Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light

Tom Hiddleston has called the role of Hank Williams one of the hardest jobs he’s ever done. The I Saw the Light star had to completely transform himself, physically and vocally, sometimes in the subtlest of ways, to play the iconic folk singer. All of that hard work led to a performance that’s more akin to embodiment than impersonation — a tough tightrope to walk for any actor starring in a biopic.

Below, read our Tom Hiddleston interview, in which he discusses playing Hank Williams, authenticity, and more.

While researching Hank Williams, were there any small details that you learned about him that informed your performance?

One was listening to how funny he was. I found his lost concerts. You can get a CD that’s literally called that, “The Lost Concerts”. They are kind of quite scratchy recordings of gigs he had when he was touring around. He’s almost ahead of his time. Between songs he does these kind of comedy bits where he introduced his band. He’s hilarious. I mean really quick, and witty, and playful. It’s different from the Hank I found on his official radio shows, different from the Hank I read about in his biography. So, he was clearly fun. He was playful and mischievous. And that played into his rebelliousness and his edge.

He’s often very withdrawn in the film. A lot of times, director Marc Abraham frames him isolated. When you are acting in those scenes, what do you keep in mind to create that feeling of isolation? Do you draw from personal experience or just think about the moment?

I have a few secrets. I think it’s important for actors to have secrets. It always just comes from empathy, just trying to interpret the emotional truth of the character in that moment and invest yourself in it, to sort of be there in the present with it. There are things that always emerge in my mind; they’re not always the same. But that comes from an academic understanding of the need for Hank’s isolation within the frame, within the shot. But thanks for noticing that. I do think he was very lonely. I think he was quite isolated in his drive to become a star. I think he was quite isolated by stardom. I think he found fame a very lonely predicament.

It’s understandable that level of popularity wouldn’t sit right with a guy like that.

Yeah. Well, especially when you become a hit maker. And then there’s an obligation upon you to write more and sell more records because people want to make money. That’s what he used to say. It used to really eat him. He said to his friend, Danny Dill, “[Hank Williams accent] They’re slicing me up and selling me like bologna.” And he didn’t like it.

Right. You don’t want to become a product if you’re an artist.

I think that exists within every artist, like their desire to create stuff that is authentic. Then when you are given that probation or license to create more because there’s a financial profit, how you manage that is a tricky balance, especially for the best, for the very, very greatest artist whose work is most authentic, which makes the most money. You know, how do you square that off in the end?

Was there anything about Hank Williams’ work or him as an artist that you were able to draw from your own experience to create that empathy you have for him?

One thing was I really related to his joy of performing and the connection he had with his audience. Coming from the theatre, I really feel that I’ve been there. I’ve been in that moment of complicity where the audience is actually providing the magic of the moment and you are just stepping into it. Sometimes the audience doesn’t know that. They don’t know that there are two sides to the equation and that if those seats were empty it wouldn’t be the same. It is actually an alchemy sometimes. I think he relished that and played off it and kind of expanded on stage. And I related to that. I found huge joy in that.

I Saw the Light footage

That electricity you feel in theater, can you achieve that same feeling when you are acting in front of a camera and a crew?

Yeah. You can. I think you can. But I always get very close to the crew. I want to trust them and I want to sort of completely open myself up to them, so I include them. I become really close to them. I become really good friends with then often, especially the camera team, because I feel like they are the front row. They are in Row A, and they are going to see everything. And some of it may not be pretty. But they are…they get front row seats in a way.

I was lucky on this. We had two camera operators, Duane Manwiller and Henry Tirl, who both worked for Dante Spinotti, our cinematographer. And they were so generous. And they were inside the scenes with me.

It’s funny. We started off with a lot of very mournful scenes towards the end of the film. They were very heavy and Hank was ill and sick and dying and sad. And Henry and Dwayne were inside those scenes with me. After about two weeks we kind of went back in time and shot all the music. They had this energy because I had this energy. And they were like, “This is great!” And they were kind of doing lots of handheld stuff. They felt like they were rocking because they were inside the music with me. They were like, “Wow! This is a whole other thing.” They got huge energy from that. And I did, too. So yeah, I tried to.

How technically minded are you as an actor? How much do you need to know in terms of how you are being framed or what the camera is going to see in a medium shot or a close-up? 

I love to know. I’m one of those actors who prefers to have all the information if the director is willing to share it. Some directors don’t want to tell you where the camera is going to be and when you are going to be on and how you are going to be framed because they just want you to be free and natural in a moment. They kind of want to sort of capture the magic as the accident, in a way, so that the performance isn’t too deliberate.

l love the technicality of it. I love understanding working with someone like Dante and Marc on framing and lighting and how to use light to tell a story sometimes. You can not only step into the light, but you can step out of it. Sometimes a profile is more interesting than a frontal shot. And sometimes the back of your head tells you more than your face, which sounds odd, because of course the face is more expressive. But sometimes it’s more interesting to turn away from the camera, and that can tell a story.

So yeah, I always want to know what the shots are, especially when we were doing the music. I wanted to know if it was wide or close, to know when it was incumbent upon me to embody the physicality of Hank as a performer and then, other times, if the camera is in closer, I don’t have to worry about the knees so much and the left hand. I was just worrying about communicating whatever is going on inside.

Some actors, if they’re playing someone as lonely as Hank Williams, they would maybe stay at a distance from the cast and crew, to create a similar sense of isolation for themselves. For you, it sounds like, even with material this dramatic, the job can still be fun.

I love what I do. And I love what I do when it’s fun. And, my god, shooting the music for this, some of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had on set. Shooting the argument in the corridor with Elizabeth Olsen wasn’t fun, per se, but it was still deeply fulfilling, because at the end of that day, we knew we had a great scene in the can. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have to go there.

Shooting the heavy scenes where Hank is sad, and mournful, and alone were not fun, per se. They were hard days. They were heavy days. But they needed to be. I derive pleasure from the fulfillment of good work, even if sometimes it’s not explicitly fun or enjoyable. It’s never enjoyable to weep. Actually, no, let’s say there’s Hank on the steps when he’s lost his place on The Opry. I knew I had to go there. And it’s actually momentarily very unsettling, because even though the circumstances are imaginary, the emotional response is real. And so you still feel it was very upsetting. It passes faster. But you still go through it. You still experience the intensity of the feeling.

So yeah, it’s an interesting discussion because, all taken together, it’s such an extraordinary thing to do. I find it so fulfilling. And there are days when it’s fun. And then there are days when it’s less fun. But it’s all fulfilling.

I Saw the Light is now in limited release.

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