Tom Hiddleston feels most alive when he's performing Shakespeare.
"I don't know why I do," said the 32-year-old British actor, whose recent video with Cookie Monster on the importance of waiting was an Internet sensation.
"But it does reconnect me to my own breath and my own capacity as a human being to feel anything and to have any courage or inspiration or hope or relationship with my family, politics and sexual self-possession. Everything, in a way."
"When I was constructing him with ['Thor' director] Ken Branagh — because Shakespeare is a shared passion and shared inheritance — we talked about the reference," noted Hiddleston. "He's kind of like Edmund in 'King Lear," Iago in 'Othello' or Cassius in 'Julius Caesar.' So I was borrowing archetypes from my knowledge of Shakespeare."
And now he is bringing to life a real Shakespearean character — the wayward youth Prince Hal, who becomes the warrior king Henry V — to the small screen in the lavish four-part series "The Hollow Crown," which begins airing Friday on PBS' "Great Performances."
The series, which was telecast last year on BBC Two just before the London Summer Olympics, features four historical plays by the Bard — "Richard II," starring Ben Whishaw in the title role; "Henry IV," Parts I and II, which in addition to Hiddleston stars Jeremy Irons as Henry IV and Simon Russell Beale as Hal's debauched, vain and earthy companion Falstaff; and "Henry V."
Rupert Goold directed "Richard II," Richard Eyre helmed the "Henry IV"s and Thea Sharrock directed "Henry V." Whishaw and Beale both earned BAFTA Television Awards for their performances.
"I was proud when we aired in England," Hiddleston said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. "It was a real moment of national pride and also a national declaration of identity. The Olympics being in London fostered an amazing kind of a soul-searching examination by the whole country of who are we now."
"The Hollow Crown" marks the first time that all four plays have aired on PBS since the BBC's "Shakespeare Plays" series more than 30 years ago.
"Those were all kind of a mixed bag of studio [productions], not really location films" said "Great Performances" executive producer David Horn. "I feel that these cinematic versions are an opportunity for us to get people interested in Shakespeare."
Before "The Hollow Crown," PBS aired new versions of "King Lear," "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," as well as the series "Shakespeare Uncovered," which featured scenes from "The Hollow Crown." Another season of "Shakespeare Uncovered," said Horn, is on tap for next fall.
Hiddleston, who played "Henry V" when he was a student at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, relished the opportunity to go from a callow young man denying his father to becoming a powerful monarch.
"To me, the shape of the relationship with the father was very familiar," said Hiddleston. "He wouldn't mind me telling you, but my father and I had big set-tos when I was in my teens. Then I realized my friends were having the same problems."
As a teenager, he said, "you start to test your limits and start to question the authority of your father, because he is the primary masculine influence in your life and you are probably destined to turn into him."
Hiddleston found Hal's development very moving and inspiring, "because it's actually a journey of accepting responsibility and understanding that responsibility is power and power is responsibility. It is the shedding of a skin, a loss of innocence and an acceptance of his capacity as a man and a king."
Because of scheduling, Hiddleston "aged backward" by filming "Henry V" before playing Prince Hal.
"It was interesting, because the role required such different things from me at different times," he said. "I quite enjoyed the responsibility of playing the king. As I shed the responsibility and became the prince, I missed the grown-up, but I also felt very free in a way because Henry V is so serious. It was a release to be able to smile and enjoy myself after all the heaviness and seriousness."
And doing "The Hollow Crown" was the catalyst for Hiddleston's return to the London stage after a five-year absence. He's in rehearsals at the Donmar Warehouse to play the title role in "Coriolanus," which opens for a two-month engagement in early December.
He ends the interview on a quote from that play: "Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight with hearts more proof than shields."