Tom Hiddleston on Living and Dying With Loki

The actor has played the god of mischief for over a decade, continually refining his character to reveal deeper truths about humanity

Over the past 13 years, Tom Hiddleston has died more times than he can recall. “Let me think about this,” the actor tells us, pausing to count in his head. “I think, officially, there were two big ones.” 

He’s referring to his many exits from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the blockbuster franchise in which he’s played shape-shifting Norse god Loki Laufeyson since Kenneth Branagh’s 2011 film “Thor”—the son of Asgardians Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and Frigga (Rene Russo), and the half-sibling of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the god of thunder. 

The character has since bounced between villain and reluctant antihero across five films, a handful of post-credits scenes, and Michael Waldron’s Disney+ spinoff series “Loki,” which Hiddleston also executive produces. The show wrapped its second—and supposedly final—season last November. The finale presents an end for the character, but not one of the aforementioned “big ones.” 

Hiddleston’s first “official” farewell came in Alan Taylor’s 2013 sequel “Thor: The Dark World,” which saw the god of mischief take a sword to the chest to save his beefy brother. “As written in the first script, it was a true sacrifice,” Hiddleston says. Unfortunately for Marvel’s long-term plans, the actor had done too good a job playing the trickster.

Tom Hiddleston

“When Marvel [executives] were testing the movie, they’d given [viewers] questionnaires that said, ‘Is there anything you didn’t understand?’ ” he remembers. “Literally every single audience member said, ‘Well, obviously, Loki’s not really dead.’ ” 

In classic comic-book fashion, the character did return, gallivanting alongside his brother in Taika Waititi’s 2017 follow-up “Thor: Ragnarok.” He died again one year later (“big one” number two) in the Russo brothers’  “Avengers: Infinity War.” There were no smokescreens or questionnaires this time; audiences watched as Loki’s neck was crushed by the purple fist of intergalactic warlord Thanos (Josh Brolin). 

Hiddleston remembers arriving in Atlanta to shoot his final scene and immediately bumping into Brolin. “He came up to me, gave me this huge hug, and said, ‘I’m so sorry, man.’ ” 

He meant it, too; everyone meant it. The sun, it seemed, had actually set on Hiddleston’s MCU journey. “At the end of that scene, I got a big round of applause, and everybody was so sweet and kind and gracious,” he says. “I got notes and emails saying, ‘Tom, you’ve done so much for us—what a journey. Come and see us anytime.’ I really thought that was the end.” 

And it was, for real, right up until it wasn’t—when the time-traveling shenanigans of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” blasted a younger version of Loki out of the established canon and into his own series. Over two seasons, the multiversal storyline envisions the title character as a figure who exists outside time and space. Across all there is, was, and may come to pass, there will always be a Loki, in some form, wreaking havoc. 

Hiddleston has long since accepted what this means for him as an actor. Maybe “Loki” Season 2 really was his last time in the role; or maybe he’ll play him until the sun burns out. “I’ve realized that, in human consciousness, that’s who Loki is,” he says. “Loki is this ancient, mythic character, who, in our collective mythology, represents the trickster, the transgressor, the boundary-crosser, the shape-shifter—somebody who’s mercurial and spontaneous and unpredictable who will always confound your expectations and wriggle out from underneath your certainties and convictions. Someone who we need and [who] is necessary.”

“Loki is ‘a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment,’ and I want to make it burn as brightly as I can before passing it on to future generations.”

Hiddleston pauses, getting emotional. “Maybe Loki escaping death a couple of times is sort of an emblem of who he is in our culture,” he says, grinning at his own gusto. The actor has a habit of being self-deprecating about the depth of the character’s lore. “I spend a lot of time thinking about Loki. You can probably tell.”

You can tell, and it’s incredibly endearing. Talking to Hiddleston about Loki feels like discussing Shakespeare’s Richard III with Laurence Olivier or Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois with Jessica Lange. They were actors who put their definitive stamps on those roles by returning to the well and constantly digging deeper. 

