed — Jordan Vogt-Roberts, the director, Brie [Larson], Sam Jackson, Alex Garcia [the executive producer], and I gave a press conference in Hanoi that was hosted by the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam. It was a very big moment for the country. A lot of people we met had never seen production on this scale. In certain places, we helped build roads so that we could get the camera equipment in four-by-four trucks to and from where we needed to go. On the first day, Sam turned up for a very simple scene with very little dialogue, and there were thousands of people who turned up to watch. And then after about an hour they got bored and were like, “Oh, this isn’t very exciting. Let’s go back to what we were doing.” But, for all of us, we were exposed to this extraordinary country of breathtaking beauty.
CUMBERBATCH: Oh, God, I’m not supposed to be writing this down, am I?
HIDDLESTON: Are you transcribing this later?
CUMBERBATCH: I’m just sort of staring out over a very European landscape imagining what you’re describing, very far from pen and paper. I feel like I’m in the jungles of Vietnam. But so long as someone else has got that spelling and that’s not my editorial responsibility, I’ll be very happy. Well, Tom, you’re an equally eloquent writer and actor. I remember reading a piece that you wrote, describing the first day of facing this icon of cinema, King Kong. You know, you’ve got a great reputation as a cineaste. But I was wondering if there was an era of film — if you had a time machine — that you could go back and be a part of? Whether it’s musicals or neorealism in Italy post World War II or maybe a Spielberg film in the ’80s?
HIDDLESTON: There are two great eras that I still revere. I’m bowled over in awe and admiration by the uninterrupted takes of the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly. There’s no “We’re going to fix it in post.” I was watching a clip from Swing Time  and … What’s his name in Singin’ in the Rain ? “Make ‘Em Laugh”? Donald O’Connor! I watch those films in awe. That was a different kind of performance. And the second one is the ’70s.
CUMBERBATCH: When the East Coast boys took over L.A. and the studio system? The Scorseses …?
CUMBERBATCH: I completely agree. They were highly relevant, tackling massive, important issues of their time politically. They managed to find the golden balance between entertainment and art.
HIDDLESTON: That’s also when Stanley Kubrick was doing his best work. 2001 came out in 1968. Before the moon landing in ’69, they felt they’d already been there because of what Kubrick had given them as an experience in the cinema. They actually invented materials with NASA, costuming and props, to have stuff that was ahead of its time. I mean, it’s sci-fi driving the boat. And the films that we’re making now are still informed by those films, by that extraordinary era. Although, we are guilty of golden-age thinking — an idea from Midnight in Paris.
CUMBERBATCH: At the same time, we acknowledge that, for the past ten years, we’ve been living in a golden age of long-form TV, which you are now a part of. When The Night Manager broke in the U.K., you could not move for people talking about it. It was just utterly riveting, and just another great jewel in the BBC’s crown. How was that, working with Susanne Bier?
HIDDLESTON: I just loved the experience of making it. It always felt as though we were making a six-hour feature. We storyboarded it and scheduled it as one 360-page screenplay, with one director. Susanne was our captain. We shot in Switzerland, London, Devon, Morocco, and Majorca, in that order. It felt like the lion’s share of the series took place in Morocco, in Marrakesh, where our Cairo interiors were, and where we shot the Arab Spring riots. We spent seven weeks in Marrakesh and we had to get through so many pages per day, in which I was featured in every frame, jumping between identities — I was Jonathan Pine and Andrew Birch and Thomas Quince and Jack Linden. Someone asked me recently what was it like to go back to television, and it didn’t feel like that. The difference is greater for the audience than it is for us, I think. And, strangely enough, speaking of the ’70s, The Night Manager was first optioned by Sydney Pollack [in the early ’90s], and he commissioned a film script from Robert Towne. Finally the rights went back to le Carré and his sons Simon and Stephen Cornwell. But maybe there is a world where that story is better over six hours than over two. I don’t know. How do you feel? You’re someone who, for many, many years, has concurrently done television and film. We were riding horses the day after the first episode of Sherlock aired on the BBC — you were falling off horses, training for War Horse . I remember when Sherlock became the extraordinary phenomenon that it has become. And since then, you’ve done three seasons?
CUMBERBATCH: We’ve done four seasons. And one Christmas special …
CUMBERBATCH: I am, thankfully, now stopping and have time to talk to you, my friend, which is really nice, even though our words are being recorded and printed. We should have a conversation when we hang up. Sorry about that, but some things are off bounds. I feel that TV and film feed off each other well. It’s more in the perception of the viewer than it is of the actor. There are very specific demands, though, in television, and you notice the budget constrictions. It’s the time constraint and a purse constraint more than anything else that you notice. But the ambition of the writing and, hopefully, the delivery of it gets better and better because we want to outdo ourselves to keep ahead of a very expectant and hungry public.
