Dan Howell Tom Hiddleston

How a vampire led Tom Hiddleston to Hank Williams: Howell

In Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 undead romance Only Lovers Left Alive, Tom Hiddleston’s vampire rocker Adam reclines in a dusty Detroit mansion as co-star Tilda Swinton inquires about his personal heroes.

“I don’t have any heroes,” Adam wearily replies, but the camera makes a liar of him, cutting to a wall of photographs. Among them are scientist Sir Isaac Newton, playwright Christopher Marlowe, singer-songwriter Tom Waits and comedian Rodney Dangerfield, attesting to fan worship.

There's no James Bond photo, which would be funny given current speculation that British actor Hiddleston, 35, might inherit 007’s license to kill from current holder Daniel Craig, a rumor Hiddleston has recently and cannily called "completely unreal."

But there is a picture of country legend Hank Williams on Adam's wall, smiling through constant physical and emotional pain, dead at 29. When the camera was off, Hiddleston pointed out the Williams photo to Jarmusch, who had assembled the images from his own list of “awesome” people.

“I remember sitting in my 'Syd Barrett' black wig and my gothic robe, drinking 'blood' out of a champagne flute and looking at this wall, and I said, 'Jim, I'm going to play him,'” Hiddleston recalls in an interview.

“And he said,‘ You are? That's cool, man. And that was three years before I ended up doing it. "

Believers in cosmic coincidences will appreciate that Hiddleston’s impromptu aspiration has become fact. He’s like Williams incarnate in I saw the light, a musical biopic by Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius), now opening in Toronto, that had its world premiere at TIFF 2015.

Hiddleston speaks to me the morning after the premiere (and long before the 007 speculation), grinning as he marvels at a career trajectory that has resembled a pinball’s zigzag progress since he finished his Royal Academy of Dramatic Art studies a decade ago.

Among his many assignments are portrayals of immortal villain Loki in superhero franchises The avengers other Thor (he had auditioned and bulked up to play Thor), writer F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, prison stuntman the Great Escapo in Muppets Most Wanted and of course Adam, the coolest of vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive.

Now he's doing Hank Williams, from the twang of his word and tune to the twitch of his fragile body. Hiddleston senses an affinity between Hank and Adam, both being creatures of the dark who are not quite of this world.

"I've done some homework. I had to, out of respect to the man but also because people demand it. That was the biggest challenge and the greatest pleasure. I felt a huge pressure, a responsibility to his musical legacy. I knew that people needed to see me do it and do it well. ”

(There was sheer joy, too. In between set changes during filming in Louisiana, Hiddleston would grab a guitar and he and his crack band would play for the movie extras, who made an audience of close to 200 people.)

Hiddleston's deep dive into Williams ’lore included a nugget of insight from Danny Dill, a songwriting contemporary, who observed that Hank wanted fame until he got it:“ It was empty. There was nothing there that he wanted. It was all back down where he came from. "

The actor effortlessly recalls Dill’s quote with a southern accent, then adds his own thoughts - and personal experience - about how there’s no turning back from fame.

"You can't cross the bridge again. It's a one-way bridge. Once you're a star like that, you can't go back. But Hank also said a beautiful thing, which I really took to heart in making the film: ‘Legends don’t know they’re legends when they’re being made. They’re just people. They’re just folks. ’"

I saw the light director Marc Abraham says he selected Hiddleston for the lead role because they saw eye-to-eye about how to approach Williams.

“I consciously stayed away from all the tropes,” Abraham says. “How do you show a guy writing a song, or showing him as kid? How do you explain Hank Williams, like really explain him? By showing how he went to church with his mom? I couldn't get my head into that, so that's how I approached the movie from the beginning, and Tom was really in sync with that. "

Pain was a big part of what made Williams who he was, Hiddleston says. It inspired his songs, but also drove him to destructively self-medicate with alcohol and pills.

“I think he was compelled to do what he did. He had this terrible physical decrepitude he was born with, spina bifida, and he didn’t understand it. He was never conscripted as a soldier. He couldn't do labor in the field or work on the farm as a kid. He was just too weak, and his mom Lily just put a guitar in his hands. I think he latched onto it because it was the only thing he could do. He knew he had a talent. ”

His limitations became his strengths, and the source of his stardom.

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“He was searingly honest,” Hiddleston says. “He was the most authentic of artists, essentially, and that's why he caught fire. In the wake of the Second World War, people all over the South were listening to the radio and they heard a man who wrote about his own life. He wrote about being in the doghouse. He wrote about trying to melt the cold, cold heart of his wife Audrey. He wrote about being so lonesome he could cry. It was so authentic, people connected to it. "

If the rumors prove true and Hiddleston becomes the next James Bond, he’ll add a fictional legend to his impressive arsenal of acting roles. But he's already essayed a real one, by bringing Hank Williams to life in all his wretched glory.

Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic. His column runs Fridays.