On December 1st, 2015, I was lucky enough to be invited by Warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures to join other journalists to observe the filming of Kong: Skull Island and interview members of the cast and crew in Hawaii. Note the interview may go into spoiler territory - just a head's up! No photos were allowed on set. A few of the interviews are rather lengthy so relax and make yourself comfortable for some fun reading. All interviews were transcribed by Noah Percival.
- Chris Mirjahangir
Tom: How's it going? Welcome to Hawaii!
Reporter: Not a bad place to work!
Tom: Yeah, it's fantastic! Really. Truly.
Reporter: So what can you talk about the character you're playing in this film?
Tom: Well, I play Captain James Conrad. You probably know the film is set in 1972 and Conrad is an S.A.S. Special Operative who has been training American forces in Cambodia, in specifically in jungle survival technique. So he's a survivalist. He's a tracker. Army lost and found. He's the guy you send in to find missing persons if a plane or a helicopter has crashed in the jungle because he has a special tracking ability. It's interesting 'cause if you dig around in the history of the Vietnam conflict on public record there was no British military involvement in the war but there were people in Cambodia. Specifically the British S.A.S. who were training people. They had a jungle warfare school in Malaya. This is something when we were conceiving of the film we were trying to find what specific history the character could have and we thought that would be interesting.
So the reason he's on the boat is that he's sort of seen so much and been through so much that he's hanging around and he's not sure where he's going next. Bill Randa who works for Monarch for the US government comes to find him in a back alley somewhere and he says "We need you on this mission." He says "What's the mission?" He says "Well you know we're making a map of an island in the South Pacific and we need someone with survival skills. We need someone with your ability." And he's like "That sounds sufficiently shady."
He starts the film as a man without a mission. He doesn't have a direction. I think there's probably a question mark in his soul too like where do I go now? What do I do now? He gets on the boat on the back foot. He's there kinda skeptical and he takes the money and then they get to the island and there's a huge prehistoric ape on the island. I think that's where suddenly Conrad's been kind of spiritually asleep or sleep walking. He wakes up and suddenly his very unique and special skill kicks in and he becomes indispensible to the team.
There's an interesting dynamic with Colonel Packard as played by Sam Jackson who is this American military leader, who's been through a particular experience as the leader of an air cavalry brigade in the Vietnam conflict. The interesting thing about Conrad is that Conrad and Packard are both leaders but they come from very different places. Intellectually and emotionally and how they respond to the crisis. The immediate crisis of being stuck on this island with King Kong is very different and I think that's what gives you the human drama.
Reporter: In a lot of your big films you've played very complex characters that were idealistic but were bad boys in a way I think. In this film your character seems to be a little bit more of the noble heroic kind.
Tom: He's heroic, I'll tell you that. It's a relief for me!
Reporter: Yeah I was wondering about that, and I can't help but wonder was there something you kind of gleamed from being surrounded by characters like this in your past films like The Avengers that you were able to kind of apply to this? Like, oh that's what a hero is.
Tom: There's never a set template because heroes and villains are determined by the choices they make. I think every character in fiction and real life has the capacity to make good choices and bad choices. Whether they become heroic or villainous is simply the consequences of those choices. In a sense this being a big movie it's new territory for me because Conrad makes great choices. Loki makes terrible choices. If that's what you're referring to.
Reporter: And Crimson Peak.
Tom: Well, he tries to make good choices towards the end, Thomas Sharpe, but that's what I love about Conrad. The spine of the film as many of these huge films are, is really about myth and the power of myth. That's what the Jurassic films are about. That there are so many stories which reinforce, whether it's like going back to The Odyssey or The Life of Pi, where basically human beings need to be reminded of how small they are. In the face and scale of the world and the universe. King Kong is one of the biggest movie stars of a 100 years of cinema and he's always served to remind people in the story and audiences that there are things about our world that are bigger than us that we don't understand.
