TORONTO — Hank Williams was a country music star who rose quickly and flamed out even faster. Based in Nashville in the 1940s and ’50s, Williams churned out tunes, was regularly in the recording studio, had his own daily radio show, and was constantly on the road.
But along with hordes of adoring fans there were personal demons. Williams was afflicted with spina bifida, though married he had an affinity for women not his wife, and he was addicted to booze and pain killers. Williams died of heart failure in the back seat of a powder-blue Cadillac convertible. He was 29.
Often referred to as the father of modern country music, Williams was among the first round of people inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 1961,and in 1987 he made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among the artists who have covered his songs are Tony Bennett (“Cold, Cold Heart”), B.J. Thomas (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), the Blue Ridge Rangers (“Jambalaya”), and George Thorogood & the Destroyers (“Move It on Over”). He’s been portrayed on film by George Hamilton, in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (1964); by Sneezy Waters, in “Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave” (1980); and, in a fictionalized account of what he might have become had he lived, by Rip Torn, in “Payday” (1973).
Now “I Saw the Light,” which opens Friday, looks at the story of Williams’s short, troubled, music-filled life. It stars the chameleonic British actor Tom Hiddleston. American audiences first took notice of him when he played the elegant and evil Loki in “Thor” (2011). Since then, he’s been unrecognizable as F. Scott Fitzgerald, in “Midnight in Paris” (2011), Captain Nicholls, in “War Horse” (2011), and the brooding, guitar-collecting vampire Adam in “Only Lovers Left Alive” (2013). Hiddleston, 35, who gives Williams an awkward physical stance, a self-assured swagger, and a twinkle in his eye, spoke about “I Saw the Light” last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Q. Do you recall the first time you heard Hank Williams’s voice?
A. It’s so hard to know. It might have been on the soundtrack of “The Last Picture Show,” which was a good way in because, as a Brit, the sound of Hank, the sound of that steel guitar lament is, and perhaps has always been, part of the glamour of America for someone from Europe. That sound is so specifically American. You know, you walk into a diner to order a hamburger and a milkshake, and Hank Williams is playing on the jukebox, whether it’s “Cold, Cold Heart” or “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” or “Move It on Over.” When [director] Marc Abraham first showed me the script I think I knew six or seven of his songs.
Q. How did the part come to you?
A. Marc saw me in “War Horse,” and I think he immediately identified, sooner than I did, that I actually look like Hank in some regard. I’m probably a bit taller and a bit broader, but Marc then went and looked at everything else I’d done, which is very flattering. He sent me the script, and I loved it. It was the most compelling story about an artist struggling with himself, struggling with his demons, struggling to be an authentic musician in a commercial business, and be a good husband and a good father.
Q. You play guitar convincingly in this film and in “Only Lovers Left Alive.” Have you always been a musician?
A. I’ve been playing guitar for a while, but for myself. It’s really nice just to noodle around and look up the tabs for a song you love, and learn how to play it, whether it’s a piece of Bob Dylan or Nick Drake or Mumford & Sons, or whatever’s rattling around in my head. And as an actor, music is a huge inspiration. The [19th-century] essayist Walter Pater said all art aspires to the condition of music. I interpret that to mean that music is the cleanest and sharpest road to your heart. It’s the most immediately evocative and emotional art form, and it takes you places. So, as an actor, on set, when I have to very quickly be quite agile about emotional dexterity, to get into a particular emotional place, I use music to isolate myself away from the energy of the crew.
Q. How did you go about preparing for the part?
A. There’s not a huge amount of video footage of Hank. But he had this tight-lipped smile and a twinkle in his eye. So I did a lot of watching him and I listened to him a lot. There’s a bunch of lost concerts, pretty ropey recordings, and the best bit about them is he plays everything you expect him to play. Then in between the songs he does these kind of standup comedy skits. He’s a very witty, sophisticated, impromptu comedian, telling stories about his bandmates.
Q. Is it true that you played and sang in front of big crowds before you started filming?
A. Yeah, it was at the Midland Music Festival, in Michigan, which was my baptism by fire. Rodney Crowell had come onboard to be my mentor and my tutor in all the ways of country music. I got to his house about six weeks before we shot, and he said [affecting a Southern drawl], “Tom, I’ve got a gig I have to play up in Michigan. I figured you just get on the bus, see what it’s like being on the road.” The next morning we stopped off at a motel for a cup of coffee, and we were playing “Move It on Over” on the grass, and he said, “Tom, I figure we should get you up there, just to get a feel of what it’s like to play in front of 30,000 people.” So at the festival, I went up and sang “Move It on Over,” and it went OK! The experience was really about getting up in front of an audience, and feeling what that is. Because the rest of the work was quite solitary; it was about practicing and listening to Hank and trying to modulate my inflection and tone. But that day was just about the adrenaline rush of the live experience. It’s electrifying!Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.