Tom Hiddleston undergoes a remarkable transformation in “I Saw the Light,” a biopic about country music legend Hank Williams.
The English-born Hiddleston captures Williams physically, including an Alabama accent, and singing and playing his songs.
But the role required even more.
Writer-director Marc Abraham (“Flash of Genius”), recently in town with Hiddleston to promote the film, envisioned an unusual opening sequence for the film: Williams sits on a bare stage, with no instruments, an audience barely visible behind the spotlights, and sings the classic ballad “Cold, Cold Heart.”
“I thought we needed to take Hank out of time and place, take him out of the suits, the big hat,” says Abraham. “This is an interpretation of an artist by another artist.”
Hiddleston adds, “It was a declaration of intent. This is who I am. This is my voice. This is how I sound. When you listen to Hank’s recording, it can kind of wash over you. But if you take the music out, you can just hear the words. It was very bold.”
What sets Hiddleston apart from most other actors is his openness. Rather than remaining cool or stoic, he packs an immense emotional wallop; it’s easy to see pain, sadness and empathy in his performances, especially as Williams.
When he was younger, he says, watching actors showing the depth of human potential inspired him: “I like playing different roles because I think they express different aspects of myself. We contain multitudes. And we all have so much potential, and if only we celebrated that more.”
Best known for playing Loki in the “Thor” and “Avengers” films, Hiddleston says he took the part of Hank Williams because it scared him: “The sheer foreignness of it was exciting. It was a way of testing my mettle, finding what I was made of.”
Even so, at one point, Hiddleston realized he wasn’t ready to start shooting, and he called Abraham to ask for more time to learn Williams’ music.
“Marc very patiently explained that six months isn’t going to make a difference,” Hiddleston says. “Twenty-five years might, but we didn’t have that time!”
Regardless, Hiddleston showed up on set prepared. He even listened to other kinds of music to get into the moods of certain scenes, including the Talking Heads for a particularly upbeat scene.
“He’s a bucking bronco when he comes on,” Abraham says, “which is beautiful.”
IF YOU GO
I Saw the Light
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford, Cherry Jones
Written and directed by: Marc Abraham
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes