In ''The Avengers,'' Tom Hiddleston manages to steal scenes from a bunch of A-list superheroes as the arch-villain Loki. It's just the latest triumph for the London native, 31. Since making his major-film debut in last summer's ''Thor,'' Hiddleston has appeared in ''Midnight in Paris'' (playing F. Scott Fitzgerald), ''War Horse,'' and the acclaimed ''The Deep Blue Sea.''

By Sara Vilkomerson
May 04, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

Origin Story

Growing up, Hiddleston and his sisters wrote and performed plays for their parents. ”I was always the evil wizard,” he says. ”I played this monster called Bunsen Bill. When my mum saw The Avengers, she leaned across and went, ‘This is just like Bunsen Bill. There’s no change in your performance.”’

Boy Wonder

Hiddleston attended Cambridge University, where he studied Latin and Greek classics. He was 18 when he starred in the play Journey’s End at the Edinburgh Festival and realized that acting was his calling. ”I remember that moment — when my friends and family came to see it and all said, ‘Okay, this is what you’re going to do.”’ Though well versed in Shakespeare and Chekhov — he’s classically trained — Hiddleston is firm in his belief that there’s no hierarchy when it comes to playing good characters. ”People can get very stuffy and dismissive about superhero movies,” he says. ”I saw Superman before I saw Hamlet and I love them both equally.”

With Great Power…

Hiddleston has worked in TV, indie films, and theater, which is where he met his future mentor and Thor director, Kenneth Branagh. Originally, Hiddleston had hoped to play Thor, but Branagh thought he’d be better as Loki — and then made him audition five times for the part. Business as usual for the actor. ”I’ve auditioned for everything,” he says with a laugh. ”I used to keep an appointment diary of who I met and when and for what, but I had to stop because it was literally like a catalog of failure. It’s important to say how incredibly grateful I am right now because it wasn’t always like this.”

No Twirling Mustaches

”You have to make them human first,” says Hiddleston of getting an audience to care about even the most dastardly villains, like Loki. ”If you play a two-dimensional cardboard cutout, then you’re relegated to the leagues of mustache twirlers and eyebrow furrowers. You can only care about action if you care about the characters doing the action.” He was inspired by other actors who went down the dark path before him. ”There are all these actors I love who’ve played bad guys: Jack Nicholson, Alan Rickman in Die Hard. And Heath Ledger — he’s unmatched in that performance in The Dark Knight. He’s simply electrifying to watch.” Hiddleston will next be seen starring (not as a villain!) in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, costarring Tilda Swinton and Mia Wasikowska, before becoming Loki for a third time in Thor 2. ”He is bananas,” he says fondly of his alter ego.

His Secret Weapon

Hiddleston found one person on the Avengers set whom he could gauge his performance by: Mark Ruffalo’s 10-year-old son. ”I owe so much of my performance to him. He loved Loki. After a take, Mark’s son would be like, ‘Oh my God, that was awesome!’ I’d think, ‘This is why I’m making this film.’ Poor Mark had to come in on days when he wasn’t shooting just because his son wanted to watch.” Hiddleston laughs. ”Having him on set should be in my contract for all future films.”