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War Horse - Tom Hiddleston interview

War Horse

Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM Hiddleston pays eloquent tribute to working with Steven Spielberg and his equine co-stars on War Horse and why he has a newfound appreciation and love for horses.

He also talks about his career to date, why he feels he’s living his dream and why he also felt a tremendous sense of responsibility while portraying a First World War captain.

Q. What was it about the film industry that influenced you personally in your career choices? And what have you taken away from the experience of making War Horse?
Tom Hiddleston: Briefly, the thing that I’ve taken away with me is, I hope, an undying love for horses. I’d ridden a little bit before I made this film but the sensitivity and nobility of those animals is something I never expected… the depth of their capacity to feel. And I think what Michael [Morpurgo] must have always known and what Richard [Curtis] and Steven [Spielberg] have taken on is that horses have so much to teach us. In this film, the horse’s capacity for courage reminds people of their humanity. I find that moving every time I watch the film.

In terms of the film industry, and what’s had an impact on me personally… I suppose I’ve just always been a cinephile. I was a cinephile as a child and I’m a cinephile now. Your tastes change as you grow older but I grew up on Steven Spielberg films. Before the age of 10 I must have seen Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark about 50 times and always wanted to be on a horse, wearing a hat, with John Williams writing the theme tune. And low and behold, I’m on a horse, in a hat, with John Williams writing the theme tune! So, I do feel as though I’m lucky enough to be living out some kind of dream.

Q. How good were you with horses? You’ve touched upon it but did you, or have you ever, fibbed to get a role?
Tom Hiddleston: Well, I didn’t fib to get this role I promise you that! [Laughs] I had actually done some riding on another film called Thor. But little do people know that Asgardians ride like cowboys and we rode on Western saddles, which are much more comfortable. Their saddles are like big armchairs and you just sit back and pretend to be John Wayne. So, when I was taken off to cavalry school with Benedict Cumberbatch and Patrick Kennedy we were disabused very quickly of our bad habits and drilled for five weeks like soldiers.

It’s an amazing thing to learn to ride because it isn’t like acting at all in that horses are so sensitive that they’ll call your bluff. So, if you’re feigning confidence as arrogance you’re off. They’ll bolt and you’ll fall. You won’t be able to control them. You have to be humble enough to allow them to teach you how to ride, which was a big lesson for me.

Q. Can you talk about how Spielberg works as a director? What kind of tricks does he employ to get a performance out of you, particularly during an action sequence?
Tom Hiddleston: He was magisterial at that, I have to say. That’s what I found so extraordinary about him… the speed of his execution and his decision-making is what impressed me so much. We’ve come to associate him with such greatness that I’d forgotten to have an expectation of what he might be like at his job. He’s able to make such quick decisions and he keeps his crew very nimble and fleet of foot. They’re all kind of dialled into his speed, as it were, and his thought process. If he suddenly sees a piece of magic happening between the horses, or between some actors, or the light has changed, the crew can move very quickly to adapt to that.

With the cavalry charge sequence, the way he directed me and Benedict and Patrick in terms of the emotional guidance we got was particularly extraordinary. He depended very heavily on his stunt team, who were the horse masters and the experts. We practised those charging sequences for weeks. But there’s a moment where Captain Nicholls sees the machine guns and Richard had included it in his screenplay, as Michael had depicted it so beautifully in his novel, that Joey suddenly feels a lightness on his back but doesn’t realise that there’s nobody riding him anymore. So, Steven wanted to show, basically, Captain Nicholls’ death without you seeing him die. We don’t see him get shot. But he said: “Tom, this is the only piece of slow motion in the film because actually I think slow motion isn’t very effective as a dramatic tool; sometimes it is, but you have to use it sparingly…”

He then told me it was going to be completely silent and said: “I want to see you see the guns, then I’m going to cut back to the machine gun, and then I’m going to cut back to Joey and you’re not going to be there. The camera is going to move across your face but I don’t want you to do shock or surprise or fear or terror. How old are you?” I said: “I’m 29.” So, he replied: “At the top of the shot, give me your war face, your triumphant face, your noble officer and indicate that it’s all going well. But then I’m going to say ‘guns’ and when you hear that I want you to de-age yourself by 20 years. So, you’re 29 and then you’re 9. I want you to strip away the man and show me the boy. Can I leave that with you?” I thought that was one of the most heartbreaking pieces of direction that I’d ever received. It was so emotionally huge that in the middle of this action sequence, this great, grand, epic, exciting, dramatic piece of cinematography with 120 horses going at 40mph, he had the space in his filmmaking head and his heart for something very intimate. It was amazingly impressive.

Q. How much has making the movie given you an appreciation of what soldiers go through in real life?
Tom Hiddleston: Having never served as a soldier I really don’t know, but certainly I felt an enormous responsibility to represent the kind of spirit with which war is fought and the extraordinary courage that people display. The whole section of the film that I’m in is – in part – about the triumph of individual and collective courage over fear. There’s a moment before the cavalry charge where I hope people can see how wretched and terrified Captain Nicholls is beforehand and he’s trying to take confidence from his horse. I suppose the experience of being in that charge where you have the privilege of having all the resources available to Steven Spielberg and his production designer… we really did have 120 horses galloping towards an immaculately recreated German camp.

So, really the only things that weren’t recreated were the bullets and the guns. But doing that charge was thrilling and terrifying because you hear 480 hooves thundering through your ears, the sound of 120 stuntmen screaming at the top of their lings, the looks of 300 extras running away from you in terror… I mean, it felt as real as it could possibly get without it actually being real. And it made me kind of recalibrate my appreciation for what real conflict must be like and what real soldiers go through. So, it certainly shifted something in my mind.

Read our review of War Horse

Read our interview with Jeremy Irvine