From Marvel comic villain to leading a cavalry charge for Steven Spielberg, Tom Hiddleston has had an exciting year – even though it’s been hell on his hair. “At the start of the year they dyed it blue-black for Thor,” he grins, rubbing a fizzy mop. “Then when I was F Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight In Paris, I was blond with a touch of red. War Horse was true blond, and then it got dyed down again for The Deep Blue Sea, because the other guy in it also has quite light hair.”
Having just finished the multi-superhero blockbuster The Avengers, he’s now the colour of very bitter chocolate, and in the shadows of a winter afternoon, framed by his London hotel’s mahogany furnishings, resembles a Vermeer painting. “I look severe,” he offers. Not for long though, because he can’t help being entertaining company, mimicking everyone from Kenneth Branagh to Owen Wilson, and recounting wryly funny stories at his own expense.
In The Deep Blue Sea, for instance, the 30-year-old is sweetly earnest about director Terence Davies (“a very sensitive soul”) and his co-star Rachel Weisz (“fearless”), but admits that in a year of new experiences he was slightly dreading his first love scene. “They saved it for the end, so Rachel and I knew each other pretty well. In a sense we’d already been naked in that we’d been crying, shouting and kissing each other for weeks, but we finally did it on Christmas Eve, and let me put it this way: I didn’t eat any mince pies until Christmas Day.” He laughs sheepishly: “Terrible, isn’t it? Because you shouldn’t let vanity get in the way, but I did think ‘It would be nice to look great.’ ”
Actually, everything in Davies’ emotionally rich adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s love triangle looks gorgeous, even the bowels of London Tube stations, because it reflects the intensity of married Hester (Weisz) and her obsession with Hiddleston’s dashing but superficial ex-pilot Freddie. “Whether it’s 1952 or 2011, the emotions of Rattigan’s play never date,” says Hiddleston. “And after working on huge multi-character canvasses with Ken Branagh, Woody Allen and Spielberg, this just seemed a perfect chamber piece about the complexity of love.
“The loneliness of Hester and Freddie certainly struck a chord with me. I’ve been the independent one in a relationship, but I’ve also been the one who wanted just a circle of two.” Currently he’s happily encircled with the British actress Susannah Fielding, currently having something of an annus mirabilis herself after scoring raves as Portia in the RSC’s recent production of The Merchant Of Venice. “If you’d said to me five years ago that all this would be happening to me in just 12 months, I just would not have believed you,” says Hiddleston. “Susannah understands the demands of it because we’re both on these tours of duty, but we make sure to take care of each other.”
Hiddleston is proud of The Deep Blue Sea, but he’s equally excited by his First World War officer Captain Nicholls in War Horse, which opens in January. He had a meeting with Spielberg while filming Thor in LA, assumed they were having a pleasant pre-audition chat about Guinness and horses, and was startled when he was told the role was his. “I almost burst into tears, because here was the architect of my childhood imagination telling me I’m the real deal.” Along with Jeremy Irvine and Benedict Cumberbatch, Hiddleston was booked into a two-month intensive horse training course “where they would shout ‘Don’t ride like a cowboy’ at me.”
Most of his scenes involved trotting and cantering across a disused airfield outside Elstree in the rain. “From the top of my horse you could see a line of trenches they’d built, mechanical rats everywhere, and Spielberg on his knees in a cagoule with his lens, all muddy and loving it… On the back of his director’s chair, it doesn’t say “SS” or “Spielberg”, it says “Dad”, because he’s like a dad on set.
“He also gives actors the most fantastic notes on character. There’s one moment where I’m leading a cavalry charge… and we see they have machine-guns. Just before Spielberg shot my close-up, he said to me, ‘I don’t want fear or terror or surprise, Tom. Here’s what I want: up until you see them, you are a man – but when I say ‘guns’ I want you to de-age yourself by 20 years. I just want to strip away the man and see the boy.’ I was blown away by that, because in one shot he’d collected that this war was fought by boys who had only just become men.”
Next year it’s all-out war for Hiddleston, who will be taking on one of Kenneth Branagh’s most famous early roles, Henry V, for BBC films, then battling buffed-up all-star heroes including Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Chris Evans’s Captain America in The Avengers. The Marvel blockbuster takes his breakout role in Thor as Loki, God of mischief, and upgrades it to full-fledged malevolence. “It’s me versus seven of them,” says Hiddleston. “And I say ‘Good luck to them’ frankly.”
The superheroes bonded during filming in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he says. “It’s like being in a rugby team. We used to pull up our shirts with me saying ‘Look at the size of this bruise on my hip’ and then Chris Evans pulling down his trousers going, ‘Dude, you think that’s bad – look at my ass.’ The worst was I smashed my elbow during a tête-à-tête with Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk. It really hurt.”
It’s not just comic book directors who have picked up on Hiddleston’s intelligence and range. Woody Allen wrote him a letter enclosing 15 pages of script, inviting him to spend the summer in Paris playing a character called Scott. From the script, Hiddleston deduced he was being asked to play F Scott Fitzgerald and presumed Midnight In Paris was a period drama. He only discovered otherwise when he arrived for his first day of shooting and found the film’s star Owen Wilson in modern-day duds. “Owen had to tell me the rest of the story then and there: ‘Oh no, my character goes back in time and meets all you famous writers, but actually this is a modern-day comedy.’ ”
Hiddleston wanted to act from an early age, but wasn’t always confident about pursuing it as a profession until he came to the Fringe and starred in a production of Journey’s End which earned five stars from The Scotsman. “That was the turning point,” he recalls, but his father James, a scientist and businessman, was far from convinced that his middle child should waste an Eton education and a double first from Cambridge on an uncertain career path in the performing arts.
“The only route to self-esteem is to earn your own keep,” says Hiddleston, slipping into his father’s soft Greenock burr. “He’d say, ‘You need a proper job’, and we did fight about that when I was younger, but not any more. He’s been a great support – in fact I just got a text from him saying good luck with the premiere of The Deep Blue Sea. If I was still 14 years old, I would say The Deep Blue Sea was for my mum, and War Horse is for dad, even though, of course, they will love both of them.”
• The Deep Blue Sea is in cinemas from Friday. War Horse follows on 13 January