Tom Hiddleston was posing for a portrait, and the face he showed the camera wasn’t entirely his own.
That had been his idea, to slip for a few moments into the character he’s playing on Broadway, in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal”: Robert, the cheated-on husband and backstabbed best friend whose coolly proper facade is the carapace containing a crumbling man. And when Mr. Hiddleston became him, the change was instantaneous: the guarded stillness of his body, the chill reserve in his gray-blue eyes.
“It’s interesting,” Mr. Hiddleston said after a while, analyzing Robert’s expression from the inside. “It gives less away.” A pause, and then his own smile flickered back, its pleasure undisguised. “O.K.,” Mr. Hiddleston announced, himself again, “it’s not Robert anymore.”
It was late on a muggy August morning, one day before the show’s first preview at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, and Mr. Hiddleston — the classically trained British actor best known for playing the winsomely chaotic villain Loki, god of mischief and brother of Thor, in the Marvel film franchise — had been in New York for less than a week.
He’ll be here all autumn for the limited run of the production, a hit in London earlier this year, but he wasn’t going to pretend that he’d settled in. “I literally have never sat in this room before,” he’d said at the top of the photo shoot, in his cramped auxiliary dressing room, next door to the similarly tiny one he had been occupying.
He’d had nothing to do with the space’s camera-ready décor. So there was no use making a metaphor of the handsome clock with its hands stopped at 12 (“Betrayal” is famous for its reverse chronology; far more apt if the clock had run backward), or of the compact stack of pristine books that looked like journals, with pretty covers and presumably empty pages: a bit off-brand for Mr. Hiddleston, who at 38 has a model-perfect exterior with quite a lot inscribed inside.
Take the matter-of-fact way he said, in explaining that he’d first encountered Pinter’s work when he studied for his A-levels in English literature, theater, Latin and Greek: “It was a real tossup between French and Spanish or Latin and Greek. I thought, I can always speak French and Spanish, I can’t always read Latin and Greek, so I’ll study that and I’ll speak the other two.”
Though, to be fair, he only said that because I’d teased him slightly about the Latin and Greek, and I’d teased him — not a recommended journalistic technique — because he was so disarmingly good-humored and resolutely down to earth, chatting away as he waited for the photographer to set up a shot. It didn’t seem like it would ruffle him. He laughed, actually.
In this country, Mr. Hiddleston is mainly a screen star, known also for playing Jonathan Pine in the John le Carré series “The Night Manager” on AMC. There are plans, too, for him to bring Loki to Disney’s streaming service in a stand-alone series.
But at home in London, he has amassed some impressive Shakespearean credits, including the title roles in Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” and Josie Rourke’s “Coriolanus,” and a turn as Cassio in Michael Grandage’s “Othello” — a production that Pinter, saw some months before he died in 2008. That was the year Mr. Hiddleston won a best newcomer Olivier Award for Cheek by Jowl’s “Cymbeline.”
Jamie Lloyd’s “Betrayal,” which has a staging to match the spareness of Pinter’s language and a roiling well of squelched emotion to feed its comedy, is Mr. Hiddleston’s Broadway debut. Likewise for his co-stars, Zawe Ashton (of Netflix’s “Velvet Buzzsaw”), who plays Emma, Robert’s wife; and Charlie Cox (of Netflix’s “Daredevil”), who plays Emma’s lover, Jerry, Robert’s oldest friend.
Beginning at what appears to be the end of Robert and Emma’s marriage, after her yearslong affair with Jerry has sputtered to a stop, it’s a drama of cascading double-crosses. First staged by Peter Hall in London in 1978 — and in 1980 on Broadway, where it starred Roy Scheider, Blythe Danner and Raul Julia — it rewinds through time to the sozzled evening when Emma and Jerry overstep the line.
The most recent Broadway revival was just six years ago, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Daniel Craig as Robert, Rachel Weisz as Emma and Rafe Spall as Jerry. It might seem too soon for another, let alone one with sexiness to spare — except that Mr. Lloyd’s production is also marked by a palpable hauntedness and a profound sense of loss.
Reviewing the London staging in The New York Times, Matt Wolf called it “a benchmark achievement for everyone involved,” showing the play “in a revealing, even radical, new light.” Michael Billington, in The Guardian, called Mr. Hiddleston’s performance “superb.”
What’s curious is that Mr. Hiddleston, so good at bad boys, isn’t playing Jerry, the more glamorous role: the cad, the pursuer, the best man who goes after the bride. But Mr. Lloyd said that casting him that way was never part of their discussions.
