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Half Scottish, half famous … all talent

A rocket, a snowball, a shooting star…whatever simile you try to apply to the career of Tom Hiddleston, it just lapses into cliché.

Having just turned 30, the half-Scottish actor has spent the past year on a roll that even established stars would kill for, working with such luminous directors as Kenneth Branagh, Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg.

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That he’s barely known outside his own household – unless you’re a fan of Wallander, perhaps – makes it all the more intriguing.

When we meet, in a private members’ club in London, I’m half expecting to find Hiddleston floating on air. Fortunately, anchored to a plastic orange chair in the club’s library, he has just about managed to keep his feet on the ground. Tall and thin – his long legs are encased in black jeans, his torso draped in a navy blazer and white T-shirt – he has a high forehead topped with tight brown curls of hair. Handsome, then, in a preppy sort of way.

Unfailingly polite, as you might expect for an Eton and Cambridge-educated lad, he profusely apologises when his iPhone accidentally bleeps before recounting in detail the most head-spinning 12 months any young actor could ever wish to experience. After shooting his new film, low-budget British effort Archipelago, he went to Los Angeles for six months to play the villainous Loki in Marvel Comics blockbuster Thor – directed by his Wallander co-star Kenneth Branagh, with whom he’d also starred with on stage in a production of Chekhov’s Ivanov. Soon enough, word began to spread that there was a new kid on the block.

From there, he got a call that Spielberg wanted to meet him for his new film War Horse, a wartime set family drama due this Christmas. “I remember going home that night and thinking, ‘What is going on? What is happening to my life? How did I get here? I seriously am about to meet one of my heroes!’” Fortunately, he didn’t, winning the plum role of a British army captain. Then, out of the blue, Allen wrote him a letter about his new film Midnight In Paris, which opens Cannes this May. “I didn’t even know he was making a film. He just said, ‘Dear Tom, here’s the script, I’d love you to play the part. We’re shooting in Paris in the summer.’”

Understandably, Hiddleston – who has also just completed Terence Davies’s adaptation of the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea opposite Rachel Weisz – is as baffled as anyone else at this string of encounters. “It’s very weird, I have to say,” he nods. “It’s startling and thrilling, and I think it all happened so quickly, that I was really just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, and doing my job.”

Yet if you’ve seen Hiddleston’s work, this run of success is no surprise. He previously popped up in Joanna Hogg’s 2007 film Unrelated, playing with casual excellence the eldest son on holiday with his family in Tuscany. A film about social mores and tensions, it almost feels like a dry-run for Hogg’s Archipelago – in which Hiddleston plays Edward, again on holiday (this time in the Isles of Scilly) with his mother and sister. “It’s about an inarticulate middle-class family,” he explains. “The truth is that actually here are these people who are quite closely related but they’re not very connected – and that’s both cringe-making and hilarious, in a way.”

Of course it’s tempting to think that Hiddleston is playing a version of himself in these roles, given his own background. Born in London – the middle child of three, with two sisters either side – he was raised in Wimbledon in his early years. His father was a scientist specialising in physical chemistry, who’d run a company supplying artificial limbs for soldiers returning from the Falklands. By the time Hiddleston turned 10, his father became the managing director of a company connected to the pharmaceutical biotech industry just outside Oxford – forcing the family to relocate.

While Hiddleston’s mother, an arts administrator and former stage manager, came from Suffolk, and was the one responsible for tempering his adolescent appetite for Hollywood blockbusters with more cultured trips to the cinema, his father originated from Greenock. So does he feel part Scottish? “I do when we’re playing rugby!” he says, even slipping into a Scottish accent for fun. “I used to watch all the Five Nations and Rugby World Cups with my dad, and inevitably when Scotland played England, I would support Scotland with him. I do feel I relate to – and this is going to sound so po-faced and pretentious – something Celtic. I do love it up there.”

After acting in Eton, he carried on at Cambridge where he read classics. Still, it seems strange that an Oxford-raised lad should go to the rival university. “I think I just needed to get away from home,” he smiles. “I think that’s the important part of university, to get away from home. And actually my parents had divorced by then. So I didn’t want there to be an issue about whose house I went to for Sunday lunch. I was like, ‘I’m not going to either of your houses for Sunday lunch, I’m going to go to Cambridge!’”

From there, he went to the prestigious drama school Rada. Graduating in 2005, Hiddleston quickly found his way into television and theatre. Yet it’s only now that he’s had to start giving thought to fame and the possibility of losing his anonymity. “I’m trying to cross every bridge when I come to it,” he says, slowly. “I think it would be very dangerous to start planning the date at which I will be unable to go to Sainsbury’s.” At least Thor – which officially kicks off the blockbuster season in late April – will see him in a semi-disguise. “I’m wearing a big unwieldy costume that I wouldn’t be seen dead in outside … a pair of enormous golden Satanic horns on my head.”

The similarly little-known Australian Chris Hemsworth has been cast as Thor – older brother to Hiddleston’s Loki, the god of mischief. With the two facing off against each other, with Earth as their playground, it sounds like a $200 million version of Archipelago.

While you get the impression that Hiddleston would jump off a cliff for Branagh, he seems equally enamoured with all the directors – Spielberg, Allen and Davies – that have come since. “Each and every one of them in a way has just confirmed what I suspected, which is they just care so much. They care so much about the craft of filmmaking and the art of cinema, and they care about doing it decently – and with a great spirit and sense of humour.” He calls it “a privilege” to be acting, but he is still on terra firma about the job. “We all know that none of us is curing cancer.”

Archipelago opened on March 4. Thor is released on April 29th.

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