Over the last several weeks, Tom Hiddleston has staged an accidental takeover of America’s small screens, as two major projects were released to streaming. The first was The Night Manager, Susanne Bier’s miniseries adaptation of a John le Carré novel of the same name, starring Hiddleston as a spy with a heart of gold. And the second was High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of a J.G. Ballard science fiction novel, which makes an argument for the essential nihilism of humanity that is a result of a crumbling class system, personified in the movie by a high-rise apartment complex that none of the patrons can leave. These days, jumping between television and movies is hardly an unusual sight, but Tom Hiddleston’s career over the long haul is an exercise in how to stay on your toes while never making a misstep. He’s one of the more beloved figures in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to his appearances in the Thor and Avengers movies, and when he’s not in Hollywood, he’s working with major international art filmmakers, from his first films with Joanna Hogg to Terence Davies to Jim Jarmusch and now Wheatley. Next up, he’s set to star in a King Kong blockbuster, presumably as the non-primate alternative.
The "one for them, one for me" philosophy has become an economic necessity as films are increasingly financed based on the box office appeal of their stars. Gone are the days when studios drafted exclusive contracts for their performers, limiting their freedom of expression and choice in exchange for significant long-term investment in the success of the star. Instead, actors today work in a freelance economy, where you’re only as good as your last project. Fortunately for Tom Hiddleston, all of his last projects have been at least good, and sometimes great. And maybe it’s not fortune at all, but the planning of a performer who, at least onscreen, seems impervious to whatever chaos is around him — whether it’s international intrigue, a crumbling high rise, or Hollywood.
You can only take the projects that are offered to you, and all of the boarding school and classical training in the world isn’t going to make The Avengers into Hamlet. The good thing about Tom Hiddleston is that he takes his work seriously, but he doesn’t try to dress up silly movies with drama-school theatrics — which is maybe why his background seems less bothersome than those of fellow prep-school graduates Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne. Where Cumberbatch and Redmayne give the task of classing up Hollywood joints the good college go, jumping at chances to play operatic extremes, Hiddleston yields. Whether he’s playing an intergalactic supervillain for Marvel or a secret agent on prestige television, Hiddleston shoots straight. He doesn’t fidget, his gaze is clear and direct, his voice is soft. For all the James Bond talk there is around Hiddleston, his take on playing an international man of mystery in The Night Manager has none of the hardness of Bond, at least as he appears in his most famous portrayals by Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. If anything, Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine is more believable in his disguise as a hotel concierge than he is as a spy, and at least in the first episode, the biggest mystery seems to be how such a nice, normal man got entangled in such a cruel profession. Likewise, there’s a scene in High-Rise where he does a quick dance across a hall, and the minor exertion of energy is a surprising kick, if only because the occasion for such an expenditure comes so rarely.
In a way, Hiddleston has made it his gimmick to not have a gimmick. He has yet to go through the motions of degenerative physical maladies or severe social disorders, and he has yet to be nominated for an Oscar. Instead, he does his work quietly, floating between art films and blockbusters with the same unobtrusive commitment to the task at hand. I guess the term for Tom Hiddleston is “character actor,” but what does that even mean when you have Oscar winners and Oscar nominees turning up for trash like The Huntsman?
There’s no shame in making trash movies — I loved The Huntsman, and as Pauline Kael once said, movies are so rarely great art that if we can’t appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them. But there is shame in making trash for money and calling it art for prestige. Pretentiousness is often decried for its classism — its assumptions of a moral hierarchy in what different classes of people consume and how they consume it — but in our rush to condemn pretentiousness, condescension has risen as its equal and opposite crime.
For his part, Hiddleston seems both aware of and at peace with the limitations of his field, commenting on his philosophy toward life and the film industry in an interview with Esquire, “I believe that nothing is certain and fixed, so you have to make the best efforts to treasure things, and not fall into the trap of letting things be destroyed. Because they can be.”
In another cultural moment, Hiddleston’s modesty might seem dull. But amid the lurid and unending spectacle of watching Hollywood’s best and brightest stretch their muscles on tinker toys, his recessiveness feels fresh. It’s not like any performer has the power to hold an entire industry accountable for the neglected art form that supports it, but with artists fighting to get ambitious work funded, artists of color fighting for their right to tell their own stories at all, and British actors in particular protesting a lack of opportunity for working classes, the least a movie star can do is not make movies worse by pretending they’re better. In an increasingly hostile market, maybe Tom Hiddleston’s biggest virtue is that he refuses to come on strong.