WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – To date, a few viral karaoke videos have been the most the world has heard Tom Hiddleston sing.
That will change Friday, when Hiddleston, 35, makes his debut in the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, in which he impressively adopts the country legend’s distinct warble. He laughs. “I apologize unreservedly” for those, the British actor says on a warm day in Los Angeles. Professionally, “I haven’t really sang before," he says. "I mean I was in musicals (in school), but I was always a singing actor. I was never in a band, I was never in the choir or anything like that.”
I Saw the Light is full of tumult, genius and pain, chronicling the country legend's six years in infamy as Williams charted 33 hit singles, until he died abruptly at the age of 29 in the backseat of a Cadillac in 1953.
“I thought about this a lot," says Hiddleston. "You think of all of those people who burned twice as bright but not for long, like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse and James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix. There’s a club, what do they call it, the 27 club or something? Heath Ledger was 27.”
He continues: “They become canonized, because they lived at a pitch of such intensity just before the lights went out. And they become frozen in time, so there is never a moment where you see the maturation of their talent or their personality. In some respects, it’s basically a tragedy because you don’t know where they would have gone or how they would have developed.”
More than 60 years have passed since Williams' death, and classics like Your Cheatin' Heart, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and Cold, Cold Heart still play on the radio.
I Saw the Light, which received shaky reviews at its debut at the Toronto Film Festival, despite applause for Hiddleston’s performance, charts the genesis of those songs, while folding in Williams’ tumultuous marriage to Audrey Williams (Elizabeth Olsen), his unreliability and the ultimately fatal mix of alcohol and drugs he used in part to control chronic pain caused by spina bifida.
Hiddleston, who has become beloved to Marvel fans worldwide as the impish god Loki, embedded himself in Nashville for five weeks to get Williams right.
“There were some dark days where I just wasn’t sure if I was going to get it,” he admits. “There was a moment where I canceled everything. I canceled my life, I didn’t pick up the phone, I didn’t do anything else but what was related to Hank.”
"He puts a lot of pressure on himself with everything he does," says Olsen, adding that Hiddleston took on responsibility to do right by Williams' legacy and family.
Skill-wise, director Marc Abraham calls Hiddleston "so facile it’s infuriating.” That means on-set instead of staying in character, the actor easily switched between dialects. "Let's put it this way: When we would have a disagreement about how something was coming down, he reverted to the king’s English," the director laughs.
Now, despite big-budget films such asThor: Ragnarok and Kong: Skull Island in the wings, it's Williams who stayed with Hiddleston. “Looking back at it, it was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done," he says.