HIDDLESTON: What do you think about revisiting a character — like Sherlock or Loki — as opposed to making up a character for the first time?
CUMBERBATCH: I think you have to approach it with the same level of invention. There are things that are a given, that you’ve already established, and obviously, visually, certain iconic things that can’t be completely removed, like a certain hat or a certain coat in my case. I know you battled with the horns, and I wanted to talk to you about that if you’re allowed to talk about that. It dies when you don’t feel the reinventing. It’s interesting. I genuinely enjoy it. I think I wouldn’t do it if the writing wasn’t so good, if I wasn’t being asked to do different things with the character. It really depends on what the obstacles and objectives are. If they’re very interesting, then you can bring new tactics to play. And I think the characters are supposed to be an open book, blank canvas. With Loki, the shape-shifting god of mischief can be a number of things. And a consulting detective who suddenly can do kung fu and speak a different language or do sign language … There are all these untapped resources. As far as going in to do a day’s work, I like the familiarity of it. I wonder if it would feel the same revisiting a classic role onstage. Like, if I was to do Hamlet again somewhere else, what that would feel like? Because that’s the same lines, those are the same predicaments, the same characters you’re playing with. Nothing has changed; it’s the context that’s changed. Do you have a spiritual dimension to your daily life? If you’re hitting problems in a day, do you have a routine? A mantra or something?
HIDDLESTON: You’ve got to do something, even if it’s just to kick-start the day. I use music. And running. I find that, when I’m working, if I start the day with a run — outside, not in a gym, but just me out there in the elements, with only my own legs to propel me forward … It’s something to do with just being in the world and getting out of my own head.
CUMBERBATCH: Are you disciplined about getting to bed as well as getting up early to do that exercise?
HIDDLESTON: You have to be. You can’t function. And it varies from job to job. On Kong: Skull Island, we were always outside. My character was a former SAS tracker, so he’s sort of an ultimate athlete — I would always be able to just, like, run around and get my blood up if I was feeling sluggish.
CUMBERBATCH: I read Hugh Laurie praising you to the heavens, saying your energy kept the whole unit ticking at times. But do you ever get in trouble with makeup and costume? I remember seeing pictures of you running with Chris at some point in Iceland. And, goddammit, it’s only that English smile and charm that you have, that would let you get away with the murder that you must normally get from your makeup artists and your dresser.
HIDDLESTON: [laughs] I don’t know, it’s not for everyone. It’s just how I do it. And the thing about running is, if I run in the morning before work, I feel like I’m ahead of the day. Whatever work I’ve done in terms of preparation or research or thinking about the scene or the character, it all kind of crystallizes in that moment in the morning. And sometimes I have the best ideas then. I remember when I was doing Henry IV, Part 1 for The Hollow Crown — a series you’ve also starred in, brilliantly — we had very little time, and we were about to shoot this central scene between Henry IV and Prince Hal, where Hal is called into his father’s court and publicly reprimanded and humiliated for being away with Falstaff. It is an extraordinary two-hander. And King Henry IV has most of the speaking — in this case, Jeremy Irons. And I remember thinking after a certain line that he should hit me. This was January of 2012, and it was on my run through the snow at five o’clock in the morning when I had that idea — that he should just slap me across the face. And that is literally the moment at which Hal is awakened to the weight of his responsibility as the future king. All the weight of this poetry and Shakespeare’s words. But it comes with a slap.
CUMBERBATCH: It’s a great moment. But it’s the same thing, I think, whether it’s breathing or meditation or yoga. And running is a great way of doing it. There’s something so mobile about you. Not just physically, not the running, but you’re very attentive to what’s in front of you. Do you have a fear of anything that could get in the way of that? I mean, it’s like asking somebody who’s seemingly invincible what they fear most. Don’t feel burdened to answer. Tell me to fuck off if you want. You can, because I’m your friend.
HIDDLESTON: Thanks, friend.
CUMBERBATCH: Should I tell you mine while you think of your answer?
HIDDLESTON: Tell me yours and I’ll tell you mine.
CUMBERBATCH: Passing time. And that is purely from becoming a father, wanting to have a little bit more of it every day, having something outside of me that’s more important than me to focus on. That was a rude awakening, the minute he was born. And every time I hold him, to look at something that new and look at this 40-year-old me in the mirror going, “Wow, I really want to be around to see your children.”
