Becoming Hank: How Tom Hiddleston Transformed Into a Country Music Icon

Chelsea Crowell spends weeks observing the actor's meticulous schooling of Hank Williams for 'I Saw the Light'

Tom Hiddleston stars as Hank Williams in 'I Saw the Light.' Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

The light before a good sunset in Tennessee changes from fiery pink to a flood of gold until the sky eventually turns a dark enough purple to be lit by a falling star — just as Hank Williams wrote it. In September of 2014, the summer heat had eased up enough to enjoy the outdoors at dusk and those same colors began to fill the sky as Tom Hiddleston was finishing a run along the hillsides south of Nashville. In under 40 days, filming for the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light would begin in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the British-born actor had just arrived in Nashville to start the process of learning to sing, talk and look like the country music legend.

Becoming Hank Williams seems like a dubious fantasy as the tall, athletic Hiddleston sits down to talk after a run. His life is a far cry from Williams, who was plagued by poor health. Also, at 33, he's already four years older than the singer was at the time of his death. Still, he looks the perfect movie star age. . . which, of course, is no age at all.

Hiddleston, who won the Laurence Oliver Award for his mastery of Shakespeare, has been criticized for taking on the role of the Hillbilly Shakespeare — a moniker given to Williams in praise of his lyricism. A peer of Williams once described the singer's tendency for self-sabotage as him being unable to take one step forward without shooting himself in the foot, and as I find myself blankly staring at Hiddleston's running shoes, I conclude that he has a lot of work to do to become a mess.

"Sorry, I've just run ten miles," the actor says methodically. It's daily chorus as he preps for the role, which required a significant weight loss to mirror Williams' rail-thin frame. We sit in the recording studio as he divides his time between my questions and his sweet potatoes, using a folding chair as a makeshift dinner table. "It's a regimen. To wake up in the morning and do six hours of singing and then run ten miles," he says, but not complaining. Rather, he's almost cheery while listing off his schedule. But no sooner than he could finish that list, the door swings open.

"I need 'Sir Lonesome a Lot' in about ten minutes," says my father, Rodney Crowell, the music producer for I Saw the Light. Appointed anonyms are life-long and come as a lyrical lightning-bolts to my father, and though it was easy to see why the movie's lead actor had won the affection that begets a nickname, I struggled to understand why he had earned that particular one. I had been a wallflower for weeks, watching the men around me work on all things Hank, and observing Hiddleston was akin to crouching in the tundra, binocular-eyed, trying to study a creature who seemed to have no sense of the impossible.

My father baptized me in the sonic waters of Hank Williams, just as his father had done for him. I knew two things about the late icon as a child: the lonesome drawl in Williams' voice and my father's reverence for the man. The gaps of Williams' character were filled in by my childlike imagination and without knowing, that dark and ethereal honky-tonker had time-traveled with me into adulthood. I was a little embarrassed to find that my maturation could neither dissuade nor quell my desire for Williams to jump out of Hiddleston's body like a ghost I had been waiting my whole life to meet.

Hiddleston opted to live in my father's guest room instead of the apartment in downtown Nashville offered to him by the movie studio. And as a paternal story within a story, my father had been cast to play Hank's father, Lon, in the film. On the surface it seemed charming, but in reality this was their work and Hiddleston's need for a coach was pivotal.

"I had listened to 'Love Sick Blues' and to 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues,' and I didn't know how to make my vocal cords vibrate to make that specific sound," he admits. "I thought it was an accident of genetics."

Hiddleston describes being drawn to the script after reading it in 2012, feeling as if it were an exotic role and a far departure from anything he'd done in his career. By the spring of 2014, while wrapping up the film Crimson Peak in Toronto, Hiddleston had reached a critical point in his learning of the narrowly precise vocal style of Williams. Marc Abraham, writer and director of I Saw the Light, arranged for the actor to meet his coach.

"Rodney flew to Toronto the day before Easter and we sat in this hotel room," Hiddleston recalls. "We talked about the kind of extraordinary breadth of [Williams'] life, how much joy he gave to people. We talked about his extraordinary, instinctive, innate lyricism and natural rhythm and charisma and also his very formidable demons and how those two things possibly come hand in hand. And then we talked about the music."

Crowell took Hiddleston through an abridged history of the blues and mapped out the 1-4-5 chord progression that is the blueprint of classic country songs. "It's probably the reason why 'Long Gone Lonesome Blues' is one of my favorite Hank Williams songs," Hiddleston relates. "When I listened to it as a fan it seemed so impossible, and Rodney sort of demystified it and took it off the mantle place and made it tangible."

