The last 12 months have been interesting – to say the least – for Tom Hiddleston, hitting some spectacular career highs followed by a growing cluster of rather embarrassing lows. From garnering critical acclaim for his turn in suspenseful drama The Night Manager and landing pop hottie Taylor Swift, to the public shaming that followed their brief and bizarre romance – and of course that Golden Globes speech – his rise and fall has been overblown, public and bordering on the comedic. Fortunately, the 35-year-old Eton alumni remains philosophical about the side-effect known as ‘celebrity’.
“I’m not someone who cares very much about the attention,” he says, coolly. “I love acting and I take my work seriously, but I find everything else that comes with it very ephemeral and superficial.”
Quite so: the media furore has done nothing to stall Hiddleston’s career, which is set to break the stratosphere this year when he returns to the big screen as super-villain Loki in Thor: Ragnarok and tackles the biggest, meanest ape of all-time in the upcoming Kong: Return to Skull Island. Hiddleston is excited to be starring in the $190m Warner Bros blockbuster that revives the 50ft legend, co-starring alongside Samuel L Jackson, Brie Larson, and a very creepy John Goodman.
“It’s an epic story and I loved how Jordan [Vogt-Roberts, director] was determined to shoot in real and very breathtaking locations which give a sense of the power and beauty of nature,” enthuses the actor, flashing a row of perfect white teeth. “We shot in the jungles and valleys of Hawaii, Vietnam and Australia and audiences, I think, will appreciate how this film was not shot on a soundstage and how that majestic grandeur heightens everything about the telling of the story.”
Vogt-Roberts’ appointment as director was a bold choice considering his only previous full-length feature is indie coming-of-age comedy Kings of Summer. But one look at the trailer suggests Skull Island will be a thrilling and primal adventure, which thankfully appears to eschew the fluffier side of the ape and his penchant for falling in love with human ladies, to focus more on his carnal and terrifying ferocity. It also stars a whole host of other carnivorous characters, both human and beast.
I’m glad that it took me until I was 30 or so before I started gaining more recognition
“The film is set in the 1970s, where you can still believe that there are truly unexplored and uncharted regions left on Earth and there’s this island in the South Pacific which can’t be mapped because it’s protected by a storm system,” Hiddleston explains. “So our group is hired to head up an expedition which starts out as a reconnaissance mission, but as you might imagine becomes something else.”
As Captain James Conrad – “a former SAS officer with skills in tracking and jungle survival who is part of an interesting team of soldiers and explorers” – Hiddleston shares his screen time with hazy helicopter shots, ferocious flamethrowers amid lush greenery and Creedence Clearwater Revival blaring out. Evoking Apocalypse Now more than classic Kong, and with a $200m Godzilla vs Kong sequel already lined up for release in 2020, Skull Island definitely looks set to cement our hero’s leading man status.
In a career which had been slow burning – despite his participation in the billion-dollar Avengers franchise – Hiddleston remains stoic and poised, extolling the virtues of patience.
“I’m glad that it took me until I was 30 or so before I started gaining more recognition,” he nods. “I think that being a little bit older helps you understand yourself better and makes it easier for you to adjust to whatever success ultimately comes your way.”
His sensational turn in BBC’s The Night Manager – an adaptation of John Le Carre’s best-selling 1993 espionage novel – further broadened his considerable appeal. Playing Jonathan Pine, an Iraqi war veteran turned British undercover agent, the dashing star schmoozed and subverted his enemy – a ruthless arms dealer played magnificently and menacingly by Hugh Laurie – right up to the heart-stopping finale. No spoilers here.
Unsurprisingly, Hiddleston’s lauded performance spurred a flurry of rumours that he would land the highly-coveted Bond role. While Daniel Craig seems to have resolutely had enough of the character, it looked likely for a time that Hiddleston might take up residence as Her Majesty’s favourite spy.
