BEYOND THE LIGHTS
Tom Hiddleston on Hank Williams, Amy Winehouse, and the Curse of Celebrity
The acclaimed actor opens up about music, his chemistry with co-star Elizabeth Olsen, and why he feels Blake Fielder-Civil is ‘hugely culpable’ in the passing of Amy Winehouse.
To say that Tom Hiddleston is “dashing” or “gentlemanly,” as profiles of the actor so often do, is an understatement. Hiddleston is the type of British guy American coeds study abroad to meet. You know, the one Matthew Goode portrays in movies—blue eyes, Eton- and Cambridge-educated, wears the hell out of a suit, a paragon of charm. Perhaps Elizabeth Debicki, his co-star in AMC’s upcoming miniseries The Night Manager, said it best: “He is just so darn handsome and such a courteous gentleman that it was almost impossible not to fall completely in love with him.”
This inherent geniality makes his journeys to the dark side even more compelling, whether it’s the villainous Norse god Loki in Marvel’s Thor films, an ex-pilot seducing a married woman in The Deep Blue Sea, or as Adam, a reclusive vampire-rocker tortured by immortality in Only Lovers Left Alive. And it’s what makes his performance as country music legend Hank Williams in the music biopic I Saw the Light so effective.
In Marc Abraham’s film, Hiddleston not only looks and sounds like Williams—he performed the songs himself—but manages to capture how this fresh-faced musical prodigy transmogrified into a self-destructive womanizer, boozehound, and pill-popper whose overconsumption claimed his life at the age of 29. Williams’ life story is dramatized through his tumultuous relationship with first wife (and later manager) Audrey, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Their chemistry is so palpable onscreen that it’s sparked rumors the two are dating in real life, which, whether true or not, is a testament to their performances.
As Hiddleston digs into a steak lunch, we chat about his transformation into Hank Williams, the plight of the celebrity musician, and much, much more.
The last time we spoke was for Only Lovers Left Alive, where you played another dark musician. There does seem to be a kinship there between that vampire and Hank Williams, in terms of the demons haunting them and being imprisoned by their disease.
Entirely. Having music to make and being imprisoned by the response, or the professional requirement. It’s so interesting you made that connection. Very few people have, and I’m happy that you have, because Jim [Jarmusch] wrote that Adam, my character in Only Lovers, has this Wall of Fame that Tilda’s character finds amusing. It’s portraits of people who he feels have contributed significantly to the human race: Christopher Marlowe, Nikola Tesla, Iggy Pop, Rodney Dangerfield… and Hank Williams is up there. These were all Jim’s heroes. I had read the script for I Saw the Light but hadn’t fully committed, and I said, “Jim, Hank’s up there,” and Jim said to me, “Well, obviously. He’s one of the great American poets.”
So he Inception’d you. Jim Jarmusch planted the kernel.
He kind of did, actually! Maybe it’s less explicit in Only Lovers, but there’s a tension between the need to make music and the complexity of having to deal with the response in the outside world. Adam doesn’t even want people to know it was him, he just wants the music out there in the universe; he doesn’t even label his records. He doesn’t want to deal with being famous, and I think that was at the center of what Hank struggled with. There’s a great documentary called Honky Tonk Blues with lots of eyewitness accounts from all of his old band members—Don Helms, Merle Kilgore, Lum York, Danny Dill—and they’re all interviewed and said Hank used to say, “They’re slicin’ me up and sellin’ me like bologna.” And Hank didn’t like it. It makes me sad to think about it.
How do you feel, then, about managing that conflict within yourself? There’s the desire to create art and there’s also what people take from you in order to allow you to do it.
Is it Warhol who said, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it.” I wish I had that freedom, in a way, but I understand the obligation in the world now to give context to the work. At the same time, the work is the only thing that endures—if it endures at all. It’s an interesting conundrum, isn’t it? Especially with the sheer volume and diversity of noise out there.
Hank is someone who burned so bright, so fast. How does one capture that level of unbridled creativity?
It’s started with him when he was 24, but he’d been preparing for it his whole life. He started learning the guitar at age 6, and ingested the whole blues tradition. Musically he was ready, but it’s about his youth. He fell victim—as many young artists do with accelerated fame—to temptation. He had money, women throwing themselves at him, and no one around him as a ballast to keep him anchored. Everyone close to him wanted a piece. And during that process, he just kept writing, which explains his prodigious output. He was part of this tempestuous marriage, and how could that not be the engine room from which lyrics like, “Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?” come from. To me, Hank was burning in the cauldron of his own life, and making music. It just happens to great artists sometimes. I’m trying to think of a comparison, really.
Yup. And I think Amy Winehouse is another good example. She wrote “Rehab,” and I’m not sure it’s advisable that these people aren’t going to take advice, and unfortunately, it does produce great art. Did you see the documentary Amy? Excellent. The most troubling aspect to it I found was the examination of celebrity. Those sequences where she’s looking frail and being trailed by paparazzi, you get a sense that each camera flash is slowly killing her.
