I SAW THE LIGHT’s Tom Hiddleston on Hank Williams: “Despite being afflicted by formidable demons, the legacy of Hank Williams is about joy”

It is telling and speaks volumes that when our press roundtable was meant to be at an end and we hadn’t even gotten through one question from the four journalists, I SAW THE LIGHT director Marc Abraham got up and politely informed the publicity team he and Tom would continue our interview until all our questions had been answered.  Although we were all tempted to ask I SAW THE LIGHT star Tom Hiddleston, currently sitting atop the A-list of actors in Hollywood, about every past and future role, we stuck to the subject at hand.  It is clear by the way both director and star talk about the film and the subject matter, there is passion and pride there.  There is also a desire to get it in front of those who will appreciate it and find it inspiring.

I SAW THE LIGHT is a biopic about legendary musician and bad boy Hank Williams, and Abraham says he found the perfect actor in Hiddleston, and never doubted he could carry the thespian weight of his labor of love.  He had seen him in WAR HORSE, and knew he not only had the talent, but the looks to portray Williams authentically.  Growing up in Tennessee, Abraham, who is mostly known as a producer of movies like CHILDREN OF MEN and THE HURRICANE, says he always listened to and admired Williams.  When he decided to write, produce, and direct a film about his life, it was of paramount importance that it be an unembellished, truthful representation of him, and with a focus on his tragically short yet prolific career as well as his monumental contribution to the world of country music.  To that end, Tom Hiddleston learned all the songs Williams made famous, cultivated an impressive yodel and vocal tone similar to the musician, and played live in front of multiple audiences.

While the film itself has gotten mixed reviews, there is no critical dissent about Hiddleston’s portrayal.  It is as if he is channelling Williams, making him compulsively watchable.  His presence in I Saw the Light should make his fans, known as Hiddlestoners, first in line this weekend when the film is opening wide.  I asked Hiddleston what the role left him with in terms of his experience and memory of Williams, having internalized the man and lived in his skin for the role:

“I’m left with this extraordinary joy. He, even though he suffered so much, he brought so much joy to so many people and still continues to. I think it’s his legacy that people feel incredibly touched by his music and it gives them comfort. Whether it’s the upbeat melody of ‘Hey Good Looking’ or the mournfulness of ‘I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry.’ In the words of Richard Griffiths in The History Boys, “That’s a hand reaching across time and touching yours.” I think his music is of enormous solace and comfort, that’s my overwhelming impression. When I bring his name up people go, “yeah!” and respond so positively.  It’s not a heavy, his legacy isn’t heavy, despite that fact that his life was, that he himself was afflicted by heaviness and by formidable demons.”

Hiddleston is known by his fellow cast members and crew as being an enthusiastic optimist, and it seems to infuse all his work, both inside his roles, and outside as the actor promoting his work.  I asked him, since Hank was a troubled soul, what would he give by way of advice, or what would he do to help this man he lived inside and brought to the screen for I Saw the Light, and mentioned he brought that joy out of him as he did so famously as Loki onstage at San Diego Comic-Con:

“That was an amazing day.  But it’s the funny thing about the performances, and I always think about this, and it’s something that plays into the film, is live performance is alchemy and chemistry. It’s chemistry between the performer and the audience, and the chemistry, the energy of the audience is as much a part of the occasion as the performer. If there are empty seats in the house, it isn’t the same. And Hank knew that, Hank understood that and he played with that. That’s what  that movie was about, really; I was confronted with the enthusiasm of seven thousand people, and I just had to handle it.

But Hank, what would I say to him? I think he was blinded by the sheer velocity of his life, and the distractions of fame and temptations of his good fortune that he couldn’t see the gift in from of him. He’d lost sight of very simple things which might of given him peace. He was a man who said that the early afternoon is the lonesomest time of the day, and that’s a man who’s lost something, who’s ceased to take pleasure in very simple things, which I imagine as a child he must have used to. And I think that’s what happens when people go into a downwards spiral as he did, where he had such an intense schedule from which he felt increasingly alienated, and such a fevered reliance on prescription and alcohol that actually at a certain point, you know, he is being pulled down by the gravity of all that, and he can’t literally, to coin a phrase, he can’t see the light. So….I would probably cancel his touring schedule; I would probably send him home. I’d get rid of all negative, intoxicant influences, and just try to simplify his life a little bit, to prolong it, but that’s not what happened.”

I asked if he felt like Hank was a friend of his now, and he said he did, but it was an evolving thing:

“It’s really interesting because I, at first, I didn’t feel like he wanted to make friends with me. I felt like he was far away. I remember, I actually remember I used to get up and run in the morning when we were shooting in Shreveport, I remember openly addressing him at one point. I probably shouldn’t admit that, but out loud, I was running in the morning, and I said:

“Help me out here buddy, because I’m trying to help you…”

Because there were certain aspects of him, he was a mystery, I think he was a mystery to himself in lots of ways. Because I was trying to get close to the center, express his truth. But it was so enjoyable, I mean this is what acting is about, I think.”

I SAW THE LIGHT stars Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, Elizabeth Olsen as his wife Audrey, and Cherry Jones as his mother Lillie, and is in theaters nationwide April 1st.

Tom Hiddleston and Leslie Combemale (Cinema Siren/Screen Relish)