Shanghai is a long way from family and familiarity for British star Tom Hiddleston, but cinema is now more than ever a global community.
So in China, the 38-year-old, who attended the Shanghai International Film Festival, which wrapped Monday, is mostly known as Loki from the Marvel Universe thanks to the billions the franchise has collected around the world.
The actor came to the Chinese metropolis to help launch the BAFTA Breakthrough China initiative, which will select five Chinese creatives — directors, writers, producers, actors or game developers — and give them a year of mentorship and support.
It’s another role that Hiddleston has fully embraced. As Loki, brother of Thor and also often his nemesis, Hiddleston found fame and later fortune as the character and the franchise grew. Now there’s a TV series in the works for the upcoming Disney+ streaming platform.
On the sidelines of the Shanghai fest, the British star talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how Kenneth Branagh helped his career, why he is working with BAFTA and the upcoming Loki series.
You’re here in your role as ambassador for BAFTA. What drew you to this?
I really believe in it. Anyone at the beginning of their career can often feel quite isolated. Perhaps you had enough confidence to make one film or give one performance. But it’s hard sometimes to know how to keep going or to make that next step, and I think mentorship is so useful. It was useful to me. I do know that there is always a great power in connection and inspiration. At the beginning of a career it is enormous. I know at the beginning of a career to have the confidence to develop your own skills, to share your imagination, to share your belief can be a very profound thing and it can last for a very long time. So I am just happy to make connections as best I can.
A connection with Kenneth Branagh helped lead you to the role of Loki. Can you talk us through what went on there?
It had a life-changing effect on me. It happened quite organically, almost by accident. He saw me in a Shakespeare production in a theater in London, then asked me to perform with him in the television series Wallander for the BBC. We then did a Chekhov play in the West End, and then he cast me as Loki in the first Thor film. So actually we ended up spending about 12 months working together in different media.
And that’s when you career took off in global terms. How did you learn from him?
Just from being able to watch him, closely. Then he would prepare to shoot, to execute, to perform. He always treated me as an equal. At the end of that experience, I had learned so much from him. But then I realized that he used to look up to Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins. And when I was playing Loki for the first time and Anthony Hopkins was playing my father, he told me he used to look up to Richard Burton. So I realized that the creative industries are in a constant feedback loop of re-inspiration and imagination.
What are you expecting from the Chinese talent chosen for the BAFTA initiative?
There’s a lot for me to learn and I know a lot less about how new talent comes through here. In the U.K., certainly as an actor, I know that certain talent comes through drama school and perhaps they started in theater. It’s different in America, it’s different in Australia. But I am really excited to learn from the five Breakthrough winners how they feel about performance, how they feel about film. But for me also now the creative industries are global. The most exciting collaborations that I’ve had are international. I’ve made six films with an actor called Chris Hemsworth. He’s Australian, I’m British. We came from very different acting disciplines, but we played brothers for 10 years. I’ve learned so much from him, he’s learned so much from me. I hope we managed to pull off a convincing act as brothers!
What have you been asked in previous mentorship roles with BAFTA?
Sometimes actors ask me, “How do you prepare for auditions?,” or it can be the simple day-to-day practice of being an actor. “How do you restore yourself after a long shoot?” “Where do you get your inspiration from?” How do you keep trying to get better?” Those are the things you need to know, actually. Those are the things I learned from Kenneth Branagh. Seeing him work with a script, first thing in the morning, I found absolutely invigorating. He was always trying to make the story clearer. It was all about story for him. It wasn’t about ego.
Will the thespian in you point them towards theater?
I don’t know. It’s something that has helped me. My passions for theater and film are very much intertwined. My own tastes started to expand in my teams. I think as children we all love films, but I started to seek out more different films as a teenager [and] also I started to go to the theater a lot. That’s where it all started.
Do you still get nervous onstage?
I think the day you stop getting nervous is the day you should stop. But I try to convert my nerves into a positive.
You had a start also in TV, which is a lot more common now than, say, 20 years ago when it was still looked upon as a lesser art…
To me it’s all about story. It all about connections. But lots of people have seen my TV work, like The Hollow Crown. I’m always stunned that Chinese people have seen a work done for BBC Two. There’s no such thing as a small production anymore.
What can you reveal about the upcoming Loki TV series and about this particular role?
It is a constant source of surprise and delight that these films have connected with people. I knew he was a complex figure. Intelligent yet vulnerable. Angry and lost and broken and witty. I thought it was an amazing opportunity and it’s grown into this network of movies. I could never have expected it. I feel very fortunate that this character has connected with people.
And where does the TV series take the character?
All I can tell you is that it is called Loki. It is a new departure … but I can’t explain why.