Tom Hiddleston and Marc Abraham On ‘I Saw the Light,’ Elizabeth Olsen, Spoiler-Hungry MCU Fans
Director Marc Abraham takes a unique approach to the musician biopic with I Saw the Light, a movie spanning the six music-filled, final years of Hank Williams’ life. Intertwining the country icon’s songs with his turbulent life experiences (revolving largely around his wife, Audrey, played by Elizabeth Olsen), the film focuses not on Williams’ artistry, but the events and environments the art was born out of. From his agonizing bout with spina bifida to his unfaithful marriage to his spiraling addiction to drugs and alcohol, Abraham covers the singer’s darkest days, which culminated with his death at the early age of 29 in 1953.
The film’s star is fan favorite Tom Hiddleston, who bears a striking resemblance to Williams and sings every note of the legendary songs we see onscreen. It’s a layered role with several shades of grey lurking beneath the surface, but the English actor came prepared, having spent long periods of time in Nashville with some of country music’s most respected artists, learning to sing in an accent far removed from his own. The work shows in his tortured performance, which is simultaneously tragic and celebratory of Williams’ spirit.
In San Francisco we spoke to Hiddleston and Abraham about I Saw the Light, which is in theaters now.
The opening shot really knocked me over.
Tom: What’s interesting about that shot is that we shot it very fast. Marc had actually given himself and me some time, generously, in the schedule. We had a very tight schedule. We shot 130 pages in 39 days. We had to move quickly. He had actually created a space in the schedule to make sure we had time to breathe so that we didn’t have to rush it. The opening is the first time that the audience will hear me sing, without musical accompaniment, and it’s a declaration of intent. Interestingly enough, after having created all that space and all that time, it didn’t take very long.
I think it was a brilliant and brave decision by Marc, and terrifying for me initially, to start the film with a very cinematic sequence that invites the audience to engage with the poetry of Hank Williams in a completely different way. They may come in expecting to hear “Hey Good Lookin’,” they may come in expecting to hear “Lovesick Blues.” They may come in expecting to see white fringe and cowboy hats and clichés of country music. What Marc did is, he said, “Here’s something else.”
Marc: As Tom said very eloquently, as he always does, it was a statement of intent. There are all these expectations, and a lot of people think they know Hank Williams’ music, but what they don’t understand is that he was one of the most important literary influences of the late 20th century because his poetry changed the way music was actually looked at. The lyrics were extraordinarily vulnerable for a man to be singing. “I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Men weren’t doing that. What I wanted to make sure was that people were hit smack-dab on the jaw with the beauty of his words. The way to do that, I thought, was to make it as unadorned as possible and create it out of space and out of time and, as Tom said, without horsecrap on the boots and the kind of hee-haw aspect people were kind of expecting.
The purpose of it was also to say, this is not an imitation of Hank Williams. This is not us trying to mimic him. This is our version, a portrait of a very important artist, a young man. We had the benefit of one of the world’s great cinematographers, Dante Spinotti. We shot it on a stage and we had painted a giant black circle and hung black all around it with a ton of smoke. We put a stool in the middle of it and asked Mr. Hiddleston to come on out. He came on out, he sat on that stool, we floated those cameras, and Tom, as Hank, was about as naked as you can be. We wanted to let people know right off, this is how naked we’re prepared to go, this is how it’s going to sound, this is who this man is, and he’s doing his own singing.
The movie’s not about Hank writing songs. The songs are almost like punctuation. I think that’s an interesting approach.
Marc: I love that you say that. I have never cared for watching movies where artists are doing their painting or typing at the typewriter and tearing the [paper] out, other than maybe The Shining. That’s not something that I even know how to do. Nor was I interested in any of the psychological explanations for why Hank Williams became Hank Williams. He was a poor kid from Alabama. Why he became who he was and how he had that inside of him…you could get Sigmund Freud, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard…they could all spend time trying to figure it out. I doubt anybody could answer that question. What we wanted to do was show an artist as a young man. Not the roots of his psychoanalysis but the cultural environment and personal environment, which is where the fertilizer was.
