Katherine Brodsky / Esquire
Tom Hiddleston has had a busy few years, jumping from blockbuster-sized movies like Thor, in which he tackles the character of Loki, to quietly slipping into the shoes of country legend Hank Williams in I Saw the Light. And now he stars in Ben Wheatley’s grotesque adaption of J.G. Ballard’s 1970s sci-fi novel, High-Rise, opening in the U.S. on May 13.
Hiddleston portrays Dr. Robert Laing, the newest resident in a luxurious high-rise tower block that provides all the conveniences of modern life. Things, however, quickly turn to madness and debauchery as power failures spread through the building and tensions amongst neighbors escalate. The opening scene, in which Dr. Laing calmly sits, spit-roasting a dog is a good indication of what one might expect.
Hiddleston spoke with Esquire about the challenges of taking on such drastically different characters, the ways in which he prepared for such a disturbing film, and how J. G. Ballard’s visions for the future eerily came true.
ESQ: I have to confess. As I was watching High-Rise, it struck me just how much this condo I’ve been renting reminds me of the building in the movie. But nobody has killed anybody yet. To my knowledge.
Tom Hiddleston: [Laughs] Hey, those elevator shafts. You want to make sure the lifts keep working!
OK. I’m starting to feel exceedingly paranoid! Speaking of the movie and not at all of a plausible real-life scenario: You’ve played so many different characters. How do you find yourself within all of them?
That’s a really great question, and it’s one that nobody has ever asked. I truly feel like the duty of an actor is to expand into unknown territory. I had an acting teacher once who told me that you have to have an elastic band around your waist and it has to stretch—to encircle other people. In the end, it’s an amazing way to live, because by playing different people, or at least defending the view points of different people (which acting has to be), you find yourself in contexts which are always alien and unfamiliar. You come away from those experiences feeling a bit more full and feeling like you know the world a little bit better.
As an actor, when you’re working on these bigger projects as opposed to more “independently budgeted” films…does it make a difference to you?
High-Rise was a tiny film by the way. It was made for 6 million pounds, which is about $8.5 million.
Right. Or like $12 million Canadian. See, the numbers keep going up.
All right. [Laughs] $12 million Canadian. It [still] felt like a small film, and we shot it very quickly. The process is just to do the best you can. Work, work as hard as you can and be diligent and respectful…
Do you love them equally, or do you have a preference?
I do. I find different things to love about them. They express different parts of my own fascination, my own interests. Everything I do is always about the human condition, what it means to be alive in some form or other—even if it’s a big blockbuster. That’s what cinema is about.
With High-Rise, which is a bit more abstract and experimental, how do you make sense of it? How do you approach your character in the midst of all this chaos?
I wanted to sync up with Ben. I always do that when I sign on to a film: I try to sync up with the tone of what a director is trying to do. I ask them to give me some movies to watch, give me some books to read, give me some music to listen to—to try and find a framework they are working in so I can place myself within it. So I think I knew what I was in for. And I love Ben’s work. He’s rebellious and he’s mischievous and has his own singular sense of humor and taste. The most fascinating thing for me was that Laing is reactive, whereas other people are proactive. He’s quiet and watchful, while the other inhabitants are sliding into a kind of chaos.
Chaos would be an understatement. But Laing is rather detached, isn’t he?
Because of his profession as a physiologist I think he has a kind of an intellectual detachment about disease and human impulses, so he’s able to withdraw emotionally from the psychological impact of this feral chaos.
What were the challenges in portraying him?
I found that he’s a character who has a lot of private guilt and shame. He’s moved into this building to get away from the complexities of life. He’s trying to stay detached, and he actually can’t. It’s all about his unprocessed guilt. There’s a lot of guilt going around, he’s trying to get away from real life. He wants to live in a grey flat and wear a grey suit and not be affected.
I took my cue from the book, and I found it fascinating that J.G. Ballard choses his leading character to be a physiologist, someone who understands the mechanical engineering of the human brain and body. And so I took that on and did some research. I went to talk to a forensic pathologist in a hospital in England, and I watched him perform some real life autopsies, which were actually very hard to stomach. I almost fainted.
That’s probably a good sign.
