Tom Hiddleston love this amazing Bolognese, the most incredible Bolognese you’ve ever had. (You braise it in the oven after browning it on the stove—that’s the thing. Also: Bacon! Also: Butter! He also loves bacon and butter!) He made this Bolognese last night, after we’d parted following day one of our two-day early-January walking tour of London. He settled into his Camden house and spent the evening cooking and watching a screener of Moonlight, which he could now confirm for me was as amazing! and riveting! and touching! as everyone has said.
He heats up some Bolognese for me and we make our plan for the day, which will involve another walk through another astonishingly beautiful park. Yesterday, it was Regent’s Park. Everyone knows about Hyde Park, but do they know about Regent’s Park? No, and I must see it.
Long walks, that’s his thing—to think stuff over, to figure out his lines, to process what’s going on in his life, both the triumphs and the heartache. On New Year’s Day, he says, Regent’s Park was even more beautiful than it was during our walk: It was foggy, and the lanterns were lit, but you couldn’t see anything beyond the mist. It reminded him of the London of old, the one he loves so much, the London of J. M. Barrie. It was a simpler time then. Lately he’s been thinking a lot about simpler times.
Tom Hiddleston is enthusiastic about everything: Moana (“Incredible!”); Dwayne Johnson in particular (“That man radiates joy!”); Matt Damon (“I think he’s got real integrity!”); Michael Fassbender (“Extraordinary!”); Chiwetel Ejiofor (Amazing!”); this porridge he makes, which is just oatmeal and almond milk and chia seeds (“I’m obsessed!”).
This is important to keep in mind while you’re getting to know Tom Hiddleston: His zeal is bottomless.
You might know, instead, that he’s an English gentleman of the purest caliber who has never spoken out of turn about any of his relationships, who wouldn’t curse during my many hours with him no matter what the circumstance because his mother would be so disappointed to read it.
But in the pantheon of things Tom loves, the thing he loves most is Tom Hanks. “His decency is poured into everything he does.” Even the comedies. Even in Turner & Hooch! “I’m nowhere near Tom Hanks’s contribution or even close. All of it’s not high art, you know? But there is a value in it somehow, somewhere.” What he’s saying is: It’s worth it for us all to think about what we’re putting into the world. He’s saying it would be great to be known for your decency.
And here Hiddleston does a brief impression of Tom Hanks that is hard to describe, except to say that it summons Tom Hanks in a very profound way. Its only flaw is also part of its charm: While he does the impression, he’s also looking at you to see how much you’re enjoying it, and then he can’t stop smiling when he sees that you are.
By most definitions, Tom Hiddleston is…uncool. His vulnerability, his enthusiasm, his Bolognese, these are not trademarks of a dashing movie star. And yet here he is, a sweet-natured bookworm trapped in the second act of a movie where the overlooked geek has been given the face and body of the only man who should ever be allowed to wear a suit (or jeans, or that long-sleeve navy T-shirt he wore when we had dinner).
On every level, Hiddleston is in: He’s there, he’s present, he’s yours, he’s heartfelt, he’s real. The world might not be ready for the kind of earnestness and sincerity that comes along with Tom Hiddleston.
His conscientiousness was built into him as a boy by his father, who is the best chemist in the world. They lived in a modest home in Wimbledon along with his mother, who is the most compelling arts fund-raiser alive; his elder sister, Europe’s best journalist; and his younger sister, a gifted midwife with a singing voice that comes directly from God. The Hiddle-family was solidly middle-class, but Tom’s parents sacrificed to send him to the best schools—Eton, Cambridge, and then RADA. He learned the basics of scrupulosity, though, from his father, who taught him that there is right and wrong, fact and myth, and that sometimes you have to work hard to spot the difference. This was a life lesson for Tom Hiddleston, passed down from father to son, but it’s also an acting lesson.
See, he thinks the audience deserves people who have studied. Acting isn’t about lying or pretending, the way people sometimes say it is. It’s about getting the experience of the person you are portraying exactly correct, and the way you do that is by going to the experts. In Skull Island he plays a former British SAS soldier who is a renowned tracker, hired to help find whatever it is they’re looking for (which turns out to be monsters). For that performance, he: read The Tracker, the seminal memoir by tracker hero Tom Brown Jr.; trained with a former Navy SEAL, even though this is like the 70th time he’s played a soldier; and researched a jungle-warfare school in Malaya where actual British SAS soldiers are believed to have trained in the 1960s.
We’re at a pub he likes in Hampstead Heath called The Bull & Last eating steak and broccoli. He does an impression of David Attenborough’s voice-over for Planet Earth II only Hiddleston’s narration is about him eating a bite of my meal (“…the male must dine on his companion’s steak…”).
Where would we be without experts, is his point. How would we learn? And so one of the things Tom Hiddleston is determined to fix about the world right now is what he calls our “strange public distrust of experts.” It’s time for “a movement in critical thinking, to really resist this dilution of truth and holding people to account for twisting it or distorting it.”
(As if to underscore this: A few days after I returned to the States, a friend sent me a link to a Daily Mail article containing nine pictures of Hiddleston and a “mystery brunette”—me—hugging, laughing, and bidding each other farewell. For the record, I was laughing about his Attenborough impression; I was hugging him because we were saying good-bye after two days and because: Tom Hiddleston!)
