Hollywood star Tom Hiddleston sounds off about the gruelling physical training for his new blockbuster Kong: Skull Island, acting opposite Samuel L. Jackson, and his unforgettable experiences during the movie’s globe-trotting shoot.
Kong is back. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, Kong: Skull Island reimagines the classic creature King Kong, who was first unleashed over eight decades ago and has been thundering through our collective consciousness ever since. First portrayed in Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s groundbreaking 1933 classic King Kong, the original effects-driven blockbuster has been remade, parodied and spun-off on every sized screen. Kong is a monster that terrifies through his size, but whose humanlike features and emotion also provoke empathy. He’s a terrifying predator – but one you root for.
Tom Hiddleston, who stars alongside Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman and John C. Reilly, believes that it’s King Kong’s complexity that makes him a cultural icon we keep returning to.
“Kong embodies the internal clash between our civilised selves,” muses the actor. “It’s the place in our consciousness that still has a very real sense of something bigger than ourselves. How do you reconcile this massive creature, who is both a terrifying force of nature and a sentient being, with an intelligence that is different from ours but no less sophisticated?”
Kong: Skull Island is set in 1973, a time where the world has gone through enormous social and political change. Nixon has just withdrawn troops from Vietnam, and advancements in space and satellite technology are changing our perception of the world.
Hiddleston, who had signed on to play the film’s disillusioned SAS vet, Captain James Conrad, prior to the director coming aboard, states, “It’s a world before the tyranny of global satellites, near total surveillance and information overload. We didn’t have the illusion – as we do today with the internet and cell phones and GPS – that we knew everything about the world we live in. The period setting also gave us an extraordinary prism to explore what Kong might represent in a conversation about war, and the tendency of mankind to destroy what he doesn’t understand.”
Hiddleston has played a diverse range of characters throughout his career, including The Avengers’ Machiavellian villain Loki and his Golden Globe-winning role of an intelligence operative in The Night Manager. He’s also long been mentioned in conversations about the next James Bond, but his role of Captain James Conrad in Kong: Skull Island feels like the first true action hero role.
“The action aspect of it was definitely a thrilling prospect for me,” he enthuses. “I’ve always wanted to play a heroic protagonist. But Conrad feels like a unique kind of hero – someone with a bit of intellectual passion who becomes an adventurer. He’s a former British SAS officer who is an expert at jungle warfare and had been sent out to train American troops and the South Vietnamese during the war – and that’s something that actually came up in my research. In digging around, I discovered that British Special Forces actually served in the Vietnam War, but they were stationed at American bases in Cambodia or Indonesia to train the troops because they knew and understood jungle warfare.
“That really crystallised the character in our minds as someone with both a huge depth of military experience and an innate understanding of nature, whose great distinction in the SAS was as a highly skilled tracker, who’d be sent in to find lost soldiers in the jungle. I’ve always been fascinated by human beings who endure the greatest extremities of nature and experience – and that’s Conrad.”
When we meet Hiddleston’s character, he’s spiritually and emotionally lost in Asia, reeling from what he has experienced during the war and unsure whether he’ll ever be able to adapt back to civilian life. When he’s recruited to join a mysterious expedition to an uncharted island in the Pacific, he is suspicious but desperate for some purpose. To prepare for the role, Hiddleston conducted extensive research about the experiences of SAS operatives and underwent a punishing training regime.
“It’s all about creating something authentic,” says the 36-year-old. “When I researched the SAS training routine, I learned it is among the most gruelling in the history of the military. Those people are some of the fittest Special Forces operatives in the world. During my preparation for the film, I wanted to try and approximate that level of fitness and train to be able to survive in the harshest circumstances. Now, I’m an actor and I’ve never come close to the intensity of conditions and training experienced by SAS operatives, but I wanted to do as much as I could to understand it. Even that process was daunting, but I love training and I love a challenge. That training was a big help in conveying Conrad’s physicality. When you attain a certain level of fitness, it changes the way you move and feel. You feel stronger, run faster, and even stand differently. You just feel more powerful and more in possession of your own physicality.”
Kong: Skull Island reunites Hiddleston with his Avengers co-star Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Lt. Col. Packard, a man obsessed with vengeance after Kong killed some members of his team. Having lost his perspective, Jackson’s character is all rage and risk-taking in the face of Conrad’s cool-headed understanding of the situation’s ethical complexity.
“Unlike Packard, Conrad is thinking rationally and knows that there are higher stakes,” explains Hiddleston. “For him, it’s become a mission of survival. Equally important, through his experiences on the island, Conrad has come to respect Kong and his role in maintaining the natural order there. In fact, he, Weaver and Marlow [played by John C.Reilly] risk their lives to save Kong. All of this takes Conrad on a divergent path from Packard, leading to an epic confrontation. I think a film on this scale benefits from a clash between two of its principal characters. There’s something almost classical about it – you want to see two strong figures face off.”
Vogt-Roberts encouraged his actors to play onset, and embrace the natural chemistry and clashes between their characters. Indeed, Hiddleston says he got real pleasure creating his tense confrontations with Samuel L. Jackson.
“I always enjoy working with Sam and recall how warm and welcoming he was on our first film together, The Avengers,” Hiddleston remembers fondly. “And I know he gets as much pleasure as I do from our toe-to-toe/mano a mano encounters in Kong: Skull Island. It’s thrilling when you get a good scene where you can generate some real intensity together. Those scenes can really crackle. You can’t generate that on your own. It’s the kind of acting you can only do with a great scene partner, like Sam.”
Kong: Skull Island was filmed over six months, including shoots in Australia, Hawaii and Vietnam. The locations are stunning onscreen, and Hiddleston says that the awe-inducing landscapes not only added to the epic feeling of the shoot, but made his experience truly special with a number of unforgettable moments.
“If I had to name one highlight, it was when we were in a valley in Hawaii, in the shadow of a huge mountain,” he reminisces. “The sky was blue and the way the light was falling over the ridges of the mountain – it was incredibly beautiful. We were all walking over this ridge and entering the ‘boneyard’, which was a set dressed with all kinds of enormous animal bones. It was amazing. And we just turned around and said, ‘You know, this is as exciting as it gets. If you can’t get inspired by this, you can’t get inspired by anything.’”
Kong: Skull Island is in cinemas today.