Tom Hiddleston might star in a movie that terror maestro Stephen King has described as “gorgeous and terrifying”, but it transpires he’s not a fan of the genre.
“I’ve always enjoyed ghost stories, but I’m not great with horror myself, as an audience member,” notes the handsome 34-year-old.
“As a child, I loved ghost stories in literature. I think if you’re lucky, you get one of those great English teachers who opens your imagination.”
He recalls one particular tutor, “who knew none of us were going to pay attention on a Friday afternoon, because we were all thinking about cake and conkers and running about”, so he would read ghost stories by M.R. James aloud instead.
“I remember very powerfully connecting to them and it’s something I’ve never forgotten,” adds the London-born actor.
It’s a strong foundation for his latest project, Crimson Peak, a gothic horror directed by Guillermo del Toro, the man behind such visually stunning, spine-tingling films as The Devil’s Backbone and 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
“Guillermo is probably, if not definitely, the primary interpreter of gothic romance in contemporary cinema. He has the capacity to make stories about the supernatural intensely emotional and accessible,” says Hiddleston, who attended the prestigious Eton College and earned a double first at Cambridge University, before going on to study at the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art.
In Crimson Peak, he plays the charming and refined bachelor Sir Thomas Sharpe, a role he confirms was originally intended for his friend Benedict Cumberbatch. “I don’t know why he dropped out, but he did, and it meant that Guillermo had to find someone to play the role and he came to me.”
Hiddleston, whose first TV role was in the 2001 adaptation of The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby, received a phone call from the Mexican film-maker in the summer of 2013, asking him to read the script.
“He rewrote the role a little bit, to make it more custom-made for me in some way, which is amazing of him.”
The actor was also thrilled to be working with his long-time friend, the two-time Oscar-nominated Jessica Chastain, who plays his mysterious sister, Lady Lucille Sharpe.
The plot sees the enigmatic duo travel from Victorian England to America, in a bid to seek investments for Sir Sharpe’s new invention – a machine that aids in the mining of the blood-red clay found beneath their sprawling mansion, Allerdale Hall.
Thomas quickly falls in love with Edith Cushing (played by Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring author who is – quite literally – haunted by the death of her mother, and once they’re wed, takes her back to his crumbling ancestral mansion.
With no structure in existence to satisfy del Toro’s vivid imagination, the director oversaw its creation from scratch.
“It’s the biggest set I’ve ever been in on my life. It has demons and secrets the same way a human being does,” notes Hiddleston, who’s also appeared in Archipelago, War Horse and Midnight In Paris, and was recently named the first official ambassador for the British Film Institute (BFI).
It’s within this relic that Edith’s visited by nightmarish visions and crimson ghosts, that help her unearth the true horror buried within its walls.
Does Hiddleston believe in ghosts?
“I believe in Ghostbusters, and therefore if we have to have ghosts in order to get to Ghostbusters, then I’m happy,” he says, grinning.
“Sorry, I’m being flippant. I have had weird experiences actually, but I do think they’re projections of my own imagination. So I do wake up and I’m creeped out, I turn my light on and look under the bed,” adds the star, who confesses that he still finds the “profoundly disturbing” Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang “terrifying”.
“But then the next morning, you tell the story over breakfast and you go, ‘I’m such an idiot’, something’s going on up here [he taps his head], rather than anything else.”
While Chastain has spoken of covering the walls of her trailer with pictures of serial killers to help her channel the dark vibes of Crimson Peak, Hiddleston used the mood boards created by the acclaimed costume designer Kate Hawley.
“There was one painting by Caspar David Friedrich called Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog, which is very powerful. It’s the back of a gentleman standing on a rock in the middle of a storm. It channels the passion of the romantics,” he says, clenching his hand in an impassioned manner.
Although the subject matter is dark and twisted, Hiddleston didn’t succumb to melancholy during the shoot.
“That’s part of the discipline of being an actor, to keep the intensity of the experience at work and not take it home, otherwise it can be quite dangerous and damaging.
“There were some intense days, but mercifully, I wasn’t staying in Crimson Peak myself, I was staying in a nice hotel where I could get a hamburger and a cold beer.”
It was while shooting the movie that he received the script of The Night Manager, an adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel, set to air on BBC Two next year.
“It was a breathtaking and mouth-watering prospect,” notes the actor, who plays Jonathan Pine, a former soldier who becomes the night manager of a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps, and is then recruited by MI6 to bring down an arms dealer (played by Hugh Laurie).
“I never like to go over the same territory twice and I’m always looking for new things and new characters,” Hiddleston continues.
Apart from where his Avengers alter-ego Loki’s concerned.
Kenneth Branagh – who he also worked with on 2001’s Conspiracy and the TV series Wallander – originally cast him as the villainous character in 2011’s Thor, and he’s since reprised the role a further two times, with another outing in the offing.
“It’s never felt the same because actually, there were three different directors and three different scripts, so it always felt new,” he clarifies, laughing. “And I’ve always enjoyed it”.