In the space of one month Tom Hiddleston can be seen as a legendary crooner, a suave British spy and the tenant of a high-tech building who spirals into madness. “I’ve been working nonstop for two years, and there’s a compression of those last two years into one month,” he says. “But in an industry that’s feast or famine, I’ve got no complaints.”
For now, it’s full-on feast for the actor, who has already established a wide fan base not just for his films, but his charm – he always seems to be having the best time, whether making a surprise appearance at Comic-Con or singing with Stephen Colbert. In addition to the miniseries “The Night Manager” on AMC, the actor can be seen in theaters in “I Saw the Light,” Marc Abraham’s faithful biopic of Hank Williams. Later this month, he’ll head an impressive ensemble that includes Sienna Miller and Jeremy Irons in Ben Wheatley’s “High Rise,” an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s 1970s cult novel about residents trapped in a state-of-the-art tower, where things begin to go very, very wrong.
Taking his turn as leading man has been a long time coming for Hiddleston, who shot to fame as the surprisingly sympathetic villain Loki in 2011’s “Thor” and 2012’s “The Avengers.” Wheatley recalls first taking notice of the actor in the latter film. “That film could have been called ‘Loki,’” says the director with a laugh. “Though it was an ensemble, Tom stood out to me so much.”
Outside of the Marvel Universe, Hiddleston has already worked with some of the best directors in the business, from Steven Spielberg in “War Horse” to Woody Allen in “Midnight in Paris.” Last year he starred opposite Jessica Chastain and Mia Wasikowska in Guillermo Del Toro’s gothic romance “Crimson Peak.”
And throughout his career, he’s built a rabid fan base known as “Hiddlestoners.” As a result, pretty much any of his appearances — including a recent weather report for a Chicago TV station — go viral. Hiddleston admits that many people, including journalists, give him the sense that his followers are crazed. “They think my fans are hysterical and delusional, whereas I’ve found them to be fans of the work,” he says. He mentions one reporter who took fan questions online and was shocked by how incisive the questions were. “I think perhaps people tend to group all fans of everyone all together and make them one homogeneous amorphous beast driven only by adoration,” he says. “I’ve always thought of ‘fans’ as another word for an audience. And an actor cannot call himself an actor without an audience to watch his or her work.”
The world is already watching “The Night Manager,” an adaptation of the 1993 John Le Carre novel, in which Hiddleston plays Jonathan Pine, a former soldier who goes undercover to catch an international arms dealer, played by Hugh Laurie. Directed by Oscar winner Susanne Bier, the show has already played to a rapturous response in the UK and premieres tonight in the U.S. on AMC. “It was my big undertaking of last year,” says Hiddleston of the miniseries, which has been updated and set in present day. “It felt so new in many ways and it’s a very contemporary character. And I love that the worst man in the world is played by the most charming man in the world, Hugh Laurie.”
As Pine, Hidldeston gets to put his charm and athleticism on full display, and it has not gone unnoticed that the role serves as a perfect audition for another super-spy, James Bond. Even before rumors of Hiddleston taking on the 007 mantle began, he acknowledges that comparisons were inevitable. “Susanne and I used to talk about Jonathan Pine because we couldn’t ignore the shadow that James Bond casts,” he says. “He’s a British spy and such a figure. So Susanna and I would talk about in what ways Pine is similar to Bond and in what ways he’s different.”
But they also discussed such literary figures as Jason Bourne and Tom Ripley — characters that have both been played by Matt Damon on film. “Jason Bourne was of frequent discussion,” he says. “And Tom Ripley is someone who has the capacity to hide in plain sight and to dissemble and disappear and wear many different faces that people genuinely believe in. “
While he may be the obvious choice to play Pine, the British-born, Shakespearean-trained Hiddleston knows he’s not the first person one would think of to play Hank Williams, the rough-and-tumble country singer — “I’m not even the last person you’d think of!” But Abraham was convinced when he saw Hiddleston in, of all things, “War Horse,” in which he played a British officer in WWI. Though he’d never had formal training as a singer, Hiddleston worked with country star Rodney Crowell and sometimes performed two musical numbers in a day on set. “In many respects, it was crazy,” Hiddleston admits. “I asked Rodney at one point why did I think I could do this? He just said, ‘Cause you got more guts than sense, Tommy.’”
As for the bloody and brutal “High Rise,” available on demand on Apr. 28 and in theaters May 13, he’s aware that the film elicited divisive reactions after its premiere at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. Though made for less than $20 million, “High Rise” marks a massive leap in budget for Wheatley, who cut his teeth on micro-budget films like “Down Terrace” (made for $30,000) and “Kill List” (which cost under $1 million.) The film requires Hiddleston to often be covered in everything from grime to paint (at best) and take part in some horrific acts. Yet Hiddleston credits the filmmaker with creating a fun and creative atmosphere. “Ben is amazing. He is so grounded and real and modest. And his imagination is massive,” says Hiddleston. “For such a dark subject, it’s amazing how much fun I had making it. But I know it’s not for everyone, and not everything should be.”
His future projects are sure to be more mainstream. Hiddleston is just back from “running through the jungles” of Vietnam, where he finished a six-month shoot for next year’s “Kong: Skull Island” opposite Brie Larson and John Goodman. He’s soon off reprise his star-making role as Loki in “Thor: Raganarok,” which will take him through Christmas.
But for now, he’s immersed in promoting his current projects, and thrilled that all three are so different from each other. “I feel like I won the lottery in that regard,” he notes. “I’m allowed to make such different things. I don’t feel like I’m stuck doing one thing or staying in one lane.”