Tom Hiddleston on why he loves Much Ado About Nothing

Tom Hiddleston on why he loves Much Ado About Nothing

The Internet features more than its share of negativity and snark—sometimes you’ve just gotta vent. But there’s plenty of room for love, too. With Fan Up, we ask pop-culture people we admire to tell us about something they really, really like.

The fan:
Tom Hiddleston may be best known to American audiences for his role as Loki, brother of Thor, in Marvel’s films Thor, The Avengers (where he played the film’s main villain), and the upcoming Thor: The Dark World. But his career in his native United Kingdom has been wide-ranging, full of plenty of work in classical theater and adventurous films. Those roles have included everything from Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea to the Wallander series that put him on the radar of Thor director Kenneth Branagh. Hiddleston’s work has often intersected with the plays of William Shakespeare, however, and it’s an ambitious BBC miniseries—The Hollow Crown—that next brings him to American attention. Airing on PBS over the next three weekends in most markets, The Hollow Crown will place Hiddleston in the role of first Prince Hal and then King Henry V in adaptations of both parts of Henry IV and Henry V, in one of the few full versions of the Shakespearean history plays known as the Henriad ever mounted.

The fanned: Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing

The A.V. Club: Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play you haven’t been in?

Tom Hiddleston: Immediately the one that comes to my head is Much Ado About Nothing. I think it’s the most beautiful, warm, redemptive, compassionate play that he ever wrote. I suppose the reason I say that is because it’s full of such deft, fine, subtle, brilliant comedy. I mean, really amazing bravura moments of setpiece, laugh-out-loud moments. When you get actors who have digested and studied and thought about and understood the verse and the characterizations, it feels as though it was written yesterday, or it sounds like it’s being made up on the spot. I’ve seen so many adaptations of it. I saw Joss Whedon’s film most recently. I grew up on Kenneth Branagh’s film. I’ve seen amazing productions on stage in London. I saw Simon Russell Beale play Benedick and it was hilarious, at the National Theatre with Zoë Wanamaker. David Tennant did it with Catherine Tate playing Beatrice. I’ve seen it set in ’30s Italy. I’ve seen it set in contemporary Los Angeles. I’ve seen it set 400 years ago. It never fails to delight. It just leaves people with a very, very happy feeling in their heart, I think. 

And I think the reason is that it’s about love. It’s about your last chance. You might have sworn off finding the right person and think, “Love’s not for me. Marriage isn’t for me. I will die a bachelor, or I will die a maid. None of your romance, none of your love poems.” It’s about these two old cynics who are like, “Nah, it’s not going to happen for me.” And it does. I think that’s just very redemptive and sweet. And there’s one extraordinary aspect of the play, which is that when Hero’s chastity is in doubt—it’s called into question because of the plot of Don John—an extraordinary thing happens, which is almost unique in all of Shakespeare, which is the man, Benedick, takes the side of the women in blind faith. So he says to Claudio and Don Pedro, I think, “What you’ve done is appalling. This is an act of brutality.” He doesn’t explicitly say that, but it’s an amazing thing where the leading male character takes the side of the women, and I think it’s, yet again, evidence of Shakespeare’s extraordinary compassion and understanding of human nature.

AVC: It’s interesting, especially for that time, because it’s a play that’s seems almost as if it could end tragically and then it doesn’t.

TH: Yeah.Cymbeline is quite like that, which I was in about six years ago. It’s one of his very last plays and it’s quite busy. It’s almost like a greatest hits: There are star-crossed lovers and the girl dresses up as a man and there’s long lost brothers… [Laughs.] and a very Iago-like villain and kings and queens and princes and a song and mistaken identity. It feels like he’s put all of his greatest plot devices in the same thing. You’ve got Romeo And Juliet, you’ve got As You Like It, Othello and sexual jealousy, and war in it. He’s kind of pulling all his strands into one big cake of a play. It looks—toward the end of the play, kind of act-five area—it’s going to end badly, then on a dime it turns, there are all these amazing revelations, and you realize the characters you thought were dead are still alive. Fathers and sons who were separated and forgotten are suddenly reunited, and it’s something that’s narratively very neat. But also, I think, as an audience, following a story, being swept along by the sweep, the arc of a narrative, it’s always delightful when there’s a twist. It could be a kind of twist that makes you punch the air. It could be a twist that melts your heart. I think we’re still delighted by that. Like in The Bourne Ultimatum, you think it’s the end of Jason Bourne, and then he swims away and you think “Oh! You’re still alive!” We love a good narrative twist.

AVC: In Much Ado there are three parts for men of different ages. Of those parts, which would you most like to play?

TH: I would love to play Benedick. Absolutely. It’s very much on my wish list. He’s so funny. He’s such an old dog. And there’s such fine wit in the way he speaks. And he’s a warrior, too. I think if you embrace the idea of a classical career, in the old sense of the word “career,” you have a good stab at all the big ones, at the moment I’m playing a lot of soldiers. I’ve played Posthumus in Cymbeline, Cassio in Othello, Prince Hal, Henry V, I’m about to play Coriolanus. They’re all soldiers. They’re all warriors. And what’s nice about Benedick is he is a warrior, but he’s a warrior who falls in love. So I feel it’s sort of a logical progression. There are some other princes I haven’t played yet, too. 

AVC: Do you have favorite moments from the play that you think of as particularly humorous or really funny scenes?