That’s, in fact, how Tom and I ended up working together. People think he probably played the guitar for me and I sat back, scratching my jaw, and thought, “Well, can he be Hank Williams?” You know how we did it? We talked about what movie we wanted to make. He and I, who had gotten to know each other over a very lengthy period of time; what did we actually want to do?
Tom: Marc drew together the music with the marriage and the man. The placement of the music…What I’d hoped people would see was that these songs came out of his experiences. That’s the other thing: These songs and this film are about a man who loved women. Every song you could listen to that Hank wrote is about women. It’s about falling out of love, being in the doghouse, loneliness, separation from women.
“Why don’t you love me like you used to do/why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart.”
“You’re cheatin’ heart will make you weep/you’ll cry and cry and try to sleep.”
“You’re my gal and I’m your fella/you dress up in your frock of yella/you’ll look swell and I’ll look swell/setting the woods on fire.”
This is a guy with a huge love of women. His whole career was about flirtation and sexuality. I think what was so brilliant about Marc’s script is that he really drew that together, the songs and Hank’s relationship with women. It’s very telling that the majority of characters in the film, apart from Hank Williams, are women. And they’re played by women: Elizabeth Olsen, Cherry Jones, Maddie Hasson, Wrenn Schmidt. Those were the major figures in his life. That was the fascinating central thesis of the screenplay. The way the songs
The way the songs were dispersed, as you say, was like punctuation and expressive of other things in Hank’s life. I suppose the best example of that is at the end of the end of the film when I sing “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” He’s not long for this world at that point. Is he singing to himself? I think so. Probably. I think he’s singing about regret. But he could also be singing to Audrey.
So…I’m kind of a failed country musician. [laughs]
Tom: [laughs] That was the last thing I expected to come out of your mouth.
It’s true! I tried to play country music for years, but I’m from [California] and I don’t have the accent to sing that kind of music.
Tom: I don’t either!
But you have license to adopt it because you’re an actor. That’s an incredible opportunity. I’m so jealous. In your research, you got to spend time with Rodney Crowell! That’s amazing!
Tom: Yeah, it’s amazing. And not just Rodney, but everybody he knows, everyone who was open to working with me. The generosity of spirit shown to me by the musicians I met in Nashville is something I’ll never forget. Within three days, I was in Ray Kennedy’s studio, recording music on the same equipment Hank recorded on, standing around a single microphone with Richard Bennett, Chris Scruggs, Rodney Crowell, Wes Langlois…These guys have been making this music for years, and they were just jamming. To sing my first cover of “Lovesick Blues” with them and the band is an insane privilege. You’re absolutely right: a gift.
When some people try to sing country, it sounds fake. I should know. [laughs] It’s almost like a caricature. You really have to connect with the lyric. You can tell that you get the emotion behind Hank’s lyrics.
Tom: That all came from Rodney, in a way. I didn’t know where to start. He said, “You have to find out what these songs mean to you. There’s no way you’re going to transmit the power of these songs if you don’t invest yourself inside them.” It’s got to be real. I love the challenge of that; it is an acting challenge. It’s a challenge of interpretation. Whenever you take on a big acting role, you’re interpreting that character’s emotional truth and filling it with your own. The same is true of these songs. When I was singing “Move It On Over,” that’s my mischief, my rebellion. When I’m singing “Cold, Cold Heart,” that’s my sadness. It’s filtered through the prism of Hank, but really, it’s me. Has to be.
There’s something special about Elizabeth that I can’t put my finger on. What is it?
Marc: She has a bearing beyond her years. She’s 26 years old or something, but she has a weight to her that’s undeniable. That’s something that’s genetically inside her. I personally feel that the thing she brings to Audrey that is just so essential is that she’s a keenly intelligent woman who doesn’t really suffer fools or foolishness much. Because of that, she invested Audrey with a sense of intelligence. She took a character who is easily dismissed as being a shrew, a bitch, a difficult person, Yoko breaking up the Beatles…because of her bearing of intelligence, when she performs and you see her with Hank, you come away with, “You know what? You think I’m an asshole? You think I’m a bitch? You try living with this guy.”
