How Tom Hiddleston embodies country legend Hank Williams in ‘I Saw the Light’

Tom Hiddleston attends the "I Saw the Light" premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

Tom Hiddleston attends the “I Saw the Light” premiere during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

A lot of prestige actors are dropping themselves into superhero movies lately, which is how the hero of “Fruitvale Station” became The Human Torch and the actor we came to love from “You Can Count On Me” ended up as The Hulk.

Tom Hiddleston‎ is making the reverse commute. The British actor who became known to most of us as Loki in the Marvel movies beginning with “Thor” back in 2011 had gone to that well a number of times. Now he’s seeing what he can get cooking in a fact-based upscale role: as Hank Williams in the new biopic “I Saw The Light.”

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On Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival, after as many online teasers and murmurs as you’ll find for a specialty-film performance, Hiddleston unveiled himself as the country legend. With nearly a dozen No. 1 hits., Williams, of course, was one of the most influential songwriters in history. He died in 1953 at the age of 29 from heart failure partly brought on by substance addictions.

Hiddleston, 34, explores a full range of physical, vocal and tonal shifts to embody the singer, suggesting both the rambling charm that made him so popular and the pent-up devils that did him in.


As writer-director Marc Abraham reminded at the screening, the British actor also did his own singing — not to mention his own Alabama twanging.

Indeed, Hiddleston’s performance is made more striking by how different his background was from Williams’ — born nearly 30 years after Williams died, and in Westminster, a far cry from the Deep South. Yet he found a kinship with the meditative, embattled artist.

“He seemed very far away,” Hiddleston noted at the premiere, describing his initial approaches to the Williams character. “But he’s who I might have been if I had Hank’s life.”

The role required plenty of technical preparation. Hiddleston moved in with modern-ish country singer Rodney Crowell in Nashville, Tenn., for nearly five weeks. The former Mr. Rosanne Cash gave Hiddleston some crucial instruction in the process.

“Rodney was very sweet and comforting,” the actor said. But “we hit some bumps in the
road. He used to tell me” — Hiddleston shifted into a perfect Southern accent — “ ‘boy, back in England, you sit right on the beat. You sound like a marching band. We gotta shake you up. Gotta gladhand it. Gotta swim through it. Gotta loosen you up, man.’”

The actor then ran through an encyclopedic list of musicians who took cues from Williams —artists as diverse as Bill Haley, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen.

The movie’s prospects are uncertain, but the performance is the kind that will make producers, and fans, see an actor very differently when it hits theaters in late November. Hiddleston has plenty of other non-superheroism coming up — he stars in Guillermo del Toro’s latest effort, “Crimson Peak,” in October and in Ben Wheatley’s dystopian adaptation “High-Rise,” also at Toronto. After a role like Williams, it will be hard for anyone to refuse him now.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT