People: Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olsen on I Saw the Light
The good lord was willing and the creek didn’t rise, but taking on the challenge of playing Hank Williams, the American icon who gave a nation its own lonesome sound, gave Tom Hiddleston and co-star Elizabeth Olsen a fresh lesson in authenticity
By Katherine Monk
TORONTO – “Last time I checked, I wasn’t born in Asgard,” says Tom Hiddleston. Indeed, the English actor was born in Westminster, the central chunk of London, a far cry from the celestial birthplace of Norse gods such as Odin, Thor and Loki, the latter representing Hiddleston’s ticket to the Hollywood big-time.
In 2011, Hiddleston played the bitter little brother to Chris Hemsworth’s Thor in the continuing Marvel franchise, bringing true gravitas and drama to the comic book universe and causing a gravitational bend to the spotlight’s beam. Hiddleston went toe-to-toe with Anthony Hopkins and Robert Downey Jr. in Thor, but that same year he’d already courted Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’s sorrowful romance The Deep Blue Sea, played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s comeback, Midnight in Paris, and played alongside Benedict Cumberbatch under Steven Spielberg’s direction in War Horse. And soon, you can watch him go hammer and tongs with Jeremy Irons in Ben Wheatley’s new movie High-Rise.
Today, looking extraordinarily tall next to his co-star Elizabeth Olsen, he’s talking about playing Hank Williams in the new Marc Abraham movie, I Saw the Light.
Produced through Vancouver-based Bron Studios, I Saw the Light was a passion project for Abraham, a veteran producer whose titles include Air Force One and Dawn of the Dead. He read Colin Prescott’s biography and wrote his own script that he then directed – pulling Hiddleston and Olsen in to play the leads.
But, just as it was for their real-life counterparts, it’s really Hiddleston’s show. In the role of Hank, he had to absorb and embody the very essence of the white man’s soul. Through high, lonesome songs of bitter love and achy self-hate simply strummed on acoustic guitar, Williams captured America’s elusive pathos.
“…The thing that I have always been fascinated by is authentic Americana,” says Hiddleston. “For me, it’s always felt like foreign territory to me. The authentic American experience has always seemed quite exotic as a European.”
Olsen smiles with a nod: “You loved Shreveport!”
“I did,” says Hiddleston of the Louisiana shooting locale, “cultural center of the Ark-La-Tex region.”
Olsen adds: “He would say this is so exotic and I would be like wow! Okay… There are houses and there are strip malls.”
“Well, it’s not native to me so to me,” says Hiddleston.
“Growing up watching westerns, and listening to rock and roll, and whether it’s baseball or the pedal steel of Don Helms. In every movie I ever watched, Michael J. Fox is walking into a diner and ordering a burger and a shake and Hank Williams would be playing on the jukebox…”
Hiddleston is lost in reverie. “It’s such an authentic thing. And I’ve always been drawn to that perhaps because of what Lizzie is saying… it is about this authentic experience. It relates to the blues, I think. Absolutely right and as it pertains to Hank it pertains to Tee Tot Payne. Rufus Tee Tot Payne taught him how to play, a black blues singer, who was his tutor for tour money. I guess that’s where somehow, culturally, America is born. The thing is, that they all start singing the same song that is deeply felt, something that can be shared. And that has become really embedded in the culture.”
Hiddleston didn’t have access to the long-deceased Tee Tot, but he did spend weeks on Rodney Crowell’s couch, crashing at his Nashville house and learning the core and chords of country.
“He invited me to live with him for five or four weeks before we started shooting,” says Hiddleston of his time with Crowell.
“We’d get up in the morning and make porridge, have a cup of coffee, and sing all day. Sometimes for seven or eight hours, sometimes for twelve or thirteen… And it’s interesting because the voice isn’t something that is consistent. Sometimes you wake up and you are a little croaky or there is dust in there. And other days, we would hit our stride really early we’d hit a purple patch and just keep singing. I remember one day, the day we sang Lovesick Blues, I kind of broke the back a bit. I literally would not stop. Rodney would be like, Tom, we got to eat now. Time for us to get ready to go to bed. But it was a pleasure. And it was challenging because I was trying to get close to Hank who had 25 years of practice. But it was the most joyful challenge. You cannot sing these songs, and not get enormous pleasure from it.”
Ask Hiddleston and Olsen, who plays Williams’s not-so-beloved wife Audrey, what the act of singing changed in their approach to performance and they don’t hold back.
“It’s the act of being,” says Olsen.
“Well [Audrey] was a horrible singer. But when I think of singing, and the actual act of it, and why it is so powerful, I think it’s something that sound does. Something you cannot speak about. There’s no language to show how music makes you feel when it’s something that connects with you. It’s like another form of communication. And everyone has a different relationship to whatever singer, artist, whatever sound that they are somehow moved by. And whatever that is, I have no idea, it’s completely unknown, but for me it’s this magical thing that if you can penetrate someone with sound then that’s a whole other atmosphere that is unknown to me.”
We all sit and digest for a moment, and Hiddleston ventures a response.
“I think it is the most directly powerful medium. Artists who sing are more naked and more vulnerable and more raw: A novelist can hide because anonymity. An actor can hide behind character. Even musicians can hide behind the instrument,” he says.
“But if you sing, it is so raw and it has to be so personal – that it will not travel unless it is deeply felt, and committed to. I learned that very deeply while doing this. I said it a few times this morning, but I had a history teacher who told me once at school and I had to look it up, there’s an essayist named Walter Pater who said ‘all art aspires to the condition of music.’ And I always took that to mean that music is the most directly emotional art form. It’s the one that is the arrow to your heart. The one that is the most directly evocative in terms of the way it makes you feel. People sing when the language of the spoken word is no longer sufficient to express the depth of what they are feeling.”
For Williams, this was especially palpable in every yodel, every sweet howl. But the very act of expressing took its toll, says Hiddleston of the musician who died of heart failure at the age of 29. It’s why he was interested in the role.
“For me, I suppose, it was this tension between something I felt in that he brought so much joy to so many people from so much pain, that he had a generosity of spirit. But it cost him. And I really wanted to show that. That something about it ate him up in a way. The more he gave, the more he suffered. And that seemed very complex and interesting.”
It’s about finding the honesty of the character as a human being, says Hiddleston. “I felt a responsibility to commit to his truth and I knew I had to put myself through the paces that he put himself through. And get under the skin of who he was and treat his flaws with compassion and try to feel the things he felt … because he had this sort of self-destructive headlong life. And he packed so much into such a short time. So really that was all I had to do was commit myself to his experience.”
When you focus on that, says Hiddleston, it doesn’t really matter what side of the Atlantic you grew up on.
“Whether you are Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher… or Daniel Day Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln, it’s OH MY GOD! An American playing an Englishwmanm an Irishman playing an American! It’s a conversation that always gets talked about. My personal belief is that if the actor has sufficient commitment to play the role with respect, then it doesn’t matter. And I knew I was going to give this everything I had. I felt the weight of the responsibility to represent his legacy, but part of being an actor is that I am always drawn to foreign territory,” he says.
“I like digging around with characters who are not where I am from…. After all, last time I checked, I wasn’t born in Asgard. To me, it’s like finding my common humanity with characters that are far away from me, and I found that very exciting.”
I Saw the Light opens is now open in select cities.
THE EX-PRESS, April 9, 2016