In-Depth Tom Hiddleston Interview For ‘War Horse’
Tom Hiddleston plays Captain Nicholls in Steven Speilberg’s epic adventure ‘War Horse.’ The film is a tale of loyalty, hope and tenacity set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War. ‘War Horse’ begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets—British cavalry, German soldiers, and a French farmer and his granddaughter—before the story reaches its emotional climax in the heart of No Man’s Land. ‘War Horse’ is one of the great stories of friendship and war—a successful book, it was turned into a hugely successful international theatrical hit that is currently on Broadway.
Tom Hiddleston has appeared in the following films during the last twelve months: ‘Archipelago’ (dir. Joanna Hogg), as Loki in Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Thor,’ as F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s ‘Midnight in Paris’ and most recently as Freddie Page in Terence Davies’ ‘The Deep Blue Sea.’ In 2012 Hiddleston will reprise his role as Loki, the primary villain in ‘Marvel’s The Avengers.’ He is currently filming an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry V’ for television (BBC/NBC), playing the title role of King Henry V. ‘War Horse’ is released in cinemas January 13th.
How familiar were you with the play and the book before you started filming and how important was it for you to be?
Tom Hiddleston: It was hugely important for me to be familiar with the material. The first time I heard about the play ‘War Horse’ was from two very good friends who both work in the theatre but aren’t actors. They told me about it and that, like everybody else, they’d come out of the National on a wintry evening in floods of tears. So, needless to say, it always intrigued me. At the time, I was in a production that was touring around the world so I missed the play at the National and I missed it at the West End. The play always felt like this elusive creature that I never quite got to come to grips with.
I finally got to see the play at the New London Theatre. It was extraordinary. It was breathtaking. The single thing that obviously leapt out at me was the puppets. There’s a collective gasp when the foal totters onto its legs and takes its first steps. It’s the magic of theatre to make it seem as if a living animal is really there. I thought the play was extraordinarily powerful and very, very moving.
Since I love anything to do with the First World War the play really resonated with me. World War I has always spoken to me and captured my imagination. I think there’s something incredibly tragic but poetic about it. It always seems to me like the world lost its innocence in the First World War, certainly in Europe anyway. There’s something so unexpected about how horrific it was.
What do you think of taking a stage play with puppets and a novel told from the point of view of a horse and turning those concepts into a movie?
Tom Hiddleston: I think the story can translate into all of these different genres because [author] Michael Morpurgo has written such an extraordinary book and at the center of it is such heart and soul that it really appeals to the best in all of us. It appeals to the sensitive side of us and to our courage and our forbearance. And it’s a story about stamina and love. I think Albert’s love for Joey is his gift. In a way, the gift of that love is what carries him through the war and it’s the part of his character that helps him survive. I think that in a way it doesn’t really matter what the medium for this story is. There’s something so moving about Joey’s strength in the face of the horrors of the First World War that it’s accessible on any level. I really think that somehow, through the power of Joey’s narrative, Michael Morpurgo has created something that speaks to the heart. It’s about family, loss and courage, and that’s very moving.
How did you get the part of Officer Nicholls?
Tom Hiddleston: I had been shooting ‘Thor’ in Los Angles and I came back to London for my father’s 70th Birthday. My English agent called me and he said, “Look, they’re doing this film and everyone’s being very secretive about it and no one’s saying it’s ‘War Horse,’ but I know it’s ‘War Horse.’” I didn’t know who was directing it at the time, but I put myself on tape doing a little scene and the tape went to Jina Jay, the casting director. She sent it to America. The next day, I flew back to L.A and about a week later, I got a call from my agent saying, “Steven Spielberg wants to meet you.”
I had to find a day, sometime while I was shooting ‘Thor,’ to drive over to DreamWorks to sit down in his office. I didn’t have to prepare anything and we sat there and we had a chat, talked about Guinness and Peter O’Toole and these kinds of things that you talk about. Then we talked about the First World War and he told me the reasons why he was attracted to the project and that he’d always wanted to do something about the First World War but that he’d never found the right story to tell. It was always about finding the story and the horses really solved it for him. Then he asked me if I rode and I said, “Actually, funnily enough, Steven, I do. I’m all right at it. I’m not like the world’s expert at it, but I’ve been doing some riding on ‘Thor’ and the man who was in charge of all the horses is a man called Vic Armstrong, who coincidentally was Harrison Ford’s stunt double in the ‘Indiana Jones’ films.”
