With his adaptation of JG Ballard’s dystopian sci-fi novel ‘High-Rise’, director Ben Wheatley heads back to the future. Specifically, the future as seen from the mid-1970s, a time of shag carpets, sleek skyscrapers and galloping social strife. Without wallowing in nostalgia, Wheatley nails the mood of the era: if you were born after 1979, this might be the closest you’ll get to time travel. We asked the director to select a handful of objects that inspired the film’s unique look.
Tom Hiddleston is in superbrain mode as he tries to make sense of some of the ideas in his brilliantly loopy new film, ‘High-Rise’, a disturbing vision of urban living gone horribly wrong. ‘My point is, what is reality in the end? Look at us: we’re both in rooms on our own, talking to computers – which is weird when you think about it!’
We’ve spent the past 90 minutes on Skype (with him in Australia, where he’s shooting a movie, and me in London); it’s the second part of a conversation that began in a Bethnal Green café just after Christmas. Hiddleston has been recapping his short, brilliant career that includes playing Loki in the ‘Thor’ movies, starring in ‘War Horse’ and ‘Crimson Peak’, and proving himself a master of Shakespeare on TV and stage. He’s a big star with a big brain; an actor equally at home in out-there arthouse films and mega-budget action movies. Now he has also captured the Sunday-night-TV crowd, playing Jonathan Pine, a hotel worker-turned-MI6 operative, in the thrilling BBC series ‘The Night Manager’, based on a John le Carré novel. He’s clearly hungry to try everything and anything. At one point in our interview he even suggests he might learn a new language just so he can work with foreign directors.
Hiddleston, now 35, was educated at Eton, Cambridge and RADA, and occasionally finds himself in the sights of those who bash ‘posh’ actors. Which might explain the note of caution in his voice. He doesn’t speak in soundbites and is careful to back up any statement. Still, he enjoys going off on lucid tangents, which can make for a trippy chat. But nowhere near as trippy as ‘High-Rise’, a bold new 1970s-set British movie of JG Ballard’s dystopian novel. Hiddleston plays Dr Robert Laing, a besuited middle-class everyman who moves into a brutal concrete tower block that is strictly divided along class lines and on the verge of anarchy. It’s strange, daring and imaginative. In the end, even two conversations, over two-and-a-half hours, is barely enough.
‘High-Rise’ imagines an entire society in one tower block – a society going badly wrong. Do you think it’s a political film?
‘Quietly, yes. If you have a political sensibility, you will get that from the film. Some people might see it as a “Lord of the Flies”-type experiment of stripping away the mask of civil manners to reveal the animal underneath – and it just happens to be located in a British building in the 1970s with adults as opposed to children on a desert island.’
Did you look into what JG Ballard said he was trying to achieve with ‘High-Rise’?
‘Ballard said he saw himself as a man standing at the side of the road with a sign saying “Caution, bends ahead!”. His dystopian visions are warnings that if we keep going in this direction, we might end up like this. “High Rise” was inspired by a holiday he took in Spain. Ballard was staying in a block of flats and tourists would have these tremendous arguments about territory. “You can’t drop your cigarette butts on my balcony!” “This is my swimming pool!” Everyone had a perfect view of the Mediterranean, life was beautiful, and yet British holidaymakers would fight about things. Everyone would sweat the small stuff.’
‘Power lies in the hands of a very small percentage of the populace’
Do you think ‘High-Rise’ has a lot to say about inequality today?
‘The film and the novel could be read as a reflection of what is happening today. Power lies in the hands of a very small percentage of the populace, in all professions: politics, law, the media and, yes, the arts too. That’s why the education of actors, including myself, has become a recurring theme and a cause for debate in recent times.’
So you understand why some people complain about acting being dominated by privately educated actors?
‘It is unhealthy for any society to be represented in any sphere of life, including the arts, by one social group. I understand that. I strongly agree with that. More must be done to keep the doors open for everyone. The picture of your life shouldn’t have to be dictated by the circumstances in which you were born. Everyone deserves the chance to follow their chosen vocation. Britain is not yet a meritocracy. I hope that changes in my lifetime. If I could think of an easy solution, I’d advocate it right now. These are complex, uneasy times.’
What makes you most angry about the society around you?
‘Prejudice. If I witness prejudice, it drives me bananas. It’s incredibly limiting, on any level. Race, background, religion. I mean, look at Trump, and the sort of things he’s said about Muslims. I was furious about it. That’s hate speech.’
Have you experienced prejudice yourself?