In conversation, Hiddleston is equally as likely to reference comic-book arcs as he is the ancient, anonymous Old Norse scribes of the “Poetic Edda” or Richard Wagner’s epic four-cycle opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen.” He speaks reverently of actors who embodied the trickster god before him, like Jim Carrey in Chuck Russell’s 1994 comedy “The Mask” and Alan Cumming in Lawrence Guterman’s 2005 sequel, “Son of the Mask.” He also heaps praise on those who played the part after him, such as his “Loki” costars Sophia Di Martino, Richard E. Grant, Deobia Oparei, and—in one very surreal Season 1 moment—“some alligator they found somewhere.” He cites legendary Marvel creators Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Walter Simonson alongside the likes of English essayist Walter Pater and Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote of life as a “splendid torch” to keep burning for those who follow.

“Loki is ‘a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment,’ ” Hiddleston quotes, “and I want to make it burn as brightly as I can before passing it on to future generations.” 

Tom Hiddleston

This level of study started before he even landed the role. He recalls the 24 hours leading up to his “Thor” audition, when he was 28 years old. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 2005, he quickly earned small-screen and stage acclaim—but he hadn’t yet achieved a major breakthrough. When he received the script for “Thor,” it felt familiar. “I remember thinking, This is almost Shakespearean, this language,” Hiddleston says. “What’s the best example I can [look to] of an actor who managed to humanize and make real this elevated world of myth?” 

He found the answer in Christopher Reeve, who played the title role in Richard Donner’s 1978 blockbuster “Superman.” “He’s masterful in that film,” Hiddleston says. “In a way, it’s a similar premise: He’s a god or he’s a being from a different realm, and it’s not naturalistic in the way that we might expect. He does it so truthfully, and it’s so clear and clean and open and honest. I thought, If I can even approximate or get close to the kind of clarity that Christopher Reeve had in those films, I’ll be lucky.” 

And then, the morning of his “Thor” audition, Hiddleston went for a run, “which is my habit before doing anything unusual,” he explains. 

Running has remained a constant throughout the actor’s MCU tenure. At any given moment over the last decade, the god of mischief was likely doing laps around Marvel’s go-to shooting location, Pinewood Studios (now Trilith Studios) in Atlanta. “Life is movement; I really believe that,” Hiddleston says. 

“I find when I’m running or walking, the repetitive nature of it relaxes the mind and allows ideas and inspiration to come from a deeper place. I see my work as an actor—especially in preparation for a project or a scene—as almost preparing myself to be open and ready to receive ideas, to receive energy from other actors, to receive energy from my imagination.”

Hiddleston found the technique particularly helpful when he was filming a scene for the “Loki” series premiere that he calls “one of the most thrilling challenges I’ve ever had as an actor.” In it, Loki has been poached from the flow of time itself by the temporality-policing Time Variance Authority and forced to watch what is, essentially, a highlight reel of his entire MCU arc. It’s one of the most deeply existential moments you’ll ever find streaming alongside the likes of “Bluey” and the “Cars” movies. Here is a man watching the sum total of his life—his hopes, his dreams, his failures, his own death—play out in a 30-second clip that ends with the cold, clinical words: “End of file.”

“I just kept imagining: If you were afforded the opportunity or forced to watch your own death as a bystander, it would bring about an existential shock and crisis unlike any other,” Hiddleston explains. “It was a scene where I thought, I don’t have a reference for how to play this. I just have to allow shock, disgust, disgrace, shame, disbelief, acceptance, incredulity, and sorrow to exist in the center of me.” 

As an executive producer on the series, Hiddleston had a say as to which of Loki’s many misdeeds would play in the sequence. He chose clips like Frigga’s death in “Thor: The Dark World” and his father’s final words in “Thor: Ragnarok”—moments Hiddleston knew would most fill the character with regret. As production was preparing to shoot the scene, he asked first assistant director Richard Graves for a 20-minute warning. 

Tom Hiddleston

“I decided to jog around the stage and internalize as many of those memories of those people, those characters, those actors [as possible]—to try and find the center of my own vulnerability,” Hiddleston says. “Part of the joy of it was just going back to basics, trying to simplify this very complex thing…. Go for a jog, get into your body, allow yourself to be open, and just be there; just feel it.”

