Something to look forward to in the new year: The Stone Age meets the Bronze Age in Nick Park’s Early Man. The Wallace & Gromit creator’s first film since 2005’s The Curse of the Were-Rabbit stars Eddie Redmayne as the scion of a rabbit (what else?) hunting tribe and Tom Hiddleston as Bronze Age baddie Lord Nooth. Opens February 2018.
This is how much Tom Hiddleston got into playing Hank Williams in writer/director Marc Abraham’s I Saw the Light. When I tell Abraham that it’s possible I learned the Williams canon in utero, the country legend being a hero of my Arkansas-born father, Hiddleston interrupts. Pulling out his phone, he says he has something to play me.
It’s Williams in a live performance, joking with the audience, “We left the United States and went to Arkansas last year and played for a couple of days.”
“I was listening to that this morning,” he says simply.
Then there’s the matter of the hat. There’s a Stetson sitting on a table in the suite at San Francisco’s Fairmount Hotel that looks suspiciously like the one he wears in the film and on the movie poster. It’s not the real hat, he’s quick to say, just one the Sony Pictures Classics provided for the press tour.
“The actual hat is sitting at home in Belsize Park, the hat I wore in the movie, the special hat,” he says.
I Saw the Light is clearly an exceptional experience to the thoroughly British actor, 35, who utterly transforms himself to play a beloved son of the American South in the movie, and even more so to Abraham, a Louisville, KY native who grew up on country radio.
“Those stations, even though they were playing George Jones and Charley Pride and Merle Haggard and Kris Kristofferson, the DJs always played in the set, a little bit of Hank, because Hank is The Man,” says Abraham. “That’s probably the first time I started hearing Hank. … I loved country music and I never stopped loving it.”
Williams’ music and the tragic story of a brilliant, tortured songwriter who didn’t live to see 30 stayed with Abraham as he embarked on a career first as a television scriptwriter and then as a producer on such films as The Commitments, Spy Game, and Children of Men. Then several years ago, he heard that plans were in the works for a Hank Williams movie, and Abraham, who made his directing debut with the 2009 drama Flash of Genius, knew he had get moving on his own. The project was on track when he went to see Steven Spielberg’s 2011 WWI drama War Horse and spied Hiddleston in the role of Capt. Nicholls.
“I turned to my wife and said, ‘That guy looks like Hank Williams.’ She said, ‘Shut up and watched the movie,” Abraham laughs.
The filmmaker sent Hiddleston the script and Skype conversations about it turned into phone calls and eventually into discussing the movie over dinner. The actor’s star was rapidly rising with unforgettable roles in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea, and as the mesmerizing villain Loki in Thor, but that didn’t mean he automatically had the part. Abraham had promised his casting director that he wouldn’t offer it to anyone without an audition first, since it is a technically difficult role. But then one night over a meal, caught up in the enthusiasm of their conversation, Abraham couldn’t help himself.
“We kept talking about it,” Hiddleston says. “We kept having interesting conversations about the story, up until the point where we were sitting in an Italian restaurant and Marc just kind of popped the question, basically.”
“He was really enthusiastic about it,” Abraham says. “He said to me, ‘I really love this. I really think I could do it, but just promise me one thing. Promise me you’ll allow me the time to prepare before I do a reading.’ Just very generous, and assuming, of course, there would be a reading, because that’s the natural thing.
“He didn’t put on an accent. He didn’t sing a song. He didn’t do anything like that. He just said, ‘I get it. I get it. I know what it’s going to take and I’m the kind of person—I’ll get it.’”
Hiddleston admits he was only familiar with a handful of Williams’ songs before I Saw the Light came into his life, but he found the man he got to know initially through Abraham’s script fascinating. He wanted to tell that story.
“I found the suggestion in Marc’s screenplay that the genius in his songwriting came from the turbulence of his intimate relationships a very incisive thesis, a very brilliant reading of his work,” Hiddleston says.
“It was my job as an actor to really roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty on that subject, to investigate the volatility of his relationships, especially with women, and his personal pain and his demons and his addiction to alcohol and mix all of that into a cocktail of this astonishing and charismatic performer.”
It was also Hiddleston’s job to learn to sing like Hank Williams, right down to the yodeling that was his signature. Abraham likens the process of mastering Williams’ technique not to climbing Mount Everest, but to scaling the even more daunting K2. To help Hiddleston channel a genius, another was called in, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, who took Hiddleston into his Nashville home for several months to work on the actor’s vocal chops and record I Saw the Light’s soundtrack.
‘Rodney’s extraordinarily patient and wise, and we really sweated over it,” Hiddleston says. “We learned a lot about ourselves and each other. It was hard work, but it was joyful work. It was an extraordinary thing when we finished it, saying goodbye to each other, because we became very close. You do when you make music with people.
“I still yodel all the time,” he says. “It’s funny. I play the guitar a lot more than I used to. I always played. I just play it for myself and I always find there’s no moment I haven’t picked up the guitar and done a little bit of ‘Long Gone Lonesome Blues’ or ‘Move It Over’ or something—the yodeling songs, bizarrely enough, even though they were the most challenging, they were my K2s—they’re the ones I go back to. It was such an extraordinary and unique experience, really unlike anything I’ve ever done and very special for a lot of reasons.”
When he was a kid, Hiddleston would stay through the end credits to find out who had made the music he loved in a movie. Then he would run out to HMV to buy the record. He remembers discovering The Ronettes that way when he heard “Be My Baby” at the beginning of Dirty Dancing. Now, for the first time, it’s his own name he sees.
“When we stay to watch the credits of this film and I see all those songs come up and it says, ‘Performed by Tom Hiddleston,’ I’m like, ‘Wait a second!’” he says. “I can’t believe it, because I’m so used to that being performed by Elvis Presley, performed by Bob Dylan, performed by The Byrds, or whoever it is.”
