Tom Hiddleston smells amazing—overwhelmingly so—as I walk into his hotel room on the 10th floor of the Crosby Hotel in New York City. I can't quite pick out his cologne, but I later described it as "heaven" to everyone I know. "Hello! Tea?" he chirps in his charming British accent as he opens the door for me. Hiddleston has that kind of presence where it's hard to formulate words around him. "Ha ha, it's 4:20 on 4/20 and your fans are called Hiddlestoners," is the first thing I blurt out. I've been waiting to make that joke to him all day, but it falls flatter than I expected. He laughs to be polite, or maybe just out of pity.
The 35-year-old actor is wearing an exceptionally well-fitted blue suit that Wednesday afternoon and gray-framed glasses that add even more allure. Most actors turn out to be smaller in person, but Hiddleston's 6'2" frame—with seemingly mile-long legs—looks even more slender in person. While he's the epitome of dashing, his room is kind of a mess. Fed-Ex boxes are littered all over the place, suitcases are scattered, open, and half-stuffed with half-folded clothes. "Sorry, it's a mess," he apologizes as I navigate my way to the couch. "I'm packing up. I've been traveling for about 10 years." Hiddleston really has been all over the place lately. He's solidified himself in the Marvel Universe as Thor villain Loki (a role he will reprise in 2017's Thor: Ragnarok), just starred as Hank Williams in the biopic I Saw the Light, starred opposite Jessica Chastain in Guillermo del Toro's fantastical period horror Crimson Peak last year, plays a hotel manager-turned-spy in AMC's new TV series The Night Manager, and next year will appear in the new King Kong movie (Kong: Skull Island) with Oscar-winner Brie Larson. So yeah, he's got a lot on his plate.
When we talked, he was floating through Tribeca Film Festival to promote yet another new film of his, High-Rise, director Ben Wheatley's stylish dystopian adaptation of J.G. Ballard's 1975 novel. In the film, Hiddleston plays the middle-class Dr. Robert Laing, who lives in a society where the poor live on the lower levels of a high-rise building while the rich live on top. Laing gets caught in the middle of a class war with his neighbors, played by Sienna Miller, Elisabeth Moss, Luke Evans, and Jeremy Irons, who portrays the building's rich architect and penthouse resident. We talked plenty about High-Rise, but also about his famous Hiddlebum (which serves a symbolic purpose in High-Rise), his love for dancing, and the stomach-churning preparation he had to do for the movie.
You play a doctor in the film. The scene where you tear apart flesh from a skull was kind of hard to watch. You had some horrifying scenes in Crimson Peak as well. Do you get squeamish watching those scenes?
No, but I got squeamish when I was doing my research. I actually attended an autopsy because I knew I was going to have to perform a dissection. I simply had no frame of reference and I wanted to do it properly. I didn't know how to make incisions, so I went to see a forensic pathologist who showed me how to do it, which was quite stomach-churning. But it was fascinating, listening to him talk about the biomechanics of our engineering. As human beings, we often forget that we are machines, made up of machine parts, and if certain things are broken then that will have an effect on our behavior.
I think that scene's a declaration of intent by Ben [Wheatley]. You see Dr. Laing peeling the facial tissue off her head to reveal the blood and the bones beneath. I think that's sort of what Ballard is doing to society. He's saying, "Let me take away the surface and show you the flesh and blood beneath."
Speaking of this movie and Crimson Peak, directors seem to love shooting your bare butt. I'm sure you know the nickname you've been given: Hiddlebum.
It's there. [Points to butt.] And there it is.
It's an Internet sensation.
It's one of those things that I've never really thought about because the nudity has always been part of the story and it's never felt gratuitous. It's always felt as if it's in service of something. In High-Rise, it's quite symbolic. Laing moves into the building to get away from the entanglements of real life. And the first thing he does in this new clean, clinical space is take all his clothes off and sunbathe. And within seconds, that peace and freedom is interrupted. And then he never takes his clothes off again. And that's in the novel. I felt it was kind of important, and honestly, you don't see anything more than you would see if I was just walking down the beach, so I didn't have a problem with it.
The party scenes in this movie are so intoxicating. Did the parties ever go on after the cameras stopped rolling?
The parties were so fun because we would set them up and, of course, there's no real alcohol, but there is real music and Ben would put on music and we'd start dancing. The camera would stay rolling, and he would say, "Crazy, go crazy, dance more crazy, more crazy dancing." He would gently encourage everybody to get a little more wild, but there was something very safe about it.
We're all familiar with your amazing dancing skills. I've got to know if that dream sequence where you're dancing with those flight attendants was your idea.
It actually was my idea. But it wasn't my idea to dance. We shot it at the end of our first day. We were due to wrap at 6 p.m. and at 5:45 they started doing that scene. These flight attendants were walking down the corridor and I was watching it and I said to Ben, "Do you think that Laing should be a participant in his own dream?" And he said, "Well, yeah, it'd be nice to have the option." I asked, "What do you think he should be doing? Is he walking in front of them or behind them?" And then he said, "He should be dancing with them." So we did it, and we did it once. We put on Sister Sledge's "Lost in Music" and we danced down the corridor. It was great.
Do you remember the first moment you fell in love with dancing?
When I first danced ever?
Yeah, when did you discover the rhythm of your body?
[Laughs.] I don't know, actually. I have a very happy memory. My mom used to play the piano for me and my older sister when we were very, very small, about 3 or 4. There was no furniture in the living room of the new house that we had moved into so my sister and I would dance around the living room. It's one of my earliest memories and it's a very happy one. I was just dancing to my mom playing the piano and she had these three things she used to play. And then beyond that, I don't remember dancing or enjoying dancing until I was about 15. I started to go out to parties and playing music and being introduced to girls and wanting to impress them.
If you're a good dancer, it's much easier to get girls...
I couldn't possibly attest to that.
You do these stylistic British films and then you're Loki from the Marvel movies. Do you notice the different ways people receive you in different places?
The Marvel films have an extraordinary reach. Loki is the most well-known character I've ever played. But when I was in Louisiana, people had seen me in Coriolauns onstage in London and people have already seen my new TV show, The Night Manager.
You're such a unique chameleon of an actor.
I get huge pleasure from challenging myself and surprising an audience by doing different things. But that's partly because I think all human beings contain enormous range and complexity. We're capable of huge courage, and love, and kindness, but we're also capable of cruelty and inconsistency, and solitude and loneliness, and all these things that we all suffer as much as the next person. My pleasure is trying to express that.
Have you seen that Reductress article about yourself? It's a satirical women's site. I have to show you this article: "9 Times Tom Hiddleston Left You Breathless and Alone in the Woods."
[Scrolls through phone, laughs.] Wow, is it good to leave someone breathless and alone in the woods? I feel like that's a very unkind thing to do to somebody.