Sunday 24 April 2011: With Thor, Tom Hiddleston has shot from indie star to Hollywood. Next stop, Spielberg

Tom Hiddleston turns up for breakfast at a central London hotel dead on time and breathlessly thrilled. Though the 30-year-old has already had an impressive career, renowned as one of the most penetratingly intelligent actors of his generation and working with directors as illustrious as Michael Grandage and Terence Davies, travelling here on the tube he had a Hollywood moment. He saw a poster of Thor for the first time.

  • Thor
  • Production year: 2011
  • Countries: UK, USA
  • Cert (UK): 12A
  • Runtime: 114 mins
  • Directors: Kenneth Branagh
  • Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba, Jaimie Alexander, Jeremy Renner, Kat Dennings, Natalie Portman, Ray Stevenson, Rene Russo, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston
  • More on this film

He sits forward eagerly. “It’s a wildly exciting time. I’ve never been in a film that has posters on the tube. And it’s not even my face on the poster.” The Thor poster shows a close-up of Chris Hemsworth as the god of thunder; Hiddleston plays his Machiavellian brother Loki, the god of mischief. On screen, the two actors are brawn and brain, large and little. Hemsworth’s Thor is a brash yet increasingly likable god; Hiddleston’s Loki is ultimately just a kid who wants to please his dad, Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins. It’s surprising, then, to learn that director Kenneth Branagh initially asked Hiddleston to audition for the title role.

Hiddleston digs into his eggs benedict and laughs. “Ken found out he’d got the job in late 2008, when we were appearing at the Donmar together, knocking eight bells of ideological crap out of each other every night in Chekhov’s Ivanov. Dressed as the self-righteous 19th-century doctor Lvov, with wire-rimmed spectacles, a pocket watch, grey trousers, a linen jacket and a goatee, I ran up to Ken’s dressing room holding a massive empty water cooler that I pretended was Thor’s hammer. He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t joke, love, you never know.'”

The following spring, Hiddleston was in Los Angeles – he’d been signed by an American agency who’d spotted him in Grandage’s Othello at the Donmar – when he was officially asked to audition. Hiddleston had acted alongside Branagh in Wallander (as his number two, Magnus Martinsson), as well as in Ivanov, and though he knew a part as potentially huge as Thor could make him an international star, he wasn’t nervous. “I thought, well Ken knows what I can do. Every English-speaking actor over six foot was being seen for the part. I got down to the final five, which also included Chris’s younger brother Liam Hemsworth, Alexander Skarsgård, Charlie Hunnam and another Swedish actor.”

The casting director gave Hiddleston six weeks to bulk up. “I’ve inherited my father’s lean Glaswegian genes, but I managed to put on three and a half stone in lean muscle.” Did he take anything dodgy? He laughs. “No! I ate nothing but chicken and just lifted and lifted weights till I could barely walk. Initially it was hard and then it got quite addictive. I outgrew my clothes and started to stand differently.”

The producers were impressed by his commitment and his newly ripped body, but didn’t give him the part. Branagh took him out for breakfast to let him down gently. “Ken told me that every actor has something for free. Jack Nicholson has an irreverence for free, Anthony Hopkins has a majesty and gravitas for free. Idris Elba, who plays Heimdall in Thor – and, by the way, anyone who’s been complaining about a black actor being cast as a Norse god is just crazy; this is a fantasy world, for goodness sake – has a watchful gravitas for free. He explained that what I have for free is that I can’t turn off my intelligence. Therefore Loki would be much more up my street.” Hiddleston says all this without sounding chippy, but he must have felt disappointed. He shakes his head. Not just a tiny bit? “I guess a fraction. But when I see what Chris has delivered I know I could never have done that.”

Still, Hiddleston managed to make Thor a kind of intellectual journey, with Loki not a typical bombastic baddie but a low-key, emotional antihero with an intense interior life. He and Branagh talked about the film as a dynastic drama, and compared Loki to Cassius in Julius Caesar and Edmund, the illegitimate son in King Lear. All this may sound pompous, but Hiddleston is right when he insists those conversations register in his subtle portrayal of Loki’s private hell. “There’s the action in Thor, with big, muscle-bound men smashing things up. There’s the humour – my favourite line is when Thor strides into a pet shop and demands a horse. And then there’s Loki’s psychological depth. I hope it means that Thor can appeal to many people on many levels.”

Hiddleston is set to have a star-making year. An old Etonian who graduated from Cambridge with a double first in classics, prior to Thor he was known for meticulously playing upper-class young men in Joanna Hogg’s low-budget films Unrelated and Archipelago. Next up is a cameo in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and a co-starring role in Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea opposite Rachel Weisz. Yet for the kid who grew up watching Indiana Jones on repeat, the most thrilling project might just be Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the National theatre hit War Horse, in which Hiddleston plays Captain Nichols.

Nectars of the god

Ask Hiddleston about Spielberg and he almost bursts with enthusiasm. “Towards the end of filming Thor, I did a video audition for War Horse, and then got a call from my agent saying that Steven Spielberg wanted to meet. I drove up to his office in Universal City and was shown into a room full of Oscars and a model of the boat he’s building as a personal project. I got talking to his assistant about coffee – it’s my vice; Steven avoids it – and how much I love Guinness. She said, ‘Oh my god, Steven loves Guinness! It’s his favourite drink!’ He walked in at that point and so our first conversation was about Guinness. The ice was broken. He asked about Thor because he loves Ken, and then we were straight on to Vic Armstrong, who was Harrison Ford’s stunt double in all the Indiana Jones films and who taught me to ride on Thor.”

Hiddleston suddenly grabs my arms, as though to ground himself. “And then Spielberg said, ‘Well, if Vic taught you how to ride, I’d like you to do War Horse.’ I nearly fell off my chair. I was stunned. He offered me the part right there and then! Let me tell you, this never happens. Never. An official offer usually comes in weeks later. I had to ask him to repeat it. At which point I almost burst into tears. Here was the architect of my childhood imagination telling me I’m the real deal.”

He lets go of me, flops back and sits there grinning, unable to quite believe that he’s gone from Hogg to Hollywood so quickly. Although he swears he doesn’t know if Loki will return in The Avengers, Thor 2 or Iron Man 3, Hiddleston has recently signed a multi-movie deal with Marvel. So will he be moving to LA? “I love it there, but I’ve just bought a place in north London and I’m having a great time here. For now, I just want to enjoy seeing those Thor posters on the tube.”