Steven proceeded to tell me a story about Vic Armstrong and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and then he said he would like me to do the part. I was stunned. It never, ever happens like that in my experience. Usually, you meet on things and then wait a while and then your agents call you. He just offered it to me on the spot across the table. I was blown away.
How would you describe your character?
Tom Hiddleston: My character, Captain Nicholls, has the privilege, in a way, of being the man in the story who takes Joey to war. I’m the first link in the story of the horse ever being associated with the First World War. That’s a huge privilege in this grand epic tale. Captain Nicholls is such a kind and decent man and there’s a beautiful poignancy about his understanding that Albert is upset that he’s taking Joey. He knows that he’s taking a beloved animal away from his true owner and the way he handles Albert in that moment speaks volumes for his kindness. In a way, the baton is handed on from Albert to Nicholls. Joey is changing hands all the way through the film and in that moment, it goes from Albert to Nicholls and I think to myself, “Wow, this must be a really special horse and I’ve got to look after it.”
Nicholls is also an artist. Of the three soldiers in the film, Major Stewart, Captain Nicholls and Lieutenant Waverly, I think that Stewart is the soldier and the disciplinarian, the man who enjoys soldiering more than most. He likes the buckles and the bootstraps of it all. And I think Waverly has got such a sort of irreverence and sensitivity to him. You feel that Waverly is almost too jolly for all of this war making. But Nicholls has a sense of how awful the war with Germany and Northern France is going to be and I think his way of coping with his own fear is that he draws these beautiful sketches of Joey, which is obviously a talent and a passion that he had before the war. You get the sense that if the First World War hadn’t come along, James Nicholls would have been quite happy being the fox-hunting gentleman that he is and an artist, too. He is an enormously skilled artist and that’s been a lovely color to my character—that I’m not playing just a soldier. I’m playing a soldier who also has an artistic spirit.
What was the preperation process like for you?
Tom Hiddleston: I did a lot of my own research. You just have to find something that helps you work up your imagination. I find that to jump in dry always feels like too big a leap. It’s nice to kind of warm yourself up with things. I watched lots of horse movies and war films and I re-read ‘Journey’s End.’ I also read ‘Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man’ by Siegfried Sassoon. That was an education in terms of who these young guys were before the war. Our job in the film is not to show any cynicism. Once you get into 1915, 1916, there’s that awful spiritual despair that sets in. That wasn’t our job. We were noble and heroic. Sassoon was really helpful in painting a picture of the kind of young men that we were.
I also watched both versions of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade,’ the Errol Flynn one and the Tony Richardson one with David Hemmings and John Gielgud. I watched ‘Seabiscuit,’ ‘The Horse Whisperer’ and ‘All Quiet On the Western Front‘—anything that was even vaguely related to horses or a war movie.
Part of the power of this particular movie is that it is being made in real places. Is that something that you feel is important to you as an actor?
Tom Hiddleston: It’s hugely important. The power of the stage production is that it suggests so much. It suggests the trenches, a Cavalry charge, Devon. But the power of cinema is that you can take a camera down to Devon and get on top of a mountain and shoot that Devon sunset and it’s the real thing. Steven [Spielberg] can employ the most talented horsemen and grooms in Britain and they can put together a Cavalry charge with over 100 horses charging a field through a German camp which has been built and recreated for real.
I think that’s the most exciting thing, that you’re watching it really happen. We’re not on CGI horses. We’re on the real thing. It’s real smoke and tanks and I’m sure that when they do all the mud and the movie gets into the kind of the gruesomeness of the trenches, that that will be recreated in reality too.
The locations are stunning, such as Devon and the Wellington Estate….
