Tom Hiddleston’s Day Off

In sleepy pub in a quiet corner of North London, the British actor kicks back and swaps stories for our Summer 2022 cover story…

Quick, somebody get Hiddleston a Hobnob! And sharpish — because he hasn’t a second to spare. It’s early May in North London, and the actor has generously agreed to share one of his rare days off at the pub with Gentleman’s Journal. There are cups of coffee being brewed behind the bar. There’s a good book sitting on the table. There’s even a classic car parked up outside. These are (or so we thought) three ideal ingredients for the perfect day off.

Except there aren’t any Hobnobs. And these iconically British biscuits, the actor tells us, are among the things he misses most when working abroad. Coupled with dog walking, West End theatre and the reassuringly dulcet tones of BBC Radio, the humble Hobnob is a cosy allegory for everything he loves about London — and the green and pleasant land that lies beyond.

Sadly, Hiddleston’s not had a Hobnob for a while. With the entertainment industry exploding back to life, the actor has had a busy time of things of late, and his precious days of rest have been few and far between. Next week, he heads back to set to begin production on the second season of the masterfully mischievous Loki. He can currently be found starring in The Essex Serpent, a salt-sprayed tale of faith and fear on Apple TV+. And he’s just been revealed as the lead of yet another new drama series for Apple. So, while the actor has certainly earned some time off, he doesn’t seem to be getting any.

And yet, for just these few fleeting days, Hiddleston is happy kicking back and enjoying being home. So unwind with us, relish this dash of downtime, and savour the actor’s many wisdoms and witticisms. Because, whether you want marvellous Marvel secrets or you’re hoping for stories of his 2017 Hamlet, there’s something for everyone when you hobnob with Tom Hiddleston…

TH: I do miss chocolate Hobnobs. And, yes, BBC Radio. Also, now more than ever, I miss the land and the air in Britain. The smells and the sounds of the parks and the country in every season. The way the birds change their tune and routine. The feeling, when you’re home, of knowing the way. The coming of spring and early summer in London every year is a joy — every time. The streets here now have layers of memories too. As life goes on, those small familiarities are a comfort.

And my Sundays. Now, Sundays are for all the things there wasn’t time to do in the week. An extended run, a walk with the dog, an afternoon film, planning the coming week and trying not to go mad. Pubs were a part of my social life when I was younger, but not so much now. And that’s nothing to do with the pubs, more to do with life getting fuller.

Hiddleston will, however, always make time for reading. Many of his most lauded roles — from The Night Manager‘s Jonathan Pine to High-Rise’s Dr. Robert Laing — took their first breaths on the page. The actor even embodied The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald in 2011’s incandescent Midnight in Paris. But, whether it’s J.G Ballard or John le Carré, the bookshelf still looms large, and remains a surefire way to stoke Hiddleston’s imagination.

TH: I am more of a reader now than I used to be. Books are new worlds to be explored, learned about and understood. I buy, and am gratefully given, books at a rate faster than I can read them. There is still much I don’t know, and want to know, and reading can be a way into the minds of others. I didn’t really have an angsty go-to novel as a teenager, but I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina when I was twenty-one and was (am still) blown away. I find Levin’s journey extremely moving. It will never get old.

Hiddleston’s next project, The White Darkness, will adapt the true, tragic tale of British explorer Henry Worsley. It’ll stream on Apple TV+, where the similarly sorrowful The Essex Serpent is currently courting Emmy attention for the actor. To bring Sarah Perry’s bestselling gothic romance to the small screen, Hiddleston slips on the clerical collar of troubled vicar Will Ransome — a shrewd-but-subtle performance that, whilst well worth a watch on your next day off, the actor says stems from the script and novel.

TH: I read it over Thanksgiving in 2020, and had a week left on Loki. I was in America, so we had four days off. And I knew that Clio [Barnard, BAFTA-nominated director of The Arbor] was directing it. I just read all six scripts and I genuinely thought that they were brilliant and deep and complex. And Clio sent a beautiful letter with it, about Will and all the things he was wrestling with. It just seemed new and rich and I wanted to do it.

While we were filming, walking along the beach, I actually had the book with me. And I kept suggesting that we put things back, lines from the book. Perhaps that wasn’t always that helpful. But there was a line from the book that we did end up putting in the series, where Will’s trying to explain how he ended up on the east coast of Essex. And he says: “What I wanted was purpose, not achievement. Do you see the difference?”.

