Tom Hiddleston might not be the first person you’d think of to play Hank Williams. He’s British, he’s blond, he’s not a singer. But the actor, 35, committed to playing the country music icon in the new biopic “I Saw the Light,” which covers his career up until his sudden death at 29. At one point during our conversation, Hiddleston — who’s juggled his duties as Marvel’s villainous Loki with smaller, oft-challenging films like “The Deep Blue Sea,” “Only Lovers Left Alive” and the forthcoming “High-Rise” — lets his proper English accent slip effortlessly into a Southern twang, just because he can, now.
How do you go about playing a real historical figure?
Well, first of all [laughs]: big boots to fill. And there’s a degree of respectful obligation and responsibility, to study and to research and to be precise and be specific. There’s less wiggle-room in the interpretation, because you have to get certain things right. With Hank I had to change the way I looked, I had to change the way I sounded. I had to learn to sing and play like Hank. I’m a baritone, he’s a tenor.
But the secondary thing is to try to bridge the gap between us and find the common ground. That was the most interesting and fulfilling challenge: to try and get under the skin of what he was going through. There were times I would understand him as a performer. He clearly had so much energy onstage and such charisma, such generosity of spirit and a joy at being up there and giving his music to the audience. I connected with that. I love what I do. I’m an actor, and I started in the theater. There’s a really magical connection with a live audience that is unlike anything else.
Was it scary actually performing music despite your stage experience?
Pure white terror. [Laughs]
How did you overcome it?
You have to use it as an engine to motivate you. I moved in with a musician named Rodney Crowell, who’s based in Nashville — a huge lifetime fan of Hank Williams. He saw Hank on his dad’s shoulders at the age of 2, and he remembers it. He invited me to live with him, to practice. I came down and he was playing a set at this folk festival in Michigan. He said, [adopts a spot-on Southern accent] “Tom, I feel like this is a good chance to experience what it’s like to play in front of an audience.” Bear in mind this was 24 hours outside London. [Laughs]
He and I played in front of however many thousands of people. It was absolutely terrifying, but thrilling. In that moment I understood why the Mick Jaggers of this world, the Bob Dylans, the Bruce Springsteens — why they do this for decade after decade. It’s an incredible adrenaline rush.