There’s a lot of bastards out there.
Villains, tyrants, and troublemakers have become so critical to big-budget films that they’re beginning to upstage the heroes — in some cases seizing the title roles, as in next year’s Sleeping Beauty remake Maleficent, and the upcoming Marvel films Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, among others.
Thor: The Dark World, which opens today, could easily be subtitled Loki Strikes Back.
In his third round as the God of Mischief, Tom Hiddleston not only steals Thor sequel, but practically sets it on fire and collects all the insurance money. Hiddleston spoke with EW about the state of cinematic villainy — why we love bad guys, why these villains are bigger than ever, and whether he believes himself to be evil at heart…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Simple question: why do we love characters we hate?
TOM HIDDLESTON: Well, that is the eternal question. There is this old phrase that “the devil plays all the best tunes.” There is a kind of freedom to being bad, an embracing of one’s most rebellious instincts. The idea that essentially order and chaos exist inside every human being and mostly – rightly — we behave ourselves. When you play a bad guy, you sort of cut loose from that sense of propriety.
Is it more interesting to play a noble character or a cruel one?
I think most actors see acting as a kind of 3-D psychology, the study of people, the study of human nature. We find motivations and people’s emotional and psychological makeup to be fascinating, I know I do. Villains are challenging because they provide such fascinating case studies. You’re presented with a villain and the first question is – “What do they want? Why are they villainous?” So in Loki’s case, that answer is complex. He has a broken heart. He is grief stricken, bitter, lonely, sad, angry, ambitious, jealous and proud — and yet, he has a charm and a playfulness and a mischief. It’s a combination of factors I think. It’s that surface charm, that surface playfulness I think is appealing.
The villains you have cited as influences – Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Jack Nicholson’s Joker in 1989’s Batman, James Mason’s spy Phillip Vandamm in North By Northwest – are all extremely intelligent and calculating. They may be monsters, but they’re not out of control.
The great thing is that they are in total control over the provocation of chaos. There’s a delight in that. And it’s worth mentioning that Thor has always been the God of Thunder and Loki has been the God of Mischief and in a way in this film, this is my most wholehearted acceptance of mischief as a shape. He is this great chess master, he has this straight poker face, but occasionally the audience is allowed to see a flicker of truth, emotional truth. I hope that’s an access point and again I hope it just deepens his sense of humanity.
“Mischief” makes him sound tame.
I remember I looked up mischief in the dictionary and the first entry is “an inclination to playfulness, a desire to tease.” And then actually further down the line, like entry No. 5 is “destruction and damage.” So you have this one word “mischief” which encompasses all these things and that’s the role I’m playing. So it’s my job to turn up on set and have a great time and I hope that’s something that’s appealing, you know Loki’s having a good time and so am I.
Which is a more realistic reflection of ourselves – the hero or the villain?
These big characters, these gods and monsters, the reason we invented them, the reason society has invented myth, the reason why Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started to make up superheroes is born out of some collective desire to explore our own humanity on a big scale. So the heroes are emblems of our strength. They do the right thing, they’re noble, they’re generous, they’re selfless and they save the world. And the bad guys are representation of our flaws, our failings, our vulnerabilities, our weakness.
There have been villains for as long as there have been stories, but action movies — and the Marvel films in particular — are focusing a lot on villains. Why do you think audiences are so taken with the power of bad guys right now?
In the cinematic landscape, I do think Heath Ledger’s performance [as The Joker in The Dark Knight] changed the game. He certainly changed it for me. I’ve never seen such an electrifying performance before or since. There was something incredibly compelling about that film because of his performance in it. The Joker is an anarchist and you don’t get a sense of motivation, you don’t even get a sense of a kind of a vulnerable person underneath that mask, it’s just a maniac for chaos. Loki is much more controlled and much more vulnerable and he’s much more of an intellect and this idea of the shapeshifter.
Your Thor co-star, Anthony Hopkins also won an Oscar for playing a monster who is simultaneously attractive and repellent. Did you ever talk about this phenomenon with him?