And I remember thinking that was just extraordinary. It really resonated with me, this need for purpose. Because purpose is so releasing, it’s a kind of freedom.

The show itself was also something of a release for Hiddleston, who relished the return to British soil after a slew of stateside projects — including the ongoing Avengers franchise, Kong: Skull Island and the Hank Williams musical biopic I Saw the Light (another of our day-off Hiddleston recommendations; he does his own singing). But The Essex Serpent’s exploration of religion also appealed to the actor; worship is not in his wheelhouse.

TH: Inhabiting Will’s faith felt like a really new challenge, and I really wanted this to be a portrait of a complex man — someone who wasn’t constrained by an easy definition — and the journey that he goes on. I was raised in London, in the United Kingdom, and I was very much raised in the Judeo-Christian inheritance of Western Europe. I went to chapel at school and I was, of course, aware of the meaning of Christmas and Easter, and the Christian tradition.

And, when I was at school, I did religious studies. But I also did biology. And, while we studied the Old Testament and the New Testament, we’d also study Darwin and the theories of evolution. As a young person, for me, Darwin was completely accepted as a way of explaining life. So I kept having to remind myself, on The Essex Serpent, that these ideas were new for these characters — they were fresh ideas that were challenging the status quo. And they were not only challenging what people believed, but also how they found meaning in their lives.

"Purpose is so releasing, it’s a kind of freedom..."

And, in the last five years, this idea of where we derive meaning in our lives has certainly been one that I can relate to. Because I’m in the middle of my life — perhaps I’m even further into my life than the middle. As a 41-year-old, I know that I’ll be fortunate if I get another 40. I’d be among the lucky ones. And I think we all deeply need our lives to have meaning. So, looking for it, or searching for a source of it, has certainly been something that has resonated with me. And inhabiting Will and his faith — the combination of his intellect, heart, mind and soul — and what he chooses to believe, this led to an openness, and a desire within myself to understand and connect.

I think curiosity is the key to all of it. It’s a vital engine in life — just to keep looking, to keep searching. And, if you can, to fearlessly ask questions. Because fear closes the mind; curiosity keeps it open.

And Hiddleston is nothing if not curious. Whether braving the viper’s nest of religion for The Essex Serpent or excoriating class and corruption in 2015’s High-Rise, the actor’s roles have frequently been characterised by big, bold ideas. And nowhere does he conjure up these principled performances more confidently than on stage.

He could be embodying vengeance in Coriolanus or wrangling with morality as Othello’s Cassio (a turn which reportedly won him the role of Loki in Thor), but Hiddleston has always best succeeded in unknotting the Bard’s tangled and tortuous emotions when face-to-face with an audience. The actor’s Hamlet, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2017, remains one of the most scintillating Shakespearean performances of the last decade. There’s a rumour he even knows the play by heart.

TH: Not all of Hamlet! Some of it is definitely still in there, but I don’t think that’s singular or unique to me. I think, perhaps, once you have learned or played Hamlet, that it stays with you forever. The poetic clarity and profundity of those words: about grief, the vulnerability of the soul and the experience of being alive. It doesn’t get much deeper than that.

So, yes, I can recite some of it, if pressed. I was once invited as a guest onto The Late Show with Stephen Colbert — who is classically trained himself — and in the middle of the show’s planned segment we found ourselves in an impromptu Hamlet tennis rally of ‘To be, or not to be’. I could tell he was challenging me, in the most good-natured way, to see if I really knew it. I hope it was an entertaining rally. Shakespeare was the winner.

Since his Hamlet, Hiddleston’s theatre work has been comparatively rare. A run of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal gave the actor his Broadway debut in 2019 — and introduced him to his now-fiancée, fellow actor Zawe Ashton. Tonight, the couple are heading to the National Theatre to enjoy a new adaptation of Small Island. As for his own return to the stage? The hard-pressed Hiddleston’s schedule may not allow it for some time.

TH: I’d love to do more theatre. I don’t know when that may be — but I hope I always will want to. Let’s see what transpires. There’s always fun to be had in reviving classical work. I find that so rewarding. When you’re having a conversation through time, when there are certain moments in plays that have endured, when they continue to resonate in surprising ways — thats when you realise why these pieces of art have endured. There’s something timeless inside them; what’s being explored about the human condition. And discovering them anew is always, I find, a genuine joy.

But there are also occasional pieces of new writing that seem to capture the moment. And I’ve done less of that, to be honest. I haven’t done much of that at all. But let’s see what comes around. It would be nice to be in a theatre again. It’s that thing of doing anything live, where the audience is as much a part of the performance as the performers.

