He is in one of the autumn’s most eagerly awaited productions, he already has a Laurence Olivier Award on his mantelpiece and, as he puts it, is ‘playing with the big boys now’. But for Tom Hiddleston, the events of the past year have all been quite surprising, he tells Caroline Bishop.
As years go, 2008 has been a pretty good one for 27-year-old Tom Hiddleston. He began it appearing alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor in Othello at the Donmar Warehouse; by March he had won Best Newcomer at the Laurence Olivier Awards for his performance in Cymbeline at the Barbican. The spring was occupied filming a new television series alongside Kenneth Branagh, and now, in September, he is back with Branagh in the highly anticipated production of Chekhov’s Ivanov, which kicks off the Donmar West End season at the Wyndham’s this month.
“Ken says that he’s calling this year his Hiddleston year,” says the young actor when we meet during a lunch break from rehearsals for Ivanov. Tall, with a head of unruly blond hair, his presence illuminates this cold, drab room filled with racks of colourless 19th century Russian costumes. “Maybe I should call it my Branagh year,” he adds with a shrug and a smile, seemingly unaware quite how impressive that is for a young actor to be able to say.
But then Hiddleston has not quite taken in the events of the past year just yet. “I’ve been working so much that I forget to stop and think about how I’m doing, you know,” he says. “I forget that I’m doing ok.”
He is doing better than ok. In Ivanov, Hiddleston and other rising young star Andrea Riseborough join an experienced cast that includes Branagh, Gina McKee, Malcolm Sinclair and Kevin R McNally. Chekhov’s drama has been reworked for this production by multi-award-winning playwright Tom Stoppard, and is directed by Michael Grandage, the Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, the small but much lauded Covent Garden venue which is courting a larger audience by producing this season of work at the Wyndham’s.
Hiddleston’s route to the production began when the cast of Othello were asked to read through Stoppard’s version of Ivanov one afternoon at the Donmar. “I had made it quite clear to him [Grandage] that I’d had one of the great times of my life doing Othello, and I said look, anything you think I’m right for, you just let me know, and he said what about this? So I said yes and there we were!”
He plays Luvov, an idealistic young doctor who attends Anna, the seriously ill wife of Branagh’s Ivanov, and criticises the dubious morals of her husband, a once wealthy and respectable man who is spiralling into debt and self-destruction. “[Luvov] is a young man who burns with this ideological passion about how life should be lived, which often is quite self-righteous,” says Hiddleston. “I have to tread this line between intellectual revolutionary and prig. Because he’s a bit of a prig – he makes no secret of his dislike for Ivanov and his lack of respect for the way he behaves. He thinks that Anna Petrovna is dying faster than she should be because of his neglect of her, essentially.”
“I had made it quite clear to Grandage that I’d had one of the great times of my life doing Othello”
Luvov is “a beetle on Ivanov’s back” during the play, constantly criticising the older man. “He says at one point, ‘until I met you I could accept that people could lose their minds and do wicked things when they couldn’t help themselves, but I never knew there were people who could consciously and wilfully commit evil. You have poisoned my faith in humanity.’ Which is quite a big thing to say about someone!” Hiddleston laughs.
It is quite a big thing for a young actor to have to say to Branagh, but then Hiddleston is not intimidated by working with big names, because “I always find that the ones who are really good are also really nice, that’s my experience of it. The best actors I’ve always found are the most generous somehow.”
Working on Othello with McGregor and Ejiofor – who won a Best Actor Laurence Olivier Award for his role as the Moor – was “very, very special”, says Hiddleston sincerely. “They were just great; not only phenomenal actors – I mean, from day one I was like right, I’m playing with the big boys now – but they are just very nice people, they’re really proper, you know.”
The intimate, spatially-challenged backstage at the Donmar created a camaraderie between the 12-strong cast that was “like being in a trench or a dormitory or on a holiday camp in a way”, he says, before laughing loudly and amending himself, “it’s much nicer and more comfortable than a trench; they don’t have showers in a trench!”
“We had such a laugh,” he continues. “It was one of those shows where you’re doing a very intense, very sad, despairing tragedy, and off-stage everyone’s having a whale of a time. We really were. My friends get very bored when I talk about Othello because it was just one of the happiest times in my life, we were all really close.”
His experienced colleagues were also able to give Hiddleston, who is just three years out of drama school, some useful advice. “Chiwetel said one thing to me which is about choosing the work that you do, which is that you should always go for the new experience. So if you’ve got a choice between a couple of good things, go for the thing that you haven’t tried.
“But mostly just from watching them you learn there’s a lack of cynicism to the way they work, they just go for it. Because I think sometimes people can be so afraid of committing, because to commit means to acknowledge that you could fail as well. They are just fearless. That’s the one thing I have learnt from watching them, just go for it.”