Conrad comes to embody that humility, which really appealed to me. The reason he's a good survivalist is because he has respect for nature and he understands the cycle of nature and the force of it. He understands how to blend in with it and swim alongside it and use it. To be part of it without destroying it and I think something in his world view or his private philosophy is awakened by the sight of Kong. Suddenly it's an answer to so many questions and he makes choices that are heroic in terms of trying to help the rest of the crew, who are less equipped in their skill set and trying to save them and keep them alive. Without any kind of arrogant destructive attitude towards Kong himself. Does that make sense?
Tom: By the way, it's so much fun! I'm having the best time! It's an amazing gang! There was a day about two weeks ago when the entire troop of about 15 of us were trekking across over these ridges and we stop at the top of the ridge and look down into a bone yard. I was at the front of the line and we all stopped and fanned out and I was next to Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Mitchell, Corey Hawkins, like it was like this is a gang! What a team! Everybody has a incredible sort of different unique thing to bring to the table. I forgot Tian Jing who'd I forget in that group? Tian Jing, John Ortiz, Eugene Cordero, Shea Whigham. It's a great cast and everybody is bringing their A game.
I think we were all talking the other day about the size of these movies and the fact that you can contain incredible spectacle, human drama, jaw dropping visuals, and really deliver something entertaining, but you're also retelling a story that we keep telling ourselves. Which is that man is small in the universe. There's something really powerful about that and its fun! It's just great fun!
I've made big movies like this on sound stages surrounded by a green screen where you supply everything with your own imagination and the other day we were in that crater in the valley of the volcano and there's beautiful mountains on every side. Blue sky and nothing left to imagine, you're just there. Sam and I were saying if you can't get excited for this you can't get excited by anything! This is like as good as it gets in terms of big movie making.
Reporter: Speaking of man being small, have you shot any scenes with Kong?
Tom: I've done plenty of them, yeah! By the way he isn't on the island. He's not on the call sheet. So that is an aspect of imagination that I have to supply. We got this great crew, some of who I've worked with before, and we construct these beautiful dynamic shots. Where the characters are moving. The camera is moving in a particular way. It feels like it's incredibly dynamic cinema and the shots alone when you look at the play back look amazing and you forget that in that shot King Kong is also gonna be there! It's been amazing to imagine him in the context.
Reporter: Sometimes in these giant spectacle movies the characters get lost or are put by the wayside in favor of the action. Would you say there are a lot of good character moments?
Tom: Yeah, I've been attached to this film for a year and a half. Legendary and Jordan have been incredibly generous in including me in the development of the story so I know it inside and out and have had some agency in helping shape it.
Cinema on this scale has to work as a spectacle. With drama, and wit, and humor, and life, and dynamism. If there's no character, if there's no human drama, then that's the difference between the great ones and the ok ones in my mind. We've both really lobbied for great characters, great character conflict, every character has a journey.
I think that Jordan's master stroke in his conception of the story was post Vietnam 1972. It's completely new. We've never seen King Kong in that arena. It gives every character somewhere to come from. It's fascinating as Conrad because actually there's a lot of American soldiers who've come from Vietnam but Conrad's British so it puts him on the outside. It gives him a different perspective. It means he doesn't get subsumed under Colonel Packard's authority in the same way which allows him to make different choices. Weaver is Brie's character and she's a former war photographer. She smells something going on about the mission and she's like "I want to get on that boat because I want to know what they're headed towards." So she's got a particular angle. She's had a particular experience as a kind of impartial observer of the conflict. Packard has to look after his men, he's got that responsibility. This is 5 days away from home, they all got out of there alive, and they are all looking forward to the West Keyes or whatever they are going to do. It gives everyone a fascinating place to come from in terms of coming face to face with what happens.
Reporter: The character of Weaver is not a damsel like in the other King Kong movies.
Tom: Not at all, yeah.
Reporter: Can you tell us more about the relationship between Conrad and Weaver and how they work together?
Tom: I think they both recognize each other as outsiders on the boat. A lot of people on the boat either work for Monarch or they are in Packard's unit. Conrad and Weaver are there with official titles as she's the photographer and he's the guide but they are not part of the group. They recognize each other I think and they have an intellectual curiosity about it. They both make better choices I would say.
