The Marvel Comics god of thunder’s name is in the movie title, but Thor: The Dark World might as well have had Loki in there somewhere for kids at a recent New York City charity screening on Halloween.
The guy playing the supervillain god of mischief, British actor Tom Hiddleston, surprised the 300 children with his presence, making their night more special than overflowing bags full of fun-size Snickers would have.
Loki’s all about the tricks but it’s a treat for Hiddleston when he has interactions with his smaller fans, like the fistbump the actor shared with one little boy brandishing a toy Thor hammer.
“Sometimes it’s easy to forget that’s who we’re doing it for,” Hiddleston says. “It really brought home to me what a privilege it is to occupy a place in this particular universe. When you hear the pleasure and delight of children, it makes it all worth it.”
In theaters now, The Dark World features Hiddleston scheming, brooding, emoting and even teaming with his adopted brother Thor (Chris Hemsworth), but he had already made his mark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a pair of bad-guy turns in 2011’s Thor and last year’s The Avengers.
From Beijing to Sydney, Seoul to Paris and Berlin to the Big Apple, Hiddleston always finds fans, but the actor, who will be on stage beginning in December for a run of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in London’s West End, remains humble.
“If you and I met up for a cup of coffee,” he says, “and you said to me, ‘By the way, I hear you have an enthusiastic audience and career,’ I would have accepted the compliment kindly but it would have been an abstract notion in my mind.”
Hiddleston talks with USA TODAY about some of his Loki influences, one of his favorite scenes in The Dark World and his theater beginnings.
Q. The Thor sequel shows a different side of Loki than we’ve seen in your other two Marvel films. Was that one of your favorite parts about this one?
A. I suppose so. I have poured so much into his creation and his genesis and the architecture of the character. There was so much I thought about before I first played him.
There are necessary constraints of each narrative, of Kenneth Branagh’s Thor and Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. Those two films are not about Loki’s unprocessed pain or his jealousy or the specifics of his relationship with Thor. We had to do other things in those films — in Kenneth Branagh’s film, the character of Thor had to be introduced with all the specifics of his relationship with his father (Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins), with his responsibility and his superpower.
Kenneth Branagh and Joss Whedon helped me create a nuanced character and there are hints of his depth and the psychological unpredictability of his nature.
One scene with Anthony Hopkins in the Branagh film, which I lean on as a cornerstone, is when he finds out he’s adopted. And Joss Whedon wrote a scene between myself and Chris Hemsworth on a mountaintop right before Robert Downey Jr. flies in and calls us “Shakespeare in the park.” Nevertheless, the scene is quite intimate and is a version of this fractious relationship between these two ancient brothers.
In The Dark World is where we really get into the nitty-gritty at home — it’s the meat and potatoes, the muscularity of their relationship and particular chemistry that can yield enormous drama, battles of wits and wills and also, thrillingly, some humor.
Q. There is one scene in the new film where Loki’s imprisoned where he lets down the magical façade of his prison cell. It’s a symbolic breakdown following a tragedy where you see the man and not the magic.
A. I’m so proud of that scene. I had lots of ideas about it and they showed me an early draft and asked for my input. I kept saying, “We have to take Loki to rock bottom. We have to break him.” And so in that moment, there’s a literal and physical manifestation of his mask of control.
Loki presents an illusion of sleek elegance and control to everyone, but actually inside is this bleeding broken heart. That truth is given literal shape. He presents an illusion to Thor and Thor calls him on it, and then suddenly the illusion dissipates and dissolves away and you see the truth of Loki’s soul in his body and his face.
To play a character as complex and unpredictable as that is a gift as an actor. It’s so juicy because you’re playing internal truths and external truths. That’s the fun part of acting — it’s a version of some kind of psychology in a way. You’re studying how people interact, how they hide, how they present, and Loki is a brilliant case study.
Q. And he’s really become not only a comic-book character in a superhero movie but really a cinematic icon for this generation.
A. I’ve loved playing him, I really have. I think it has something to do with the size of the films. These characters are gods. We don’t take that too seriously but they are enormous characters and they represent various different shades of human nature. Thor is the god of thunder, therefore it’s power, it’s strength, it’s nobility, and Loki is the god of mischief so of course he’s a trickster, it’s chaos, it’s danger, it’s provocation.
In playing big characters, it’s such an opportunity to do something truly cinematic and we’ve tried.
Q. Through three movies and one infamous Comic-Con appearance, have you found a surprising influence that’s helped you with the character?
A. Whenever I play a character, it’s like I put on a pair of glasses with a specific filter and I suddenly see the whole world through that character’s filter. You draw inspiration from everywhere.