However, the smooth-talking Londoner was the first to quash the rumours, telling a film panel in Philadelphia: “I’m sorry to disappoint you, everybody. I don’t think that announcement is coming. But I’m very gratified to hear the enthusiasm. There’s not much that I can say that I haven’t already said, but I know… your guess is as good as mine!”
While that outcome remains to be seen, Hiddleston’s appointment is looking more and more unlikely. Some of his harsher critics believe he blew his chance to be Bond when he embarked on a high-profile romance with country and pop starlet Taylor Swift. The romance seemed to break form from his cool, suave and very British demeanour, as the pair were spotted frolicking atop inflatables on the fourth of July, playing tonsil tennis on public beaches, and being snapped in one hideously naff situation where the actor emerged from the ocean in a shrunken ‘I Heart TS’ vest. Perhaps the ‘Eliot’ part had rubbed off? And following the tradition that any actor playing Bond ought to be almost as elusive as the Martini-supping spy himself, this over-Instagrammed summer romance may just have been one frolic too far.
Since I was little I have enjoyed entertaining people. There’s nothing like making people laugh
Two traits the Londoner does share with Bond, however, are upper-class credentials and a sharp intellect. Having attended both Eton and Oxford, Hiddleston wears his brains on his sleeve and believes his expensive education has been instrumental to his success.
“Being at Cambridge taught me intellectual discipline. My teachers expected a high level of rigour when it came to arguing a point or writing a paper. I was taught to structure my thinking so that whenever I made a statement I needed to be able to back it up and not make unfounded assertions or arguments,” he explains. “I was taught to think for myself and not simply follow whatever passes for accepted wisdom which you absorb over time. In that sense, I’ve learnt the value of thinking critically about the world.”
Hiddleston is also rather blasé on the subject of love. Questions about his relationship with Swift are unsurprisingly batted away and when asked whether he intends to follow fellow posh thespian actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne down the marriage path, he demurs: “It’s great for them. They’re both my good friends. I’m happy for them. But marriage is not something in my life yet. I am not closed to it though.”
For now, Hiddleston is devoting himself to art as he flits between artistically indulgent cinema – like the ambitious film adaptation of JG Ballard’s nightmarish High Rise and Jim Jarmusch’s noirish Only Lovers Left Alive – and the more regular bankable blockbusters.
“I like to be involved in projects that can inspire and change people,” he says by way of explanation. “I believe art can inspire people. I remember being extremely touched by Mike Leigh’s Secrets and Lies, and I was also struck by the complexity of the world after watching Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener.
“I once met a surgeon who works with Doctors Without Borders who decided on his career after seeing Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields. Art is an emotional doorway to a particular theme. Film is a very powerful art form that can make us think about the world differently and inspire us to greater things and contribute to the world. I truly believe that.”
When asked why he chose a career in acting, Hiddleston brightens and answers happily: “Since I was little I have enjoyed entertaining people. There’s nothing like making people laugh. It makes me very happy when people come up to me at the airport and tell me, ‘The scene where Hulk crushes Loki at the end of The Avengers is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life!’ I still remember how hard people were laughing in the cinema.”
It’s hard though to match the enigmatic aspect of Hiddleston the actor to his more approachable, humorous side. The photos following his cringeworthy Golden Globe speech, clutching his gong and grinning with boyish glee, suggest a less serious streak which perhaps we’ll see more of as his career develops.
But for Hiddleston, every conversation about his success goes back to just one conclusion: art is forever; fame is fleeting.
“One of the things I found interesting about playing [legendary country and western singer] Hank Williams is that he was driven to be the biggest singer in the business and then when he finally got there he found out that there was nothing there,” he says with a magician-like flourish. “Being a star didn’t solve any of his problems and didn’t make him feel any better about who he was or his personal life. There’s a good lesson there.”
Kong: Skull Island is out in cinemas on 10 March. The Night Manager is available on the BBC Store and available to buy on DVD from amazon.co.uk.