So here we are, Tom Hiddleston and me, in a boat in the middle of the Serpentine as the sun sets on a lovely autumn evening. He is doing the rowing. ‘Shall we turn the boat around?’ the star of Thor and War Horse says as we reach the bridge. ‘I want to go downstream, show you how fast I can really go!’ It’s almost embarrassingly romantic. If this were a date, I’d probably make my move right about… now. He has already told me he is single. He pauses from rowing to dab a bead of sweat from his curls, the handsome bastard.
Then a cloud passes over and it strikes me suddenly that if I wanted to grab the oar and do a Talented Mr Ripley on Hiddleston, I will never get a better moment. He does make his life sound rather enviable. ‘I always stay by the ocean when I’m in LA,’ he is saying now, paddling the boat round in a gentle U-turn. ‘When we were shooting Thor, I’d commute 20 minutes south down the 405 freeway from Venice to the Marvel Studio… On Saturdays, I’d run along the beach, along the shimmering Pacific and I remember thinking: “You know what? This is all right.” ’
I suppose it’s lucky for Hiddleston that he’s so impeccable, so sweet. It would feel a bit mean to stove his face in and steal his identity. ‘I know that’s going to be pretty galling to read when you’re on your way home from work on a wet October night,’ he adds, sparing a thought for those readers who don’t hang out with Natalie Portman and have pretend sword fights with Chris Hemsworth for a living.
We decided to take the interview outside, since we both felt a little cooped up, and Hiddleston, who divides his time between Chalk Farm and Venice Beach, wanted to enjoy the park. He had spent a long and arduous afternoon being photographed at The Dorchester. I had spent a long and arduous afternoon waiting for him, sinking martinis and reading Tom Hiddleston fan fiction on the dedicated Tumblr, thfrustration.tumblr.com. (One of the stories is billed as ‘14 pages of pure Hiddleston smut’.) The boat was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but, as it turns out, a rather good idea. The mild exertion seems to relax him. ‘I love that we’re doing this!’ he says.
Hiddleston, 32, can look back on his career and trace a neat trajectory through Eton (where he was a classmate of Eddie Redmayne), Cambridge (where he acted opposite Rebecca Hall), Rada (where he was in the same year as Andrea Riseborough), the Donmar Warehouse (where he was spotted by an LA casting agent) and now Hollywood. He proves to be not only highly courteous, insisting on paying for the boat trip himself, but mindful enough to deflect his own actorliness. ‘I’m soooo aware of the borderline pretentiousness of my conversation,’ he says shortly after a 15-minute-plus discourse on identity and narrative. Still, when he quotes Shakespeare, at length, it doesn’t come across as overly pretentious.
We have actually met to talk about Thor: The Dark World, in which Hiddleston reprises the role of Thor’s evil brother Loki. By 2011, he had earned glowing reviews for plays such as Othello and Ivanov and small British films such as Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, but it was playing the villain in the first Thor film, directed by Kenneth Branagh, that took him global. He has since appeared in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (as F Scott Fitzgerald) and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (as a vampire) as well as the superhero spin-off Avengers Assemble. ‘I’ve got to be honest. Loki is the thing that has opened me up beyond audiences who come to the Donmar. I’ve had a riot playing him. If you’re going to be a god, you may as well be the god of mischief, right?’
Actually, Hiddleston and Loki are a good match. Hiddleston gained a double first in Classics: ‘so my knowledge is more of the Greco-Roman variety, but I did learn a bit about the Norse gods.’ (At one point he says, ‘Ah, tempus fugit,’ and it takes me a while to realise that it’s Latin for ‘time flies’.) Not only does he get to continue the tradition of English villains in Hollywood, just when we were beginning to be out-evilled by Islamic terrorists and Russian gangsters, he also brings a depth of characterisation often lacking in the superhero genre. ‘This is going to sound really wanky, but because Kenneth Branagh and I are both such lovers of Shakespeare, we made Loki out of Shakespearean characters,’ he explains.
Branagh forged a bond with Hiddleston when they both appeared in Chekhov’s Ivanov in the West End in 2008. Hiddleston recounts how he burst into Branagh’s dressing room, dressed as a 19th-century Russian doctor, brandishing a water cooler as a Nordic battle-axe — inspiring Branagh to cast him there and then. (The two have also appeared together in the BBC adaptation of the Swedish crime drama Wallander.) For the character of Loki, ‘we talked about King Lear, with its two brothers; we talked about Macbeth and his ambition; and we talked about Iago, the way he spins every situation for self-interest…’
Shakespeare is very much where it all started for Hiddleston — he describes the 2007 Donmar production of Othello in which he was spotted as ‘one of the happiest times of my life’. He is now returning to the small theatre to play Coriolanus in Josie Rourke’s production. The play is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies, though he believes its combination of war, politics and weird mother/son relationship to rival that of Hamlet and Gertrude’s will resonate. ‘It’s about the greatest general in the Roman army, who becomes a national hero and so is corralled by the elite to become a politician. But he’s not equipped for politics; he’s equipped for soldiery. It plays upon this very true characteristic of human nature, how we build people up and then we tear them down.’
