Loki takes over: Tom Hiddleston on his new TV series and a decade in the MCU
Tom Hiddleston is Loki, and he is burdened with glorious purpose: After playing Thor's puckish brother for over a decade in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, no one understands the mercurial Asgardian God of Mischief as well as the actor. He can teach an entire seminar on Loki if given the opportunity — which he actually did during pre-production on his forthcoming Disney+ show. In conversation, Hiddleston quotes lines from his MCU debut, 2011's Thor, almost verbatim, and will playfully correct you if you mistakenly refer to Asgard's Rainbow Bridge as the Bifrost, which is the portal that connects Loki and Thor's homeworld to the Nine Realms, including Midgard, a.k.a. Earth. "Well, the Bifrost technically is the energy that runs through the bridge," he says with a smile. "But nine points to Gryffindor!" And when he shows up to the photo shoot for this very digital cover, he hops on a call with our photo editor to pitch ways the concept could be even more Loki, like incorporating the flourish the trickster does whenever magically conjuring something. The lasting impression is that playing Loki isn't just a paycheck.
"Rather than ownership, it's a sense of responsibility I feel to give my best every time and do the best I can because I feel so grateful to be a part of what Marvel Studios has created," the 40-year-old Brit tells EW over Zoom a few days after the shoot and a week out from Thor's 10th anniversary. "I just want to make sure I've honored that responsibility with the best that I can give and the most care and thought and energy."
After appearing in three Thor movies and three Avengers, Hiddleston is bringing that passion to his first solo Marvel project, Loki, the House of Ideas' third Disney+ series following the sitcom pastiche WandaVision and the topical The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Led by head writer Michael Waldron (Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Heels), the six-episode drama sees Hiddleston's shapeshifting agent of chaos step out from behind his brother's shadow and into the spotlight for a timey-wimey, sci-fi adventure that aims to get to the bottom of who Loki really is. "I wanted to explore slightly more complex character questions," says Waldron. "It's not just good versus bad. Is anybody all good? Is anybody all bad? What makes a hero, a hero? A villain, a villain?"
Even though Loki — who loves sowing mayhem with his illusion magic and shapeshifting, all with a major chip on his shoulder — has never been one for introspection, the idea of building an entire show around him was a no-brainer for Marvel. When asked why Loki was one of the studio's first Disney+ shows, Marvel president Kevin Feige replies matter-of-factly, "More Hiddleston, more Loki." First introduced as Thor's (Chris Hemsworth) envious brother in Kenneth Branagh's Thor, Loki went full Big Bad in 2012's The Avengers. That film cemented the impish rogue as one of the shared universe's fan favorites, thanks to Hiddleston's ability to make him deliciously villainous yet charismatic and, most importantly, empathetic. The character's popularity is one of the reasons he's managed to avoid death many times.
"He's been around for thousands of years. He had all sorts of adventures," says Feige. "Wanting to fill in the blanks and see much more of Loki's story [was] the initial desire [for the series]."
The Loki we meet on the show is not the one who fought the Avengers in 2012 and evolved into an antihero in Thor: The Dark World and Thor: Ragnarok before meeting his demise at the hands of the mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) in 2018's Avengers: Infinity War. Instead, we'll be following a Loki from a branched timeline (a variant, if you will) after he stole the Tesseract following his thwarted New York invasion and escaped S.H.I.E.L.D. custody during the time heist featured in Avengers: Endgame. In other words, this Loki hasn't gone through any sort of redemption arc. He's still the charming yet petulant god who firmly believes he's destined to rule and has never gotten his due.
Premiering June 9, Loki begins with the Time Variance Authority — a bureaucratic organization tasked with safeguarding the proper flow of time — arresting the Loki Variant seen in Endgame because they want his help fixing all of the timeline problems he caused while on the run with the Tesseract. So there will be time travel, and a lot more of it than in Endgame. As Loki makes his way through his own procedural, he'll match wits with new characters including Owen Wilson's Agent Mobius, a brilliant TVA analyst, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Judge Renslayer. The question in early episodes is whether Loki will help them or take over.
"One of the things Kevin Feige led on was, 'I think we should find a way of exploring the parts of Loki that are independent of his relationship with Thor,' or see him in a duality or in relationship with others, which I thought was very exciting," says Hiddleston, who also serves as an executive producer on the show. "So the Odinson saga, that trilogy of films, still has its integrity, and we don't have to reopen it and retell it."
Yet, in order to understand where Loki is going, it's important to see where he came from.
Hiddleston can't believe how long he and Loki have been connected. "I've been playing this character for 11 years," he says. "Which is the first time I have said that sentence, I realize, and it [blows] my mind. I don't know what percentage that is exactly of my 40 years of being alive, but it's substantial."
