The second I started my interview with writer/director Marc Abraham and actor Tom Hiddleston, it was obvious that I SAW THE LIGHT is a passion project for both of them. The film tells the true story of Hank Williams, following him from his early days singing country music on a radio show to the day he died at the young age of twenty-nine. And although the project was quite an undertaking, both men lit up when speaking about the film and Hank Williams himself.
My interview started off with Abraham and I realizing we hail from the same alma mater (the University of Virginia… Wahoowa!). After we finished commiserating over UVA’s horrible loss on the basketball court this week, the conversation quickly turned to the Hillbilly Shakespeare himself, Hank Williams. I SAW THE LIGHT allowed Abraham to further immerse himself into the country music he has always enjoyed, crediting the genre as “one of the purest and most sincere forms of storytelling we have in America.” Hiddleston, who was born and raised in the UK, didn’t have as long a history with country music and at first felt like an outsider. However, as he delved deeper into the material, Tom quickly came to appreciate the music “from the inside”.
But although Williams is an American icon, Abraham didn’t let the fact that Tom is British affect the casting process. “I am gut-oriented… particularly when it comes to casting,” Abraham said. And after reviewing many of Tom’s previous performances, especially his role in WAR HORSE, Abraham knew the actor was right for the part. Of course, Hiddleston’s likeness to Williams and his ability to sing were additional positives.
As I was watching the film, it was Hiddleston’s performance that made the biggest impression. It takes a committed, fearless actor to bring Hank Williams to the big screen. And not only does Hiddleston resemble the country legend, he personifies him as well, making Williams’ mannerisms and stage presence his own. He changed the way he looked and sounded, dyeing his hair black, losing weight, and trading his British accent for Williams’ southern drawl. And of course he practiced the music until he was “blue in the face.” By the end of the film, I completely understood why Hiddleston felt he “lived in Williams’ boots for a short time.”
Tom described Williams as having “external charisma with internal vulnerability”. It was during his live performances that Hiddleston realized capturing the singer’s charisma was also a huge aspect of the movie. Tom sang live to crowds of extras, cycling through Williams’ song catalog to keep the energy up (oh yeah, and throwing a few Mumford & Sons songs in there as well). Hiddleston compared the feeling he received on stage to his show-stopping surprise appearance as Loki at 2013 San Diego Comic Con “The funny thing about performance is live performance is alchemy and chemistry. It’s chemistry between the performer and the audience. The energy of the audience is as much a part of the equation as the performer.”
Of course the music is the most important aspect of the film, and Abraham chose the songs from Williams’ catalog that he felt best tied into the storyline. “When it came to the music, I found I was always interested in songs that complemented the scenes that led up to it. For instance, the scene where Hank sings ‘Hey Good Lookin’ comes after a really important scene where he was told that his wife had an abortion without telling him. He is completely gobsmacked and in extraordinary pain, but in the next scene he is on-stage for Hank Williams Day. There were several things to accomplish…including showing that whatever is happening in [a star’s life], their spouse will be there, even if they break up the next day. It was so interesting to me to show what performers deal with.” But there were also a few historical moments that directed what songs should be used, for instance Williams’ first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry, where he performed “Love Sick Blues”.
“Love Sick Blues” was Hiddleston’s favorite song to perform because it was so difficult. “It was Mt. Everest for me. It is technically the most challenging song. It is all over the place. When I was trying to crack the song, I found it very difficult because [Hank] is so free with the yodel. As one of his old friends Merle Kilgore said, [Hiddleston in a Southern accent] That was when everybody stood up and the women threw their babies in the air.’ So I knew I had to have that effect.”
Hiddleston portrayed the joys and sorrows of Williams’ life, while also appreciating the enormous impact the singer had on the music industry. In a particularly revealing moment in the interview, Hiddleston disclosed that Williams feels like a friend to him now…but it wasn’t always like that. While they were filming in Shreveport, Louisiana, Tom was out for a run one day and asked Williams for help with the role. “I remember openly addressing him at one point. Out loud I looked up and said, ‘Help me out, buddy, because I’m trying to help you…’ Because there were certain aspects of him that were a mystery, but I think he was a mystery to himself in lots of ways.”
According to Abraham, Troy Tomlinson, who manages the publishing rights for Williams’ music, appreciated that the film felt real and showed the light and dark moments of the singer’s life. Members of Williams’ family, including his daughter Jett and granddaughter Holly also saw the film. Jett, who didn’t know she was Hank’s daughter until her late 20s, told Abraham she appreciated that her mother Bobbie was depicted on-screen for the first time. Holly was also moved by the film and wrote Hiddleston a letter, which he called a “letter you keep forever”, to let him know how much she thought his performance captured her grandfather’s “troubles, joy, grace, and tenderness.”
Hank Williams’ story is as human as they come, a life of tremendous success and incredible sadness. As a man whose music influenced so many, from good ole boys and girls, to artists in all genres of music, I’m glad his story finally found its way to the big screen. As Hiddleston stated, Williams’ music brings people comfort, “Whether it’s the upbeat melody of ‘Hey Good Lookin'” or the mournfulness of ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, in the words of Richard Griffiths in THE HISTORY BOYS, ‘It’s a hand reaching across time, touching yours.'”