Tom Hiddleston is following in a great tradition. For decades, Hollywood has enjoyed casting posh Englishmen as master villains. Maybe it has something to do with a post-post-colonial distrust of America's former overlords. Maybe the patrician demeanour of the crisp-voiced thespian triggers ancient egalitarian knee-jerks. Who knows?
At any rate, Hiddleston sounded like just the right fellow to play Loki – Norse god of mischief – in Marvel’s continuing Thor saga. The tall Londoner has excelled in the plays of Shakespeare. He is well-spoken. He has those clean, sharp features. And, by golly, he’s well schooled. Eton; Pembroke College, Cambridge; Rada: that’s not so much a CV as a survey of the English educational establishment.
Now 32, he finds himself the subject of a million blogs and many more tweets. His cheeky, sly, sarcastic Loki – a perfect foil for Chris Hemsworth's blokey thunder god – attracted attention in Thor and nearly stole the show in The Avengers. He is back this week for the very enjoyable Thor: The Dark World.
So, how is Tom coping with all the adulation? Fans of the Marvel comic-book adaptations can be a demanding bunch.
“I have been in receipt of mostly nothing but the sweetest, most generous attention and affection,” he says. “It feels like it diminishes them to call them ‘fans’. They are not just one homogenous lump. Anyway, I Iove their enthusiasm. They are more sophisticated than people realise. They love the complexity of it. But they also love that it is tongue-in-cheek.”
What does he make of the abuses wrought on the London Underground map by Thor: The Dark World. At one point, the God of Thunder climbs aboard a train at Charing Cross and is told he is three stops from Greenwich. At the London press screening of the picture, every second audience member turned to his or her companion and whispered: "no it isn't".
"I know. I know. Did they?" he laughs. "Oh, I like that. I have pointed that out to Kevin Feige, the producer, and he is crushed. 'It was shot in London. It was made by Londoners. Why did nobody tell me?' If I had been on set that day I would have explained. But that screening must have been a very British experience. I love that stuff in the film: Thor hanging up his hammer in a flat in Borough, Thor getting into a Volvo. I love that."
Now that we've become friends, let's deal with this business of his blue-ribbon education. At the start of this year, in the same Mayfair hotel, I talked to Eddie Redmayne about his years at Eton (the star of Les Misérables was a year behind Tom). As we speak, Benedict Cumberbatch, an old Harrovian, is opening in The Fifth Estate. Damien Lewis and Dominic West also went to Eton. Over the past few years, more than a few pundits have argued that you now need a bit of independent income to survive the early tricky years as an actor. Coming from that sort of background helps. What's going on?
"I don't know," Hiddleston says slightly warily. "It's all about someone else's interpretation. I would counter you with Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba and Tom Hardy. I don't know that it is a phenomenon."
Well, fair enough. We are not suggesting that nobody from outside the British elite is succeeding. But something odd is going on here. It would be easy just to say: it was ever thus. But, actually, it wasn’t. Ten years ago, you would be hard-pressed to name a single young actor who attended Eton or Harrow. Now there is a whole cadre of such performers. Never in the history of the British theatre have graduates of the major public schools figured so prominently in cast lists.
“I would say that my becoming an actor was a very unconventional thing in my peer group,” he says. “That was not what people did. So the idea that it’s become ‘a thing’ is very strange to me. I have always felt like I was going off-piste. To be told that I am the one skiing down the main track is so strange to me.”
Clearly just a little uncomfortable in this territory, he rallies to the defence of his fellow actors.
“One more thing I must say is that people like Dominic and Eddie are such specific talents. Every actor in every nation from every background is driven by their own curiosity and their own desire to excavate human nature through the characters they play. Those actors’ choices have been very different.”
Though Hiddleston, whose father was managing director of a pharmaceutical company, acted a bit at Eton, he did not head straight for drama school after completing his A-levels. Like Redmayne, Hiddleston advanced on Cambridge University. Given that he eventually ended up at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, it’s fair to wonder why he elected to take that classics degree.
“Well, I actually hadn’t acted all that much,” he says. “And it’s not until you really invest time that you begin to realise this is not just an extra-curricular activity. Cambridge was the place where that came together for me. I was just reading a text from my sister. She’d been reading a book that says your frontal lobes stop developing at 23. So university neurologically forms your brain. If the book is right. Ha ha.”
Hiddleston was spotted by an agent while appearing in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire at Cambridge and was soon securing the odd supporting role in TV movies. Following graduation from Rada in 2005, he had a significant part in Joanna Hogg's Unrelated and did much acclaimed work for the Cheek by Jowl theatre company, but he was not yet any sort of star when he was cast as Loki in the first Thor film. Like David Tennant before him, he has adroitly managed to juggle populist hits and serious, mind-stretching material. You can see him as the dissolute ex-fighter pilot in Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea. He received massive acclaim as Prince Hal in the BBC's The Hollow Crown: a huge translation of Shakespeare's Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two and Henry V.
Thinking back to his comments about actors trying to “excavate human nature”, I wonder if playing Prince Hal and playing Loki feel like the same job. Is there the same sort of pressure on him?
“Yes, there is,” he says. “When you’re playing Prince Hal you feel the weight of 400 years of dramatic inheritance. I had always dreamed of playing the role. Look, Shakespeare has a fan base and Loki has a fan base. The level of scrutiny is heavy across the board. The pressure I put on myself is to be precise about the meaning of each particular moment. That’s my job.”
He puts his case well. But the sheer challenge of wrestling with that much language must distinguish the Shakespeare experience from the Marvel Comics adventure. He doesn't have to tackle much iambic pentameter in Thor: The Dark World.
"Yes, there's a rigour to it," he admits. "But it's all about readiness. If you have done the work, then it's easier. If it's in your hard drive then you're away. I compare it to Happy Birthday. If I asked you to recite that, you wouldn't have to think about it. It's just inside you. If I asked you to sing it a different way, you wouldn't have to think. That's my approach to Shakespeare: know it that well."
Hiddleston has a varied array of entertainments in the pipeline. He has a role in Joanna Hogg's upcoming Exhibition. He will play the Great Escapo in the follow-up to the excellent The Muppets. Earlier this year, Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive premiered to deserved acclaim at Cannes. Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton are perfectly cast as two weary vampires living out endless nights in a suitably deserted Detroit.
“I really fell in love with that place,” he says. “It changed my entire perception of America. I had been to New York, Los Angeles, San Diego and all those coastal places. This was something else. In the 1920s, it was the centre of the world. Now there are only 300,000 people and looks like the set for a post-apocalyptic movie. But the people are so incredibly kind.”
And it’s safe to assume that none of them ask him impertinent questions about his schooling.