Sundays have taken on something of a spy theme, as the BBC begins airing its high-profile adaptation of John le Carré’s espionage thriller The Night Manager. In it, Tom Hiddleston swaps the Norse mythology of Loki for the English sensibilities of Jonathan Pine. He's a former soldier turned agent-for-hire who finds himself swept up an international mystery as a staffer working in the kinds of hotels where these things unfold. We spoke to Hiddleston about his approach to the role many have described as a “Bond warm-up”...
When did you first read the book?
I read the script first. I read episode one in April last year. And then I read the book. The script was only 60 pages; it was so brilliant. Jonathan Pine, this ex-soldier, so patient, charming, disciplined, completely hidden. A night manager in Switzerland. A man of service, a man of discipline. It was all so brilliantly constructed. That was clear. So I just jumped on as quickly as I could. Hugh Laurie and I kind of jumped on before the adaptation was complete.
Did the book change things for you, or amplify them?
What le Carré is so good at is unpicking something very specific about Englishness.
The book is amazing. It is amazing to act in any book adaptation, because a book gives you so many secrets and details that don’t necessarily get shot in an adaptation. They give you a cushion underneath everything. The detail in the character, the detail in the tone.
What le Carré is so good at is unpicking something very specific about Englishness. That is almost part of why I think he wrote the novel. You can feel le Carré’s anger that someone who has had the benefits of an English education and an English upbringing is using that privilege to basically do the worst things imaginable. There is an anger in the book about that.
Do you get the sense there is quite a lot of John le Carré in Pine? (Le Carré worked for MI6 as a young man.)
Absolutely. I think that is so interesting. It is le Carré. There must be so much of him when he was younger. He’s an interesting character. I don’t want to say the word “passive” because there is something very active about the way he is passive, if that makes any sense: the nature of his watching and his listening is active. It is always so alive because he is, essentially, a spy.
Does television give you a chance to find a certain level of stillness and contemplation – all those things that a lengthy running time brings?
Totally. I think that it is fine stitching, in a way. Honestly, it has never felt like television. It always felt like a six-hour film. It gives us a longer arc, and just more opportunity for detail in a way, for the detail in the story, in a way, and for the scale. I mean, I love films that jump from location to location, but this has an extraordinary breadth to it. It starts in Switzerland, it goes to Cairo, then it goes to London, and then it goes to the past, then we are back in Switzerland, then London, then Devon, then Majorca, then Istanbul, then the Turkish-Syrian border, then back to Cairo. It is a complete international espionage drama, and we have shot in lots of different places too. It feels epic. It feels like I have been doing it all my life, actually. But it has been an amazing character to play, and so different from anything else I have played before.
What is the relationship like with Hugh Laurie’s character, Roper?
Doing this with Hugh has been amazing not least because it happens to be one of his favourite novels, and he has been trying to be in an adaptation of the novel for about 25 years. I think he wanted to play Jonathan Pine, many years ago. And his authority over the material has been an amazing thing to be around. The Pine-Roper relationship is really interesting because it is almost like a father-son relationship. They are quite similar in lots of ways: in manner, taste, experience and sophistication, they are cut from the same cloth. It is just that one has an unflinching moral sense of right and wrong, and the other, as le Carré writes, is the “worst man in the world”.
It has never felt like television. It always felt like a six-hour film.
There is an amazing line in the book: “Acting and being become one and the same for Jonathan Pine.” He is characterised as someone playing a role, but he believes in the role to such an extent that he almost like a method actor. That he has entered into this fictitious persona so wholeheartedly that he no longer feels he is acting – it feels like he has become someone else.
You say 'John le Carré' and people will automatically think of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. How does this differ from that concept of le Carré?
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about someone on the inside. Smiley is older, and is much more about someone who is on the inside of the Circus. Pine isn’t on the inside; he is a free agent, who is recruited by an agent. The Night Manager doesn’t exist in the post-Cold war universe, it exists much more in the modern world, I think. There is more action. The bad guys don’t have particularly political or national-political affiliations. Roper is his own particular brand of villain. It is interesting, early on the book he is referred to as “the worst man in the world” and in a lot of our discussions we have tried to get to the bottom of why le Carré calls him that.
In terms of the process, how much does television differ from movies?
It depends… I don’t know whose idea it was that television had to be so fast. This is a 350 page script, shot in 75 days, which is very fast. But sometimes pace is a good thing, because you don’t have time to overthink it. Everybody – actors, director, director of photography, stand-by art, props. Nobody had time to go, “Well, what if try it like this?” You have 20 minutes to get the shot done, and you can’t come back tomorrow. There is a connection to your instinct. The urgency allows instinct to yield something interesting.
James Bond has become more complicated than it used to be. Do we hunger for more from our spies?
Yes. There is stuff going on behind the curtain. And this kind of material appeals to that desire to see behind the curtain: what deals are being made? Who is in whose pocket? That is what our headlines are made up of now – when you see that high finance is in bed with politics, which is in bed with the media. You think, well, who is in with who? There are all these conflicts of loyalty and interests, and how does that play when the stakes are high? What do I know? I’m just an actor...
The Night Manager airs on BBC One in the UK on Sundays, and will premiere on AMC in the US in April.