Owen Wilson as Mobius, a representative of the Time Variance Authority, which is holding Loki (Tom Hiddleston) prisoner
Loki stirring up mischief on the campaign trail
"Hello there. iIm so sorry i'm running late. I've been working on set all day. So yes, i'm really sorry."
Maybe it's the crisp British accent or the sincere tone. But as soon as Tom Hiddleston utters these words, all traces of anxiety emanating from the other end of the line vanish. In the smoothest of transitions, he asks for the correct pronunciation of his interviewer's first name and makes a point of using it throughout the Zoom session.
He listens intently and answers questions eloquently, despite the use of the audio-only feature. By the time he ends the chat with a series of profuse thank yous, the angels may as well be singing.
So, to recap: Loki is the chaos-happy god of mischief in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the Emmy-nominated Hiddleston is the one with the dazzling superpowers. "Tom is unbelievably charismatic and charming," Marvel Studios president and chief creative officer Kevin Feige muses. "And like Loki, there is a trickster element there."
Hiddleston first showed off these special abilities when he turned an impish 1960s-era Avengers villain — looking in desperate need of a hair wash and time in the sun — into a scene-stealing fan favorite. (Not easy when your superhero counterpart is Chris Hemsworth's Thor, the golden-locked and ultra-muscular god of thunder.) For his latest feat, he's made that character worthy of his own flashy, must-see TV series.
It's called Loki, of course. Hiddleston describes it as a "really positive series with a huge amount of action and spectacle."
For Marvel fans seeking closure, the Disney+ crime procedural serves as a deep-dive exploration of what the heck happened after Loki picked up the tesseract "Space Stone" during his 2012 arrest and went poof , as seen in the time-traveling 2019 blockbuster Avengers: Endgame.
The short answer is that Loki — who was on track for death at the hands of megavillain Thanos — avoided that fate and now finds himself a prisoner of the bureaucratic Time Variance Authority.
"The TVA represents order to the chaos and will arrest anyone for crimes against the timeline," Hiddleston explains. "Loki confronting this institution is a thrilling jumping-off point because he must take in an environment that he doesn't understand and can't control."
Feige, also an executive producer of Loki, hints that much of the drama consists of interrogation between the titular character and Owen Wilson's gray-haired Mobius M. Mobius, a mid-level TVA staffer.
The cryptic first trailer, however, includes snapshots of Loki as a politician and as a skyjacker along the lines of D.B. Cooper. Ever the pro at sidestepping spoilers, Hiddleston encourages viewers to think big picture: "One of the themes of the show is about identity and raising a question whether Loki can run from who he is and is capable of change. It's only once we accept who we are that we can evolve and grow."
This is probably a good time to note that Hiddleston is doing this interview just days after a milestone birthday. "Yeah, I'm 40," he says with a resigned laugh. "I'm 40, and I was 28 when I was cast as Loki. When I say it like that, it blows my mind. I don't think any actor could have imagined playing a character as long as this."
Especially because the character has been killed off twice in the past decade. Hiddleston says he felt immense gratitude for the character's initial revival in the aftermath of the first Avengers film in 2012. (In fairness, the guy did try to decimate the world.) When Loki got offed again in the prologue of 2018's Avengers: Infinity War, the star assumed his work was done. Permanently.
"The producers were on the set my last day, and we had some very sincere goodbyes," he recalls. "There were hugs and a 'Come see us anytime' and 'Thank you for your hard work.' I thanked them for the opportunity and certainly thought, 'Oh, this is it.'"
That was early 2017. For the next two-plus years, Hiddleston says, he was content to watch the MCU action unfold from afar. "I became an ordinary cinema-goer who would see the films on opening weekend," he says. "With films like Doctor Strange and Black Panther, it felt like the Marvel Cinematic Universe had become more ambitious and profound, with deeper and richer characters."
His own fandom peaked in April 2019, when he threw on a hoodie and ducked into a midnight showing of Avengers: Endgame on its opening night in London. He was so amped up by what he saw on the screen that he called his boss at 3 a.m. "He couldn't wait to tell me the reaction of all the people sitting right next to him in the movie theater," Feige recalls. "They didn't know they were sitting next to Loki!"
They also didn't know that Loki would live to see another day on a yet-to-premiere streaming service. The idea for an episodic Loki series dates back to the earliest conversations among Disney+ executives, Feige says.
"We have a great Avengers ensemble, but Tom rises to every challenge," he explains. "So we were trying to think of where we could take him. We came up with the idea that Loki would screw up a very well-thought-out time-travel plan."
Hiddleston — who immediately jumped on board as the star and an executive producer — soon re-shot the key scene originally seen in The Avengers, along with Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo and Robert Redford.
"He relishes this part," Feige adds, "and in developing the series, he was excited to take Loki to so many new places physically and emotionally."
Kate Herron (Sex Education), who would go on to direct all six episodes of Loki and also executive-produce, saw Hiddleston's passion firsthand when they met in New York City in summer 2019.
The two started with a long lunch and then walked around Central Park for the next three hours talking about all things Loki. They didn't stop until he reached the stage door of the Broadway theater where he was starring in Harold Pinter's Betrayal. "It was a surreal day," she says. "But it's exactly what you'd want out of your number-one actor."
It's fun to think about Hiddleston's own alternate timeline had he not pursued a career in acting. But the truth is, excellence in the craft was always his destiny.
The son of an arts administrator and a chemist, Hiddleston, a middle child, spent his childhood in London and Oxford before going to boarding school as a young teen at prestigious Eton College. He earned a degree in classics at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge, then attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.
He didn't just study during these formative years. "I saw a couple of interesting films in quick succession that changed my idea of what cinema could be," he says, listing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Shawshank Redemption.
