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