Tom Hiddleston: I think Devon’s one of the most extraordinary places in this country [England], if not the world. I’ve spent a lot of time there in my life anyway and there’s something extraordinarily grounded about the place. When you arrive in Devon, especially if you’re coming from somewhere like London, the landscape and the old quality of those hills and those rocks washes away any kind of trivial worries that you might have had about your life at that time. I certainly always found that the rocks have wisdom in them and I found that very reassuring. I think that aspect of Devon is perfect for Joey’s wisdom and Albert and his family, and all of the people from this part of the world have a very earthy wisdom and simplicity to their lives.
I think simplicity is the key to most of life’s big questions and so it’s great that you take that quality, the quality of that kind of ancient, earthy groundedness, and that’s what carries Joey through Northern France and all the experiences that he has.
I’d sort of forgotten that England still had places like Stratfield. I knew Basingstoke and Reading, but I had no idea that 7,000 acres of England’s green and pleasant land was in between them. The Duke of Wellington’s Estate is just beautiful. The day before my first day of shooting, Patrick [Kennedy] and I had to do some riding in the morning and then we went for a walk around the estate. We stumbled up on things that we actually stumbled onto later in the course of the shoot. Rolling fields and cattle grazing and lakes and woods. It was just amazing.
On one particular piece of the estate there’s an extraordinary line of poplars that comes straight out of a picture book of northern France. When we actually got to shoot there and they lined all the horses up, tethered the ropes between the poplars, it was like being in a time machine. It was amazing. It’s so nice to be contained somewhere because you start to get into a rhythm.
Can you tell us about the relationship between the two horses, Joey and Topthorn?
Tom Hiddleston: The relationship between Joey and Topthorn is wonderful and I love how they absorb the sense of competition between Nicholls and Stewart. When Stewart is first introduced, he walks past Joey and says to me, “Not bad, not bad.” It’s such an alpha male statement. Then you see Topthorn for the first time and here is this enormous, black, beautiful, sleek animal that is physically bigger than Joey and immediately, Nicholls can’t let that slide.
So the practice charge does turn into a race between Nicholls and Stewart and Joey and Topthorn. What’s so great is that there’s a presumption by Stewart that he’s going to win because he’s on the best and the most beautiful horse. But he’s underestimated Joey and he’s underestimated Joey’s character and speed.
I remember that Steven panned the camera down to Topthorn and Joey and there was a wonderful bit where, just instinctively, Joey was nibbling at Topthorn’s neck as if to say, “I’ve got your number mate; don’t you worry.”
In that moment, Topthorn and Joey become equals, I think, and they become friends because Topthorn knows that Joey is made of stern stuff and is a force to be reckoned with.
What have you learned about horses from this experience?
Tom Hiddleston: I’m amazed by the strength of the bond between horses and people. Horses will teach you about who you are much more than you could possibly learn on your own. They can sense fear, arrogance, true confidence, true self-possession and inner peace. In training and all the way through the film, I noticed that whatever I was feeling, the horses would reflect back to me. When I was truly calm, then they were completely relaxed. When you’re slightly nervous and there’s an adrenaline in you, they can sense that and they get excited too. They kind of pick up on whatever you’re feeling.
If you’ve got airs and graces with horses, you’ll have a hard time winning their respect. They know when they’ve got someone losing control on top of them. I learned the hard way in training that when you’re not in control, they’ll let you know pretty quickly that they don’t really want you up there.
Was it difficult to match you to a horse? How many of them did you actually have to ride through the different stages of the film?
Tom Hiddleston: I’ve ridden four Joeys. Civilon’s the one I’ve ridden most and we really clicked the first time I rode him. That’s not true of every horse that I rode in training. Civilon’s got the most amazing flanks. He’s really broad and he’s got a huge neck and very broad shoulders, so he’s very comfortable but he also asks for a lot of control, like he’s chomping at the bit. With Civilon, you just need to think about cantering and he canters. He’s that sensitive.
