There’s a lot of bastards out there.
Villains, tyrants, and troublemakers have become so critical to big-budget films that they’re beginning to upstage the heroes – in some cases seizing the title roles, as in next year’s Sleeping Beauty remake Maleficent, and the upcoming Marvel films Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, among others.
Thor: The Dark World, which opens today, could easily be subtitled Loki Strikes Back.
In his third round as the God of Mischief, Tom Hiddleston not only steals Thor sequel, but practically sets it on fire and collects all the insurance money. Hiddleston spoke with EW about the state of cinematic villainy – why we love bad guys, why these villains are bigger than ever, and whether he believes himself to be evil at heart…
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Simple question: why do we love characters we hate?
TOM HIDDLESTON Well, that is the eternal question. There is this old phrase that “the devil plays all the best tunes.” There is a kind of freedom to being bad, an embracing of one’s most rebellious instincts. The idea that essentially order and chaos exist inside every human being and mostly – rightly – we behave ourselves. When you play a bad guy, you sort of cut loose from that sense of propriety.
Is it more interesting to play a noble character or a cruel one?
I think most actors see acting as a kind of 3-D psychology, the study of people, the study of human nature. We find motivations and people’s emotional and psychological makeup to be fascinating, I know I do. Villains are challenging because they provide such fascinating case studies. You’re presented with a villain and the first question is – “What do they want? Why are they villainous?” So in Loki’s case, that answer is complex. He has a broken heart. He is grief stricken, bitter, lonely, sad, angry, ambitious, jealous and proud – and yet, he has a charm and a playfulness and a mischief. It’s a combination of factors I think. It’s that surface charm, that surface playfulness I think is appealing.
The villains you have cited as influences – Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard, Jack Nicholson’s Joker in 1989’s Batman, James Mason’s spy Phillip Vandamm in North By Northwest – are all extremely intelligent and calculating. They may be monsters, but they’re not out of control.
The great thing is that they are in total control over the provocation of chaos. There’s a delight in that. And it’s worth mentioning that Thor has always been the God of Thunder and Loki has been the God of Mischief and in a way in this film, this is my most wholehearted acceptance of mischief as a shape. He is this great chess master, he has this straight poker face, but occasionally the audience is allowed to see a flicker of truth, emotional truth. I hope that’s an access point and again I hope it just deepens his sense of humanity.
“Mischief” makes him sound tame.
I remember I looked up mischief in the dictionary and the first entry is “an inclination to playfulness, a desire to tease.” And then actually further down the line, like entry No. 5 is “destruction and damage.” So you have this one word “mischief” which encompasses all these things and that’s the role I’m playing. So it’s my job to turn up on set and have a great time and I hope that’s something that’s appealing, you know Loki’s having a good time and so am I.
Which is a more realistic reflection of ourselves – the hero or the villain?
These big characters, these gods and monsters, the reason we invented them, the reason society has invented myth, the reason why Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started to make up superheroes is born out of some collective desire to explore our own humanity on a big scale. So the heroes are emblems of our strength. They do the right thing, they’re noble, they’re generous, they’re selfless and they save the world. And the bad guys are representation of our flaws, our failings, our vulnerabilities, our weakness.
There have been villains for as long as there have been stories, but action movies – and the Marvel films in particular – are focusing a lot on villains. Why do you think audiences are so taken with the power of bad guys right now?
In the cinematic landscape, I do think Heath Ledger’s performance [as The Joker in The Dark Knight] changed the game. He certainly changed it for me. I’ve never seen such an electrifying performance before or since. There was something incredibly compelling about that film because of his performance in it. The Joker is an anarchist and you don’t get a sense of motivation, you don’t even get a sense of a kind of a vulnerable person underneath that mask, it’s just a maniac for chaos. Loki is much more controlled and much more vulnerable and he’s much more of an intellect and this idea of the shapeshifter.
Your Thor co-star, Anthony Hopkins also won an Oscar for playing a monster who is simultaneously attractive and repellent. Did you ever talk about this phenomenon with him?
I had a fascinating conversation with Anthony Hopkins about this. He’s been doing this job for 50 years and has enjoyed every second of it. He’s had a high old time. He said he’s ‘played heroes and villains and kings and butlers and warriors. And when people ask me to talk about something, they want to talk about one man’ – which is Hannibal Lecter.