"As young adults, our minds are very open and the stories we connect with at that time, we carry the rest of our lives." He also watched his fair share of American TV, including a few classics: "The first thing that comes to mind, strangely enough, is Friends. And I loved The Simpsons."
Early in his career he racked up small credits in British TV productions, starting with "lord" in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby and "phone operator" in Conspiracy, both in 2001. A tiny role in the BBC–HBO Winston Churchill biopic The Gathering Storm followed a year later. He also appeared in nine episodes of the satirical series Suburban Shootout in 2006.
But it was the inaugural 2008 season of Wallander — a Kenneth Branagh–starring adaptation of the Swedish crime novel series of the same name — that changed his life.
Please try to follow along because this is important: Branagh asked Hiddleston to play an antagonistic cop after seeing him smolder onstage in a London production of Othello. The collaboration was a success, and the two also performed the Chekhov play Ivanov in the West End that year.
One night, Feige took in the show as part of meeting with Branagh, who had just been tapped to direct Thor, the fourth movie in MCU's Phase I. While Feige was hanging out in Branagh's dressing room post-curtain call, a young Hiddleston popped in to say goodnight. Branagh introduced him to the Marvel honcho, who recalls, "He said his name was Tom, and then we went on with life."
Cut to an early Thor casting session, when Branagh suggested that that same actor try out for the leading role. "Ken said, 'You know, that guy you met might be worth auditioning'" Feige says. "He did a self-tape and a screen test and was very good."
Not quite right-for-Thor good, but ideal for the role of his wayward adopted brother from the ancient realm of Asgard. Hiddleston never had to audition for it, and Feige admits the casting was a risk. "There were conversations about what if audiences didn't respond to him. But we had to believe in it and trust it."
As for Hiddleston, despite his highly pedigreed background, he didn't hesitate at going Hollywood in a mainstream blockbuster.
"I could see it was a universal story about fathers and sons and brothers and the journey from pride to humanity," says the former classics scholar. "I think the big characters like the ones that exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are modern-day myths. They are stories on an extraordinary scale that appeal to a huge number of different people, and the function of myth is that we can find meaning in these stories, even if those stories are purely entertainment."
Besides, he jokes, "Most of the world knows that the right guy was cast as Thor."
Thor made him a movie star, but Hiddleston remained determined to be an actor. He played F. Scott Fitzgerald in Midnight in Paris and Hank Williams in I Saw the Light. He was cast by both Guillermo del Toro (Crimson Peak) and Steven Spielberg (War Horse). He continued to do prestige stage productions on both sides of the Atlantic, too. In between, he reprised Loki five times.
"It's hard to look back and remember if I had a big career plan, but it's most likely I did not," he says. "I think I was just really fortunate to be able to work with different people in different genres. I find it enormously rewarding." Most prominently, he starred opposite Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman and Tom Hollander in the acclaimed limited series The Night Manager in 2016.
To prepare for the complicated part of an ex-soldier working as the night manager of a luxury hotel who goes undercover for British intelligence services, he shadowed the actual night manager of a five-star hotel in London.
Hiddleston still refers to the six-episode BBC adaptation (seen in the U.S. on AMC) as a "very special" experience.
"I felt the story was served better by the miniseries format, because it was lifted off the page without losing its complexity or its philosophy," he relates, "and Hugh Laurie was a partner of such intelligence."
Hiddleston was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie ("a huge honor") and, as an executive producer, was also among the nominees for Outstanding Limited Series. Though he didn't prevail in either category, he did get to present a trophy to Susanne Bier, who won for her direction of the series. "That was a moment I'll never forget."
He compares his significant sweat equity on The Night Manager to his 18-month workload on Loki, noting, "Both projects were big commitments. The handful of people that you go on that journey with, you become very close, and that in itself is very meaningful."
Herron, his director, cuts to the chase: "I can't stress enough how much he lived and breathed the show. He really goes above and beyond, and cares. As someone who's also obsessive about her work, that was a delight."
And when Feige visited the Atlanta set on a night shoot last year, he, um, marveled at what he saw. "They were filming a sequence where he had to run all night, and at the end, everyone on the set was exhausted but him," he says. "That energy from your lead carries through to the crew. It was amazing to watch."
How about one last Hiddleston anecdote, just to underline the point? Before a single Loki frame was filmed, Hiddleston gave a formal presentation to the crew's department heads that Herron describes as "The Loki Lecture."
Going through the films one by one — he played supplemental video clips as well — he spoke of Loki's biography and his own experience in shaping the character. "He prepared for it as if he were giving a lecture at Cambridge," Herron says.
Above all else, "Tom wanted to make sure that everyone had an idea of where Loki comes from and that everyone was on the same page, including the audience," she continues. "He knows this character is beloved and his arc is one of the best in the MCU. He wanted to show how we could build on that and pay respect and still give people something they're not anticipating. He challenged everyone to rise to that level, and they did."
Hiddleston is now ready for a potential second season — "I'm here for the ride" — but he's learned not to make any assumptions. (Feige will only say that "anything is possible in his MCU.") But no matter what he accomplishes for the rest of his career, Hiddleston knows his epitaph will include his portrayal of a deliciously bad comic-book character. And he's good with that.
"What I love about Loki is that he's playful and charming and witty and dangerous and mercurial. He's also fragmented and broken and solitary and isolated," Hiddleston adds. "As one character says in the show, no one good is ever truly good and no one bad is truly bad. That's a fascinating anchor."
Loki will premiere June 9 on Disney+, with new episodes dropping weekly. In addition to Feige, Hiddleston and Herron, executive producers include Louis D'Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Stephen Broussard and Michael Waldron; the latter is also head writer.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2021