What I love about it is there's a great chemistry. There's a great sort of back and forth about who gets to make decisions. She mocks him at the beginning for being kind of opaque and mysterious. When the shit hits the fan Conrad reveals himself to be really kind of handy in a tight spot and she's really grateful for that but she won't let him know. She also has moments of great bravery, courage, and action. That's what I love about the character. There's never been a leading female character in a King Kong film like Weaver for sure.
Reporter: It sounds like they have a little bit of that great classic Hollywood sparring dynamic.
Tom: We wanted to have completely equal footing. It feels like they're both cut from the same cloth but they're constantly going in and out of connection. Even as they run in parallel. In terms of the journeys they go on, they both start from quite a skeptical place and their experiences on the island bring them together. They become humbled by wonder. By wonder, and by awe, and they become humbled. They become grateful for that. It shows them who they are.
Reporter: Were you a King Kong fan coming in to this? Seen all the movies and everything?
Tom: Yeah, I've seen all the movies! Always! Right from the first one. Can't remember when I saw the very first one. The 1933 one. I remember seeing the Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Charles Grodin one when I was younger. I loved Peter Jackson's film. I'm a big fan of adventure cinema, always have been! We want to make it something that's up there with the best adventure stories the form has ever seen. Those are the films I grew up on. When Jordan and I meet we talked about aspiring to make something that was like, 'cause he and I are the same age, we talked about Raiders and we talked about Jurassic Park and those films take you to a place, put you into a context, and give you a great time. You just follow the story.
Reporter: What about the Japanese ones?
Tom: I haven't seen so many of those.
Reporter: They're weird, you’ll like 'em.
Tom: I've seen clips! We kept talking about myth in a way. About the importance of myth and how we basically tell the same story many times over but it's an important one. The power of myth. The power of what we don't understand. Our need for mystery. The world becomes a very uninteresting place when you know everything.
Reporter: What can you say about the character of Kong and how he views Conrad?
Tom: What Kong thinks? You'd have to ask him, dude! Conrad has respect for Kong as an alpha predator. We're talking about a tracker here. Someone who understands the pyramid of nature and the food chain. So Conrad completely understands his place even though of course Kong is unlike anything he's seen in his life. It's interesting how the film relates to him 'cause at first I think he seems like a beast and towards the end he seems like a figure. Their experiences on the island make them realize there is some extra quality to him. He's some kind of emblem or icon. He's more than a beast.
Reporter: Aside from being a hero, what else drew you to the script? The story? Or was there something else?
Tom: I love the scale of films of this size. I'm a fan of them myself. The ones I'm not in, I'm always there opening weekend. Having made a few big movies I think there is real scope for investment, you know? You can tell big stores on a big scale and they can be about something. They're not just assemblages of visual effects. They really can mean something and they do, I think. So I wanted to do that.
The character himself was so appealing because as you said I've played so many complex, antagonistic characters, or people who become antagonistic. The elephant in the room is Loki. He's not the hero of those films. It's a fantastic character and I loved playing him, but this was a different challenge, you know? I also look like myself. My Mom's gonna love it! "There he is!"
Reporter: You won't have the Loki wig on.
Tom: She gave birth to a baby with blonde hair and blue eyes and I look generally like her. Like my mother's son so she'll enjoy that. It felt like less of a reach in some way. Felt like a little closer to home.
Reporter: Coming from the classical background that you come from the Theatre in London and so forth, do you find that you have a slightly different perception of all this than some of your cast mates?
Tom: I feel an intense gratitude and I never thought I'd be here when I was training. When I trained in the Theater in London I never thought I'd end up here, but I don't think anyone on the cast doesn't feel that.
Reporter: Coming from that very different environment it must just get trippy. Just the sheer stark contrast.
Tom: I guess, but often people ask that question and it feels the same. The job feels the same. Really, the job is the commitment of one's imagination to the situation and that's true of everything I've ever done. Where the context of the scenes in the film are so intrinsically fictional, my job is to make that fiction seem like a reality. That's the part of acting I love and will never stop loving it. I've always been drawn to myth.
