Tom Hiddleston goes deep to find his inner Hank Williams in I Saw the Light

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in a scene from, I Saw The Light. SAM EMERSON / AP

 

It was a trial by fire watched by thousands.

In September of 2014,  British actor Tom Hiddleston had just arrived in the U.S. to begin some intense musical training with singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell to prepare for his lead role in the Hank Williams’ biopic I Saw the Light.

But a few days after the actor’s arrival, Crowell had to leave his Nashville-area home for a gig at the Wheatland Music Festival in Michigan.

“I just tagged along for the ride, hoping to pick up a few observations about how musicians travel on the road and what it was like being in a band,” said Hiddleston, in a phone interview from New York. “He very unceremoniously introduced me and I sang Move it On Over in front of 50,000 people at a time when I was perhaps not ready for it. But it was the best thing that could have happened, because I experienced the rush of adrenalin and the excitement and the power of the connection with the audience. In that moment, even though the performance is a little bit rough, it was still fun and unforgettable.”

The casting of Hiddleston as the doomed, pioneering country crooner Williams certainly raised some eyebrows. When the Wheatland performance went public, Williams’ grandson Hank Williams III made no secret of the fact that he thought producers of the film had chosen the wrong actor from the wrong country, suggesting an American should have been cast.

But while his debut performance singing Hank may have been “a little bit rough,” it was only the beginning of Hiddleston’s stunning transformation. He spent five weeks living with Crowell at his home, often putting in 12-hour days to prepare for the musical challenges of the role. At that point, the classically trained actor was probably best known as Thor’s supervillain brother Loki in the Avengers blockbusters. But director Marc Abraham, who had been obsessed with Williams for years, zeroed in on the British actor after seeing him in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse.

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams, left, and Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams in a scene from, I Saw the Light. SAM EMERSON /  AP

Losing the British accent wasn’t a problem. Anyone who has seen Hiddleston on talk shows knows he is a gifted mimic with a penchant for nailing different dialects.

But embodying Hank Williams was in many ways a physical process. While perhaps less visual, it was just as formidable a feat of transformation as the weight-gain or loss methods that chameleon-like thespians Robert De Niro or Christian Bale go through for roles.

As a singer, Hiddleston is a baritone, while Williams had that famously twangy tenor. So among the work the actor did with Crowell was take his singing voice out of his “chest and into his head,” which is where a tenor resonates.

“I received classical training in the theatre and that is a practical discipline,” Hiddleston says. “It’s a retraining of your voice and your body to be able to deliver classical text on stage. Rodney recognized that I knew how to work hard and I understood at least what that kind of work was. It’s not academic work, it’s not even really intellectual work. It’s the will to just keep practising at something that is physical until it becomes second nature. Singing is a very physical thing to do. It isn’t intellectual, it is about a commitment of your instrument, the arrangement of your flesh and bones and your resonance.”

 

Which is not to say the actor’s all-or-nothing commitment was purely physical. Hank Williams, who rose to fame in the 1940s and died at the age of 29 in 1953, had a number of personal demons for Hiddleston to negotiate. He was born with spina bifida, a painful spinal- column birth defect that eventually led the singer to debilitating drug and alcohol addiction. I Saw the Light, which opens Friday, also spends a good deal of time focusing on Williams’ prickly relationships with women, including his overbearing mother (Cherry Jones) and first wife Audrey (Elizabeth Olsen). But, for Hiddleston, a major part of the tragedy in Williams’ life was how quickly he became disillusioned with the fame he fought so hard to achieve.

“He was driven to be the biggest star in the game, that’s what he wanted,” Hiddleston says. “And then what happened is when he got there, he found there was nothing there. He wanted to be somebody and he became somebody — he became more than somebody, he became somebody everybody knew. Once he was in that spotlight, on that stage, he realized that it wasn’t going to answer to his problems. It wasn’t going to make him feel complete. And that’s when he started struggling. He started turning towards other things. He was ill-equipped for fame. It happened too fast and that’s when he turned to all the temptations that came with it: the women, the drink, the drugs.” 

The irony is that Hiddleston was acting out this cautionary tale about fame just as his own star was on the rise. 

He became tabloid fodder when shooting I Saw the Light amid speculations that he was romantically involved with Olsen, although both have denied the rumours.

The 35-year-old actor is currently making the publicity rounds, both for I Saw the Light and the hotly anticipated AMC miniseries, The Night Manager, which premières in April 19. Based on John le Carre’s novel, it has Hiddleston playing a British intelligence officer who attempts to infiltrate the inner circle of a businessman, and suspected arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie.

The role has garnered quite a bit of attention, some of it strange. After a recent appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the actor’s posterior was a hot topic of conversation thanks to a scene in The Night Manager featuring his bare derrière. It even has its own hashtag:#Hilddlebum, if you’re curious.  (As an aside, Calgary audiences can also catch his starring role in the dramatic thriller High-Rise this Friday night at the Globe Cinema as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival. Based on J.G. Ballard’s unsettling novel, Hiddleston reportedly strips naked in that film as well.)

There has also been rampant speculation that Hiddleston is in line to inherit Daniel Craig’s James Bond role. These rumours also spring from his role in The Night Manager, Hiddleston believes.

“It is pure speculation,” he said. “I suspect that it has come out of the Night Manager. I think people have made the link. It’s really had nothing to do with me and everything to do with The Night Manager. I’ve just been at the centre of the rumour mill and powerless to stop it.”

Still, Hiddleston credits his relatively late arrival as a movie and film star for keeping him grounded as his career heats up.

Long before he began to gain any traction in TV and film, he was a breakout star in British theatre, even earning the prestigious Best Newcomer in a Play Laurence Olivier Award in 2008.

“I honestly feel lucky that whatever relative success I’ve had as an actor has happened to me a little bit later,” he says. “Nobody really knew who I was until I was about 30. And maybe just being a little bit older and having had some life experience under my belt … I don’t know. I love what I do enormously and I take the work seriously and the rest of it I don’t take very seriously because it’s ephemeral and inconstant and so I have no attachment to it. Which is, I hope, while I’m able to enjoy it.”

I Saw the Light opens Friday.