I had a fascinating conversation with Anthony Hopkins about this. He’s been doing this job for 50 years and has enjoyed every second of it. He’s had a high old time. He said he’s ‘played heroes and villains and kings and butlers and warriors. And when people ask me to talk about something, they want to talk about one man’ — which is Hannibal Lecter.
The culture is facing hard times. Money is tight in a stagnant economy, unemployment is high — so is frustration. When people feel like the world is against them do we root more for those characters who want to destroy it?
It’s attached to this idea living on the edge, not playing by the rules. I think there’s always been something that’s sort of attractive about that. We all want our lives to be happy, I know I do. Life is good when it’s full of laughter and friendship and companionship and love and family all of those things. But there is something that happens when we go to a cinema on a Friday night and the lights go down, there is an absolute collective fascination with darkness, and that’s something that’s very cinematic. Some cathartic exploration of the darker aspects of our nature. We want to watch it on screen and we don’t want it in our lives.
Loki is a sexy villain, but that’s not part of his ambition, is it? He doesn’t seem to be interested in love or sex but he has this sexuality about him, maybe it’s his lust for power. What do you think of Loki as a sexy beast?
[Laughs] That’s the first time anyone has ever used that phrase about Loki. It’s fascinating isn’t it? I don’t know because it’s not a part of the conscious construction. I take relish in playing him. I think there’s a physical self-possession about him, a self-acceptance. Of course I’ve been very exacting about his physicality. You know, I was born with very blonde, curly hair, and a mixture of Scottish and English genes, and my complexion is very ruddy and healthy. In making him with this raven black hair and blanching my face of all color, it changes my features. Suddenly my blue eyes look a lot bluer, which lends a severity to my face. And even my own smile has a distorted menace to it. Whatever comes through me naturally is distorted. It’s almost like a filter on a light.
So you are not an agent of chaos like your alter ego?
Alter ego is the right way of putting it! In so many ways, he is the photo negative of who I am. It’s very strange and unexpected to make such a connection with an audience as a character who is a reverse of myself.
What about as a boy – were you a good kid or a troublemaker?
I’ve got a sprinkling of mischief in my childhood, but I was at school with some people who were really, really like — they got into some misdemeanors. There were tricks and pranks and capery. And sure enough, all the prettiest girls in my class were drawn to those guys who seemed to lean into danger.
What would you say separates a villain like Loki from a villain like Malekith, the other antagonist of Thor: The Dark World?
Vulnerability, I think. [Loki] is insecure and in all three films he’s played a brilliant game and has ultimately been undone by his insecurities. I love that line that Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson has in The Avengers: “You’re gonna lose” and Loki says “Why? Your floating fortress falls from the sky. You’re heroes are scattered. Where is my disadvantage?” and Coulson’s response is, “You lack conviction.” [Laughs] Which I love.
Loki is kind of a bottomless pit of need. He doesn’t seem like the kind of individual who could ever be happy.
There’s another line in The Dark World, Thor and Loki are in an isolated space with all the time in the world and they get to the bottom of it. They talk about power and have this big argument and Thor says to Loki “Even if you win, would that satisfy you?” and Loki’s response is, “Satisfaction is not in my nature.” [Laughs] There’s an amazing comic [Loki, first published in 2004] that explores what happens when Loki ends up as king of Asgard, achieved all he’s ever wanted, and his life is empty and devoid of color and all life because there is nothing to fight for anymore.
I loved your Comic-Con presentation [see video above], where you came out in costume and in character, hurling insults and commands at the crowd. They loved it, too. I know you’ve gotten a lot of praise for that, but how did it feel playing him live?
In the words of Tony Stark in The Avengers, “Loki is a full-tilt diva.” So that aspect of him was just a fun, fun thing to do. That was one of those moments that I thought it might be enjoyable and entertaining. I didn’t know it was going to be that. I didn’t know that was going to happen. It was amazing.
It must feel good to call on that when you need it.
Yeah, [laughs] just wheel him out whenever.