For a good portion of this interview with Tom Hiddleston, we discuss autopsies. Which is just as well because High-Rise — directed by Ben Wheatley, based on J.G. Ballard’s novel, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival – is insane. The movie is about class warfare inside a residential high-rise building, but structurally and narratively, it’s a challenging film, to say the very, very least. So challenging, it’s become the most polarizing film at TIFF – people either love High-Rise or hate High-Rise. There’s really no in-between. And Tom Hiddleston is acutely aware of all of this and seems to relish the debate.
Hiddleston plays Robert Laing, a doctor who at one pint in the movie pulls off the face of a severed head. (This movie!) So, to prepare, Hiddleston himself actually spent the day watching autopsies, as one does when they want to prepare for a scene in which a face is removed from a human head.
I met Hiddleston in a crowded basement of a crowded Toronto nightclub that felt almost as chaotic as High-Rise itself, so maybe it was fitting. Yes, with further thought, this was the perfect place to talk about autopsies with Tom Hiddleston.
We spoke previously here in Toronto for Only Lovers Left Alive — that movie had a very long lifespan. And people love it.
It’s been really nice, actually. When it came out in America, I was in the middle of filming Crimson Peak and really wasn’t aware of its impact. But it’s been two years and I think people caught up with it on Netflix or streaming or however people watch films these days. It’s just very deep and it’s very solid.
High Rise, oh man do people have opinions about this one.
Yes they do! And they should.
When you walked on stage last night, were you looking at the audience thinking, you people have no idea what’s coming?
Well, the book itself is a very provocative piece of writing.
Then you add Ben Wheatley in…
And then you add Ben and he has his own particular taste.
This might be a new level with this one.
But, I’m a huge admirer of him and I love particularly A Field in England. It’s interesting, when I signed up, I knew it would be an interesting experience.
And it’s just starting.
And the shoot alone was the most interesting experience.
In what way? Was ABBA really playing in that party scene?
It is playing! They had a string quintet rendition of “S.O.S.” for that, which is extraordinary. The experience, there’s two parts to my answer: One is I take particular pleasure in creating an intellectual and imaginative context in which to place myself when we shoot… in some way, I’ve built a thematic scaffolding so then I can then be instinctive.
Is that necessary in a movie like this? Its structure is purposefully tough to follow.
Yes. Indeed. But, for me, it was about J.G. Ballard’s intellectual worldview. I read about his experience with violence and extremity in Shanghai. I read all the books: I read Conflict Island, I read Crash again and read some of his interviews about the obsession in the human race about technology and how that was going to create a new kind of mythology. That the industrialization of the moving image was going to become so deeply embedded into our culture that it would actually shift our psychological patterns. It’s all true; it’s all happened. He predicted Instagram and YouTube. He didn’t call them that…
It’s funny how geniuses can do that. David Foster Wallace also predicted future technology.
Yeah! And then I went a spent a day in a hospital doing autopsies with a forensic pathologist, observing autopsies.
What is that like? Did you have to do that?
I didn’t have to. But I knew, when there’s the dissection of the severed head…
That scene got a reaction.
And it’s also a very clear metaphor about the unmasking about the face we put on for society.
You really did go all out.
I went all out! It’s fascinating to see. And it was fascinating to talk to this guy.
I’m sure for a forensic pathologist, it becomes familiar…
They have to.
But for you, were you wondering who these people in front of you were?
I almost fainted. And my brain in that moment couldn’t handle seeing the human engineering, the flesh of it — to literally see a person opened up. And this highly skilled expert who is simply doing his job is deconstructing this body like he’s a mechanic. He’s trying to determine the cause of death. He suspected there was a brain hemorrhage, and he opened the skull and examined the brain. And he showed me that this is what he was looking for and there’s nothing physiology wrong with the brain. So, he’s going to have to find the cause of death probably in his guts and his kidneys. And he said this fascinating thing: Behavioral dysfunction is very rarely detectable in the physical matter of the brain. So if there’s something behaviorally wrong with somebody, whether they are prone to hysteria or schizophrenia or depression or all of these very genuine diagnosable disorders, it’s sometimes very hard when you’re examining the physical matter of someone’s head; it’s very hard to see it. The rest of it is just chemicals and nurture.
Anyway, that’s one part of the prep. The second thing, to be long-winded about it, is having thought about Ballard and Ben and [screenwriter] Amy Jump’s interpretation of it, was actually about physically inhabiting that world with the freest instincts. So, it was about reacting to what was happening; dancing along the corridors, playing squash, or simply being present at those crazy parties and watching what was happening.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.