“The best actors I’ve always found are the most generous somehow”
It must have rubbed off. Hiddleston was nominated for a newly created Laurence Olivier Award, Best Newcomer, for his performance as Cassio in Othello. He didn’t win – he was beaten by himself, for his dual role as Posthumus and Cloten in Cheek By Jowl’s production of Cymbeline, which played at the Barbican in 2007. “I can’t describe it really. I was sort of nonplussed. I was completely bowled over,” he says of his double nomination. “It was only after the event I was like, Wow. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I keep coming out with this phrase in my life at the moment – ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen’. It seems like surprises keep coming.”
Does he think he won for the right performance? He laughs loudly, sitting back in his chair and looking mildly embarrassed by the question. He says due to the table arrangement at the awards ceremony, he thought if he won it would be for Othello. But he is equally proud of his achievement in Cymbeline, which saw him doing a Clark Kent/Superman impression with on-stage costume changes to switch between the two characters. “For Posthumus I had some wire-rimmed glasses and a big cream trenchcoat… and then for Cloten the trenchcoat came off, the glasses came off and I undid the jacket and I was like, ‘hi!’” he laughs. “I had forgotten actually that it was difficult. When I was rehearsing it I just remembered the cold sweats every single night going, ‘how am I going to do this?; I’m not sure that I can.’”
He toured with the show for seven months, taking in Paris, Milan, Moscow and New York, intrigued by the different responses. In Paris they roared with laughter, in Spain they were “intense and very loud”, in Moscow they took it very seriously – “nobody laughed, and we were like, come on, there’s a boy band dance in the middle of the show!”
Though the production was less high profile than Othello – which sold out the entire run the week before they started rehearsing – it is clear that for Hiddleston Cymbeline was equally special. “I was very, very proud of it in a private way,” he says. “A bunch of us in our mid-20s and nobody knew who we were and we just made this play.”
Hiddleston got another travel fix while filming Swedish detective series Wallander with Branagh earlier this year, which came about entirely independently from his casting in Ivanov. Based on the novels by Swedish writer Henning Mankell, the series centres on Branagh’s character, Kurt Wallander, a 45-year-old pizza-eating, coffee-swilling detective whose crime solving skills are as brilliant as his personal relationships are dysfunctional. So far, so familiar. But the series USP is that Wallander lives in the far south of Sweden – “it’s very empty, just like fields of rape and the Baltic sea stretching out towards Poland. We were there for three months. It’s kind of like a Coen brothers’ film, it’s like a big open landscape.”
Hiddleston plays Swedish policeman Magnus, which, in keeping with Ejiofor’s advice, he had never done before. “I’d done a lot of Shakespeare in the last two years of my life really, classical stuff, and then on television I tend to get put into breeches and riding boots and floral waistcoats because I’ve got curly blond hair, so it’s really nice to have jeans and a jacket and a gun and be like, yeah, this is what I signed up for!”
“I keep coming out with this phrase in my life at the moment – ‘I didn’t know that was going to happen'”
He had actually acted on television before his drama school training. The decision to go to RADA, in 2002, was made specifically in order to learn stagecraft. “There’s a very specific sort of training I think you need to be on stage. So I’m really happy that I have actually managed to get theatre work because that’s kind of why I went.”
RADA was his second degree. After growing up in Oxfordshire he was educated at Eton and then went to Cambridge University to study Classics, but acting had been a passion throughout school. A teacher once took him to see a production of John Gabriel Borkman at the National Theatre, with Paul Schofield and Vanessa Redgrave, which “really resonated. I was so moved by it and it knocked my head off so cleanly that I thought I just wanted to be part of that.”
But to pursue acting risked mockery from his sport-loving pals, so Hiddleston, who was also in the rugby team, kept his theatrical activities under wraps. However, this fragile co-existence couldn’t last. Things came to a head at Cambridge, when a dress rehearsal for A Streetcar Named Desire clashed with an inter-college rugby match. “I remember trying to negotiate with the captain, who was this really very practical kind of Scots guy Chris, and Katie, who was the director of the show, and I was like Katie, I have to go, I know my lines, I’ll make it up to you but I have to go and play this match,” he relates. “So anyway I ran off and played this rugby game and at half time Chris came up to me and went [he adopts a perfect Scots accent] ‘maybe next time Tom you might want to think about taking off your make up before you arrive on the pitch’. I’d turned up caked in ridiculous student drama make up!” he laughs. “That’s when I knew one of them had to go.”
So the rugby was binned and acting won out. Who knows how good a rugby player Hiddleston could have become, but as it is, he is doing pretty well on the acting front. It would be easy for the events of the past year to go to Hiddleston’s head, but he is determined to keep things in perspective and tries hard to return the support he gets from friends and family. “I hope that I’m supportive and brilliant back. I really try, especially when I’m not working. I’ve learned that the happier I am and the more secure I am in my own little life, the better my work is,” he says. “If I find myself getting over obsessed with the work then I know that I’ve lost perspective. I feel like I can’t be one of those sharks that stay under the water, I have to come up for air like a whale and make contact with the surface again.” Munching on a burger and chips as his lunch hour ticks away, he adds: “All we’re trying to do is be real and if you’ve forgotten how to be real then what can you do?”
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