Tom: She’s very honest. I suppose it’s best illustrated by describing the opposite. I’ve worked opposite actors who are immaculate in delivering what they’ve prepared, and sometimes they don’t have the life experience to represent the particular emotional truth. So they reach for an idea of what they think that is. Lizzy is incapable of falsity in her acting. She has extraordinary integrity. The choices she makes are very instinctive. When you’re acting opposite Lizzy, you’re acting opposite a real person. The magic of the scene comes from the rally you play with each other. That’s when acting’s fun, to be honest. When you’re doing preparation, that’s a solitary activity. When you’re reading a script, that’s a solitary activity. There’s so much about acting that is, necessarily, a solitary activity. But when you’re on set with your scene partner, the beauty of it is that you take the leap together. You don’t really know where the scene is going to go, and if you’re working with someone really good, as she is, what you have to do is listen.
This is kind of an impossible question, but I’m going to ask you both anyway. You’ve spent so much time getting to know Hank Williams and the man he was. In your opinion, what was his greatest fear?
Marc: This is not to diminish the question, but there is no possible way I can give you a sense of what his greatest fear was. I can tell you that he was incredibly vulnerable. What he wrote was undeniably vulnerable. That’s what he was telling us. I know those are feelings that he must have had. I have no idea what his greatest fear was. You could surmise that one of the things that he most wished had happened in his life was that he had a daddy.
Tom: I can tell you a number of things I don’t think he feared. He didn’t fear death. I don’t think he feared any one person…he wasn’t afraid of people. Maybe his greatest fear was of losing himself, somehow diverting from his own integrity. That there were people who would try to reshape him or change who he was, smooth out his rough edges so that he would stop being him.
Tom, you’re so generous with your fans, me included. We see stuff about you on the Internet and it just makes our day. It makes us smile.
Tom: Thanks, buddy.
It’s great! Thank you. We appreciate it.
Tom: I love what I do. I really love it. And I wouldn’t get to do that without an audience to watch it. There is no such thing as acting in a vacuum. I started in the theater, and I learned that the audience is an integral part of the conversation. I came from the audience. When I became an actor, I just wanted to become a part of the conversation in the way actors I admire contributed to it. Bruce Springsteen said that his life’s work is a conversation. I’m flattered that if I have any fans, they follow my curiosity into wherever my work takes me. I don’t take that for granted. There are people who are willing to pay money to see my work. I wouldn’t be allowed to do what I do without that, so I have enormous gratitude. It’s still a source of constant surprise and delight that I have fans at all.
Some fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are so starved for advance information about the stories you’re telling with those movies.
Tom: I am still so surprised and grateful that I’m allowed to make a living doing what I do. I have loved cinema and theater for as long as I can remember for in all its variety and diversity. The idea that I get to be a part of it is extraordinary to me. But even as much as I’ve loved it, I love to be surprised by it. I don’t want to know too much about a film before I watch it. I might see a trailer, but I don’t want to see articles about it, I don’t want to read reviews about it, I don’t want to know what happens to the main character. I don’t want spoilers. I want to be surprised.
I just worked with Bill Corso, who was the makeup head on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We were working together for three months. He had so many stories he could have told me. But in the makeup bus it was banned. We just didn’t go there. I didn’t want to know what happened to Han Solo. If I had found out, I would have strangled him! He’s Harrison Ford’s makeup artist and he could have told me that in a second, but he was so respectful.
Listen, this is really getting to the heart of the matter. You’re sitting in the theater and you hear the opening fanfare. Maybe it’s the letters of Universal spinning around a globe, maybe it’s 20th Century Fox. It’s the flickering Marvel logo, the Lucasfilm thing. A drama teacher told me this once when I was training: The audience’s capacity for delight at that moment when the lights dim and the music starts is at one hundred percent. There’s an absolutely palpable electricity in the air. If you know what’s going to happen [in the movie beforehand], it’s all over! All I’m trying to do is keep the magic of that expectation alive. I understand the enthusiasm, I understand the curiosity. Unfortunately, my mother and father raised me with some self-discipline, so you won’t get those secrets out of me!