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SecondaryThe Arts

Tom Hiddleston – Acting in school helped me deal with my parents’ divorce

A great education gave Tom Hiddleston space to discover his passion – and the discipline needed to excel at it…

Tom Hiddleston
by Tom Hiddleston
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SecondaryThe Arts

I enjoyed my academic studies hugely. I sort of realise how that background is so helpful and such an advantage; an education is an extraordinary gift, and it’s funny how much I lean on it now.

I think I started acting because I found being away at school while my parents were divorcing really distressing.

It’s only now I’ve got a retrospective angle on it.

When you’re a teenager, suddenly you start harbouring secrets in a different way.

If you are at a boys’ school, especially, there is a level of bravado that you have to keep up, otherwise you’ll get picked on.

I was really quite upset, and probably very sad and vulnerable and angry. Acting presented a way of expelling those feelings in a safe place.

Natural talents

People think Eton is just full of braying toffs, who are arrogant and chauvinistic, senseless and ambitious, who are destined to run the country and steal all our money. It isn’t true.

There are a few people like that, but that’s one or two in a school of 1,200.

It’s actually one of the most broad-minded places I’ve ever been.

The reason it’s a good school is that it encourages people to find the thing they love and to go for it. They champion the talent of the individual and that’s what’s special about it.

So I started acting properly around the age of 13. It was one of the things that I did.

You know how, as you’re becoming a teenager, you’re starting to become aware of your skillset.

You might be an amazing footballer, or sprinter, or you might be a painter, or you’re really good at drawing or you’re an amazing pianist or singer or something.

But your talents, in a way – your natural talents – are starting to emerge and you just lean towards stuff, and so I just did play after play after play.

Intellectual discipline

At Cambridge University, world famous for its production of directors, actors and comedians, I knew there was a scene for that, and the first thing I did was I got myself involved in the acting community.

In my first year I was in a production of A Streetcar Named Desire playing Mitch, the Karl Malden part.

An agent and a casting director came to see it and they signed me up. And I got my first job in an ITV adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby.

It was great; I had five days’ work and scenes with Dominic West, pre-Wire, and Charles Dance and James D’Arcy and I was in – I was hooked. Being at Cambridge taught me intellectual discipline.

My teachers expected a high level of rigour when it came to be arguing a point or writing a paper.

I was taught to structure my thinking so that whenever I made a statement, I needed to be able to back it up and not make unfounded assertions or arguments.

I was taught to think for myself and not simply follow whatever passes for accepted wisdom which you absorb over time.

In that sense I’ve learnt the value of thinking critically about the world.

Spinning plates

My agent at the time, bless her, said, “Don’t leave Cambridge because it’s a very special thing and you’ll never get a chance to do it again. So, what I’ll do is, I’ll look for work for you during the holidays and you can keep doing what you’re doing.”

Inevitably, I never got any work in the holidays, it was always in term time – but somehow I managed to swing it; and by some twist of fate and accident, I managed to get a First twice.

I think it was probably due to some abject terror that I was going to fail because I’d spent so much time acting. And I was very bad at spinning both plates in the air at the same time.

So, whenever I wasn’t acting, I was rigorously working. I enjoyed it, but certainly my experience of university life wasn’t conventional in any sense.

Tom Hiddleston is an actor and film producer, whose credits include Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and Jonathan Pine in The Night Manager, for which he was also executive producer.

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