He declaims a speech to some passing ducks: ‘What would you have, you curs/ That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you/The other makes you proud.’ (This goes on a while.) ‘That could be the Americans talking about Obama. It could be about Syria,’ he explains. I remark that he’s beginning to sound like his mentor Branagh. Would he ever go into directing himself? ‘One day, yes, not now, I’m not sure I’m ready. But I don’t know if one ever is.’ Of Branagh, he says: ‘I’ve always found him very impressive. He’s a person who confounds your expectations — he is not how you expect him to be. He’s one of the most industrious, impeccable actors and directors that we have.’ And then, just as I’m about to take over the rowing, the boat guy comes speeding towards us in his motorboat. We have gone over our allotted half-hour.
Back on dry land, I question Hiddleston more on his past. His parents divorced when he was 13, though relations remained amicable. He is the middle child, with two sisters. ‘I’m so close to my sisters. They’re my best friends.’ His older sister Sarah is a journalist based in India, while his younger sister Emma is an actress.
Contrary to what you might expect, his lineage is not exactly aristocratic. ‘I’m an inheritor of so many different parts of the British experience,’ he says. His father James is from Greenock, a working-class district of Glasgow. The son of a shipbuilder, he spent many of his teenage years working in a butcher’s shop, but managed to ‘educate himself out’ of his environment via the local grammar school and Newcastle University. He ended up as a managing director in the pharmaceutical industry. Hiddleston’s mother Diane was from a ‘well-to-do’ English family whose parents used to run the Aldeburgh festival at the time when Benjamin Britten was still composing. She plays the organ to a high standard and has worked as a stage manager. ‘They’re both very curious people,’ says Hiddleston. ‘I feel as much defined by their tastes and their complexities as anything else.’
He says that as a boy he was never very confident but always conscientious. ‘I was always concerned about wasting time. I don’t ever want to look back and think: “Why wasn’t I doing something or making something?” I used to read obituaries obsessively. They always started with a birth date and maybe the county where the subject was raised — and then the life would start at 25. What happened to those 25 legitimate years of good living time?’
I wasn’t supposed to ask about Eton — the source of so many leading actors it’s a wonder they don’t build a pipeline from Berkshire to the Hollywood Hills — but I sense that it is on his mind. If all you have to define the first 25 years of your life is one place name, he must forever fear being ‘Old Etonian actor Tom Hiddleston’, right?
‘I know, that’s what’s so odd about narrative,’ he muses as we stroll through the autumn leaves. ‘People are formed by love and loss. By family, friendship, grief and courage… and failure and heartbreak and fun and all the things that make life colourful and interesting. But the narratives that people then form out of all that colour and interests are always so neat. It’s all chaos.’
He mentions an actor friend of his, half-Scottish, half-Malawian, who grew up between Zambia and Dorchester-on-Thames. ‘Now, as a mixed-race actor, everyone wants to cast him as some East End character on a council estate, but he has absolutely no connection to that world.’ Would Hiddleston ever play council estate? ‘I’d love to. It’s exciting when you have the chance to do something that isn’t your natural inheritance.’ He says he doesn’t mind so much coming off a production line of frightfully handsome young English actors. It’s just he doesn’t like being judged on his background: ‘Most people are running towards what they want to be and running away from who they are. The narrower that gap, the happier you are. Does that make sense? My point is that no one wants to be judged for who they are.’
I’m prepared to leave Eton there, but he comes back to it. ‘So, I’m 13 and it’s time for me to change schools. My dad has had this extraordinary life, he’s made himself from the ground up. He comes back from looking round the school and says [Glasgow accent]: “There were 15 football pitches. Can you imagine? Fifteen. Amazing. There’s a theatre with its own lighting rig. There’s a building just for painting. You have to go. Have to.” ’ Hiddleston pauses. ‘So once you’ve seen that, someone who’s come from nothing, trying their hardest to give their child the best education, and then you get out the other side and everyone throws fruit at you…
‘Look, it’s fine,’ he adds. ‘I’ve been blessed with an extraordinary education. I feel privileged and I know I’ve had an enormously pleasant life. But it also has its complexity. I’d love to round out the rosy picture with some shade that would give you some more detail, but it’s not my past. I feel like baring that in public would be ungracious. And anyway, we’re in the present. Look at what’s in front of you.’
The sun has set over the park, the sky is pink, the trees silhouetted. It is beautiful. ‘Extraordinary,’ he says. ‘This is why I love this city. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade an evening like this for anything. Why would you want to be anywhere else?’