Beginning tonight, you can see Tom Hiddleston tackling Shakespearean sonnets in PBS' four-part miniseries The Hollow Crown, which assembles Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I & II, and Henry V into a single chronological narrative. But if you're a member of The Television Critics Association, you were gifted with an impromptu live performance at this summer's Press Tour when the actor continuously -- and miraculously -- recited sonnets off the top of his head to illustrate his points.
Following his triumphant TCA debut, I caught up with Hiddleston where he elaborated on his Hollow Crown experience, revealed the underlying professional edict that guides all his acting choices and continued to quote Shakespeare, much to my elation.
ETonline: While you were on stage, I was struck by the passion with which you speak about this project. Would you struggle to promote a project you couldn't speak about that passionately?
Tom Hiddleston: Yes. I would. And that's why I make all my decisions based entirely on passion. On gut instinct. I tell my team that I have to be running off the diving board and jumping head first into the water because I want to swim so badly. I can never make a strategic career decision. I've found what I love to do and it's my great privilege to do this job, which I love more than anything else in the world. I knew quite early on, but it took me a while to get there. I think everyone should do what they love because it will never feel like work that way. Also, with this kind of project, you have to be passionate about it because it's too challenging otherwise. Bringing Shakespeare to life is an enormous task, you have to do so much digesting in understanding the plot and the verse and the character and the language so an audience can sit back and cleanly listen to it. And shooting was tough -- long, long days of six pages a day, which is fast for Shakespeare. The degree of precision and stamina required is massive. It 14 weeks to do all three plays. I saw the sun rise and set every day because I was getting up that early and staying up that late. It wasn't easy but it was the best kind of challenge because you know if you do it right, you've contributed something of immense value.
ETonline: Thanks to Loki you've amassed a very passionate fanbase that might not necessarily watch a four-part Shakespeare miniseries airing Friday nights on PBS. But because of you, they will. What does that mean to you?
Hiddleston: If they see it for that reason, I'm flattered and honored. If fans come because they know who Loki is but stay because they've fallen in love with Shakespeare, my job is done. I was that guy. I was interested in Superman and Terminator and Rambo as a kid, but was taken to the theater to see great Shakespearean actors performing these plays with such rigor and muscle and sheer vivid energy. They seem so alive and, as a result, the action felt more spectacular than any movie I'd ever seen. Kenneth Branagh and Vanessa Redgrave and Ian McKellan and Zoe Wanamaker and Juliet Stevenson and Emily Watson gave me Shakespeare and if I can pass it on, then it's my great gift.
ETonline: Through the four plays you go on a massive, life-spanning journey with this character. How do you describe the man?
Hiddleston: You meet him and he behaves like an irresponsible teenager: drunk and rebellious and wild and mischievous and almost deliberately antagonistic with his dad. It seems like a truthful shape of the contemporary adolescent. And then he goes all the way to being the Head of State and extraordinary and exemplary and one of the most inspirational Heads of State England has ever seen. And I think there's something in Henry the Fifth that appeals to contemporary leaders. I think they would love to be him; they would love to be held in that high esteem, to have their courage and mettle tested in the way his was and to pass with flying colors. The arc of the character is massive, the journey of the character is massive, but the journey is about so many things: his own nature as a man, as a son, as a leader, as a warrior and because the writing is so good, the levels of subtlety are so rich.
ETonline: Do you have a favorite scene or line?
Hiddleston: There's one night when, before The Battle of Agincourt, he's disguised as a beggar and he's moving among his army in the middle of the night under the cover of a hood. He's listening and taking the temperature of his men, who are all disillusioned -- many of them are dying of terrible, medieval dysentery, and he gets into a debate with a soldier who doesn't recognize him as the king. They have a bit of chinwag about the nature of leadership. And this hot-headed solder basically says -- and this is a direct quote -- "When all those arms, and all those legs and heads chopped off in battle say they died at such a place, it'll be a black matter for the King who led them to it." And Henry's response is, "Every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own.” I want that on my mantelpiece. It's his way of saying, "Fair enough, you're right to pin the duty and the reason we're all here on me, but your soul is your own and make sure it's clean before you fight tomorrow."
ETonline: How much time do you like to spend with text this rich before filming begins?
Hiddleston: There's a lot more text and it's so formal. You can't riff around. With contemporary screen dialogue, sometimes you can make the words your own. For example, if the lines are, "Could you give me a cup of coffee?" On the day you could say, "Can I get a cup of coffee?" You can't do that with Shakespeare. You can't say, "Here we go again lads" if "Once more unto the breach dear friends" is what's written [laughs]. There's a degree of rigor and preparation required, and I usually give myself a clear month to start learning it and thinking it and digesting it. The learning is the heavy lifting. You need to get the words into your brain. Like a very complicated piece of music. One you know it, you can really play it -- and that's just application. Jeremy Irons used to say he'd just pace around his living room with his wife, and I have to learn on the move. I have to be physically in motion, so I tend to take myself to the parks of London. I'm the mad guy walking around in a loop as if I'm on the phone, but actually I'm going over the lines.
ETonline: Do you remain in character between takes, or can you segue in and out?
Hiddleston: I can go in and out of it. To be honest, the way we live now, it would stress me out more to not. That would involve such a length disengagement from my own life that my own life would end up in ruins. When I was shooting The Hollow Crown, I did two rounds of press for War Horse. So there was a whole load of other things going on at the same time, which was a strange disconnect. There's always a little shadow, a residue or a hangover from a dream you get from playing a character, and sometimes you take on the elements of that character in your own life. But only for the best; particularly when it's Shakespeare.
Great Performances: The Hollow Crown premieres September 20 at 9 p.m. on PBS and continues on three subsequent Fridays through October 11 at the same time.