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'I Saw The Light' Takes Actor Back To Classical Roles
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'I Saw The Light' Takes Actor Back To Classical Roles

'I Saw The Light' Takes Actor Back To Classical Roles

'I Saw The Light' Takes Actor Back To Classical Roles
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Tom Hiddleston portrays Hank Williams in the biopic "I Saw the Light." He tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that taking on the country icon was more like his Shakespearean roles than one might imagine.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

There is not a lot of light in the new movie about Hank Williams's life. It's dark and smoky, sepia-toned when a young Hank takes the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I SAW THE LIGHT")

TOM HIDDLESTON: (As Hank Williams, singing) When you are sad and lonely and have no place to go -

WERTHEIMER: The country star had dozens of hits. He joined the "Grand Ole Opry." People like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen still admire him. But his alcoholism and addictions made him unreliable. He was just 29 years old when he died.

British actor Tom Hiddleston portrays the tragic and talented Hank Williams in the biopic out now. It's called "I Saw The Light." He joins us from our studios in New York. Welcome.

HIDDLESTON: Thank you very much, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Now you've played all sorts of roles, all sorts of characters - characters from Marvel Comics, characters from Shakespeare. What drew you to this role?

HIDDLESTON: Well, you know, they used to call him the Hillbilly Shakespeare, although that was something I found on my travels through my research and through the character. I think as a Brit, as someone who grew up in Europe and England, the sound of America was always very exotic to me.

And that might sound strange, but I think every country takes its own folk music for granted. For example, I think for Americans, Irish folk music and Scottish folk music has enormous power. And I think for Europeans, the sound of the mid-20th century, when country music expressed the soul of America - which Hank was the forefront of that - was a very exotic thing.

And I read this script about four years ago now and Hank Williams, as presented in the screenplay, I found fascinating as an actor. He was a performer - an electrifying stage presence, a joy on stage, a deep connection with his audience. But that external charisma was - existed in tension with an interior, private vulnerability and a sense of loneliness and mournfulness that informed the greatness of his songs.

WERTHEIMER: Why did you decide to do the singing yourself? I would think that would be a very scary thing to do.

HIDDLESTON: Terrifying (laughter). I felt like it would be a break in my interpretation of the character if I was dressed as Hank and speaking as Hank and then up on stage and lip-synching. I had to go the whole hog, as it were. And it's a film about performance, and the idea that I wouldn't perform those songs seemed anathema to what we were trying to do.

WERTHEIMER: Let's have a sample here of you singing Hank Williams.

HIDDLESTON: OK, here goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I SAW THE LIGHT")

HIDDLESTON: (As Hank Williams, singing) She changed the lock on our front door, and my door key don't fit no more. So get it on over.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Move it on over.

HIDDLESTON: (As Hank Williams, singing) Scoot it on over.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Move it on over.

HIDDLESTON: (As Hank Williams, singing) Move over, skinny dog, 'cause the fat dog's moving in.

WERTHEIMER: I would never take you for a Shakespearean actor hearing that.

HIDDLESTON: It's funny, you know? There is a similarity, you know, when you take a Shakespeare soliloquy like - I played Cassio in "Othello" almost 10 years ago now, and he has that famous speech about reputation.

Reputation, reputation, reputation. I've lost my reputation. I have lost the immortal part of myself and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation.

And you say those words, and you're so aware that there are so many great actors in the course of history who have said that. Or you say, to be or not to be. The echo of these great actors who've said those words before you can be a weight on your shoulders, and you have to release yourself from the expectation and reinterpret them with your own imagination.

And to some extent, that's exactly what I was doing with Hank. I had to step into it as myself and commit myself to the music, to sing those lyrics and find out what they mean to me.

WERTHEIMER: But it wasn't just singing, of course.

HIDDLESTON: Singing and playing and performing.

WERTHEIMER: And yodeling.

HIDDLESTON: Yes, and - yes indeed (laughter). Yeah. The yodel, for Hank, it was like Elvis and his hip thrusts and his kind of uh-huh (ph). The yodel was where people - what sent people crazy. That's what made - you know, when he yodeled on the "Opry," the "Grand Ole Opry," and when he sang "Lovesick Blues" his first appearance, eyewitness accounts attest to the audience being sent into a frenzy by his yodel. There was some kind of twinkling sexuality contained within it, that it was a flirtation. There was a come hither aspect to it.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter).

HIDDLESTON: So it was huge fun to try and replicate that.

WERTHEIMER: Can we hear a small sample?

HIDDLESTON: There's a song called "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" where he's sort of - it's almost a classic blues song. The lyrics go, he's - you know, he's gone down to the river to go fishing and he's kind of meditating on his lonesomeness. And the chorus goes something like this.

(Singing) She's long gone, and I'm lonesome blue.

WERTHEIMER: (Laughter) Well, bravo.

HIDDLESTON: Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: That's amazing.

HIDDLESTON: (Laughter).

WERTHEIMER: What did you think about - as you said, you thought a lot about his loneliness, and he wrote a lot about loneliness in his songs. Did you learn anything about how he wrote or where it came from, the - I mean, 'cause he's no Cole Porter, but still there are some really quite brilliant lines in his work.

HIDDLESTON: I think he's one of those guys who, for whatever reason, would open his mouth and the truth fell out. To write a lyric like, the silence of a falling star lights up a purple sky, and as I wonder where you are I'm so lonesome I could cry - it's so simple, but it's very profound and very deep and very eloquently expressed.

It was a leap of imagination for me, really, that is best expressed in a scene in the film where I play opposite an actor called Dave Krumholtz, who's playing a reporter from New York writing a profile on Hank.

And he asked the same question. He says, where does it come from? Why do you do what you do? And Hank is very prickly with this guy. He doesn't want to talk about it and doesn't feel respected by this guy. But eventually, he's pressed and he says, everybody has a little darkness in them. They may not like it, may not want to know about it, but it's there. And I show it to them.

And I think it taps into something that we were trying to say about really great artists unite people because they express something universal about the human experience. And you - we could go out on the street and introduce ourselves to anyone and they would know somebody with addiction. They would have a family member they may have just lost. Maybe somebody just lost their job.

The suffering that Hank sings about is something that is universal, and we find solace and consolation in great art because it brings us together, because it reminds us that we're all the same. We all suffer in the same way.

WERTHEIMER: Tom Hiddleston portrays Hank Williams in the new movie about the country star's life. It's called "I Saw The Light." Thank you so much for joining us.

HIDDLESTON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "I SAW THE LIGHT")

HIDDLESTON: (As Hank Williams, singing) I'm so lonesome I could cry.

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