TH: I love the scene when the three guys trick Benedick into thinking that Beatrice is in love with him. It’s just like pure gold. I’ve never seen that scene not be funny. When they are staging a conversation, which they know Benedick will overhear, and it just hits him like a train. He has that beautiful line, “Love me? [Beat.] Why?” [Laughs.] Because the story’s been set up that they hate each other until that point. I love that scene.

AVC: So much of Shakespeare is about analyzing the verse, about understanding the subtleties of the language. When you sit down as an actor and start looking at one of his plays, how do you approach that question?

TH: I think it’s really about trying to communicate the power of the writing to the audience in the most vivid and accessible way. Like most rhetoric, if you own the images, if you own the language, if you own what you’re saying, it will always be expressed. It will always be understood by your audience. So it’s really just enjoying the relationship that you instinctively have with the verse. I feel it’s a very instinctive approach, and images always pop up in my head. I suppose the unconscious thing that’s happening is when I’m speaking the verse I’m seeing the image myself. I’m working on Coriolanus at the moment, and there are some moments in that where he refers to the enemy, Aufidius, he says, “He is a lion that I am proud to hunt.” It’s a very easy thing to see, but whenever I say the word I see the lion. And what an extraordinary thing to say about your opposite number. Or he’s before the gates of battle, he says, “Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight with hearts more proof than shields.” You’re like, [Exhales.] “I’d follow you into battle.” 

I think the writing is just so visceral. In the Henry plays, for example, I find it very inspiring. Henry V is presented with an army who are outnumbered 10-to-1 to the French and they’re dispirited, tired, and dying of dysentery. They are unquestionably going to lose. They are the underdogs. And he appeals to something ancient called honor. And he says,

“By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honor,
I am the most offending soul alive.”

It makes me want to pick up a sword and fight for him. 

“God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honor
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have.”

And I don’t really know how I process the lines, which apart from the fact that it lifts me up and into it in a way.

“Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.”

It’s like, “You’re either in it to win it, or you’re out. I’m giving you a chance to leave, now.” In terms of my relationship with the verse, it’s very hard to articulate quite how I work with it apart from that I get very excited about it and it draws me toward it. The rhythm of it, the language of it, and I think he’s such an instinctively compassionate and intelligent writer that quite often the language of the character tells you everything you need to know about what that character is thinking and feeling at that moment. 

In Henry V, I think the things that he says in certain moments surprise Henry V himself. There, sieging the French castle of Harfleur, he sees his entire army running away. They’ve made a breach in the wall. They’re running away, and he says, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” Because it’s such a famous line, it’s become quoted out of context, but when you think of it, it’s actually him saying, “No, one more time. Let’s try and make a break through this castle wall one more time.” “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. Or close the wall up with our English dead.” It’s like we either go through, or we’ll close the wall back up with dead bodies. And then makes this extraordinary thing, 

“In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;”

Those images are just like, “It’s all well and good in peacetime [to] be humble, be still, be gentle, but when it’s wartime unleash the beast.” I mean, Survivor wrote a rock song about it, “Eye Of The Tiger.” It’s the same image. It’s the same stuff. 

“Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On!”

Al Pacino tried to do it better in Any Given Sunday, but it’s the best locker-room speech in the history of dramatic literature. So yeah, that’s how I approach the verses. I find it amazingly inspiring and contemporary.

AVC: Prince Hal is one of the most famous roles in Shakespeare. What were you surprised by when you sat down to pull apart this role and start thinking about it?

TH: I knew I had to make decisions, I knew I had to make personal decisions about how accidental or premeditated his transformation is, because he’s the heir to the throne; he stands to inherit the kingdom. He’s the son of the top dog and will be top dog himself one day, and he, at the beginning of the play, is undergoing a wild and indulgent rebellion, hanging out with all the people he shouldn’t be. He’s in the pub, roaring drunk, with thieves and whores and lowlifes when he should be taking responsibility and behaving like a future king. And there are versions, there are academic theories, people will bandy these theories about until kingdom come, but as an actor you have to make a choice as to what extent Hal consciously plotted his transformation. He has this amazing speech at the beginning,

“Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.”

So he’s saying, “I am like a radiant sun and I’m going to let myself, my reputation, be veiled by these lowlifes, these thieves, but one day I will throw them off and people will be even more amazed.” Some people have treated that as an enormous act of almost Machiavellian malice, like it makes it almost psychopathic, but I think it’s just him saying, “The music is going to stop someday and the party is going to end and I will have to be king, so I’m going to enjoy myself now.” 

I couldn’t get inside a sort of disingenuous Hal, in a way. Some of it is there. There’s a sort of bookend in the pub scene where Hal and Falstaff are playing a game, playing dress-up, and they’re staging a scene between Henry IV and Hal, and at the very end Falstaff gets very sentimental and says, “When you’re king, don’t get rid of me. Keep me close, even though I am an old, fat drunk, because I’m your friend and I love you and don’t banish me.” I think when Hal says, “I do, I will,” I think there’s a sort of admission of inevitability and regret that takes them both by surprise. 

But, of course, like life, best-laid plans are often refuted. Hal couldn’t possibly predict that at the end of [Henry IV] Part 2 Falstaff would personally interrupt his coronation and make him look like an idiot. I think Hal knows that he’s going to have to grow up one day, but he doesn’t know that he’s going to have to be so ruthless. 

I think it’s a really classical arc of a young man, a young man in any time, in any country, in any place. Essentially testing his limits, pushing the envelope, stretching his boundaries, trying different things on for size and then eventually deciding to take responsibility and become an adult. And the adult he decides to become is King Henry V.

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