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.
Have you performed since the movie wrapped?
We had a screening in Nashville in October. There was a party afterwards. I got onstage with the band and sang a few Hank songs. It was really fun. I would do these bits between the songs, and I realized I couldn’t do them in an English accent. [Laughs] I had to stay in character. I’m not about to drop my solo album, if that’s what you’re asking. I don’t think anybody needs that. [Laughs]
You’ve played musicians before, such as in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive.” What have you learned about them you didn’t know going in?
I have such huge admiration for musicians. Music is a huge inspiration for me. It’s such a raw and immediate path to the heart. Singing is the most naked means of expression. Actors can hide behind characters, writers behind words. Singing is completely open. You think of Nina Simone, Amy Winehouse, Johnny Cash — people who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and singing is the purest way of doing that.
There’s still a guardedness to all of them. There’s a scene here where Hank is surly with an invasive journalist, in part because he doesn’t want to explain his songs.
Jim Jarmusch feels that way, too, when he was talking about “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Adam [Hiddleston's character in that film] is someone who doesn’t want to explain his music at all. He just wants to put it out there. To some extent, a piece of art — whether it’s a piece of music or a painting or a film or a poem or a novel — it shouldn’t have to be explained. If it has any value it should stand up on its own merit, or fall by its lack of merit.
Still, there’s great value in interpretation as well.
Of course there is, of course there is. In every museum there’s always a blurb under the panting, and sometimes the significance of that explanation can be very necessary. You look at Picasso’s “Guernica.” Do you just respond to it? Or is the painting enhanced by an explanation of the context out of which he painted it?
I hope this film gives people a context for the songs. In my mind, that was the appeal of making it. Marc Abraham [the writer-director] was drawing together the power of those lyrics to the passion and volatility of his marriage. You hear a song like “Cold Cold Heart” and hopefully by the end you understand that he had first-hand experience with that.
The film forces you to pay attention to the lyrics, to note how extremely dark they are.
They really are. “Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart?” [Laughs] It’s a good question.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge