STORY WRITTEN BY AMY LONGSDORF
For Digital First Media
If Tom Hiddleston went looking for a role far removed from his famous turn as the villainous Loki in “The Avengers” movies, he couldn’t have picked better than hillbilly icon Hank Williams in “I Saw The Light.”
Where “The Avengers” and the assorted Marvel movies featuring Loki are pure fantasies, Marc Abraham’s biopic is a gritty, rags-to-riches look at the singer/songwriter whose hits like “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Hey, Good Lookin’” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” are still revered today.
But for Hiddleston, surprisingly, there’s not much difference between “I Saw The Light” and the latest Marvel adventure.
“Are you saying ‘The Avengers’ isn’t a true story?,” teases the actor, 35. “Honestly, I think the interesting thing about this question is that for the audience, the difference is greater than for actors.
“Our job, our obligation and our duty is to step into characters and play them truthfully, whether that’s a Norse god of mischief, or a North American icon, and so in terms of that commitment of empathy and psychological excavation, to me there is actually no difference. I’m flexing or exercising the same dramatic muscle.
“Of course, it’s different in process. [I was able to] go down to Shreveport [to shoot ‘I Saw The Light’] and find real locations and inhabit those locations, without any sort of supplemental green screen or visual effects. So, in that regard, it’s different. But the acting part of it, the extension of compassion and understanding — that’s the same.”
When the London-born Hiddleston was initially announced as the star of “I Saw The Light,” some eyebrows were raised at the notion of a Brit playing such an American figure.
But Hiddleston took pains to make sure he could slip easily into Williams’ skin. Before production began, the actor travelled to Nashville for a crash course in country music. He holed up in the home of the film’s music producer Rodney Crowell and promptly learned how to speak with a twang and perfect Williams’ lonesome blue yodel.
“When I went to Nashville and spent some time preparing for this, I started to understand that country music is America’s folk music, and it comes right from the blues,” says Hiddleston.
“The blues is so deeply engrained in the American soul. I have a whole new appreciation for it, which has been really thrilling, especially because Hank is right in the center of it. He’s the cornerstone.
“Hank was taught the blues, and then he made them his own. People who came after him took him as an inspiration to make their own music. Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and all these people think Hank is the brightest start in the firmament.”
Hiddleston spent a lot of time thinking about why so many music fans continue to be enthralled by Williams’ songs more than six decades after his death. As the actor was musing on the subject, he flashed back to a conversation he had with Anthony Hopkins during the making of “Thor.”
“Anthony very sweetly invited me to his house for breakfast, and he said, “ I’ve played a lot of parts in my life. I’ve played kings and princes and warriors and thieves. But when people stop me in the street, they ask me about one man: Hannibal Lecter.
“He said, ‘People want their lives to be full of love and laughter and friendship and family. But when they listen to music, or go to the theater, or go to the cinema, they want somebody who’s brave enough to lean into the darkness.’
“I just thought it was the most powerful thing. It’s a very strong memory, and it became a touchstone for me because I realized that was what Hank was doing, actually. That was the role he served.
“He made people connect to the power of his songs because he wasn’t afraid to lean into the darkness.”
Much of Williams’ darkness seems to stem from his tempestuous marriage to first wife Audrey Sheppard. (Elizabeth Olsen). The pair married young and had a child – Hank Jr. – early on. Eight years into their union, they divorced.
By then, Williams was already an alcoholic. He was also addicted to morphine and other painkillers which he took to help ease the pain of spina bifida. Williams died on Jan. 1, 1953, at the age of 29 from heart failure.
“In Marc’s mind and in my mind there’s no question that the authenticity of Hank’s writing comes from that [marriage], largely,” says Hiddleston. “They were young, and they were going places and energetic and deeply in love.
“But they were poor too and impetuous and strong-headed and impulsive. They were the kind of couple that fought as much as they were kind to each other.
“But I don’t think Hank would have become Hank Williams without Audrey because she had the head for business and she kept him straight and on time, and introduced him to various business contacts and managers.
“It is obviously a very complex and difficult relationship …. And Lizzie and I enjoyed playing it very much.”
Nearly as enjoyable for Hiddleston was figuring out how to sing like Williams. While some songs came quickly for the actor, others like the yodel-heavy “Lovesick Blues” took an excruciating ten days in the studio to master.
“I had days where I felt like I was bashing my head against a brick wall because Rodney Crowell and I would do take after take after take because if I was rhythmically precise, the pitch was off,” says Hiddleston. “And if the pitch and the rhythm were right, Rodney would say, “Well, you weren’t really feeling it. I lost your sincerity, I lost the twinkle. Can you put that back?”
“Then I’d have to twinkle, and I’d go off rhythm again…It was a fascinating experience for me because I still believe singing is the most naked form of emotional expression.”
The son of a stage manager mother and a chemist father, Hiddleston studied at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, from which he graduated in 2005. After about four years of appearing exclusively in British films and television, the actor enjoyed a breakthrough as Loki in 2011’s “Thor.”
Hiddleston insists he doesn’t think too much about being famous.
“The only thing I have control over is my work,” he says. “How I am perceived is beyond my control. … But I’m very grateful that there are people who enjoy my work. That’s the takeaway for me.
“If Loki garnered fans, then it’s a source of pride because it means they believed in the character and enjoyed the character. The fact that he struck a chord with audiences is still a source of surprise and delight.
“I had no idea he was going to be such a popular character, and it continues to surprise me, to be honest. I’m just lucky enough to be able to keep doing the work and if there are people out there who want to watch it, then I’m happy.”
Next up, Hiddleston will appear alongside Brie Larson, Tom Wilkinson, Thomas Mann, Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman in “Kong: Skull Island,” a reboot of the King Kong franchise. The action film is scheduled to open in 2017.
Right now, Hiddleston is basking in the glow of the rave reviews he’s been receiving for “I Saw The Light.” Not surprisingly, the feedback which has meant the most to him came from Hank’s daughter Jett and granddaughter Holly.
“Jett came on the set and she said it was like looking at a ghost. It was very surreal for her, because I was in costume, in the suit and wearing the hat… So it was an incredibly intimate time and I was very happy to meet her. I got a beautiful letter from her after she’d seen the film.
“I also received a letter from Holly Williams, who is Hank Jr.’s daughter…She wrote me one of those letters you keep forever. She loved the movie and felt like we’d done her family proud.
“I remember she just said she was blown away, and her favorite scene was when Lizzie and I sing, “I Saw the Light” to the baby who is her father, when he was 18 days old. She just loved that scene so much. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I got that [letter].
“When you get approval from the family, the family whose legacy you’re trying to protect, that’s really all you need.”