HIDDLESTON: Mine is similar. Mine is regret. I fear looking back and wishing I had done things I hadn’t. It’s interesting, I read this extraordinary article about a book, many years ago, by an Australian nurse who is a specialist in palliative care. It was her job to help people on their way out, to ease their pain. So she spent a lot of time with people in their last days and weeks. And she felt so moved by the accumulated experience, because she heard people say such similar things. Weirdly enough, at the top of the list was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
CUMBERBATCH: That’s quite big of you to face up to.
HIDDLESTON: A family completely redresses that balance, but how do you deal with that realization in your life? Are you trying to find more time now between projects?
CUMBERBATCH: I’m making more time. And, maybe it’s just getting older, but I don’t want to miss things. We have the most extraordinary privilege of doing this job, but sometimes being away, on location, I feel like I’m away for much of my own life. I want to be better at staying connected.
HIDDLESTON: The other five regrets from the book by the Australian nurse were: I wish I hadn’t worked so hard; I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me; I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings; I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends; and I wish I had let myself be happier. It’s an extraordinary list of getting in your own way, isn’t it?
CUMBERBATCH: That’s a very good checklist for you. That’s a very good checklist for me. I think for anyone who works a lot and who’s often away from home. I think the weirdness of our job, assuming these imaginary circumstances as someone else in a fictitious world, which you then have to talk about and narrativize in publicity. That is a form of projection that’s not all of you — it couldn’t be because otherwise there’s just nothing left that you do come home to. But how do you get back to that person you are when you’ve been in public? Is there something in particular that chews you back into who is Tom? Is it home? Is it family? Is it friends? Is it exercise?
HIDDLESTON: I just go home. It’s that literal and metaphorical. To London. When I finished The Night Manager, I realized that, for 75 days, I had lived more hours per day as Jonathan Pine than I had spent as myself.
CUMBERBATCH: It does have an effect on you, don’t you think?
HIDDLESTON: Yeah. You’re putting yourself into this other person’s shoes. The best thing I could have done was exactly what I did.
I flew home and I went to my sister’s engagement party. I was surrounded by family. And they were so reassuring. And then I just, I live such a boring life. I just potter about, read books I’ve meant to read but haven’t had time.
CUMBERBATCH: I’ve stayed in your house, remember?
HIDDLESTON: [laughs] Yes. I just potter about and catch up, go for coffee, and read the paper and hang out with my mom and dad.
CUMBERBATCH: You’ve done wonderful work for UNICEF. I’ve read what you wrote about your experience on the fact-finding mission about two or three years ago in Guinea, Africa — that sounds like it was a very important formative experience for you. Do you find there’s also a responsibility that now you have this public voice?
HIDDLESTON: My personal investment in the character Pine was huge, and Hugh Laurie, who loved The Night Manager and had loved it for 20 years, has gone on record, identifying Pine as a lost soul looking for a cause. And by a simple twist of fate, the week before I was due to start The Night Manager, I went to South Sudan with UNICEF to make a documentary about the effects of the civil war that is taking place in that country, even now. The effect on the innocent children. South Sudan is the youngest nation on the planet. It declared independence from Sudan in 2011. And in mid-December 2013, the president and vice president fell into a serious disagreement, and it divided the nation along ethnic lines. I’ve made a documentary, which isn’t yet released, about the recruitment of child soldiers, which is a contravention of human rights. And I saw a country which was heavily militarized, and I asked myself where did these weapons come from? There is so much poverty and desperation in South Sudan, and yet each side is militarily equipped. How did this come about? And I came back from South Sudan having witnessed, firsthand, the violence from which a man like Richard Roper in The Night Manager profits. And I remember having dinner with John le Carré and telling him about South Sudan, about how powerless I felt, how helpless it seemed that this poor young nation and its inhabitants are being torn apart by a civil war. And so, in a sense, Pine’s moral anger belongs to me, too. And le Carré leaned forward and just said, “Use it. Use it.” The world I’ve grown into at the moment is becoming increasingly more disturbing and unsettling. Everywhere there is inequality, everywhere there is division, and I worry about it. I think everybody does. I wish we could be decent to each other. And I’ve thought a lot about whether I have a responsibility to stand up for what I believe in because I have a platform, because I have a voice. There is a red line where you do have to stand up for these children. They haven’t asked for this. And, by the way, I am so profoundly aware of my lack of skill to make any material difference. I am not a doctor. I can’t influence foreign policy. I can’t build schools. I can’t chemically engineer the protein paste that helps people with acute malnutrition. But I can talk about it, and so can you. There’s an extraordinary surgeon called David Nott, who went out to Aleppo in 2013, before it was in the news, and treated children and victims of the war in Syria. It was amazing to hear of his bravery, and I suppose, as someone who’s been asked by UNICEF to be an ambassador, I feel a responsibility to stand up for those children. Because nobody is. So I do, and it’s a delicate balance because I’m an actor. And yet somehow, we’re given these platforms to speak from and I’ve been very inspired by people who have had the bravery and courage to do that long before me.
