LONDON – The term “star-making” is overused in film journalism, but it could hardly be more appropriately applied than to the role of Loki – the suavely devious Marvel villain who made classically-trained British theater actor Tom Hiddleston a globally recognized face.
Now 32 years old, Hiddleston had made only two films (both little-seen UK indies with his ongoing collaborator Joanna Hogg) when “Thor” director Kenneth Branagh invited him to audition for the 2011 superhero blockbuster – first for the role of Thor himself, before his refined demeanor and delivery were deemed more suitable for Loki’s high-class villainy. Branagh was an early believer in Hiddleston’s star quality, having previous worked with him on stage and television; his instincts were proved correct when Hiddleston not only aced “Thor,” but won an even wider audience when Loki’s evildoing was placed front and center last year in Joss Whedon’s super-sized Marvel mashup “The Avengers.”
Now back to play Loki a third time in “Thor: The Dark World,” the bright-eyed Englishman still shows no signs of jadedness – even if, joining us for a chat deep into a damp, muddy day’s filming at London’s Shepperton Studios last fall, he could be forgiven for feeling a little weary of the character that changed his career.
Instead, “excited” is the word that crops up most frequently in our interview, as he enthuses about finding new layers in the character in what he describes – and the title suggests – is a darker take on Asgard than Branagh’s franchise-starter, with Emmy-winning director Alan Taylor (best known for his work on such TV dramas as “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones”) now at the helm.
“I remember talking about the story for this film with the producers while we were running around doing press for ‘The Avengers,’ and wondering where we’d go next,” he says. The actor had numerous ideas of his own – “some terrible, some good,” he laughs – a number of which were incorporated into the new film. He regards himself as fortunate to have seen the character through to this point.
“Other people can have their opinion objectively about where Loki should go, but I”ve lived through every moment. And sometimes, you know, I”m the only person who knows how it feels. It’s really exciting to feel I know every inch of Loki, to have had some input into him. I’m the only person who”s played him. Other people have written him, other people have shot him, other people have framed him. But I know him inside.”
He’s obviously cagey about revealing too much of the film on a narrative level, though he tells us the film picks up where “The Avengers” left off, with Loki back in Asgard, and facing the aftermath of the havoc he wreaked on Earth. “You get to see every character”s perspective on what Loki did,” Hiddleston says, “and they tend to be different and desperate and varying in tone. There’s empathy, certainly. It”s a springboard into a new chapter. It means that, as an actor, I’m not repeating myself in any way.”
That goes, he says, not just for Loki, but for everything and everyone in the film. “We”ve established the characters across two films, which means we can color in more shades. Thor can get darker as a character, and more complicated. It means that Loki can get even more complexity and dimension. What really is the most interesting thing about being alive is that there is no black and white. There are many shades of gray.”
The title “The Dark World” is a direct reference to the film’s introduction of Marvel supervillain Malekith, ruler of the Dark Elves, to proceedings; played by Christopher Eccleston, he’s a character with whom Loki enjoys “a degree of mutual recognition.” But the “dark world” portrayed in the film, according to Hiddleston, isn’t entirely that literal.
“It”s not just about the mythological and physical battle between dark and light,” he says. “There”s something there about growing up, accepting responsibility no matter who you are – whether you are a crowned king, a king in waiting or a shamed prisoner. Accepting responsibility and growing up is a dark experience. It”s not easy. What”s exciting about this material is that, emotionally and psychologically and spiritually, we sit in the middle of it.”
Though he won’t be drawn into much detail on how Loki’s character has evolved in the new film, he will say that his relationship with “Thor” – played once more by Chris Hemsworth – remains “consistently ambivalent in a way that’s true to the comics.”
He elaborates: “In ‘The Avengers,’ Thor still really cared about Loki. And part of the reason he was there was almost to protect him, to to try and find the good in him and take him home. We”ve been very careful not to repeat that moment. Thor”s attitude has to change. Therefore Loki”s attitude has to change. Their relationship to each other, their need for each other, their antipathy is constantly changing. These archetypal forces of darkness and lightness is flickering between the two.”
Hiddleston doesn’t hesitate to describe Loki as “a psychopath,” but that’s not to say he find him unsympathetic: “The fascinating thing about playing a psychopath – whether it”s a real-life, category-A inmate in the darkest prison on Earth, or a mythological creature who has been around in human imagination for two or three thousand years – is the question of what compassion or goodness is still there in them.
“The exciting question is: why? Why does any psychopath perform those acts? Why does he wish everyone such ill? What does he want? Does he even care what he wants? As an actor, that”s really exciting to delve into – when you”re so full of destruction and hate and sabotage, yet part of that is self-hate and self-sabotage.”
For all that, the actor is insistent that, to play such a character, you have to like him, to be on his side. “You can”t sit in judgment,” he says. “In my own mind, I”ve unpacked his suitcase of pain. I can easily stand up and defend him, even though many of his actions are indefensible. What”s interesting is those answers are locked in some kind of cabinet right at the bottom of him. He’s in there and nobody has the key.
“He’s also just enormously charming. He’s someone who”s really nasty, but really elegant with it. And, you know, he looks good doing really bad things. There”s a delight in the way the character was developed in ‘The Avengers’ by Joss Whedon, who kept encouraging me to enjoy myself as an actor, and to enjoy Loki”s having a good time destroying Manhattan. He”s having a good time teasing everybody and playing everyone else off each other like a chess master. I really feel like I’m the god of mischief. Playing that mischievous element in all its unpredictability is really fun.”
In the two years since “Thor” premiered, Hiddleston’s career has also skyrocketed outside the Marvel universe, with roles in everything from “Family Guy” to Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse” to the upcoming “Muppets Most Wanted.” He hasn’t neglected his art house roots, either, playing opposite Rachel Weisz in “The Deep Blue Sea” and Tilda Swinton in “Only Lovers Left Alive”; this month, meanwhile, he’ll be appearing at the London Film Festival with his old collaborator Joanna Hogg in “Exhibition.”
Having been taken off-guard by Loki’s popularity, he’s not yet ready to think of himself as a star. “I really love acting,” he says, “but the circus of being, for want of a better word, a celebrity is something I’m not interested in. I try not to think about it. You just try and chase opportunities that you fall in love with, or that inspire you, and keep doing the work. Some people treat me differently and other people don”t.
“I”ve been really lucky to have worked with people who are much more established, like Kenneth Branagh and Tony Hopkins and Judi Dench and Rachel Weisz: what distinguishes them from me is that they don”t listen to any of it. It’s white noise to them. I”m just used to being completely invisible in London, like any other Londoner. And suddenly I wasn”t, for about three weeks at a stretch.”
In that sense, then, he regards returning to the character of Loki as something of a comfort. The hair’s a little longer – “I don”t think he”s been sent to the finest barbers in Asgard,” he chuckles – and the costume has been modified slightly, but in all other senses, Hiddleston feels entirely at home with this otherworldly psychopath.
“It’s strange,” he says. “By the time we started shooting, it had been exactly a year since I”d been inside the skin of Loki. Normally, when you finish something, you just sort of put that suit away forever, because you never have to come back. I”ve lived a whole 12 months of life. I”ve done a whole lot of other things. And I’m a different human being. But I recognize this guy. It”s like re-greeting an old friend. And you pick up where you left off.”