I wanted to understand the perspective of the people who do that every day, who have a sensitivity to that kind of work but also have the scientific rigor. They can actually deconstruct a body and [determine] the cause of death. These are the people we depend on in our society, and if someone falls dead in the middle of the street, the forensic pathologist will cut them open and tell us why.
I’d just assume it’s the work of a serial killer and call it a day. Why do you think we have this fascination with dystopian movies and books?
I don’t know, I think we’re always fascinated by our nightmares. We have hopes and dreams. As human beings, we’d like to believe that our society is getting better, more equal, more fair, more healthy, more balanced—and we fear that it’s getting worse. More toxic, more unequal, more sick. And dystopian nightmares are always manifestations of our fears: that the world is going to hell in a handcart and that we can’t stop it.
But I think that they can also be very playful. Think of all the disaster movies. That’s another version of that nightmare, the fear of the apocalypse. Whether that’s Terminator 2, or Robinson Crusoe being stranded on a deserted island, or Cast Away. I think there’s something very child-like about imagining who you might be on a deserted island.
It’s interesting that you use the word “nightmare”—as you watch the movie, it feels like you’re trapped in one…wait, now I get it!
[Laughs] Yeah! I think Ben would be thrilled with that.
The book is set in the ’70s, so what’s the relevance of some of the issues that the movie is tackling?
I think Ballard saw things coming. He used to say it’s as if he was standing roadside with a warning [sign] saying “dangerous bend ahead,” because the human race is progressing at such a velocity. We are hurtling towards progress and the future. He predicted our attachment to technology. He saw it coming.
There’s an interview of him in 1978 saying that we’re going to take a lot more pictures, we’ll all have access to video footage, we’re going to become the stars of our own films, photographs will become much easier to reproduce, we’ll take pictures of our food, we’ll take pictures of each other, and we’ll take pictures of ourselves in our bedroom. He’s basically predicting Instagram, social media, and YouTube 30 years before they were conceived. So I think he understood that there was a marriage between psychology and technology, which was coming around.
Right now, there’s a lot of talk about the classes, the 1%, and all that. We definitely see plenty of that class struggle reflected in the film, don’t we?
It’s a very obvious metaphor. There’s unequal access to the resources in the building, depending on where you live. The people on the lower floors are furious that in the penthouse they still have electricity [while] the lights go out in the basement, or that the swimming pool is closed to children from the lower floors. There’s a righteous moral anger about inequality that’s being told there. And perhaps Ballard is saying that it’s inevitable. He’s saying that it’s part of the human condition, some sort of striving for status.
It’s interesting that as soon as people go for their inner wishes, their animal desires, if you will, once all structure is taken away, their inclination is to do all these horrible things…
Perhaps Ballard is saying: Who are we really? Who are we in extremity? If no one is watching and no one is there to stop us, what will we do?
Well, he seems to think that we would do very bad things…do you agree?
[Laughs] We would do different things. And what your definition of “bad” is where you stand.
True. But I’m not sure if everything is quite so morally ambivalent.
I don’t think so either, but our moral compass is conditioned by society. For example, I’m sort of playing devil’s advocate. We think it’s OK to eat beef and lamb and chicken, but we think it’s wrong to eat dog. It’s societally not problematic to eat steak, but it is problematic to eat a piece of dog. And it’s only because someone decided that hundreds of years ago. If that was the only access to food you had, you might have to do it? And that’s what Ballard is interested in: When you’re really pushed, when it comes down to a matter of life or death, what are you prepared to do?
When you’re doing a role like this—or any role really, you’re sort of putting yourself on the line, while at the same time saying, “I can do this.” So where do you find that confidence as an actor?
I honestly don’t know. I think it’s a desire to challenge myself. It comes back to that thing I was saying about expansion and wanting to stretch and grow. It’s the same reason people travel, you know? When you’re born, you get used to your cot and your crib. And then you get used to your bedroom. Then you get used to your family home, and your school and your town. And then eventually you want to get out of that—you want to broaden your horizons, and the process of being an actor is that. I feel like I want to travel far and wide, and that’s why I choose to do different projects. I don’t know where the confidence comes from. I think it comes more from curiosity than confidence.
I guess that’s the great thing about an actor. You’re not limited to having just one life, or one occupation. You get to experience so many.
You do. You experience a lot of different things. You see a lot of different sides to the world.