Hiddleston tackles one of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters, the powers that be on Asgard as Loki, and cautions us not to believe everything we see about the Marvel character.
Tom Hiddleston is set to take on Kingdoms and and their leaders in multiple dimensions. He will play Prince Hal, who becomes King Henry V in PBS’ The Hollow Crown – a series of filmed adaptations of four of Shakespeare’s most gripping history plays, Richard the II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V – beginning Friday, September 20. The actor will also reprise his role as Loki, the trickster God, in Thor: The Dark World on November 8.
We sat down with Hiddleston recently to talk about his turn as the wayward Prince Hal in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, a man-child who spends his days boozing with Falstaff, the defacto leader of a group of petty criminals and lost souls, turned war hero, leader, and King in Henry V. During the course of our conversation we touched on his take on Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, and, more so, what we can expect from Loki in the upcoming Thor: The Dark World (hint: he’s in a tormented state, but don’t believe everything you see.)
IGN TV: Like most, I’ve had such malleable feelings about these plays, and this character Prince Hal, over the years, and I’d love to know your take. When I was a teenager, I thought it was so heartbreaking. It felt as though he had really givenup on the person that he wanted to be, in favor of who he thought he had to be. Then later I thought, “No, really he’s a manipulative jerk who was toying with the poor for a bit, using them to a greater end for himself.” Then I just thought it was an archetypical journey from boyhood to adulthood. We have to abandon the things of youth, to some degree. What is your take?
I’ve been through all of those shapes myself, all of those excavations. The thing is, the writing can hold all three of those interpretations, that there is a deep sadness to his loss of innocence, that he has to yield history, nature, in order to step into the silhouette of the King of England. The second reading, that he a Machiavellian psychopath who had somehow tactically engineered his transformation in order to seem even greater —
IGN: Which is in the text.
It’s in the text, so that’s a reading of “Yet herein will I imitate the sun, who doth permit the base contagious clouds to smother up his beauty from the world, that when he please again to be himself, being wanted, he may be more wondered at by breaking through the foul and ugly mists of vapors that did seem to strangle him.” Or there’s another reading, in which I think there is some kind of archetypal — in the way that there are early archetypes because archetypes are shades of the truth. This is a truth that I recognize, and I think many people do, which is the truth of the ebullience and rebelliousness of youth. Every young man wants to and, in many respects, needs to test his limits and push the boundaries and do all the things that his father has told him not to do, and in a way indulge his wildness before stepping into the responsibility of his inheritance, which in this case is a kingdom.
IGN: A kingdom at war
Yeah. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” And I think it makes him a greater king in the end, because he has a deeper understanding of nation, because he knows who the people are. He’s had deep relationships with them. Having said that, I don’t think that that precludes also the first interpretation, which I think, it is very sad — but he has no other choice in the end. My reading of that speech “I know you all and will awhile uphold the unyoked humor of your idleness” is really — I didn’t think it was psychopathic or premeditated or intentionally malicious. I think it’s his way of saying, “I know the music has to stop. I know the fun will have to end. I won’t be able to live like this for the rest of my life, because I know who I am. In the final analysis, I know who I have to be. But while I’m here, I’m going to enjoy it.” But none of us, in any lifetime, could possibly — I don’t think he knows he’s going to be an extraordinary warrior at the Battle of Shrewsbury. I don’t think that he knows that his father is going to get ill as soon as he does. I don’t think he knows that Falstaff is going to continually lie and cheat and steal and be dishonorable, up to a point where he then interrupts the coronation. I mean, I can’t imagine. Let’s imagine that one day the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, is crowned King of England, and someone he used to get drunk with when he was in his teens literally runs into the middle of the ceremony and says, “I’m here! It’s always been you and me.” He has the eyes of the nation on him. There is only one course of action. He can’t be seen in that moment to indulge or favor this liar and thief, basically. So I think all of these things exist under the same roof, really, which is that, yes, it is incredibly sad. It is a physical representation of loss of innocence. It is a narrative construction about accepting responsibility and growing up and maturity. It’s all of those things. It’s about growing up, really.
IGN: Right. Well, a contemporary read of the text, and I don’t know if it was intended at the time, but it is also is a bit of a critique of privilege in the sense that — and I’m not saying Falstaff is a hero — but everyone becomes Hal’s plaything. These poverty stricken drunkards are his playthings, literally, and then he gets to move on. But they don’t.