CUMBERBATCH: It’s very easy to be cynical about any kind of interference in things that are beyond our skill set, like you say. We’re not UNICEF volunteers or staff in refugee camps. We’re not policemen or politicians. But, I suppose, after a certain amount of involvement or research or an affiliation with something, we can make a spotlight shine on people who do do that work, like the people who work for UNICEF on the ground. And that is doing a good thing. I’d much rather be criticized for that than be silent in the face of such extraordinary suffering, which is painfully obvious to all. Whether it be in Syria or in Sudan.
HIDDLESTON: I’m very proud of it.
CUMBERBATCH: You should be.
HIDDLESTON: Once you’ve seen certain things, the moral compunction drives you to act. And having seen what I’ve seen in South Sudan, there’s no way I can’t talk about it. I’ve mentioned this to you before, but it reminds me of that extraordinary Nobel address by Harold Pinter where he talked about the distinction between truth as a dramatist and truth as a citizen. “Truth in drama is elusive. You never quite find it, but the search for it is compulsive.” He says, “Sometimes you feel you have the truth of the moment in your hand and then it slips through your fingers and is lost.” But as a citizen, you have a duty to ask what is true and what is false. I remember watching him deliver that, feeling very inspired.
CUMBERBATCH: I agree. How could you deny that impetus, having witnessed it firsthand? I can’t even imagine what effect that must have on you. And there’s another weight of us being in the public eye, which is this presumption that, because your work and your promotion work is very public, your private life should be, too. And, without getting into a huge debate, I just want to say that I’m not going to ask questions about my friend’s personal life just because there are unsolicited photographs of him and a certain someone, in a relationship or together. I’m not going to get into that. So that door is closed, dear reader.
HIDDLESTON: [chuckles] Thank you.
CUMBERBATCH: You’re welcome. I know you’d do the same for me. And, going back to this responsibility of being a public figure, you said you felt really grateful for the things that came with that responsibility, these extraordinary experiences. Are there particular thoughts about experiences in your childhood, adolescence, twenties, and now your thirties, that you are grateful for?
HIDDLESTON: I feel so grateful to my mother and father for a happy childhood. There are things I now understand that they were able to give me that are very special. And I think the early years, the first decade of your life, is the most formative in a way. Other than that, I’m grateful for people who have believed in me when others might not have.
CUMBERBATCH: Do you have a drama guru at school or a contemporary who directed you for whom you are particularly grateful?
HIDDLESTON: There was a teacher called Charles Milne. I did a production of Journey’s End at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1999. I was just about to go to Cambridge, and he wrote me a card afterwards that said, “Go to Cambridge and enjoy it. Jump in and enjoy the ride, the experience of it. But maybe on the other side, think about being an actor.” And those moments where someone bolsters your self-belief like that, they are very, very rare. And I’m grateful to Kenneth Branagh. He’s done so much for me. At a particular time in my life, he believed in me in a very material way. I’ll always be grateful to him for that. I even feel grateful for the failures.
CUMBERBATCH: That’s pretty good! But I think you’ve done very well. I wish I’d seen that production of Journey’s End. I think you would have killed it.
HIDDLESTON: I think I saw you act before you even knew who I was.
CUMBERBATCH: When was that?
HIDDLESTON: Hedda Gabler. As Tesman. I remember it very well.
CUMBERBATCH: Oh, gosh. Well, I met you not long after that, I think. Because you were going off to do the first Thor film, and I remember there was a party. I won’t mention whose party it was, but anyways, point is that we just had a social meet-up and I was like, “God, this guy is flying!” You’d just finished Othello, I think.
HIDDLESTON: How did you feel about joining the Marvel universe?
CUMBERBATCH: I felt it was all about the part rather than everything else. I’ve been to Comic-Con, and it’s a very nice way to give back to the fans that drive these things. It was quite scary. I felt like Pink Floyd. It’s just like, “Hello, hi,” after the fans are all screaming. That side of it is just phenomenal, and it makes me giggle, and I don’t know whether I’ll get used to that. I can’t wait to see how it expands the universe. I’m also part of your crew! It’s an amazing cast of actors. And it’s the most fun hard work you’ll ever do, I think, as an actor. They really know how to treat you right. And the material is challenging, witty, and a lot of fun to do. Doctor Strange is a complex, funny, but exciting character.
HIDDLESTON: My friend, thanks for doing this.
CUMBERBATCH: Not at all. Take care.
HIDDLESTON: And, happy birthday!
CUMBERBATCH: Thank you very much. I will wish you sweet dreams there on the far side of the world. See you back in London, then.
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