I was forever being told by the grooms who were training me, “Heels down, elbows still, heels down, elbows still.” Civilon had a very specific way of being ridden. They wouldn’t actually let me gallop on him because he’s too quick for the cameras. He’s too quick for me. He’s too quick for actors and insurance policies and all that stuff. He’s a slightly more photogenic movie star horse, so if Steven needs to get a close up of Joey, he uses Civilon because he’s got this amazing jaw and beautiful eyes, but he also is a mischievous prankster as well. I had to do a scene where he needed to be very still and we had to have a rather beautiful moment of connection. The thing about horses is that if you want them to be still, you want them to be relaxed. Civilon was there, standing very still, but he looked kind of bored and he didn’t want to put his head up. He was like, “Okay, if I’m standing still, I’m going to droop my head and that’s what I’m going to do.” Steven kept saying, “Oh come on Tom, get his head up. We need his head in the shot,” so I was holding his head up and he was so bored that he decided to just sink his teeth into my arm. Halfway through the take, he was trying to take an even bigger chunk out of my arm and I thought “Right. We have to cut because I’m losing my arm to a bored, mischievous horse here.” It’s fun working with horses. They keep surprising you.
Was it daunting to work with swords and the weaponry of World War One?
Tom Hiddleston: Working with swords always requires a lot of precision, practice, discipline, care and attention because they’re dangerous. They’re designed to kill, especially working with swords on top of a horse at the same time. It was just practice, practice, practice. I must have done about five weeks of riding every day, four hours a day and pretty much from day one we were riding one-handed. In all of the charges they rode one-handed because their swords were out. It was just about practicing and making sure that we were safe and confident.
There’s something about riding and doing any kind of action that means you can’t really fake it. You have to do it for real. That’s an enormous challenge when, as an actor, you’re given a script and it says, “Captain Nicholls charges across No Man’s Land with his sword out on top of a horse.” You think, “Well, that’s going take some work.” In a way, there’s no acting required because you just do it and you train to do it and when the camera is on you, you do it again. But I love all that. I love acquiring new skills and I feel like I’ve learnt so much about horses, about fighting and about myself.
Can you give some insight into the costumes you wore?
Tom Hiddleston: There is an elegance to the costumes as well as a practicality. They’re absolutely beautiful and they were custom-made for us. They keep you warm and the hats keep the rain off your face. [Costume designer] Joanna [Johnston] was saying that the soldiers in World War One were really gentlemen. They were gentlemen first and soldiers second. They would go down to their tailors and give them the requirements for their uniforms and they’d put something together for them. What was great was that the uniforms of Nicholls, Stewart and Waverly are different fabrics and slightly different shades of khaki or tan. The leather of my boots is more of a copper color. Stewart’s are browner and you realize that that illustrates the informality of their soldiering. The uniforms weren’t all absolutely the same and it wasn’t standard issue. I’ve rarely worn such beautiful costumes, right down to the fabric of my tie and my badges and my military ranks. All of those things are so beautifully done.
What did you observe about Spielberg working with his below-the-line team?
Tom Hiddleston: Steven Spielberg has kind of a family spirit when it comes to making his movies. He works with the same people over and over again. He’s very loyal and has a sense of shorthand with his crew. The unit works seamlessly and just rolls along. The way Steven and [Cinematographer] Janusz [Kaminski] are with each other is hilarious because Janusz is so playful and mischievous and will just poke fun at everybody. There’s nobody who’s spared from him. He’s an irreverent presence on set, which is part of how I think he gets the job done. He doesn’t want it to be heavy. He wants the work to be light, even if you’re doing a very big, intense scene. Of course, he’s respectful of your space and your preparation and stuff, but he really reminds you on set to have a good time. The two of them are really brilliant when they’re working. There is this real sense of teamwork and they both know exactly what they’re doing. They’re the best and they’re the best at what they do.
Did you meet author Michael Morpurgo when he came to the set?
Tom Hiddleston: Yes and that was the first time I had met Michael. He’s such a nice man. That was the first thing I thought of, was how kind and sweet he was. I think he’s still processing what happened to his little story. I think he’s still in awe of the fact that it’s become such a huge thing and it’s become really accepted. It’s become such a huge phenomenon and is loved by so many people. It has appealed to so many people’s imaginations of all ages and shapes and sizes. I think he wrote this little story and suddenly, it’s become just enormous. It’s become something that almost doesn’t belong to him anymore. He’s so grateful and just wants to keep giving.
I also think his respect for Steven is very evident and very deep. I think he’s very honored that Steven has chosen to take the story on and is grateful for the respect that Steven has accorded him in terms of coming to the set.