Now, Richard Eyre really saw it that way. It’s the second time that he’s directed the play. The first time he directed it was when he was young. He was in his twenties, and he took the production to Japan. I remember him telling me “I thought Henry IV, Part I and Part II was all about Prince Hal, and it was all about being young.” He said he used to go and drink in these pubs in the East End with his friends, where all the butchers — this sort of Smith Hill Markets, where all the meat in London comes into — and he used to go and drink with all these, essentially, working-class workers who would get up at five in the morning and would be chopping the meat. He thought he was really cool, and he said, “In retrospect, I must have looked like an absolute muppet. I must have looked like such an idiot thinking I was mixing with real men who did real work, and I was just a child.” He was sort of imparting that experience to me. Now, Richard’s 70, and for him the play was about being an older man, and I could feel his sympathies very easily sitting with both King Henry IV and with Falstaff. It’s sort of Shakespeare’s compassion for the state of a man as he’s reaching the end of his life. You have two things; you have a man who seems very hard and austere and severe and doubtful and guilty and unquestionably serious, and another man who’s never taken anything serious in his life — but they’re both about the same age. It’s brilliant, and that’s the thing. Shakespeare’s writing is so compassionate and so dense and so detailed and so human that you can feel him sympathizing with every character. There’s nobody who doesn’t get a detailed psychology.
IGN: I was just watching both plays over the last couple of days, and Hal and Henry V are, to state the obvious, the same man, but very distinctive characters. You know he says to Falstaff, “I’m not the same creature that I was, don’t assume that,” and he’s not. And your portrayal depicts that he is in no way the same person once he’s King as he was when he was an errant prince. Did you connect more to one or the other?
It was interesting because I filmed them in reverse. Because of Simon Russell Beale’s schedule, I actually filmed Henry V first. Also, we started at the end of Henry IV, so the last thing I shot was the beginning of Henry IV, Part I, and it was the wayward youth. I played the king, and I kind of aged backwards. So it was really interesting, and there was probably a time when I would have related more to the young, wayward Hal who seems kind of fun-loving and ebullient. But I loved standing in the silhouette of responsibility. I loved playing the king. I found carrying that weight really fulfilling. I think what I loved was playing all the moments. Each milestone in his transformation was very fascinating, I think. As I shot it, the more clear it became to me why he changes. At the beginning of Henry IV, Part I, he is completely free. There is civil unrest, but the world is not at war. The reason he can be so rebellious is because he has such an enormous safety net, and that safety net disintegrates. I think the Battle of Shrewsbury changes him. He is distinguished in combat and learns a lot from that. The defeat of Hotspur is monumental. That’s taking down the linchpin. He’s been pitched up against Hotspur — when his father says, “I wish Hotspur had been my son,” and then Prince Hal defeats him, vanquishes him — that defeat contributes hugely in the victory at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Then seeing his father’s infirmity and illness and his fragility at the end of his life is deeply moving to him. I think he suddenly realizes who he is and who he has to become. Falstaff’s petty vanity and dishonesty and dishonor suddenly — all the rosy, fun-loving sheen just doesn’t exist for him anymore. All the glass has been taken off, the glamour of drinking with these reprobates in the pub. He sees this man for who he is, which is sad, lonely and dishonest. I think there’s actually one scene, which I didn’t expect in preparing for it, but when we played it, it became really crucial when he says — in Henry IV, Part II, he and Poins say “Let’s go and have a drink with Falstaff. Let’s go and have fun like old times.” They go back to the Boar’s Head, and they spy on Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, and he overhears Doll Tearsheet say, “What’s Poins like?” Falstaff says, “Well, you know, Poins has got shiny boots, and he likes to ride wild horses. The reason Hal likes him is because that’s basically who Hal is as well.” Hal overhears Falstaff’s really rather low opinion of him as a man and feels betrayed by him, especially because Hal has been so generous to Falstaff. So I think that’s where the turn begins. In Hal’s mind, he makes a decision to turn away from these people and to work harder and dig deeper and take responsibility. I mean, I find the idea of responsibility in life extraordinary anyway. A lot of people are afraid of it. They’re afraid of being able to bear it, they’re afraid of the weight of it, they’re afraid of letting people down. They don’t want it. But actually, to take responsibility is to own your part, in the end.
IGN: It’s interesting, Loki, in the first Thor film in particular, has a distinctly Shakespearean feel. I know you and Keneth Branaugh have discussed that. He has shades of Iago to him.
Yeah, also, he’s quite Hal-like in many respects.