Theatre may always hold a place in Hiddleston’s heart, but the last decade of the actor’s career has been dominated by a single, slicked-back, slyly pitched performance — Loki, God of Mischief. A recent revival series for the Marvel character has generated even more Emmy buzz than The Essex Serpent — a handsome pay-off for a character Hiddleston has already played in eight separate projects (and counting). And, while the actor is remarkably dissimilar to the wisecracking trickster in real life — more ‘low-key’ than Loki — he reveals that the comic-book creation bestowed upon him the most profound moment of his professional career so far.

TH: On the last day on set of Loki‘s first season, after the very last shot, we all, without instruction, seemed to stand in a circle — with nowhere to go, with the job done, and clapped. It’s hard to describe the feeling of relief, of the gratitude we felt for each other, for every member of our cast and crew. Filming had been interrupted by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic one third of the way into our planned schedule — we locked down for five months — and we restarted after that first hiatus to resume exactly where we had left off, and to finish the story.

"Fear closes the mind; curiosity keeps it open..."

For the next twelve weeks, everyone working on Loki was in a contained bubble. And finishing those last months was, for most of us, during that time, our only human contact. On that last day, we had made it through the pandemic and told our story, before any vaccine against Covid-19 had been made available, and with a company, a cast and crew, who — in my experience — supported each other with a spirit, care and kindness in a way I have never seen before. ‘Whatever happens to this series’, I thought, ‘whichever way it goes, the making of it was meaningful. There is meaning in the doing’.

Of course, not every project can sing with such glorious purpose. And, whether voicing an Aardman claymation character in Early Man or reading the CBeebies Bedtime Story (Hiddleston told the tale of a benevolent crime-fighting spud named Supertato), many of the actor’s more recent appearances show off his playful side; not the cerebral, hard-lined Hiddleston of his many movies, but rather the casual, whimsical Hiddleston who joins us at the pub today.

But that’s a mean measure of the man’s acting ability; that he could raise chills in Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak and share a scene with Kermit the Frog within the space of two years (Hiddleston says the Muppets offer remains the most surreal phone call he has ever received, in “prospect and reality”). But having honest fun, whether that be with Shakespearean superheroics or a guest spot on The Simpsons, seems key to the actor’s process. There’s even, would you believe, a signature Hiddleston dance move.

TH: Good heavens. Yes. I always used to do a sort of manic double-time hopscotch thing. I have never called it that until today. I sort of jump my legs out past my hips, and then jump back, one leg crossed in front and one behind. It looks absolutely as mad as it sounds.

I don’t know where it started. It ended up in a scene in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline on stage at the Barbican many years ago, in a montage in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, and in an appearance on Alan Carr’s Chatty Man in 2013, which I’m told resurfaced recently on somewhere on TikTok, which I am too old to understand.

When next the ‘manic double-time hopscotch’ might emerge, Hiddleston doesn’t know. But, with such a motley mix of upcoming projects in the pipeline, the actor isn’t altogether sure where he’ll end up, either. For now at least, he’s just happy to be back in Britain, relishing every precious day off, sun-soaked dog walk and Hobnob that comes his way. Because, for Hiddleston, there’s no place like home.

TH: It’s a spectacular country, but I forget that. And it’s really interesting — when I was younger, I wanted to travel all the time. I wanted to travel to Europe, I wanted to travel all over the world if I could. To America. But I think that’s maybe just the nature of being young. I wanted to see as many different places as I could. And I found that travelling broadened the mind, opened your horizons. It was expansive, it was new. And, in work, I was so fortunate that I got to travel all the time.

And it’s only more recently — since I’ve come back — that these islands are so unexplored by me. I’d seen certain cities I suppose, but there were places I hadn’t spend much time, didn’t know very well, and have been so surprised by. I find it very humbling. The happiest times in my life are when I’ve been humbled by nature; when I feel folded into it. There’s nothing better than feeling small in a natural environment that has majesty to it. For me, there’s nothing in the world bigger or more profound. It’s vital.

The Essex Serpent is streaming now on Apple TV+.

With special thanks to Claire Danes for discussing The Essex Serpent with Hiddleston, Joseph Sinclair Parker and Ryan Grimley for Art Direction, Jeremy Rigby for Photo Assisting, Digital Light for Retouching and The Landseer Arms for Hosting.

Want more Gentleman’s Journal cover stories? Revisit The peachy, beachy life of Pierce B. Brosnan…

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