[Ed. note: The following contains minor spoilers for Loki episode 2, “The Variant.”]
For the new Marvel Cinematic Universe series Loki, Tom Hiddleston had to do something profoundly unusual for an actor: rewind his signature character by about a decade. Loki uses time-travel shenanigans to pull the Asgardian god out of the action of 2012’s The Avengers and into a new adventure, which means the show’s version of the character never experienced all the traumas and profound character changes he went through over the course of the last nine years of Marvel movies.
And Hiddleston has enjoyed the hell out of it.
“It’s really interesting, having to unstitch the evolution of the character from Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok, and Avengers: Infinity War,” he tells Polygon. “It was like time travel in itself, in some strange way. Such an unusual privilege as an actor, I thought, to go back into a character you played 10 years ago, and pick up where we left off. But at the same time, it’s fascinating, because I have a very real memory of doing things this Loki hasn’t done. It’s been a strange process of going, ‘But I know this!’ It was cool. It was unusual, in a really cool way.”
He’s also glad he’s stayed in shape enough to wear his old Loki outfit: “And to go back and put that costume on again — I’m very relieved that it still fits,” he says. “I guess it could have gone the other way.”
For Hiddleston, the series has represented an opportunity to rethink his performance as Loki, in part because the way the show is centered around his character means there are more emotional demands on him than usual.
“In this series, I felt like I did a few things as Loki that I have never done before,” Hiddleston says. “And I really, really enjoyed doing them. I think growth is a human need. We become aware of repetition — we think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do that anymore, because it’s not useful anymore.’ And so you’re trying to evolve, if you’re lucky. And so being able to evolve Loki in some way, and make different choices and do new things, was exciting. I don’t want to spoil too much, but there’s a lot coming around the corner.”
Part of that evolution came from a sequence in episode 2 of the show, “The Variant,” where Loki faces a series of civilians possessed by an alternate-timeline Loki — meaning Hiddleston had to share the screen with several actors all trying to mimic his movements and facial expressions, attempting to mirror his past Loki performances. That experience, he says, was particularly surreal, he says, because he didn’t rehearse with the actors or work on their Loki performances in advance.
“There was no formal sit-down with them,” he says. “But I found it enormously enjoyable to see characteristics which I’ve identified in Loki, and have been able to play for a long time — his playfulness, his mischief, his charm, but also the slight edge of ‘can you trust him?’ and his uniquely charismatic powers of persuasion — to see those live in different actors was a real thrill for me, because it’s not quite the same. But it is the same. But it’s different!”
Playing opposite other Lokis gave him a chance to see how other people interpret his performance. “It was quite fun to see how theatrical he is,” Hiddleston says. “When you’re in Loki’s presence, it’s quite hard to be unaware of that. His energy tends to fill the room. I really, really enjoyed that.”
One of Loki’s most noticeable characteristics in Loki, both when Hiddleston plays him and when other people take him on, is his increasingly twitchy smile, which he uses to try to cover up frustration and exasperation, and come across as genial even to his enemies. Hiddleston says that smile is an important part of who Loki is in any timeline or interpretation.
“In trying to create a kind of integrated psychological reality for the character, I always thought, ‘Loki: God of Mischief. Mischief: inclination to playfulness,’” Hiddleston says. “That’s something inside him, but it’s also a mask. He’s also a shapeshifter. And so the smile is a kind of defense, as much as any suit of armor, or as much as any exterior behavior.
“I think it varies — sometimes the smile is sincere, and he’s having the time of his life. And at other times, he’s almost breathing through some internal frustration, and trying to find a way to smooth it over.”
So far, the series seems to be expressly asking who Loki is — whether he’s capable of becoming a hero instead of a villain, whether he has a moral compass of his own. And it’s unclear whether the series will have time to reach a conclusion. “They’re big questions,” Hiddleston says. “In getting away from who we have been, can we become something or someone else? I think those questions take a long time to unravel for anyone, but I loved making an attempt.”