IGN: He is! There’s a moment in The Hollow Crown where King Henry IV, Jeremy Irons, he’s dying, and Hal’s just reaching for that crown. He can’t help it, he wants it so bad, even though he really is heartbroken. There is that quality to Loki where it’s, “I want it, I want it! It’s my crown.” But he is not the heir. Does he ever get past that? Does he ever get past the desire?
Loki? I don’t know. I think the thing is, where we find him now in the development of the character and the films, he and Hal diverged long ago. Hal decided to take responsibility, and Loki decided not to. But it’s almost like he could have become a responsible soul and a responsible prince — but he doesn’t. It’s funny, because I actually think in Kenneth Branagh’s Thor film, I think both Thor and Loki are Prince Hal at one point. They are two princes who are wrestling with an authoritarian father who is a king, who happens to be King of the Universe, not the King of England. Both characters in their own way rebel against his authority, and then they both have different responses to him. But Loki now, I feel like he’s tried to sever his connection from even caring in the end. Of course, like any psychologist will tell you, that’s just a symptom of the deepest, deepest damage and hurt.
IGN: He needs hug therapy.
He needs hug therapy! [Laughs] You know, but we actually talked about this a lot with Alan Taylor, Chris and I talked about it. Chris had seen a documentary on some of the most dangerous criminals in the world and the psychology of how you get to that. It’s just that the damage has been buried so deep, and the misanthropy and the desire to destroy has just taken over. There is no safety catch anymore. Whatever it was that was holding your brain together to keep it civilized has snapped, and he’s embraced a kind of wildness.
IGN: I’m curious, as an actor, do you think that footage that they showed at Comic-Con of Loki (possibly) severing Thor’s hand in The Dark World was too much? Do you wish that we were left wondering a little bit more about whether he’s actually going to make a change for the better in this film? Whereas now, everyone’s just assuming, well, that that’s it; Loki’s Loki, and he’s just going to be a trickster.
I couldn’t possibly tell you. But I would say be very careful with your suppositions. People are so quick to jump. That’s what I love about playing the character. People are so quick to draw conclusions about who he is. The whole thing about Loki is that he’s dancing on this liminal line between redemption and destruction. Just be very careful about drawing conclusions based on what you see.
IGN: Interesting, I know there are a lot of fans who’d like to see him redeemed enough to continue on as a featured character in that universe. I know we’ve got to wrap soon, just out of curiosity, have you ever see My Own Private Idaho? Gus Van Sant?
Yeah, I have. Keanu.
IGN: Yeah, Keanu, and in the film he’s the Prince Hal character, but in a contemporary setting. Do you think there’s something to that, to the Shakespeare redux? Is that something attractive to you? You’ve not done that that I know of. You’ve only done the classical.
Oh, I see, yeah. I mean, yes, there is actually. But I think that there are so many — we’re always going back to those stories in the end. There are only seven stories, really. That’s what they say, there are seven plots. But yeah, I’d love to do it. I was actually thinking about a Shakespeare redux, a contemporary rendition of one of those stories.
IGN: Did you see [Joss Whedon’s] Much Ado About Nothing?
I loved it. I absolutely loved it.
IGN: I absolutely loved it as well. There’s such a clarity to it, I thought.
Yeah, really, really clear. That’s when Shakespeare’s at its best, when it’s so clear. Because the shapes, the human tropes, are so familiar, because the humanity is ancient and eternal, it doesn’t matter that they’re speaking in pentameter, whether they’re wearing suits or Elizabethan ruffs. It’s just “Yeah, I understand what that is. That person is in love with that person. That person doesn’t want them to be.” It almost made me laugh and roll in the aisles just uproariously. It’s one of my favorites, I think. Hopefully it’s on my dance card one day.
IGN: I think it’d be interesting to see you do a contemporized take on one of the plays.
Like Hal? Contemporary how?
IGN: Maybe Hal. I mean, that might be odd because Van Sant kind of did it, right? But maybe there’s a different way to look at this play, that still applies a bit more to our world. Because Van Sant’s interpretation was very much a critique of privilege, I think.
Yes, yeah. I mean, I sort of feel like I do that with Loki anyway. I’m borrowing from Iago and Cassius and Julius Caesar and MacBeth. There’s a point about MacBeth where — I just saw Ken Branagh do that show on stage in Manchester, and there’s a point where there becomes a kind of precipitous “I’ve come this far now, so I have to keep going.” There’s an element of that to Loki too. It’s like, “Now that I’ve done this and this, I have to see it all the way through to the end.” He’s probably in over his head. I don’t think MacBeth intends to be in the state of mind that he’s in.