Tom Hiddleston on Becoming Hank Williams For Biopic, Pesky James Bond Rumors (Q&A)

I saw The Light Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Sony Classics

The British actor discusses his intense prep for 'I Saw the Light.'

By his own reckoning, playing iconic country singer Hank Williams in Sony Pictures Classics new biopic, I Saw The Light, was a stretch, but once Tom Hiddleston accepted the part in the Marc Abraham-directed film, the Cambridge-educated Brit immersed himself in the life of the Hillbilly Poet, who died at 29 in 1953, and prepared like he had for no other film.

The actor, best known for his role as Loki in Thor, moved to Nashville to live with singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell for five weeks to prepare vocally for the part and then spent three months in Shreveport, La., shooting the film, which opens in limited release on March 25 and wide April 1. 

Earlier this week, Hiddleston, 35, talked with Billboard about “going mad” over doing 56 takes of  “Lovesick Blues,” the tyranny of the Internet and those pesky James Bond rumors. In addition to I Saw The LightHiddleston stars in The Night Manager, a miniseries based on the John le Carre novel, which begins airing on AMC on April 19. 

What was your audition for I Saw The Light like? 

Marc was always adamant that he wanted to cast an actor who could sing, not a singer who could act. He kept talking about the contradiction between [Williams’] charisma and his vulnerability.  And then, not secondary to that, I had to get up there and sing those songs. I was more nervous about it than he was. He was very confident that I could pull it off. He’d seen that I had an ear for dialect and accents, so he wasn’t worried about that.

It all came to a head on Easter weekend in Toronto while I was making Crimson Peak in 2014. Rodney Crowell was on his way from Nashville to New York for a family wedding and he stopped in Toronto and we all had this pow wow at about 11 o'clock in the morning on Easter Saturday. I brought a guitar and Rodney had brought a guitar, and we were sitting there over scrambled eggs having a conversation putting off the inevitable (laughs). Eventually Marc went to the bathroom and I said to Rodney,  “I need for you to tell me if I can do this or not.” By the time Marc comes back, we are digging our heels into “Long Gone Lonesome Blues.” We spent the next eight or nine hours in that hotel room singing.  At the end that day, I was giddy. I was so excited because Rodney had given me a key into the music, and I felt like it was going to be a big challenge, but a challenge that I could take on.

You then went to live with Rodney for five weeks outside of Nashville and immersed yourself in singing lessons and Hank’s world to the exclusion of all else. Why so intense? 

It was the only way to do it, really. The scale of it was so monumental as was my sense of duty and obligation to Hank Williams and his legacy and his family and to the thousands upon thousands of people who love his music. I felt that I had to just cancel my life for four months [including shooting the film] and only do that. I was obsessive about it. I was completely dedicated in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever been to that degree.

You played some live dates with Rodney while you were preparing. What was that like? 

It felt very innocent and I felt like I was tagging along, but, of course, in the age of the Internet, it was recorded. It was day two of my prep. Someone took a video and put it on YouTube and suddenly it was up for discussion. People throwing their ideas around and criticizing. I was like, “Give me a second! I just started!” It’s like judging someone after they’ve run a lap for the first time around the track.  

What song did you sing? 

I played “Move It On Over” in front of 15,000 people and it was amazing. It was the first time I’d played and sang in front of a paying audience. I understand why people do it until they’re old and grey. I understand why the Rolling Stones are still rolling because the feeling is electric. It’s unlike anything else. It’s very, very exciting being up there. 

You’re a baritone. How did you become a tenor like Hank? When did it finally click in? 

It didn’t happen quickly and it wasn’t easy and sometimes we did so many takes I would go mad.  We’d sit in his studio and I would do 56 takes of “Lovesick Blues.” There was a day where I was struggling with “Lovesick” and I couldn’t get the clarity of the sound in the middle of the song. That yodel is very technical. I had been singing for so long and my voice was so warm, I felt like I had sufficient breath and control over it that I’d never had. After a certain point, my lungs opened up and my chest opened up and it felt like I was in clear water.  I could tell because Rodney turned around from the sound desk with a light in his eyes and I said, “Did you hear that?” and he said, “Yes, I heard it!” It was like suddenly just knowing how to ride a bicycle or drive a car. I knew I was in a different zone and I could always get back to that zone. Something happened and it was a combination of technical practice and control, but also spiritual freedom. 

Most of the songs are pre-recorded for the movie,  but you did a few of them live during filming, most notably “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Why?

We tried to lay down demos of [“Your Cheatin’ Heart”] and there was an obstacle in accessing it in that I simply wasn’t in the scene. I had to persuade Rodney that I had to do that live because as an actor I needed to be in the scene and I couldn’t be in the scene wearing my own clothes with blond hair in Nashville. I had to be fully in character having lived a bit of his life. It was very, very late on a Friday night. We’d been shooting all week in Shreveport and it was the end of a difficult week, and I think I was feeling the weight of it all anyway. I went outside in my shirt sleeves and stood outside in the cold, just to sort of be on my own for a bit. I came back in and sat down and did it. Rodney just got up and left. He said, “That’s it. That’s all I ever wanted to see. You’re not doing it again.” It was an extraordinary thing. We got it very quickly.

I Saw The Light questions how an artist deals with his artistry in a commercial world. Ultimately it destroys Hank. Was there anything that you took from that as an actor?

I think he wrestled with that tension between his artistic sensibility and the commercial demand. He really found that uncomfortable because those songs just poured out of him and they were so authentic. The demand of the Opry, I guess, on him and becoming a hit maker and becoming a professional, he couldn’t handle it. I think that’s what separates professionals from amateurs. If you’re a professional performer, sometimes you’re looked upon to deliver something you don’t feel like doing and you have to do it because there’s a paying audience out there. Have I felt that? Absolutely. The obligation is on you to galvanize your energy to deliver something to people and some days you don’t feel like it, but that’s what being a professional is all about. The show must go on. But Hank didn’t like that. 

I imagine Loki being quite the Hank fan. What would be Loki’s favorite Hank Williams song?

(laughs) Oh, my goodness. Let me quickly run through them all. “Settin’ The Woods On Fire.”

Your name has been tossed around as a contender to be the next James Bond.  Any update? 

I have nothing. Listen, all that is pure speculation. It’s become something that’s escalated far beyond … I think it hasn’t been created by me. It’s something that someone else has created. I find it amusing, but I find it slightly overwhelming. 

This story first appeared in Billboard.