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Englishman Tom Hiddleston worked hard to play Hank Williams right

By Jake Coyle | Associated Press

Rest assured, in the course of playing country music legend Hank Williams in the biopic “I Saw the Light,” it was brought to Tom Hiddleston’s attention that he is British.

The 35-year-old actor has taken on plenty of roles with weighty expectations, from his Marvel Comics villain Loki to Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” on the London stage to F. Scott Fitzgerald in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.”

But for many music aficionados, it doesn’t get more intrinsically American than the twangy purity of Williams’ profoundly simple honky-tonk, and his meteoric rise and fall — he died at 29 in 1953. That made the role, Hiddleston says, “uniquely daunting.”

“I understand that there are things about Hank that I wasn’t born with. I knew that. I knew that before everybody else pointed it out,” Hiddleston said in an interview. “I hope it just gave me more compassion and more commitment and a keener desire to get it right because some of these things weren’t second nature. So I worked probably harder than I’ve ever worked on anything to be faithful to him.”

Hank Williams
Hank Williams

Writer-director Marc Abraham’s “I Saw the Light” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, where critical reaction was mixed. But most praised Hiddleston’s performance — which features his own singing and guitar playing.

Sony Pictures Classics at first planned to release the independent film last November, hoping to draw awards attention, but later postponed the release until spring. An April 1 opening is planned in Chicago.

“I’m drawn to foreign territory,” says Hiddleston. “I get most excited by, as it were, being a foreign correspondent and going somewhere new and being rigorous in my excavation of that character.”

With Elizabeth Olsen co-starring as Williams’ first wife, Audrey Mae Sheppard, “I Saw the Light” dramatizes the songwriter’s short life by focusing on how his domestic life and turbulent relationship with Sheppard informed his lyrics and music.

After seeing the film for the first time, Hiddleston says he saw his performance as not exactly himself or Williams, but a melding of the two: “It’s who I would have been if I had had Hank’s life,” he says.

The country musician Rodney Crowell tutored Hiddleston for the music scenes in the movie. The actor smiles as he recalls their sessions together, with Crowell trying to keep Hiddleston’s “English choir boy” from sneaking into the likes of “Lovesick Blues.”

Slipping immediately into Crowell’s Southern accent, Hiddleston quotes his instruction:

“You got to shake out that Englishman in you. Because you’re singing the blues now.”