One “Loki”-like time jump later, Hiddleston found himself in a similar situation as he was preparing to shoot his final moment of Season 2—a scene that effectively caps Loki’s 13-year arc. Across 12 episodes, the show guided its title character toward a truly heroic end: With all of existence on the verge of collapse, he steps out of time to tie the strands of every reality together. As the credits roll, Loki sits at the center of time, holding in place all that is—alone. 

It’s a lot for any actor to internalize, especially one who’s performing solo in front of a blue screen. With 45 minutes to cameras rolling, episode co-director Aaron Moorhead made a suggestion. “He said to me, ‘Why don’t you go back, if you can bear it, and watch some of your work [over] the last 15 years?’ ” Hiddleston remembers. “ ‘Take it in, see what it means to you, and then carry it when you step out onto the stage.’ ” 

The actor took Moorhead’s advice to heart. And suddenly, without meaning to, he was mirroring the moment that started the series: absorbing the sum total of Loki’s MCU run. But this time, his regret had been replaced with gratitude. Hiddleston watched clips from “Thor,” remembering a time when he and Hemsworth had yet to ascend to the A-list. He recalled working with powerhouses like Hopkins and Russo, and the bonds he forged with the “original six Avengers” in 2011. He thought about how fun it was to film “Thor: Ragnarok” with Tessa Thompson and Jeff Goldblum, and of the more recent friendships he found with his “Loki” castmates Di Martino and Owen Wilson. 

“I thought, What Loki is doing, he is doing for his friends. And so, Tom, why don’t you do it for your friends?” Hiddleston says. “That’s where the two of us met in that moment. And then I was so grateful I had this most amazing crew, and we did it together.”

The actor is, of course, noncommittal as to whether this is actually the end of his MCU run. The franchise is scheduled out until at least 2027, and Hemsworth has mentioned his desire to make another “Thor” film. And if Loki’s past has proven anything, even the most official endings can be undone. 

Either way, it seems to Hiddleston that something significant has ended, even if it’s just Loki’s full-circle arc. “I hope it feels redemptive because his broken soul is partially healed; and you see that this character, who is capable of love, has made a decision from and for love,” he says. The actor cites the “beautiful prologue” of the first “Thor” film, in which Hopkins’ Odin tells his two sons: “Only one of you can ascend to the throne, but both of you were born to be kings.”

“At the end of Season 2, Loki is sitting on a kind of throne; but it’s not arrived in the shape he expected, and there’s no glory in it,” Hiddleston explains. “There’s a kind of burden, and he’s alone. He’s doing it for his friends, but he has to stay there without them. There’s a poetic melancholy there which I found very moving.”

For now, Hiddleston “can’t even conceive” of his life without Loki. He only hopes that he’s lived up to his guiding ethos as an actor, which he sums up with a plea from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel “Howards End”: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.”

Tom Hiddleston“The feedback loop for actors is that we get to inhabit a fiction,” Hiddleston says. “But hopefully, that fiction bears the shape of a truth that we recognize about life—that what we do reflects the ups and downs, the peaks and troughs, and the breadth and profundity of all of our lives.”

Hiddleston exists in that space between fiction and reality, the work and the resulting art, the prose and the passion. Long after we’ve moved on from our interview and started casually discussing the cherry blossoms blooming in New York, his eyes light up. He’s made another connection, remembered one more thing—just one last thing he’d like to impart about Loki. 

He spends a lot of time thinking about Loki. You can probably tell.

“I’m so aware that the reason I’ve been able to play him for so long is because of the audience’s curiosity and passion,” Hiddleston says. “I’ve been delighted to find that for a character of such stature, he’s remarkably human. Many of the characteristics that people connect to in Loki are deeply human feelings. That’s been the pleasure, is infusing this elevated character with humanity.”

Even then, honestly, it feels as if Hiddleston, like Loki, could go on forever. Unfortunately, outside of the MCU, time moves in only one direction. Once again, he has to run.

This story originally appeared in the June 6 issue of Backstage Magazine. Listen and subscribe to In the Envelope: The Actor's Podcast to hear our full conversation with Hiddleston. 

Photographed by Erik Carter in Beverly Hills, CA on 4/11. Cover designed by Ian Robinson.

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