Tom Hiddleston said that when he saw the description of his character in John Le Carré’s “The Night Manager,” he read it to his sisters: “He’s a graduate of a rainy archipelago of orphanages and foster homes, a sometime army wolf child with a special unit, an itinerant chef hotelier and volunteer collector of other people’s languages, in perpetual escape from emotional entanglement, a self-exiled creature of the night, and sailor without a destination.”
Their response was immediate and unanimous: “Oh my God, it’s you!”
Hiddleston has come a long way in a short time. Back in 2008, when he was shooting the “Wallander” crime series with Kenneth Branagh in Sweden, he went to see Marvel’s “Iron Man,” and asked himself if he could ever star in a film like that. He knew he was almost nabbing the big movie parts — but the money men kept signing recognizable names.
Of course, Branagh directed Marvel’s “Thor” (2011), and cast Hiddleston as the villain Loki. Since then he’s also played a light-hearted F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Woody Allen hit “Midnight in Paris,” and the stalwart cavalry captain Nichols in Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse.” The actor made passionate love — and war — with Rachel Weisz in British filmmaker Terence Davies’ grim post-World War II two-hander “The Deep Blue Sea.” He took on Shakespeare’s Henry V in the BBC teleplays of “Henry V” and “Henry IV,” I and II. He joined Jim Jarmusch’s vampire ensemble on “Only Lovers Left Alive,” opposite Tilda Swinton.
And, he kept playing Loki. In Joss Whedon’s global blockbuster “The Avengers,” the agent of chaos was so powerful that it took Iron Man, The Hulk, Captain America, and Thor to rise up against him. And at Comic-Con 2013, Loki strode onto the stage and took the full measure of Hall H. The crowd screamed with joy, and the video (below) went viral.
“It was huge fun,” he told me in our wide-ranging interview. “I don’t think I’ll ever have an other moment like it. It was very rare because it was pure theater, on a grand scale. It was a character from cinema in movies becoming a live thing…it was so unrepeatable, there was no second take, nobody expected it, it was a surprise for everyone and for me. I almost couldn’t keep it together, the sheer intensity of that energy coming towards me, was something I had not expected, and the volume.”
On his promo jaunts, Hiddleston likes to keep it light, from reading Shakespeare love sonnets to forecasting the weather at local TV stations. “I take the work seriously and I don’t take myself seriously,” he said. “My sisters would tell you that I can’t help it… So I have no dignity or vanity left!”
Next, after a three-year Marvel hiatus, he’s about to join Chris Hemsworth in “Thor: Ragnarok.” “In Norse mythology it’s the end of the world, or the universe, the end of all things, time and space and matter as we know it,” he said. “It’s a big moment. I can’t think of another example where as an actor you play the same character actor and have breaks. I don’t know how it will be different. I know it will be. It has to be. I’m three years older and have done some things in between. We’ll see. That character has such room or growth and complexity because he’s walking this tightrope between a latent mischief and malevolence and a capacity for redemption.”
Now Hiddleston gets his pick of parts, as one of those bankable actors who can get movies made. With Loki behind him, he can afford to challenge himself and take chances. He’s full of confidence, willing to take on the much-questioned role of Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light,” for which he had to learn guitar and sing (and delivered, even if the movie didn’t), as well as the gothic romantic lead in Guillermo del Toro’s “Crimson Peak” and the harried tenant in Ben Wheatley’s UK hit “High-Rise.”
And he carries the BBC’s six-part mini-series “The Night Manager,” which debuted to strong reviews on AMC April 19 following its global ratings success. Taking a page from director Cary Fukunaga’s “True Detective,” showrunner Stephen Garrett, along with executive producers Stephen and Simon Cornwell (Le Carré’s sons), saw the wisdom of letting one director, Susanne Bier, take the helm for the entire series, shooting it like a six-hour movie.
The star of this globe-trotting espionage thriller is well-matched to her subtle, intuitive directing style. Often shown in close-ups on his deep blue eyes, Hiddleston is elegant and dangerous, sexy and vengeful as Jonathan Pine, the hotelier who is recruited by a British intelligence officer (Olivia Colman) in order to trap an evil arms dealer (Hugh Laurie). We aren’t sure what he’s up to, and that’s what keeps viewers watching.
For Bier, Hiddleston’s screen allure is more than his obvious physical beauty. “There’s a certain incredibly enigmatic quality to his eyes,” she said. “You aren’t sure you can trust him, but you are sure there is a pain there that he doesn’t show. He’s so immaculate and fun and elegant and charming, and there is somewhere inside of him a painfulness, which I think for most women, is irresistible.”
The first spy novel by Le Carré (“The Constant Gardener,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) to be made for television in 20 years, “The Night Manager” was updated from post-Cold-War 1993 by screenwriter David Farr (Joe Wright’s “Hanna”). It begins in Cairo during the 2011 Arab spring as Pine, a Iraq War veteran, sprints through chaotic streets to the sanctuary of his luxury hotel. There, a mysterious woman reveals to him top-secret information about her lover, a violent arms dealer who has dealings with British merchant of death Richard Roper (Laurie).
Why should Pine take on such a dangerous mission? “Some of it is about guilt, some of it is about revenge, and a kind of moral rage,” Hiddleston said. “So much is informed by his history as a soldier. Richard Roper trades in standard and chemical weapons and arms, he sells to the highest builder and has divorced himself from the consequences of the violence from which he profits. Pine was a soldier in the second Iraq war in 2003 and he knows what those weapons can do to a body. He knows that the very premise of that war was predicated on the existence of weapons of the worst kind… The thing I find romantic is he’s courageous enough to stand up against the face of evil.”
The actor takes his time making his own choices about what to play. And he turns Hollywood down all the time in favor of roles that keep him on his toes. While Hank Williams’ tortures as an artist spoke to him, both Williams and Pine are “characters who express something that is true of life and true of me,” said Hiddleston, “which is that there is an exterior and an interior, and both characters unconsciously or not, are perceived in the world in a particular way.
“But behind the facade is something more turbulent and vulnerable. So Hank was this incredibly charismatic performer, a huge star, witty and generous of spirit as a performer. But he was hiding a lot of complex difficult emotions in his own life. And Jonathan Pine is the face of elegance and duty and modesty and self discipline but behind that uniform is something very chaotic and he’s on fire inside, with a kind of moral anger, but it’s all covered by his immaculate presentation as a night manager.”
In real life, Hiddleston said, “we are all scrutinizing each other all the time, everyone tries to put their best foot forward. That’s the essence of identity that I find fascinating. In order to lead constructive and happy lives we try to be the best versions of ourselves. But bumps in the road are internalized, and people go through private turmoil, I believe.”
Is he ready for James Bond? He’s on the short list — although he hasn’t been approached — and “The Night Manager” plays like an audition for 007. “Part of testing myself is I always wanted to be the kind of actor that could move,” he said, “I didn’t stay in one lane, you know. I like a challenge.”