So yes, fake news is a thing. This is the first time he’s talked about any of this, he says—about politics, news, anything beyond the scope of his roles. He used to politely beg off. But he sees that’s no longer an option.
Which is why he’s decided to step into the fray himself, consequences be damned. “If you’re under attack,” he says, looking me square in the eye, his voice raw, “if your values are under attack, if you’re being shamed, if you’re being humiliated, the animal response is to hide in the bush. It’s to be less, to make yourself smaller, to diminish in size and volume. And the lesson of 2016 is we have to love more, we have to risk more, we have to be braver, we have to be more outspoken.”
It wasn’t until much later that night, after we’d parted, that I realized we had started talking about Taylor Swift long before we started talking about Taylor Swift.
It is tempting to say that the union of Hiddleswift was cooked up in a panicked publicist’s office. That professional breakup lyricist Taylor Swift urgently needed a professional, tactical, romantical distraction. That maybe a British actor who was trying to break through to an American audience sensed an opportunity to become something more here. Maybe those two urgent impulses led to them sitting on the rocks, having a perfect kissing moment, while a person with a camera stood not so far away and took pictures.
But—but—it is also equally possible that it was real. I mean, this happens, right? Beautiful people fall in love, don’t they? And these two made a kind of sense: They were similarly earnest and pale and high-rise and shiny.
It lasted three months. They ate dinner in restaurants; they traveled to England to meet his family, and to Australia, where he’d be shooting Thor: Ragnarok. But soon after that Australia trip, that was it, and we were left with only unconfirmed tertiary sources saying that Taylor did. not. like. how public he was with his affection, like, say, confirming their relationship to The Hollywood Reporter and generally walking around with a smile on his face like a man in love.
“Taylor is an amazing woman,” reads the prepared statement Tom Hiddleston has memorized and is now giving me at The Bull & Last, where his voice has gone low. “She’s generous and kind and lovely, and we had the best time.” But I didn’t ask that, I say. I asked something else. So I wait, and he says, “Of course it was real.”
I ask if he wants to say anything about Australia, about the Fourth of July party at which he donned that fateful tank top, about the rumors that she thought he was too eager.
And here he puts down his fork, a bite of my steak still on it. He looks off into the middle distance “The truth is, it was the Fourth of July and a public holiday and we were playing a game and I slipped and hurt my back. And I wanted to protect the graze from the sun and said, ‘Does anyone have a T-shirt?’ And one of her friends said, ‘I’ve got this.’” The friend pulled out the “I ♥ T.S.” tank top that Taylor’s friends are contractually obligated to own. “And we all laughed about it. It was a joke.”
So that’s his statement on the entire relationship: an explanation of the tank top. “It was a joke,” he repeats. “Among friends.”
“I have to be so psychologically strong about not letting other people’s interpretations about my life affect my life. A relationship exists between two people. We will always know what it was. The narratives that are out there have been extrapolated from pictures that were taken without consent or permission, with no context. Nobody had the context for that story. And I’m still trying to work out a way of having a personal life and protecting it, but also without hiding. So the hardest thing is that that was a joke among friends on the Fourth of July.”
He still isn’t looking at me. He is so sad, and I can’t take it anymore, so I put my hand on his and I say, “Tom, Tom, it’s okay. You don’t have to talk about the tank top anymore. I got it. I understand. I’ll tell the world.” But he can’t stop talking about it. He literally cannot stop talking about it.
“I don’t know. I just, I was surprised. I was just surprised that it got so much attention. The tank top became an emblem of this thing.” It’s hard to tell me this, he says. He wants to trust me. He wants to trust that the world won’t use this to embarrass him again, but he doesn’t know. He just knows it will follow him until he talks about it.
And anyway, none of this has anything to do with the person he fell in love with. “I only know the woman I met. She’s incredible. A relationship in the limelight… A relationship always takes work. A relationship in the limelight takes work. And it’s not just the limelight. It’s everything else.” He wanted a regular relationship. So did she, he says she said. “So we decided to go out for dinner, we decided to travel.”
After the breakup, he moved to Australia for Thor: Ragnarok, and each morning he’d wake up at five and go running, and the cameras would be there. “I’m getting up so I can do this job well. I’m getting up to go for my run so I can play Loki as well as I can.” Everywhere he went, whether it was checking e-mail on a park bench or looking at a menu, if he furrowed his brow it meant he was miserable and that would incite a new tabloid story about how hard he was taking all of this. It was a tough time, a public tough time. Chris Hemsworth gave him some good guidance; Hugh Laurie checked in. His family worried.
He shakes his head, his hands clasped together, and he hangs his head. We talk some more because I finally understand that he isn’t here as someone who needs to explain his side in a PR battle; he’s here as someone who is still crushed by the end of a relationship.
So we sit and talk for a while. We talk about how relationships go sideways, how the ripples of a breakup can still pin you to a wall even months later. We talk about heartache. We talk about sadness and healing. We talk about what it’s like to love and what happens when the object of that love withdraws but all your love is still there. We talk about how those things can really change a person. The world will chip away at your optimism, and you just have to fight back. You have to be someone who is still full of joy and full of love, who can still use a word like “obsessed” about porridge. You have to be bold and open. You have to be honest. You have to be like Tom Hanks.