I’ve drawn inspiration from music strangely enough. There’s one fantastic piece of music called Mind Heist by Zack Hepsey, and it’s been made famous because Christopher Nolan cut the Inception trailer to this particular track. To me, it sounds like the inner workings of Loki’s brain so I used to listen to that.
I looked to Shakespeare and his great villains because that’s the stuff I did when training as a theater actor. Loki is an illegitimate son who is jealous of his brother — Edmund in King Lear is an illegitmate son who is jealous of his brother. Loki is obsessed with being king — Macbeth is obsessed with being king. Loki is a master manipulator, puppet master and strategist who will spin every situation for his own needs. Iago in Othello is a master manipulator, puppet master and strategist who will spin every situation for his own needs. Shakespeare wrote such deep complex villains and I’ve borrowed from his themes just for myself to enrich Loki’s psychology.
There are all kinds of fun things. Ken Branagh and I used to talk about early Peter O’Toole performances like The Lion in Winter and of course Lawrence of Arabia. In his particular performance, there was a kind of wildness and an inner fire that is about to spill over and do something either very great or very terrible.
If you go back and watch The Lion In Winter, it’s about a royal family falling apart. I told Joss Whedon that story, and he ran with it. He said Loki reminded him of James Mason. When James Mason first came to Hollywood, he was this sleek, elegant, charming, wry British bad guy. We both had a big James Mason fan exchange.
I should say I’ve been inspired by the comic books, too — Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson, J. Michael Straczynski, Robert Rodi, Kieron Gillen and all these amazing writers and artist of Loki over the years who keep giving him new levels of depth and dimension.
That’s a long way around of saying I’m inspired by everything. And then of course there’s an unpredictable mysterious element to making characters where once you have the costume on and you look in the mirror and you feel like a different person, it happens in a magical mystical way. I can’t explain it. I don’t want to sound too pretentious, but there he is, you know?
Q. All that stuff seems to help you take Loki from being a comic-book character clad in a strange helmet with horns to someone you should probably worry about destroying New York.
A. (Laughs) That’s the thing, you have to wear the helmet. I pay due diligence to the character. But the whole thing has to be about more than just helmet-wearing. In the same way, Robert Downey Jr. doesn’t just wear the Iron Man suit. He is Tony Stark.
And I really would say the same for Chris Hemsworth. He’s not just really good at slinging that hammer. He is Thor. He has done so much work on the external and internal nature of his character, the weight of kingship, the spiritually draining nature of responsibility, his inner nobility, the conflict and sensitivity in his relationship with his father.
That’s part of the thrill is filling up these big silhouettes with real human emotion.
Q. I heard you got into acting when your parents were getting a divorce?
A. As a kid, I was always trying to make people laugh. I was always behaving like a shameless exhibitionist. It was only around that time when I began to do more serious things. I don’t know if that’s just coincidental — I was 13 years old. For every 13-year-old boy, your mind turns to different stuff. You become more interested and more curious in other things. So acting at that age became a slightly more serious enterprise. I was interested in doing serious plays as opposed to just making people laugh.
By the way, I sat through screenings of The Dark World and I feel so proud when the whole movie theater just breaks into spontaneous laughter and applause. In a way, it’s more thrilling to make people laugh than it is to make people cry.
All I want to do is make a connection with an audience, and that comes from being a fan and being in the audience myself at the theater, at the movies. Movies can really touch people and when you see a good one or you see a great performance, it changes you. You feel like something’s been expressed that you understand by somebody else you’ve never met but they understand the same thing. That’s the part of doing this job that I love. It’s the reason I signed up.
Q. The family stuff Loki goes through, do you identify with any of that yourself?
A. No, all of that stuff is really Loki’s and not mine. I have an amazing relationship with my folks, and I have two sisters who are my best friends in the world.
But like everybody, I understand loneliness and at some point in our lives, we’ve all felt alone, whether we are or not. Often people can feel alone and actually there are people around but they can’t see it. In order to play that stuff truthfully, I just tap into that sense of feeling on your own.
Loki’s not evolved enough to simply express his vulnerability. Loki’s vulnerability makes him angry and he doesn’t want to show weakness. He’s not going to make friends because he refuses to be open to them in a way.
Q. He’d probably rather scheme and get into mischief than deal with his own problems.
A. Yeah. In a way that’s why I think villains are always the most fascinating characters. They are the most broken or more damaged or least self-aware.
I’ve been talking to Anthony Hopkins about this and he was talking about Hannibal Lecter. Getting inside the minds of monsters is an interesting challenge.