“He can’t quite get used it,” says Abraham. “It’s sweet … He really gets joy out of it and it’s kind of amazing.” –Pam Grady
“Is this Rebecca or Notorious?” a friend whispered at a certain point while watching Guillermo del Toro’s new ghost story Crimson Peak. It’s a little of both, plus Suspicion, Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt, and probably more of the Hitchcock canon. Del Toro paying homage to Hitchcock and adding his own supernatural twist—think Devil’s Backbone—ought to be a glorious thing, but instead despite a thoroughbred cast, gorgeous production design, and exquisite cinematography, the whole thing collapses under the weight of its own silliness. Fans hoping for a return to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth form are in for a disappointment.
The trouble with Crimson Peak is that it is one of those films that is entirely dependent on otherwise smart characters turning suddenly stupid. That Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a penniless baronet who comes to 1901 Buffalo, NY, ostensibly to raise funds for a new mining process to extract rich red clay from beneath his land, would turn Edith Cushing’s (Mia Wasikowska) head is understandable. He is handsome and charming and is the only person besides her industrialist father (Jim Beaver) and childhood friend, Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam), who takes her writing ambitions seriously.
But besotted as she is, it’s hard to fathom why Edith finds nothing creepy about Thomas’ possessive sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) or why—once the action moves to England—she would agree to stay in complete isolation in a crumbling house where she observes that it’s colder inside that it is outside. Evil doesn’t even have to be lurking. Edith is a literate woman. She’s surely read the Brontes and knows what happened to those women, and Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe family estate, has all the earmarks of a conduit to death by consumption. As it happens, something is amiss with the Sharpe siblings and their grandly decaying home, but even with ghosts crawling out of the walls and her growing suspicion that something is not right with Lucille, Edith stays put. She’s smarter than that and she’s a woman of means, so what gives?
As one incident piles on another, Crimson Peak doesn’t just jump one shark, but an entire school of them. Any film that incorporates del Toro’s own supernatural obsessions and this much Hitchcock in it ought to at least be suspenseful. Instead, moments clearly meant to frighten an audience, invite howls of laughter. Casting Hiddleston and Wasikowska together only invites memories of Only Lovers Left Alive, and makes one yearn for Jim Jarmusch’s offbeat sensibility. One wonders what he might have done with this material. Perhaps Jarmusch would have been kinder to Chastain, who couldn’t be more cartoonish if she was playing Jessica Rabbit. Del Toro set the bar high for himself like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. In not reaching those lofty heights, Crimson Peak is a tremendous letdown.–Pam Grady
Tom Hiddleston certainly looks every inch the part in this still, the first Sony Pictures Classics has released from I Saw the Light, Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic. Singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell plays Williams’ dad Elonzo. More importantly, Crowell is also the film’s executive music producer and the person charged with transforming the Brit actor into an American legend. They were in the process of that when Hiddleston joined Crowell on stage last September at the Wheatland Music Festival to sing “Move It on Over” in a performance that augers well for a film that ought to have a lot of people seeing the light.
The movie I am looking forward to most next year is I SAW THE LIGHT, Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic starring Tom Hiddleston. Executive Music Producer (and one of the great singer/songwriters of our times) Rodney Crowell offers a report:
Beneath Jim Jarmusch’s cool, hipster veneer beats the heart of a romantic and he proves it with Only Lovers Left Alive, a paean to the constancy of love wrapped in the tale of a vampire couple, soul mates for centuries. Horror nibbles at the edges for the ethereal twosome played by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, but what resonates in this gorgeously photographed, often darkly funny drama is their unconditional devotion to one another.
Jarmusch says he took inspiration for this tale from Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Somehow from that congenial author’s fables about the biblical first humans, he glimpsed these ultimate outsiders. And while they may be bloodless, undead creatures, they also may be the warmest in the filmmaker’s universe. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a morose, reclusive rock musician, living among a huge vinyl record collection and a pile of vintage guitars in the ruins of Detroit. The more exuberant Eve (Tilda Swinton) resides in luxury in a beautifully appointed, book-filled home in Tangier. Though separated by geography, these opposites are as one.
Adam and Eve are also living in a dangerous time for their kind. Their food source, human blood, is no longer reliable. What runs through the zombies’ (as Adam derisively refers to mankind) veins is too often tainted. Eve has a reliable supply of the good stuff from the couple’s friend, playwright Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt). Adam’s connection is a doctor (Jeffrey Wright). But when Adam and Eve come together again in Detroit, a reunion they celebrate with a night out clubbing with Eve’s wild child sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska) and Adam’s human friend Ian (Anton Yelchin), their well-ordered lives fall apart, and along with it their connections. The couple is soon on the run and thirsty, very thirsty.
That need to feed prompts fear, but also soul searching for these creatures of the night. Is it time, at last, to reclaim their mortality? Ava calls them snobs, and they are. Scrounging for blood is at odds with the sophisticated images they present to the world. Death as an option would satisfy their vanity. Shuffling off the immortal coil together would be one last grand romantic gesture. It’s something to consider, anyway, on a long night in Tangier.
There is a lot of beauty in Only Lovers Left Alive, starting with the ravishing leads and Yorick Le Saux’s shimmering cinematography. Even Detroit’s desolation looks alluring in the film’s evocative nightscapes. More than its pretty stars and beautiful photography, it is Adam and Eve’s enduring passion that makes this Jarmusch’s most appealing film in years. The vampire trappings, the deadpan humor and the dangerous situation that threatens them are almost beside the point. One gets the feeling that if Adam and Eve’s hearts could still beat, upon seeing each other, they would beat a little faster – even after hundreds of years. –Pam Grady