Hiddleston has distinct reverence for the songs he took off the "mantle place" and is meticulous as he speaks about them. But when he talks as a music lover, his shoulders soften and he's less careful with his words. "There's an amazing renaissance essayist called Walter Pater who said, 'All art aspires to the condition of music.' Music, without question, is my biggest inspiration. If I could only make people feel what I feel from this music then I'll have done something worthwhile."

Acutely aware of how many Hank Williams fans he's working with, let alone those who will be watching the film, Hiddleston is a pro at preemptively quieting any chatter that he might not understand the gravity of his decision to take the role. "I take my responsibility very seriously," he says. "I know a lot of people in this country and in this town really care about Hank Williams. He's an inspiration and an icon for so many people, so I don't take that lightly."

The first time I heard Hiddleston sing, his musical sensibility appeared intuitive. I had looked forward to asking him if he had written any of his own songs, but when I brought it up he skirted my question, answering, "Probably." For Hiddleston, stepping into Williams' legacy meant demurring from any comparison, and he was carefully reticent not to allow his personal musicality to be significant. His vulnerability and integrity on the matter were indistinguishable, but what was clear was that if Hiddleston had ever fantasized about being a musician, it seemed prudent that he claimed only to play one. . . for now.

Deeply immersed in nearly every facet of Williams, there was one element that Hiddleston was decidedly unwilling to explore: the musician's propensity for self-destruction. "I'm sure there are many actors who would go more method and do it the Williams way, which is not eat and drink and smoke, but I just don't want to go there. I don't think it would do any good. You completely lose control over what you're doing."

His decided process and conviction appeared synonymous, but Hiddleston would also have to answer to the technicality of shooting scenes out of sequence. Williams' decline may have been successively linear, but Hiddleston would be tasked with time-jumping between acting as young-sober Hank to a young-drunk-and-dying Hank, sometimes in the same day.

"I had the great pleasure and privilege of working with Anthony Hopkins once," Hiddleston recalls. "We once had a conversation and he said, 'Isn't it fascinating? People want their lives to be full of love and laughter, and they want to be happy but they need darkness. They want to listen to musicians sing about it; they want to see actors excavate it. The reason I know this is because all my life I've played kings and princes, poets and paupers, beggars and butlers and all kinds of different parts, and when people stop me in the street they want to talk to me about one man. Who do you think that man is? Hannibal Lector.'"

Hiddleston was delightful to watch, and I was beginning to wonder if anything was wrong with this man. He never seemed bored, he delighted at things that others barely noticed and he was able to simultaneously live in the moment while studying that same moment. But just as his expressions seemed to exist outside of the terrestrial realm, he too always felt a little out of reach.

One thing I noticed very early on was that Hiddleston had an enthusiasm for Luke the Drifter, an alias under which Williams recorded religious-themed songs and recitations. "Luke the Drifter was a real revelation for me," he says, "because it's like suddenly you have a window inside the man. It is something more personal."

Laughing, Hiddleston then flips a switch, launching into an oration that sounds so much like Williams on his old recordings that it gives me chills. "This song's been written by my half-brother, Luke the Drifter. You can get those records for 99 cents on EMM-GEE-EMM (MGM). I don't care if you buy 'em or not cause strictly I don't need the money no more. I don't know where they got the Luke part, but I sure do know where they got the drifting part."

Before I can ask him to stay, Luke leaves the building. Hiddleston refocuses his eyes, continuing on in his native British accent. "There's basically a massive overwhelming darkness in him that maybe is too dark for selling records at that time, and Luke the Drifter expresses that."

Hiddleston leans on the side of academic when he talks about Williams, but when Luke is brought up he doesn't just speak about him, he invites him in. (I prayed the film wouldn't leave Luke on the cutting room floor, due to run-time constrictions.)

"We have Hank Williams, someone who is confused and charismatic and ambitious and tempted and floored," Hiddleston says, putting his hands on the back of his head as he thinks out loud. "He's probably got a hole in his heart that he's trying to fill, which is why he is so desperate to get on the Opry and be a star. He gets to the Opry and realizes there is nothing there, and that's a tragedy in a way. It's like he is so desperate to be in the center of the limelight, and he gets to the center of the limelight and he realizes there is no center. By the time he realizes it, he is too drunk and high and lost — and that's something very real about the human condition. Even though I'm sure he hurt a lot of people indirectly, I don't think he ever meant to. There are some people who just lose control and hurt people in the process. So I kind of love him, I love his irreverence, I love his wit.

"It's like there's a compulsion towards an exploration of darkness or people who have the courage to lean into it and make no apology or request to be liked," Hiddleston continues with a pause, and I wonder if he's talking about himself or Williams.

