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.'”