Playing a petulant Norse god in the Marvel Universe is a snap compared with embodying the tortured soul of a country-music legend. In the biopic I Saw the Light (out March 25 in limited release), Tom Hiddleston had to ditch his British accent and capture the singular voice of prolific singer-songwriter Hank Williams. He even had to learn to yodel.
“I became aware very quickly that there would be no faking it,” says Hiddleston, 35, from the Vietnam set of Kong: Skull Island where he’s been running through swamps trying to avoid the giant primate. “It was the most challenging and satisfying experience.”
To immerse himself in Williams’ signature Alabama sound, Hiddleston — who sings all the songs in the film himself — moved into the Nashville home of Rodney Crowell, a two-time Grammy winner who’s worked with country icons Emmylou Harris, Wynonna Judd, and Vince Gill (among others) and served as the film’s executive music producer. Together they recorded for five weeks, hoping Williams’ anguish would seep into Hiddleston’s voice and his psyche. “I remember doing ‘Cold, Cold Heart’ many times for Rodney and him asking me to go again,” recalls Hiddleston, who also stars on AMC’s The Night Manager, debuting April 19. “He would say, ‘The song sounds beautiful, but I can’t hear the pain.’”
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And there was a lot of pain to tap into: Despite his towering success, Williams lived the ultimate sad country song. Born with spina bifida, which gave him a permanent hunched posture, Williams was a womanizer and struggled most of his short life with drug and alcohol addiction. “Those were his ways of escape — escaping the predicament of his decimation and sadness,” says Hiddleston. “I think to some degree Hank was unknowable, even to those closest to him.”
It wasn’t until filming had begun that Crowell was convinced Hiddleston had done his job. It was a crucial scene set toward the end of the movie, not long before Williams’ death from heart failure at age 29.
Sick and run-down, Williams plays, for the first time, a rough, mournful version of “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Hiddleston rehearsed once for the camera and then let it rip. “Rodney was in the room, and after, he said” — Hiddleston slips into a twangy impression of his mentor — “‘That’s it, right there! You’ve done it. I’ma gonna shake your hand, I’ma gonna go back to my hotel, you ain’t got to do no more.’ And he walked out.”
Hiddleston has earned early praise for his performance, even though Williams’ grandson Hank Williams III had posted on Twitter that Hiddleston had “no soul” after the actor performed two Williams songs at Michigan’s Wheatland Music Festival in 2014.
Yet Williams’ granddaughter Holly (also a musician) saw a screening of the film and wrote to Hiddleston, calling his performance “haunting.” “After that, nothing else matters,” Hiddleston says. “If she thinks we did right by him, then we did okay.”