Get Smart

The talented British actor has the knowledge to quote Polonius at will and the nous to land work for Branagh and Spielberg

When Tom Hiddleston arrived at RADA after graduating from Cambridge with a double first in Classics, his teachers assumed he would be an intellectual actor. ‘I had a very formal education at Eton and had read a huge number of books, some in Latin and Greek, so they’d predetermined that I’d have no instinct, no emotion. Initially, they kept saying, “You need to switch your brain off. Acting comes from your gut.” I couldn’t help but wonder if they were actually seeing me or just a stereotype.’

Hiddleston doesn’t sound in the least bit chippy; he simply objects, in his equable manner, to the way people are too often labelled and classified. Actors are, he says, quite rebellious in ‘wanting to prove there is an enormously broad scope of what it means to be alive’. His point is this: free of labels, he can play heroes and villains, gods and men. ‘One wants to believe that everything is possible. Maybe it’s not, but I think that’s the excitement of trying.’

Perhaps Hiddleston, who has just turned 30, is right to believe that everything is possible. It is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most exciting and unpredictable actors of his generation. He is terrific in Joanna Hogg’s brace of low-budget films about families defined by repressed anger – in Unrelated, he gives charming cad Oakley some much needed humanity and, as Edward in Archipelago, he is the contained yet vulnerable brother giving up his job to work in Africa. In a critically acclaimed 2007 production of Othello at London’s Donmar Warehouse, he offered a statuesque Cassio – and stood out despite the considerable talents of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Ewan McGregor. He has been noteworthy in BBC hits Cranford and Wallander. Now, playing the baddie in Kenneth Branagh’s superhero movie Thor, he will go global.

Hiddleston has as much presence off the stage and screen as he has on it. He is pale-skinned with bright, inquisitive eyes, finely hewn cheekbones and an easy, slightly flirtatious smile. His curly blonde hair is dyed red-brown, a hangover from playing a former RAF pilot who has an affair with Rachel Weisz in Terence Davies’ upcoming film The Deep Blue Sea. He is immaculately and stylishly dressed, in brilliant white T-shirt, black jacket and jeans. He is confident, but not
cocky – although he has every reason to be pleased with himself: this year will see him not only co-starring in Thor, but also taking a lead in Steven Spielberg’s film version of War Horse and a cameo in Woody Allen’s romcom Midnight in Paris.

The list almost makes him blush. ‘It’s insane! My career looks as though it’s been so well thought out, but it’s all been pretty accidental. I got cast as Loki – the younger brother of Thor who, in Norse mythology, is the god of mischief – when Joanna and I had already started to explore the weight of someone being good in the world in Archipelago. And then, while I was still making Thor, I auditioned for War Horse…’ And how was Spielberg? He runs a hand through his hair and laughs. ‘He was my childhood hero, the architect of my imagination. But I made a promise to myself that I’d be straight up and honest with him when we first met. As Shakespeare said: “To thine own self be true/And it must follow, as the night the day/Thou canst not then be false to any man.”’

He didn’t quote Hamlet to Spielberg – though it’s a nice idea – but they did bond over a shared appreciation of Guinness and Vic Armstrong, the stuntman who has often worked with the director and who, by chance, taught Hiddleston to ride. ‘Steven was like, “Vic taught you how to ride? That’s wonderful. I’d like you to do War Horse.” I nearly fell off my chair. I was completely stunned. Let me tell you, this never happens with Spielberg. Never. He also said something very sweet: “I don’t normally meet actors because, whatever association they have with me is an obstacle. But I loved your audition tape and I just wanted to see if you’re the real deal. And it seems you are, so I’m excited.” I almost burst into tears.’ The story told, Hiddleston just sits there, unable to stop grinning. He talks endlessly of luck, but you make your own luck. And it’s not as though he simply drifted into acting and found himself in the right place at the right time: since discovering am dram at Eton, he has never lost focus and has even refused family advice. His father was the son of a working-class Govan shipbuilder, who worked his way up the scientific ranks to the role of senior business developer at the Oxford Science Park; when Tom was in his late teens, kept insisting his son would be better off learning to be his own man.

‘Spending one’s life pretending to be someone else didn’t seem to him like a valid way to live. He changed his mind when he saw me in an HBO film called The Gathering Storm, in which I play Randolph Churchill, son of Albert Finney’s Winston. It was broadcast the summer after I left Cambridge and he phoned me up in floods of tears saying how proud he was of me.’

Hiddleston is disarmingly open – he talks about his parents’ divorce when he was 12 and wonders if he should have been ‘a bit more present in each of the households’ as opposed to being away at school – and you can only hope that another decade in the movie industry doesn’t knock this out of him. He says that, among his friends, he is known as someone who gets excited about life. It’s precisely this boyish enthusiasm and apparent lack of cynicism that appeals both on screen and in person. When he acted with Ejiofor in Othello, the more seasoned actor advised him to grasp every experience. ‘He said the way to ensure the journey is always interesting as an actor is to keep challenging yourself and doing things that are new.’ Oh, and, along the way, convince Spielberg that you’re the real deal. Q Thor is released on 27 April

AMY RAPHAEL is the author of the critically acclaimed books Danny Boyle: In His Own Words and Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh. She writes about film, TV and music for The Guardian and The Times