Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The actor's modesty

I was listening to an interview with Tom Hiddleston about his Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light, which is now in theaters, and he made an innocuous comment that struck me.

Talking about his experience on another film, Hiddleston said, "I made a film with Guillermo del Toro called Crimson Peak," and then continued on with whatever his point was.

It struck me as incredibly modest, even though in the wrong hands it could have seemed like false modesty.

Two things about that comment showed charming modesty, I thought. For starters, he was reporting it as news, that he had made a film with this well-known director, like almost everyone listening to the interview wouldn't already be aware of the latest film by the director of Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and Hiddleston's involvement in it. The second charming part was that he revealed the name as though that in itself were a piece of information that needed to be divulged, never once taking for granted that the listener might already know of the movie.

But it occurred to me that this type of thing doesn't always work. There comes a point where a movie is well known enough that to pretend your audience doesn't know it would just be insulting them.

Like if Harrison Ford said, "I made a film with George Lucas called Star Wars," you'd say, "Duh, Harrison -- we know what Star Wars is." And you'd be a little bit annoyed because you'd know Harrison knew you knew. It wouldn't help much to switch it up to, "I made a little film with George Lucas called Star Wars," because even though the word "little" changes the inflection of the comment -- now we know he's joking, because everyone knows Star Wars is not "little" -- it still has the effect of kind of big-upping himself. The very acknowledgement of its size indicates that you are overly proud of that size.

So in that case, to seem normal, Ford would just have to say, "On Star Wars we ..." and get on with the comment or anecdote. There that would be okay. It wouldn't be modest per se, but it wouldn't insult our intelligence either, and when you've appeared in four Star Wars movies and four Indiana Jones movies, excess modesty probably doesn't fit very well anyway.

But Crimson Peak is about the perfect sized film to maintain that modesty, and Hiddleston about the perfect level of star. He's not a household name yet, and with his underlying eccentricity, may never become one. But he did play Loki in The Avengers, one of the highest grossing films of all time, so it's not like he's Mr. Anonymous either.

Hiddleston continued to charm me with his lack of pretension about himself and his genuine humility. Later on the interviewer made a comparison between his character in I Saw the Light and his character in Only Lovers Left Alive, and Hiddleston was so chuffed by the comparison (even though it didn't take any particular display of cleverness by the interviewer to make it) that he revealed an anecdote from the set -- an anecdote he would have held back if the interviewer hadn't prompted him by mentioning the Jim Jarmusch movie from 2014. It was an interesting anecdote that had a lot of relevance to the discussion, but he would have kept it tucked away if the interviewer hadn't given him a clear opening. Why? Modesty. You don't tell war stories about other movies during an interview unless given a darn good reason -- it's kind of the equivalent of name dropping. (And lest you consider his original mention of Crimson Peak to have been a case of telling war stories/name dropping, I can assure you it did not come across that way -- though neither do I remember the point he was actually making.)

Another time he seemed genuinely flattered by the interviewer's praise of his performance, like he might have been receiving such praise for the first time in his career -- like he had never before considered the idea that someone might consider what he does to be good.

There was an interesting secondary display of modesty in this interview, this time by the director, Marc Abraham, who did the interview alongside his star. Rather than modesty, it was actually a way to display your pride over your own work without seeming in the slightest like that's what you're doing -- and in fact seeming quite magnanimous in the process.

Abraham said that both Hiddleston and co-star Elizabeth Olsen were "so great" in the film, or something along those lines. To be clear, this didn't strike me at all as bragging about the quality of the film, because the praise was clearly directed at the stars, as if he himself bore no responsibility for extracting good performances from them. However, if you unpack the comment, it is a suggestion that something about the film itself is "great," so as the de facto author of the film, he is indeed sort of praising himself. It's funny that creative types can get away with this, heaping praise on one another without implicitly also praising themselves. Just to reinforce his own sense of personal modesty, Abraham, while describing certain directing luminaries whose styles were an influence on him, explained, "I'm not saying at all that I am that quality of filmmaker" -- not those exact words, but something more succinctly self-deprecating. And indeed, it honestly didn't feel like he was saying that.

The interesting thing is that both these genuinely refreshing personas must be an act on some level, even as genuine as they seem. If not Abraham, a guy I've never heard of before, then certainly Hiddleston, who has been through numerous press junkets already in his five or so years of high visibility as an actor. You do so many interviews and get so many questions from interviewers who are each trying to find something profound and unexpected to ask, but are invariably covering much of the same territory. It can't really be possible to be genuinely charmed by and appreciative of each interviewer, though Hiddleston did it masterfully, and his director followed his lead.

And now I really would like to see I Saw the Light, a biopic of a person who otherwise wouldn't interest me (and seems like a strange fit indeed for the effete Hiddleston), just to see how good of a job these two guys really did do in their respective roles.

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