His time as Loki actually goes a bit further back, to 2009 — a year after Robert Downey Jr. big banged the MCU into existence with Iron Man — when he auditioned for Thor. It's no secret that Hiddleston initially went in for the role of the titular God of Thunder, but Feige and director Kenneth Branagh thought his natural charm and flexibility as an actor made him better suited for the movie's damaged antagonist. "Tom gave you an impression that he could be ready for anything, performance-wise," says Branagh, who had previously worked with him on a West End revival of Checkov's Ivanov and the BBC series Wallander. "Tom has a wild imagination, so does Loki. He's got a mischievous sense of humor and he was ready to play. It felt like he had a star personality, but he was a team player."
Hiddleston fully immersed himself in the character. Outside of studying Loki's history in the Marvel Comics, he also researched how Loki and the Trickster God archetype appeared across mythology and different cultures. "He understood that he was already in something special [and] it was a special character in a special part of that early moment in the life of the Marvel universe where [he] also needed to step up in other ways," says Branagh, who was impressed by the emotional depth Hiddleston brought to the part, especially when it came to how isolated Loki felt in the Asgardian royal family.
There was a lot riding on that first Thor feature. For one, no one knew if audiences would immediately latch onto a Shakespearean superhero movie partially set on an alien planet populated by the Norse Gods of legend. Second, it was integral to Feige's plans for the shared universe. Loki was supposed to be the main villain in The Avengers, which would not only mirror how Earth's mightiest heroes joined forces in 1963's Avengers #1 but also give Thor a believable reason for teaming up with Iron Man, Captain America (Chris Evans), and the rest of the capes. Feige first clued Hiddleston into those larger plans when the actor was in L.A. before Thor started shooting.
"I was like, 'Excuse me?' Because he was already three, four steps ahead," says Hiddleston. "That took me a few minutes to process, because I didn't quite realize how it just suddenly had a scope. And being cast as Loki, I realized, was a very significant moment for me in my life, and was going to remain. The creative journey was going to be so exciting."
Hiddleston relished the opportunity to go full villain in Avengers, like in the scene where Loki ordered a crowd to kneel before him outside a German opera house: "It's the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation," says the Machiavellian god. "The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel."
"I just knew that in the structure of that film, I had to lean into his role as a pure antagonist," Hiddleston recalls. "What I always found curious and complex about the way Loki is written in Avengers, is that his status as an antagonist comes from the same well of not belonging and being marginalized and isolated in the first Thor film. Loki now knows he has no place in Asgard."
Loki did find a place within the audience's hearts, though. Feige was "all in" on Hiddleston as his Loki from the beginning, but even he couldn't predict how much fans would love him. Feige recalls the reaction at the 2013 San Diego Comic-Con: "Did we know that after he was the villain in two movies, he would be bringing thousands of people to their feet in Hall H, in costume, chanting his name? No, that was above and beyond the plan that we were hoping for and dreaming of." It was a dream Feige first got an inkling of a year earlier during the Avengers press tour when a Russian fan slipped past security, snuck into Mark Ruffalo's car, and asked the Hulk actor to give Hiddleston a piece of fan art she created. "That was one of the early signs there was much more happening with this quote-unquote villain."
Despite that popularity, the plan was to kill Loki off in 2013's Thor: The Dark World, but the studio reversed course after test audiences refused to believe he actually died fighting the Dark Elves. Alas, he couldn't out-illusion death forever. After returning in Taika Waititi's colorful and idiosyncratic Thor: Ragnarok, Hiddleston's character perished for real in the opening moments of Infinity War. In typical Loki fashion, before Thanos crushed his windpipe, he delivered a defiant speech that indicated he'd finally made peace with the anger he felt toward his family.
"It felt very, very final, and I thought, 'Okay, that's it. This is Loki's final bow and a conclusive end to the Odinson saga,'" says Hiddleston, who shot that well-earned death scene in 2017.
But, though he didn't know it yet, the actor's MCU story was far from over.
When Hiddleston returned to film two scenes in Avengers: Endgame in 2017, he had no idea where Loki portaled off to after snatching the Tesseract. "Where'd he go? When does he go? How does he get there? These are all questions I remember asking on the day, and then not being given any answers," Hiddleston recalls. To be fair, it's likely the Powers That Be didn't necessarily have answers then. While Feige can't exactly recall when the writers' room for Endgame first devised Loki's escape sequence, he does know that setting up a future show wasn't the primary goal — because a Loki series wasn't on the horizon just yet.
"[That scene] was really more of a wrinkle so that one of the missions that the Avengers went on in Endgame could get screwed up and not go well, which is what required Cap and Tony to go further back in time to the '70s," says Feige. Soon after that, though, former Disney CEO Bob Iger approached Feige about producing content for the studio's forthcoming streaming service. "I think the notion that we had left this hanging loose end with Loki gave us the in for what a Loki series could be. So by the time [Endgame] came out, we did know where it was going."
As for Hiddleston, he didn't find out about the plans for a Loki show until spring 2018, a few weeks before Infinity War hit theaters. "I probably should not have been surprised, but I was," says the actor. "But only because Infinity War had felt so final."
