Today we offer a special “Passion Projects” edition of “Stagecraft,” with Variety‘s deputy awards and features editor Jenelle Riley speaking to actor Tom Hiddleston about his recent production of “Hamlet,” directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Hiddleston, who rose to prominence playing the God of Mischief Loki in “Thor” and subsequent films like “The Avengers,” will be reprising the role in theaters with “Avengers: Infinity War,” opening this week. But he began his career in the theater, where he discovered early on the works of William Shakespeare, which have remained a constant throughout his professional life, having appeared in several adaptations, including “Cymbeline” and “Coriolanus” onstage and in the BBC’s “Hollow Crown” series.
Among other things, Hiddleston cites a 1997 production of “Othello” at the Royal National Theater directed by Sam Mendes for opening his eyes to what Shakespeare could be. “I was blown clean away. I just understood it, I connected with it, it was as alive as any piece of art I’d ever seen,” he says. “That sort of opened my eyes to what Shakespeare could be. And this is so important, I think, for people because at school it seems dusty and stuffy and scary … and it’s not that at all. It’s alive, it’s vital and its electrifying and it’s present and it’s for everyone. And that’s the first moment for me that I understood that.”
Last fall, he portrayed one of the Bard’s most iconic characters in a production of “Hamlet” directed by Kenneth Branagh. The fundraiser for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts was already hot ticket for obvious reasons, made all the more scorching by the fact it was performed in a 160-seat theater with admission being determined by a lottery system. Of the staging, which was done in a thrust configuration in the small space, Hiddleston says, “I knew that was going to give us two things: It was going to give me nowhere to hide. Which I love as an actor, I’m a sucker for punishment. And it was going to give them nowhere to hide. They weren’t outside the action watching it, they became a part of it.”
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But if you weren’t one of the lucky few to score a ticket, fear not, as Hiddleston drops more than a few passages from the play during the discussion, where he also talks about gender swapping some of the roles. “There were 10 actors, five men, five women,” he says of their cast. “Famously, Shakespeare wrote many, many parts for men and less parts for women. But we were going to have a completely 50/50 cast. And we made that decision before even interpreting what those decisions might reveal about character. So Horaitio became Horaitia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern became Rosacrantz and Guildastern.”
Adds Hiddleston, “What happens is the people who are closest to Hamlet are all women, and what that reveals about the part and how that reflects and inflects the relationship with Ophelia – then you start to see that Hamlet is a young student prince who’s had lots of different complex relationships with different women of his own age as opposed to just one.”
Though the Prince of Denmark is a famously tortured character, Hiddleston reveals he didn’t take the doom and gloom home with him. “I was happy playing Hamlet, which is odd, isn’t it? I was aware of the weight but it was more the weight of the profundity of the questions he’s asking.” He cites the infamous “To be or not to be speech,” saying he loved asking the audience what the value of life is at every performance. “I think everybody should play Hamlet, I think everybody should have the good fortune to ask that question.”
The conversation comes full circle to his work in the Marvel Universe, not only because it was Branagh who gave him his break by casting him as Loki, but because the character and story are so Shakespearean in many way. “He is a fascinating contradiction,” Hiddleston of the trickster, adding, “It has been one of the great unexpected surprises of my life, playing this part. I’ve loved it. I didn’t expect to play it for this long and I feel really honored to be in it, I really do.”
Having recently done a press conference with some of his “Infinity War” co-stars, he adds, “I sit alongside these extraordinary, charismatic actors, some of the greatest actors in the world and think: How the hell did I get here?”
Listen to the full podcast below.