I think that’s absolutely true, and it’s terrifying. I think she had nowhere to go. I found the parallels with Hank to be shocking. As you see in Amy, she had very few people around her to give her stability. And Blake Fielder-Civil is, in my mind, hugely culpable. She was trying to get better. There’s the concert in Belgrade, Serbia, where she was high and in no physical state to perform, and the first song on the bill was supposed to be “Rehab,” and she just didn’t do it; she sat there onstage and walked off. I called Marc Abraham after and I said, “Dude, you have to see Asif Kapadia’s documentary. The exact same thing happens to Amy Winehouse.” When Hank’s got back problems and is probably high and can’t perform and he goes onstage, rather than do “Hey Good Lookin’” or “Lovesick Blues,” which is what everyone came to see, he does this haunting Luke the Drifter stuff.
This can be a tough question to answer, and we all go through musical phases, but who were the musicians that shaped you during your formative teen years?
It was The Rolling Stones and Radiohead. I was 15 when The Bends came out, and I grew up in the same town as them—Oxford—and I knew they were from Oxford, and I just completely connected to them. It was so cool. Every album was different. And, like every other 15-year-old, that’s when I discovered The Stones. I still go through phases with The Stones. That music they made in the early ’70s was dazzling and eternal.
It’s not quite the same with other bands as it is with The Stones. When you listen to them, there’s this sense of transference where you feel like some of their cool is rubbing off on you.
Right. Weirdly enough, I think The Beatles changed the world, were more progressive, and developed more as musicians, but they just don’t quite give me as much pleasure. I also loved Oasis as well. As a teenager in the ’90s, I went to HMV and one of my first CDs I ever bought is—well, I bought three: Nirvana’s Nevermind, R.E.M.’s Out of Time, and Definitely Maybe by Oasis. I love Nirvana too, by the way.
When I was studying in London, there were just nights where you’d end up at a bar drunk with your friends singing “Don’t Look Back in Anger.”
[Laughs] I know! I know how to play it on the piano. I sing it routinely.
What about your own musical background? Did you ever harbor dreams of rock stardom?
I didn’t have the hubris, and I just thought I didn’t have the talent, to be honest.
I guess when Radiohead comes from your hometown, it can be a bit daunting.
[Laughs] Exactly. You think, ehhh I’m just gonna leave this one to them. But I love playing the guitar, and started playing the guitar around then. I was learning classical guitar and always wish I had gone directly into the hard stuff. I just noodled around with songs I liked, but was never in a band. It was just dicking around in my bedroom playing “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” I love group-singing, and I knew I wasn’t completely tone-deaf because I had been in musicals, but I never thought, “Oh, I’m a singer.” In fact, that’s still how I feel.
The music biopic is a tough cookie to crack. You’re portraying an icon, and the form is under attack now, where nobody wants to do the boilerplate film that chronicles the person’s life from childhood to death.
You don’t feel trepidation [portraying an icon], you feel abject terror. But we thought about it, and ultimately thought that to be formulaic. It is interesting that he basically gave all his tour money to Rufus Payne, this guy they called Tee Tot, in exchange for guitar lessons. And Rufus clearly taught Hank the ways of the blues. Marc’s idea was to tie together the music and the marriage—that Hank had a very powerful sexuality, and that sexuality was part of his charisma as a star, but also his demons as a man. He was difficult to live with, loved women—but was unintentionally cruel to them.
You and Liz Olsen never really crossed paths in the superhero world, but had you wanted to work together for a while?
Yeah, we never met in the Marvel Universe. We met at an audition years ago—I can’t say what it was for, but it was a bullet dodged, to be honest with you. Neither of us should have been there. In the studio system, they are so careful about chemistry so we had a chemistry test, and it was in New York, actually. We were in there for an hour, and there was a recognition of, “That was really fun. I’d really like to work with you sometime.” We stayed friends after that, so we’ve known each other for a long time. That was back in November 2011, so a long time ago. Then I’d see her in London—she’d come over to London for a few things—and I saw her again at the BAFTAs. It was a nice thing of staying friends. And when our casting director said to Marc, “Do you know Lizzie Olsen?” I said, “That’s a brilliant idea. Book her. Do it.” She does a wonderful job defending Audrey, too. She’s had a rough go in the history books, but she shows that living with this man was not easy.
You’ve managed to strike this nice balance in your career. Right now, you’re promoting a music biopic, a gonzo sci-fi thriller [High-Rise], and an AMC miniseries [The Night Manager].
Thank you. When Thor: The Dark World opened, and I knew I wasn’t in Age of Ultron, it was the first time I had had clear water ahead of me—a chunk of time that wasn’t immediately filled with my next engagement for Marvel—and it felt very exciting. Since 2010, I’d played Loki six months out of every year for three years, and then there had been the promotion aspect, which is a few more months, so it takes up a lot of time. It felt like I had some room, and I wanted to find provocative, different work.