We actually all went to the races one day at Sandown Park. He was doing a thing for the Variety Club, which is a charity that he does a little work for, and he was doing some readings from the novel. It was really fun to have a day out at the races with him and his wife and watch horses tearing around the circuit.
Can you talk about your fellow cast members?
Tom Hiddleston: It’s a big thing for Jeremy [Irvine], being cast as Albert, but once you’ve seen him in the role you’re not even remotely nervous about it. I know that he went through a huge casting process. The first time I met him was on the farm and the great thing about the farm, where we all learned to ride, was that we were all there together. Jeremy just threw himself into it with his whole heart and soul. He was there every day. He was always there when I got there, so he must have been there an hour before me. He wasn’t just riding. He was being a stable boy and he was essentially being treated as a farm hand. This role is a wonderful thing for him and the first of many, I think.
I was really excited about the rest of the cast, too. I’d seen “A Prophet” and I’d seen “The White Ribbon,” so the idea that I was in a film with Niels Arestrup and Rainer Bock was an enormous privilege because they’re such extraordinary actors. David Kross was astonishing in “The Reader.” This is actually the first time I’ve worked with Benedict [Cumberbatch] and Patrick [Kennedy], but I’ve known them for a long time. I’ve long admired their work and they’re both terrific. We’ve become a bit like brothers.
Emily Watson is amazing. She’s always been amazing in everything she’s ever done. Everything she does has such heart and spirit. I can’t remember how old I was when I saw “Breaking the Waves,” but she’s really wonderful. I think it’s a new kind of part for her, too, as well. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her play this kind of thing, and Peter Mullan, too, who’s fantastic.
What did you learn about World War I from making ‘War Horse‘?
Tom Hiddleston: There’s a lot that people don’t know about the First World War. If you go to the Imperial War Museum, what’s most documented are the trenches, the mud, the smoke and the horror of trench warfare. It’s glossed over that nine million horses were killed in the course of the First World War in Cavalry charges, pulling hospital trucks, pulling cannons, pulling guns. They were treated as tools, the way we would treat machinery now. They simply weren’t treated as living things. That was the extraordinary hook of Michael Morpurgo’s story and then what Steven Spielberg has done with it.
The British were so ill educated about the advances in German technology that we thought it was the Charge of the Light Brigade all over again. It’s so foolish in retrospect and it’s also so very innocent, the idea that we could charge across No Man’s Land and flash our sabers in the sun and they would be frightened enough to run home. It’s tragic.
The charge itself is deeply shocking, because I hadn’t read the book before I saw the play and in a way Nicholls is introduced as a hero on his own. I anticipated that he would live longer, but there’s something about his death that is so powerful because it illustrates the randomness of it all. It didn’t matter who you were, where you came from or how decent or good you were, machine guns were going to take you out. That’s the power of Nicholls’ death in the story. When I was doing it, Steven gave me the most amazing note. He said he wanted to see my war face. He said, “Give me your war face and the camera is going to move across and as you feel it come up in front of you, I want you to de-age yourself by 20 years. So you’re 29, the camera is coming and then, when you see those machine guns, you’re 9 years old. I want to see the child in you.” I always thought that was one of the most astonishing acting notes I’d ever been given.
What is it about the film that resonates with you the most?
Tom Hiddleston: When I think about it, I think that there’s something very, very deep and instinctive, heartwarming and soulful about what’s at the bottom of this story. Joey the horse travels; he meets British soldiers, German soldiers, French families and all these different people and he touches them in a way that binds them all together. The story is about family, loss, courage, strength and forbearance.
It has action in it, as well. It’s a big movie and that’s part of what cinema is all about. We love the power and grace of action onscreen. I think this movie really has everything in it that we all love about going to the cinema. It’s big-hearted stuff. The enemy is war itself. I love that scene between the Geordie soldier and the German soldier when Joey is caught in barbed wire in No Man’s Land. They’re both stunned because there is this specter of a horse through the smoke and both of them clamber out and help each other get Joey free.
What hits me about the ending is the reunion of Ted and Albert. Somehow, the son is able to teach the father a lesson. That’s ancient and epic. That goes all the way back to the Greeks, you know, fathers and sons. That’s what moves me about it. I think there’s something very, very beautiful about that as an ending.
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