Nevertheless, Hiddleston was excited about returning for his show. He was eager to explore Loki's powers, especially the shapeshifting, and what it meant that this disruptive figure still managed to find a seat beside the gods in mythology. "I love this idea [of] Loki's chaotic energy somehow being something we need. Even though, for all sorts of reasons, you don't know whether you can trust him. You don't know whether he's going to betray you. You don't why he's doing what he's doing," says Hiddleston. "If he's shapeshifting so often, does he even know who he is? And is he even interested in understanding who he is? Underneath all those masks, underneath the charm and the wit, which is kind of a defense anyway, does Loki have an authentic self? Is he introspective enough or brave enough to find out? I think all of those ideas are all in the series — ideas about identity, ideas about self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and the difficulty of it."
The thing that truly sold Hiddleston on the show was Marvel's decision to include the Time Variance Authority, a move he describes as "the best idea that anybody had pertaining to the series." Feige and Loki executive producer Stephen Broussard had hoped to find a place for the TVA — an organization that debuted in 1986's Thor #372 and has appeared in She-Hulk and Fantastic Four stories — in the MCU for years, but the right opportunity never presented itself until Loki came along. "Putting Loki into his own procedural series became the eureka moment for the show," says Feige.
The TVA's perspective on time and reality also tied into the themes that Waldron, Loki's head writer, was hoping to explore. "Loki is a character that's always reckoning with his own identity, and the TVA, by virtue of what they do, is uniquely suited to hold up a mirror to Loki and make him really confront who he is and who he was supposed to be," says Waldron. Hiddleston adds: "[That] was very exciting because in the other films, there was always something about Loki that was very controlled. He seemed to know exactly what the cards in his hand were and how he was going to play them…. And Loki versus the TVA is Loki out of control immediately, and in an environment in which he's completely behind the pace, out of his comfort zone, destabilized, and acting out."
To truly dig into who Loki is, the creative team had to learn from the man who knows him best: Hiddleston. "I got him to do a thing called Loki School when we first started," says director Kate Herron. "I asked him to basically talk through his 10 years of the MCU — from costumes to stunts, to emotionally how he felt in each movie. It was fantastic."
Hiddleston got something out of the Loki school, too. Owen Wilson both attended the class and interviewed Hiddleston afterward so that he could better understand Loki, as his character Mobius is supposed to be an expert on him. During their conversation, Wilson pointedly asked Hiddleston what he loved about playing the character.
"And I said, 'I think it's because he has so much range,'" says Hiddleston. "I remember saying this to him: 'On the 88 keys on the piano, he can play the twinkly light keys at the top. He can keep it witty and light, and he's the God of Mischief, but he can also go down to the other side and play the heavy keys. And he can play some really profound chords down there, which are about grief and betrayal and loss and heartbreak and jealousy and pride.'" Hiddleston recalls Wilson being moved by the description: "He said, 'I think I might say that in the show.' And it was such a brilliant insight for me into how open Owen is as an artist and a performer.'"
Everyone involved is particularly excited for audiences to see Hiddleston and Wilson's on-screen chemistry. "Mobius is not unlike Owen Wilson in that he's sort of nonplussed by the MCU," says Feige. "[Loki] is used to getting a reaction out of people, whether it's his brother or his father, or the other Avengers. He likes to be very flamboyant and theatrical. Mobius doesn't give him the reaction he's looking for. That leads to a very unique relationship that Loki's not used to."
As for the rest of the series, we know that Loki will be jumping around time and reality, but the creative team isn't keen on revealing when and where. "Every episode, we tried to take inspiration from different things," says Waldron, citing Blade Runner's noir aesthetic as one example.
"Part of the fun of the multiverse and playing with time is seeing other versions of characters, and other versions of the titular character in particular," says Feige, who also declined to confirm if Loki ties into Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and/or other upcoming projects.
Making Loki was especially meaningful to Hiddleston because they shot most of it during the pandemic, in late 2020. "It will remain one of the absolute most intense, most rewarding experiences of my life," he says. "It's a series about time, and the value of time, and what time is worth, and I suppose what the experience of being alive is worth. And I don't quite know yet, and maybe I don't have perspective on it, if all the thinking and the reflecting that we did during the lockdown ended up in the series. But in some way, it must have because everything we make is a snapshot of where we were in our lives at that time."
While it remains to be seen what the future holds for Loki beyond this initial season, Hiddleston isn't preparing to put the character to bed yet. "I'm open to everything," he says. "I have said goodbye to the character. I've said hello to the character. I said goodbye to the character [again]. I've learned not to make assumptions, I suppose. I'm just grateful that I'm still here, and there are still new roads to explore."
Additional reporting by Jessica Derschowitz
Motion Direction & Photography by Charlie Gray. Styling: Holly White/The Wall Group; Grooming: Petra Sellge/The Wall Group; Set Design: Gillian O'Brien; Production: Sasha Rickerd. Cover look: Suit, Shirt, Tie: Giorgio Armani; Shoes: Christian Louboutin; Socks: Falke. Second look: Suit, Shirt, Tie: Scabal; Shoes: Church's; Socks: Falke.
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