‘Probably. I try just to dodge it. Of course I think people have got me wrong; I think people have certainly made quick judgments which are perhaps not accurate, but then you spend your life trying to prove people wrong – I love doing that. I don’t get angry about prejudice towards actors. That’s just part of the job.’
Do you ever wonder why you became an actor in the first place?
‘The reason I’m an actor is that I’m interested in identity. I’m interested in the mutability of identity. What’s the Buddhist saying? Maybe it’s not a Buddhist saying… “We contain multitudes.” I’m not a practising Buddhist – it’s just a phrase! ‘You get to live in the shoes of other people. You get a sense of what it might be like doing another job, being a soldier, like in “The Night Manager”, or a physiologist, as in “High-Rise”. It excites my completely amateur and untrained interest in psychology. I find people fascinating. It’s a way of testing myself.
‘Another thing that fascinates me is the turbulence that happens to all of us in private and lies behind our calm exterior. Human beings are intensely complex.’
You’re curious about the public masks we all wear?
‘We all present a version of ourselves to the world. What’s going on inside is much more unpredictable, chaotic and vulnerable. With both these characters, in “The Night Manager” and “High-Rise”, I’m interested in where you see the cracks.’
‘Prejudice. It drives me bananas’
‘The Night Manager’ has been getting a great reception. What made you want to play Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier who goes from working in luxury hotels to working for MI6?
‘I was inspired very much by Pine’s personal bravery. I was thinking about his moral commitment, his military service and his rage. There’s huge anger in him that comes from having served in Iraq. There must be real characters like Pine out there, gathering intelligence and being incredibly brave.’
Did you ever wonder how you might cope in the army?
‘Yes I did, and the answer is: I don’t know. I’ve thought about it a lot because I’ve played so many soldiers. If you take Loki out of the equation, almost everybody I’ve played is a soldier. There was Captain Nicholls in “War Horse” and Freddie Page in “The Deep Blue Sea”. I’ve played Shakespearean soldiers in “Coriolanus” and “Henry V”.’
Did you meet John le Carré?
‘I did. He was very hands-on. I loved meeting him. I think he’s happy with it. I got this amazing email from him and a copy of a first edition of “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” by TE Lawrence. It was an extraordinary, beautiful thing to give me.’
What did you and he talk about?
‘We had an amazing conversation as I’d just got back from South Sudan after ten days working with Unicef [Hiddleston is a supporter of the UN programme]. It’s the most dangerous place I’ve ever been. We were right in the thick of the civil war, making a documentary about what they do in a conflict zone. The country’s been completely torn apart. It’s a huge humanitarian crisis. I was talking to John about it and my feeling of anger and frustration about the rule of arms, and he said: “I feel exactly the same. Use it!” ’
Was acting in films your main ambition when you were a drama student at Rada?
‘Yes, I loved it. Rada is just up by Goodge Street station and I used to run down to the Curzon Soho and the Odeons. I saw everything that came out. And I wanted to be part of it. There are still parts of filmmaking that seem very remote. I’ve always loved the European tradition of filmmaking. It’s something I’ll have to work a lot harder on. I’d love to learn another language and be in a foreign film.’
Do you think British film actors of your generation are living in a golden age of international success?
‘Yes, I think so. Maybe there was something that happened around the time Hugh Laurie started to be in “House” on TV. What trickled down to my generation was a sense that as a British actor you didn’t need an invitation to go over to America, you could just go and try your luck. I think that is what’s happened. British actors who are succeeding – like Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicholas Hoult and Idris Elba – these are people who decided to go out there and see what happened. Before then, you had to be in some extraordinary British success and then you could head out there. I remember that new sense of possibility.’
Do modern movies demand that actors keep in strong shape, almost like sportsmen?
‘I do feel like that now, yeah. For “The Night Manager” and [King Kong film] “Skull Island”, which I’m shooting now in Australia, I play soldiers, so you want to do right by real soldiers who are in that sort of shape. I honestly think there’s a premium in truthfulness. People don’t want to see you fake it. They want to see the real thing, and it includes physicality. People can be very moved by it. Whether that’s Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant” or Michael B Jordan in “Creed” or Michael Fassbender in “Hunger”. There’s something so obviously committed in dedicating yourself.
‘I was thinking about this yesterday, about the need to be true in everything. It’s not that I choose to stay in character or reinvent the Method. It’s just what people demand to see. I do too. We’re all moved by authenticity. There are certain magic tricks in creating an illusion. But commitment, risk and authenticity are the most powerful things in all art.’
‘The Night Manager’ is on BBC One on Sunday nights. ‘High-Rise’ opens in cinemas on Fri Mar 18.