Tom Hiddleston as James Conrad in Kong: Skull Island
Tom Hiddleston approaches everything with the enthusiasm of an eager student, including his leading role in Kong: Skull Island as a British SAS officer helping the American military discover the secrets of the island where the legendary ape resides. The actor, best known to American audiences as the scene-stealing Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is in person everything the villain from Asgard is not: sincere, self-deprecating and never ironic about his passions.
Hiddleston was first drawn to the story of King Kong as a child, when he discovered the 1933 classic on which his latest film is based.
“There’s something about the natural world for all children that is exciting,” Hiddleston explains, “and a giant prehistoric ape for a kid is just a cool idea. I remember images from the 1933 RKO Pictures film by Merian C. Cooper, whether it’s him climbing the Empire State Building or holding Fay Wray in his hands as he fights pterodactyls.”
For Hiddleston, he sees the story of King Kong not simply as a monster movie about a giant prehistoric ape, but as an allegory for humanity’s place in the natural world.
“The theme of the film is the power and majesty of nature. Human beings all understand that a healthy connection with the natural world makes us more human and not less. It’s an idea that’s threaded through and first articulated by Ken Watanabe’s character in the 2014 Godzilla that the arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control when it’s the opposite. When we really consider the history of the planet, which makes me feel small and insignificant, which is a good thing, you realize that the primacy of the human race has been remarkably short.”
In the film, Hiddleston plays James Conrad, a former SAS officer in the early-’70s who is enlisted to join an American military mission to the titular island at the end of the Vietnam War, and the setting of the film proved one of its draws for the actor.
“It was very appealing to me that the film was set in 1973 when the world had gone through the upheavals of the late-‘60s and the revolutions of that time, and you find this British soldier sought out specifically because the SAS was so highly-regarded in terms of jungle warfare.”
In keeping with Hiddleston’s studious nature, he did a great deal of research about British Special Air Service soldiers of that time.
“The British army had a jungle warfare school in Malaya, and the office line from the Harold MacMillan administration is that British troops were never deployed in Vietnam,” Hiddleston explains, “But they were expert trainers. I did some research into special forces operatives, and as a person with only an academic and intellectual understanding of it, I have a great respect for it. I spoke to some military correspondents for the BBC, and the general impression I got is that the people who are drawn to the special forces are those drawn to extremities because they enjoy the physical challenge of it.”
While his role as Loki and his role in Kong: Skull Island may be the most mainstream projects that Hiddleston has done, the English actor has built a career doing a variety of other work, including the miniseries “The Night Manager” that earned him a Golden Globe and parts in films like Midnight in Paris that are far-removed from Marvel’s tentpole extravaganzas.
“I think a mixed, varied diet is good for the soul. I love watching the more serious films that come out toward the end of the year, but I love any type of experience that connects you to people, makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think. Yes, I remember going to see The Jungle Book last year. It was one of the most satisfying experiences I had at the movies. So warm-hearted, so brilliantly executed by Jon Favreau and his team.”
Hiddleston may be the hero of Kong: Skull Island, unlike his work in Marvel movies, but one commonality arose when shooting both this film and his appearance in The Avengers. His main on-screen adversaries were CGI characters, not actors.
“I spent six months of my life staring at tall trees, high mountains and clouds in the sky. It’s like playing tennis with only half of the court, and when you finally watch it in post-production, and the other half of the court is there, it’s very thrilling. In Marvel movies, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo may be asleep in their beds when I’m filming because they can’t do what Iron Man and the Hulk do. Of course, they can play Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, but when you see those as well, it’s thrilling. The other half is finally there.”
Kong: Skull Island is in theaters March 10.