It's funny, I don't mean to make it sound like it's more intellectual than it is, but I read classics in university and the reason I did that was because I found the scale of those Greek and Roman gods and monsters appealing. They appealed to my imagination. Some people prefer stories about human beings in a very human space. I've always been very moved and inspired by myth. I love The Odyssey and I think that's why I was drawn to play Loki for the first time. It's about very human feelings on a massive scale. The Thor film is about the breakdown of a house hold in a city where the gods live. It's about the size of these stories and so I've never shied away from that in a way.
Reporter: I guess you've found kindred spirits with Jordan, with Guillermo, and with Joss.
Tom: Yeah, everybody believes in the same thing, and it's funny. Because I've been attached for so long, it's been really nice to have conversations with people along the way. Like when we were first talking to Brie, she feels the same. She really believes in the power of myth or at least the mythic quality to these kinds of films.
I'm not suggesting everyone has to get that when they go and see it. People want to just sit back with a bucket of popcorn and enjoy the ride. 'Cause it is a ride and it should be! In the same way that Jurassic World was a ride, and Furious 7 was a ride, and The Avengers was a ride, and all these kinds of things. There is something where you can allow yourself to just submit to the scale of what you're watching and just get caught up in it.
All of the best versions of those films I think have a very rigorously constructed backbone. Where the filmmakers, and the cast, and the crew and everyone's been signed up to the same mission, which is to say something. I think of that first Jurassic Park and it really is about man coming face to face with what he doesn't understand. All that stuff that Jeff Goldblum says you know it's a simple idea but it's a big idea. We can only hope to make a film as good as that and we're trying. So I'm not suggesting we got the cart before the horse but you have to head for the high ground on these films 'cause you have a chance to make something really fun, and really entertaining, and something that strikes people where they go "Wow that was a really good movie!" So that's the dream!
Reporter: Aim for the rafters!
Tom: Yeah! I also get to do a little running around in this film and I love running! By the way, one thing I should just say is he's more of a 70's hero. That's what I quite liked as well. Not a troublemaker but he's one of those lone cats that you sometimes see in those films back in the 70's.
Reporter: He's got an edge.
Tom: Oh yeah, he's got edge!
Reporter: Little bit of humor there, too?
Tom: Of course, absolutely! A lot of wit. That's partially why I wanted the character to be British. So that the chemistry with Weaver could have, as you say, this old Hollywood banter. A lot of one liners, few jokes, it's not going to be doom and gloom. It's gonna be fun!
Tom: You asked me what else about the script appealed? And as it's always the case when anyone asks me a question and on the spot I go "I don't know what it was" and as I'm walking away I was like "I know what it was". I think it's a combination of like the reason this feels new for me and so exciting, is the context and the time period as I discussed like the 1972 post Vietnam thing. We really thrashed it together out in the most creative way. Jordan, Thomas Tull, John Johnson and myself in the spring as we were trying to find a unique and interesting way of creating a new kind of hero that people felt they hadn't seen before.
I was scratching around, doing research 'cause I would happily have played an American, and there was a world where Conrad was going to be an American Soldier, and I found some specific details of a organization, the Prime Minister Harold MacMillan sent a guy called Brigadier Thompson into Vietnam in the early 60's and it was called BRIAM - the British Advisory Mission - and it was supposed to be just a civilian unit. There's now evidence to suggest that they did train. They had a jungle warfare school in Malaya for some U.S. Forces and some South Vietnamese, especially the resistance in Cambodia. I loved the idea that there's basically a man who has no political allegiance in the conflict, but he understands conflict, and he's been there, you know. He's a former soldier who has been formed by an understanding of war, but that his specific skill set is something that's attached to the power of nature and I think that's something people haven't seen in a long time.