"Just in case I haven't said it, holy shit, big boots to fill," says the actor, as he preps to leave for the film's Louisiana set the next morning. It's now his last night in Nashville, and the house has an energy not unlike the last day of school: excited, accomplished and tipsy with kinship. Hiddleston is rarely unaware but for a moment as we sit alone in the studio, he appears to forget I'm in the room. "How'd you do this, mother fucker? How did you do this?" he asks a large, black and white portrait of Hank Williams, and I almost expected the portrait to speak back to him. "Half the time I am so busy doing it that I don't stop to think about how or why I'm doing it."

The "it" is Williams. Hiddleston's intense study of the country star was now informing him instinctually. "Who was it that said, 'Saturday damnation, Sunday redemption?'" The "sinner and the saint" was a fashionable theme in 1950's country music that encompassed the duality of Luke and Hank and more so encompassed the duality within Williams himself. Abandoning his English accent for the antiquated cadence of a bygone Grand Ole Opry star, Hiddleston orates a recitation: "You have no right to be the judge, to criticize or condemn, just think before the grace of God it could be you instead of him." Again, Luke was gone just as quickly as he'd come.

"You're trying to express the common ground between you and the character, which is one of the most extraordinary side effects of having chosen to do this and commit to this as a life," the actor muses. "You play all these different people and they all share attributes of yourself. So you realize that in some senses as the human race we are all the same, in so many respects. . . You study the specifics of someone, but you're also trying to access the part of you that has those things."

Hiddleston transitions between characters as easily as he butters his bread, and as I try to keep track of which man is sitting across from me, I realize that I need not be in the room at all. The actor is asking, answering and exercising his own questions and curiosities.

As far back as I can remember, if I said something that reminded my father of a song, he would bypass my queries and break out singing whatever it was that my words had reminded him of. Off-duty musicians can be elusive, always staring blankly ahead while they thumb at a guitar or departing entirely from the planet to follow a lyric or melody that is running through their mind and down a rabbit hole. Actors, I've learned, are not all that different — though instead of a melody they chase after moments in an attempt to expand them.

I still wasn't entirely sold on his nickname and as I had witnessed Hiddleston work, I couldn't shake the impression that he was more of a scholar of lonesomeness rather than he was a member of its club. When I asked my father why he called him "Sir Lonesome a Lot," his answer was absolute as if I was asking why the sky is blue: "Because that's who he is." But this melancholic identity he had given to his friend had not yet revealed itself to me.

I had all but given up my search for Hiddleston's loner side when once again we had circle back to Luke in our conversation, speculating on what purpose Williams' alter-ego served. "I wish I could speak to him and ask him," he answers, and I'm surprise by the genuine sadness to his voice. "What would I ask Hank Williams if he were alive? I'd ask him who his favorite musicians of the 20th century are. Rodney and I were talking about that last night. We were watching Howlin' Wolf, and we were listening to the isolated vocals of Mercury and Bowie from 'Under Pressure.' [Laughs] What would Hank think of all this? What would he make of Freddie Mercury? What would he make of the Rolling Stones? I'd love to have seen who he'd have turned into."

As he continues to dream about conversing with Williams, I'm reminded of my mother and her deep yearning to speak with her parents after they passed away and the impossible despair that came with knowing they could never again answer her questions. Hiddleston had grown to really care about Hank Williams as a person, if not a friend. Though he moved through moments of melancholy as if he were shaking the sand out of his boot, surely befriending a ghost was lonely?

Hiddleston is telling me what his next few weeks of shooting will be like when my father, again, throws open the door, this time his guitar resting high across his chest. He thumbs out one big chord on the guitar, which could only have been the start of a Williams song. Moving from the monotony of talking about music into actually hearing it was eye opening, and to my humor and frustration I notice how buoyantly happy my father is. His joy was as resolute as Hiddleston's. I laugh at my insistence for darkness when everyone around me is so light.

Hank Williams was my father's hero, something he had been honoring since he was a toddler, when he sat on top of his father's shoulders in a Texas dance hall, watching ole' Hank live in concert. And now, as the high priest in the house of Hank, he has a new member of his congregation — Hiddleston, an adoring pupil with a hunger for knowledge. I suppose that I had been unknowingly exercising my due diligence by vetting Hiddleston, just as my sisters had been privately sizing him up without the excuse of an article or interview. I felt both dumb and proud by how ingrained our love for Williams was, as it had been handed down to us.

"Your daddy just hijacked this," Hiddleston says, giving me a sly smile. And we both join in singing, "The news is out, all over town, that you've been seen, running 'round. . . You win again."

After the recorder is turned off and I'm packing up to leave, Hiddleston stops me, seemingly knowing that I've surrendered my stubborn pursuit of his dark side. He describes swimming in the ocean and being caught in murky seaweed but being able to see clear water out ahead. He explains that in the moments where he felt blind with frustration, blind with the task at hand, blind with Hank Williams. . . if he kept the clear water in view, he could keep going. It was his choice to make the darkness fleeting.

I Saw the Light hits theaters nationwide in March 2016.