Chatting with Tom Hiddleston about Hank Williams in I Saw the Light

Adam inhabits a large, dilapidated house in the suburbs of Detroit with only a variety of guitars and recording equipment to keep him company. A collection of portraits hangs on his living room wall: Nikola Tesla; Isaac Newton; Christopher Marlowe; Iggy Pop; Rodney Dangerfield. Another of those framed faces, according to the actor Tom Hiddleston, is Hank Williams.

In 2012, Hiddleston shot the role of the vampire Adam in Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). Two years later principal production began on one of his latest films I Saw the Light, a Hank Williams biopic. When Hiddleston shares this link between the two films, he looks over at the director Marc Abraham and slyly smiles in silent confirmation about this magical sense of foreshadowing, this unanticipated kismet.

[jump] In country music biopics, of which there are many, the filmmakers need to make one tough decision before production even begins: should the actor hired for the job sing or lip-synch? Sissy Spacek, as Loretta Lynn, sings in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980). Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline in Sweet Dreams (1985) does not. The Southern drawls of both actresses convince us of their country bona fides. But the effect of Cline’s mezzo-soprano’s aching vocals, as they emerge from Lange’s mouth, momentarily breaks the fourth wall she’s worked so hard to create.

It’s no surprise then that Hiddleston went all in on I Saw the Light. On the decision to sing he says, “It was essential. It would have been a break in the interpretation for me. If I was going to look like Hank and dress as Hank and speak as Hank I had to sing as Hank, otherwise there would have been a piece missing.” In order to accomplish some semblance of Williamsian verisimilitude, Hiddleston moved in with the venerated singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, a lifelong devotee of Hank’s, in order to train his voice and hone his musicianship.

If you’re looking for a modern day reincarnation of Williams’ high yodel, you won’t find it in Hiddleston’s recordings. When I suggested that his voice is warmer than Williams’, that it’s less saturated with pain and more intent on friendly seduction, he admitted that Crowell said the same thing to him: “Specifically he said that I was just more joyful. He used to refer to Hank as 'the snake.' It came from both of us watching footage of Hank singing 'I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)' with Anita Carter. His charm is absolutely there but it isn't warm.”

When they were laying down tracks, Crowell would say to Hiddleston (and here Hiddleston affects Crowell’s Southern accent with a natural mimic’s ease), “‘Tommy, boy, it was good. Rhythm was good, your pitch was fine, let's go again for the snake,’ and I would understand what he meant.” If you’re looking for a strict imitation, you should listen to the original recordings. But if you can accept the performance as an interpretation, it makes artistic sense that the actor is also doing the singing.

As for the acting half of the job, I asked him if there was a specific scene where he felt like he was inside the role. Hiddleston summoned up the moment and the emotion from that sunny Louisiana day, “We shot the scene where Hank comes to Audrey after she's filed for divorce and he begs her to come back. The way I played the whole scene I found myself not quite looking at Elizabeth [Olsen, as his first wife Audrey].” It’s a pivotal moment in their marriage and the actor must convince her and the audience that his sense of stability is at stake.  
Hiddleston added, “Hank is trying to give himself the courage to edge closer to where she is standing on the porch. I found myself looking away into the distance, not a conscious choice, but I was aware of doing it in the take and saying a line like, ‘It's too hard, this divorce thing,’ and not being able to look at her. I don't think Hank was a very articulate communicator in life, which is ironic for someone who was so honest and authentic in his song writing.”

And therein lies a clue to Hiddleston’s method. You can hear in his voice the sound of empathy and compassion for Williams, who died at the age of twenty-nine as a direct result of alcoholism and drug addiction. Both the script and Hiddleston work hard, perhaps too hard, to provide a moral center for this version of the brilliant and deeply troubled songwriter. Hiddleston explains, “The fascinating aspect of acting I have found is in exploring the tension between the exterior and the interior. Hank appears to be one thing on the surface and is revealed to be something else underneath.” As I Saw the Light points out (see also Amy (2015)), addiction obliterates Williams’s sense of moral and emotional composure. In the end though, to paraphrase the Gram Parsons song “She”: “He sure could sing.”

Tags: , ,

Related Stories