By now, you have probably already read Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s interview with Tom Hiddleston in the American GQ. If you haven’t, I congratulate you for having a richer and more diverse social group than I do, because I have had at least five WhatsApp conversations about it since it was published, two days ago. As a piece of writing, it’s remarkable – Taffy has a wonderful and bizarre sense of lightness to her work, skipping between criticism and compassion, capturing Hiddleston's extreme excitability and general lack of chill.
“Nobody had the context for that story,” says a terse Hiddleston, referring to the I <3 T.S. tank top that imploded his life in the summer of last year. “And I’m still trying to work out a way of having a personal life and protecting it, but also without hiding. So the hardest thing is that that was a joke among friends on the Fourth of July.”
The way Hiddleston refers to the tank-top story throughout the piece reminds me of the old Gavin & Stacey joke, where Uncle Bryn and Jason are determined to forget about the events of their mysterious “fishing trip”, yet cannot stop obsessing over it. Hiddleston treads over the territory again and again – he didn’t want to get sunburn. He threw on the tank top as a joke. It was a joke, a jape, a laugh, a fluffy piece of mischief – and why doesn’t anyone GET that?
“He still isn’t looking at me. The last piece of my steak is now poised on his fork in mid-air. He is so sad, and I can’t take it anymore, so I put my hand on his and I say, “Tom, Tom, it’s okay. You don’t have to talk about the tank top anymore. I got it. I understand. I’ll tell the world.” But he can’t stop talking about it. He literally cannot stop talking about it.”
The most fascinating thing about Brodesser-Akner’s portrayal of Hiddleston is that it feels so entirely separate to the Hiddleston we’ve got to know on screen – the eloquent, suave presence that gives American women higher opinions of British men, and British women worse opinions of their own partners. That Hiddleston – the Loki Hiddleston, the Night Manager Hiddleston – is one we could never imagine with Taylor Swift, which is why so many people doubted the validity of their relationship. This Hiddleston – the one who thinks everything and everyone is “Amazing!” and “Incredible!”, the one who gets his feelings hurt about tank tops – is the real one. A goofy, nice posh boy who had a goofy, nice pop-star girlfriend.
Marvel’s a brand and Bond is a brand, but is… is he, really? Or is he just a nice, slightly odd man with a good job?
Others meanwhile, are a little concerned. “Has Tom Hiddleston damaged his brand?” appeared as a top headline on the BBC's website. “He was a hot favourite to be the next James Bond,” writes publicly funded media organisation the BBC. “But have his off-screen actions since done damage to his brand?” Was… was Tom Hiddleston a brand? Marvel’s a brand and Bond is a brand, but is… is he, really? Or is he just a nice, slightly odd man with a good job?
The studio system is long gone and no one is inventing off-screen personas for their stars any more. No one changes their names any more, not really, and no one goes to the MGM lot to collect their new backstory. We are given continued assurances that performers are real people, but we’re not able to fully understand it. It’s one of those things that people know on an intellectual level, but find it hard to accept in a real way. When Lemonade came out, we were determined as a society to find out who “Becky with the good hair” was, and "Becky" promptly became the most famous off-screen Rebecca since Rebecca herself. We know, logically, that Beyoncé is a famous songwriter, but that doesn’t matter. Not for one moment did anyone consider that she is an artist who uses personal experience as well as, y’know, her actual imagination to create work. “NO!” we insisted, for a brief moment of cultural hysteria. “BECKY IS REAL AND LEMONADE IS AN HOUR OF FACTS ABOUT BEYONCÉ.”
“The tank top became an emblem of this thing,” says Hiddleston, mournfully. The emblem, really, of a world discovering that Tom Hiddleston isn’t the demi-god he plays in the Marvel movies. He’s just a bloke, who likes talking about bolognese.