I was pointed to, I never read this book before, a book by Tom Brown Jr. called The Tracker which I think is written in the mid 70's. Tom Brown himself grew up in the pine barrens in New Jersey in the 70's and his best friend was the grandson of a native American tracker called "Stalking Wolf" and he basically spent his childhood lost in the woods. I read this thing and Jordan read it as well and we talked about Conrad having this extraordinary understanding of the natural world, like talking about the food chain, the cycle of life, the basic and essential necessity of predators and the whole of the natural world, really. We started talking about David Attenborough and Planet Earth and suddenly there was this character forming who had this extraordinary skill set. Someone who was very hard, someone who is isolated and mysterious. Isolated by his former experience and deeply charismatic, but when you put him face to face with, it's not a natural creation but an extension of nature, which is the fantastical world of King Kong, suddenly you have an amazing outline for a hero. It's the combination of the two, it's the fact that he has this unique skill set within the group as someone who is indispensable in terms of their survival within the jungle. Distinct from the group because he's British and therefore he doesn't have the same spiritual shadow of the Vietnam conflict and also someone's whose awe and wonder will be awaken by everything he sees. There is a lot of levity in it.
Jordan is a great director of comedy. We have great comedians on the film. John C. Reilly the other day was saying the reason he wanted to do it was because it reminded him of Ray Harryhausen's Mysterious Island. There is something appealing about people getting lost in the jungle, we love it. There are so many films and stories about it. I think it's because it asks the question, who would you be? We're always fascinated by that question. We're setting ourselves some high demands for two hours traffic of screen time but you know, I think these films can be so entertaining and exciting and dynamic as pieces of action and spectacle but they can also carry this kind of power of myth and all those things we feel we don't understand. I still find it mind-blowing that we don't really know what goes on at the bottom of the ocean. We don't, we think we do but we don't and I think we're all fascinated by that question.
Reporter: Was it fun shooting here? We know this is where they shot Jurassic Park.
Tom: Oh, it's amazing! It's amazing! We were in that Bone Yard and I think that's the same field that Sam Neil runs across when there's the stampede with those kids in the first film. I remember I was ten years old when I saw that with my parents at the theater at central Oxford in England and to suddenly be in that same field as someone who has been a fan of film for my entire life, it's like you know a red letter day.
Jordan always emphasized that he wanted to shoot in real locations. He was like; "We're going to find the most beautiful places on this planet and Skull Island will be a jigsaw puzzle of all of those places." He scouted for six or nine months. We first meet in October 2014 and then I went off to shoot I Saw The Light, a film about Hank Williams, and he was already on his way, he was going around the world finding his island. We're happy to be in Hawaii and I saw the locations guy yesterday and he said "Wait till you see Vietnam. Just wait till you see the places they found." Places in Australia that have never really been photographed. Australia's a very cinematic place already but there are so many places that I think will feel new I hope they do anyway. In the same way that when people started shooting in Iceland it was like, where the hell is that? We almost went to Iceland, but I think it didn't make sense in terms of the schedule.
Anyways, it's gonna be fun! Who was asking about Kong? He's gonna be different in the thing I was saying, about the sort of journey of Kong is that he goes from someone who's just a terrifying beast to an emblem of something more powerful than that. I think the way that ILM are going to create him and render him will be completely new I think the scale will be greater.
There's always that thing in all the Kong films I've seen where he seems huge on the island and then it takes him a while to get up the Empire State. It's no secret that we're in the same universe as Godzilla. It's gonna be towering and I think that's exciting, too. It's funny when you're working out eye lines with the camera guys and you go "So how high should we go?" for when it pans across, and we're looking up and you're like "Is that high enough? Is that high enough?" Working with Steven and Tom who are the visual effects producers and it's like; "No I think you need to look up a little more," you think, ok this is gonna be a force, so very exciting!
Tom Hiddleston is an English actor, producer, and musical performer. He made his first film role in the award-winning feature Unrelated (2007), and is well known for portraying the character Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of movies. He has also appeared in various other projects, including the 2009 TV series Cranford and the Guillermo del Toro-directed feature film Crimson Peak (2015).
||Toho Kingdom/Roundtable reporters
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