Tonight, National Theater Live will broadcast The Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’sCoriolanus to cinemas around the UK. We spoke to Tom Hiddleston, who plays Coriolanus, about why he took on the role, his pre-show routine and some on-stage mishaps.
Why did you decide to take on the role of Coriolanus?
The director Josie Rourke brought it to me. In general, it’s a play that’s not often performed and I think that’s because it’s challenging - it’s political, heated and explosive. People also find it hard to identify with Coriolanus because he has a stubborn and arrogant character. Hamlet is easy to empathise with, Othello has a goodness in him and there is an innate tragedy to watching an old man go mad in King Lear. Coriolanus is seen as being unsympathetic and cold, but I actually saw so much vulnerability in him. He is an exceptional soldier, and when he returns from war he is strongly encouraged to enter politics and it’s a disaster waiting to happen. The role requires flexibility, compromise and the ability to tell white lies - and he can’t do that. He’s too proud and stubborn; his belief in honour conflicts with what is expected of him. That’s what creates drama in the play. You get what you see with Coriolanus, and even if one doesn’t agree with him, he does have integrity.
I also felt there were political aspects to the story which feel very modern, like the power of the people and the fickleness of the mob. They change with the wind - at least Coriolanus is constant!
How did you begin preparing for that challenge - mentally and physically?
The first thing I did was to learn the play inside and out. Words are the key to every role, and for Coriolanus they guide the character’s voice, manner, and even his heartbeat. As I studied the play and became more immersed in it, so many questions arose. Why is he so angry? Why does he hate the people so much?
There were 70 performances ahead of me, eight shows a week, and there was a lot of preparation to be done. Mentally, I needed rest because the size and scale of the emotions in a Shakespeare story is always exhausting. There was also a degree of physical preparation. Coriolanus is a soldier, and the audience has to see that he’s been to war and can fight. I tried to make my body as strong as possible by increasing my physical routine, getting lots of early nights and drinking tons of water. I also immersed myself in the character and made sure I had limited distractions. To bring a new interpretation, that’s fresh for a new audience, required a certain concentration from everyone on the team.
How do you handle the physical demands of the role?
I certainly ran more and did extra strength exercises to prepare, and we did stunt training with our coordinator Richard Ryan. My main fight partner is the actor Hadley Fraser. On the first day we took it easy on each other, but as it went on we developed a mutual trust and we were able to hit each other harder. You get stronger and your body becomes accustomed to it so it doesn’t hurt as much.
The make-up in Coriolanus is extensive – how does it help you get into character?
Make-up is crucial because the writing of the play specifically references the bruised, battered and scarred body of Coriolanus. There’s a scene when he refuses to reveal his wounds to the people in the market place, even though that’s what’s required of him to become a politician. Because those injuries are so important, we added a part where Coriolanus has a brief and painful shower and the audience can see the true extent of my wounds. To prepare for this my body is covered in paint, latex and stage blood, which takes about an hour to put on. It’s so thrilling because when I reveal my body and the wounds, I’ve heard the audience wince. It’s a very important moment because then, when he stands on the senate, the audience believes that he has a right to be there.
How do you prepare to go on stage?
I come into the theatre at 4.30 for a 7.30 show. The fight scene in Coriolanus is complex, and we have to ensure our bodies are limbered up and do a rehearsal for it every night. At about seven we do a mental warm-up. Most actors agree that you need to rid yourself of your ‘day’ before you perform, and I’ve never been able to just walk on stage. You could have an argument with your partner, or you could have been to a birthday party, or whatever. To cleanse yourself of what has gone on before is important; you can’t let it affect your performance. Coriolanus starts the play possessed of an immense anger and I have to put myself into the right mood. Sometimes, I’ll listen to Holst’s The Planets, or run up and down the fire escape - and other days I’ll already be there!
What challenges did you face with the role?
In the end the greatest struggle with this role was to inhabit the essence of his personality. To ensure I can channel the power of his fury every day has been challenging. He is an immensely angry man – there are a couple of lines that illustrate that in the play, one of those is: “there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.” Every night I am professionally required to roar.
How do you rid yourself of that anger, once off stage?
There is something very satisfying and definite about Coriolanus’s death at the end of the play. Everything that he is goes with him. Equally, at the end of the play, he experiences compassion and it is very therapeutic to be able to finally yield to something soft and vulnerable. Once off stage, I have a nice long shower and wash the blood off me. By the time I tumble into Covent Garden - with the crowds and the twinkling lights – I’ve left the role behind.
Tell us about the moments you’ve enjoyed during rehearsals?
There are some very funny, clever people in this company. Sometimes getting to know each other takes time, but you can also end up trusting the other actors very quickly. We play silly games during the warm up, and we have great fun. But for me, it’s the moments when something goes wrong live in front of an audience that will stay with me. When you are doing a contemporary play you can get away with a wrong word or line, but with Shakespeare, if you get the line wrong, the whole cast knows it and everyone has to suppress the laughter - because once you start, that’s it. I enjoy those moments the most.
Tell us about your most disastrous/amusing moment on stage so far?
Just last night during the performance, Hadley and me were in the middle of a fight and the sword snapped in two. We had to go straight into a hand fight. It turned out alright in the end though - Damian Lewis was in the audience and he thought it was on purpose!
What were the first Shakespeare plays that had an impact on you?
It’s hard to pick; there are so many. I saw Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes’s 1998 Othello and I thought he was astonishing. I was 17 years old and I understood Shakespeare to be dry and just words on a page, but Simon spoke the words as if he wasn’t making it up. It was thought-provoking and I couldn’t believe it was Shakespeare – at that point I realised his plays needed to be performed, not just read. I also vividly remember Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 Romeo and Juliet. I was 15 years old - the target audience for that film - and it had such a profound effect on me. I now cannot watch Romeo and Juliet without thinking about that film – I can’t separate the two.
For more info on the live broadcasting of The Donmar Warehouse production of Coriolanus, see Nationaltheatrelive.org.