Last fall, when Mr. Lloyd persuaded Mr. Hiddleston to read a scene with Ms. Ashton for a one-night gala celebration of Pinter in London, part of the season-long Pinter at the Pinter series, there was no grand plan. Having asked Mr. Hiddleston about a possible collaboration for years, since “just before he became ridiculously famous,” Mr. Lloyd said, this was the first time he got a yes.
“I just really admired his craft of acting, the precision of his acting, as well as his real emotional depth and his real wit,” Mr. Lloyd said. “And he’s turned into what I think is the epitome of a great Pinter actor. Because if you’re in a Pinter play, you have to dig really deep and connect to terrible loss or excruciating pain, often massive volcanic emotion, and then you have to bottle it all up. You have to suppress it all.”
This, he added, is what Mr. Hiddleston does in “Betrayal,” where characters’ meaning is found between and behind the words, not inside them.
“Some of the pain that he’s created in Robert, it’s just unbearable, and yet he always keeps a lid on it,” Mr. Lloyd said.
The scene Mr. Hiddleston and Ms. Ashton read at the gala appears at the midpoint of “Betrayal”: Robert and Emma on vacation in Venice, at a moment that leaves their marriage with permanent damage. Within days, Mr. Hiddleston told Mr. Lloyd that he was on board for a full production.
Photos taken, back in the faintly more lived-in of his Broadway dressing rooms, Mr. Hiddleston opened the window to let in some Midtown air — and when you’re as tall as he is, 6 feet 2 inches, opening it from the top of the window frame is easy enough to do. Then, making himself an espresso with his countertop machine, he sat down to talk at length.
“I’m always curious about the presentation of a character’s external persona versus the interior,“ he said. “What remains private, hidden, concealed, protected, and what does the character allow to be seen? We all have a very complex internal world, and not all of that is on display in our external reality.”
He can tick off the ways that various characters of his conceal what’s inside: Loki, with all that rage and vulnerability “tucked away”; the ultra-proper spy Jonathan Pine, in “The Night Manager,” “hiding behind his politeness”; Robert, a lonely man wearing “a mask of control” that renders him “confident, powerful, polished,” at least as far as any onlookers can tell.
In “Betrayal,” each of the three principals has an enormous amount to hide from the people who are meant to be their closest intimates. It’s a play about power and manipulation, duplicity and misplaced trust, and what’s so threatening about it is the very ordinariness of its privileged milieu. This snug little world that once seemed so safe and ideal — the happiest of families, the oldest of friends — has long since fallen apart.
But to Mr. Hiddleston, Pinter’s drama contains two themes just as significant as betrayal: isolation and loneliness.
“The sadness in the play — it’s not only sadness; because it’s Pinter, there’s wit and levity as well — but if there is sadness in the play,” he said, “I think it comes from the fact that these betrayals render Robert, Emma and Jerry more alone than they were before.”
One-on-one, Mr. Hiddleston was more cautious than he’d been during the photo shoot, surrounded then by a gaggle of people affiliated with the show. Still, when I asked him about betrayal, lowercase, he went straight to the condition it violates.
“To trust is a profound commitment, and to trust is to make oneself vulnerable,” he said, fidgeting with a red rubber band and choosing his words with care. “It’s such an optimistic act, because you’re putting your faith in the hands of someone or something which you expect to remain constant, even if the circumstances change.”
“I’m disappearing down a rabbit hole here,” he said, “but I think about it a lot. I think about certainty and uncertainty. Trust is a way of managing uncertainty. It’s a way of finding security in saying, ‘Perhaps all of this is uncertain, but I trust you.’ Or, ‘I trust this.’ And there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world at the moment, so it becomes harder to trust, I suppose.”
An interview itself is an act of trust, albeit often a wary one. And there was one stipulated no-go zone in this encounter, a condition mentioned by a publicist only after I’d arrived: No talk of Taylor Swift, with whom Mr. Hiddleston had a brief, intense, headline-generating romance that, post-breakup, she evidently spun into song lyrics.
That was three years ago, and I hadn’t been planning to bring her up; given the context of the play, though, make of that prohibition what you will. Mr. Hiddleston, who once had a tendency to pour his heart out to reporters, knows that he can’t stop you.
“It’s not possible, and nor should it be possible, to control what anyone thinks about you,” he said. “Especially if it’s not based in any, um —” he gave a soft, joyless laugh — “if it’s not based in any reality.”
That’s something he’s learned about navigating fame — about being put on a pedestal that’s then kicked out from under him. He knows now “to let go of the energy that comes toward me, be it good or bad,” he said. “Because naturally in the early days I took responsibility for it.”
“And yes, I’m protective about my internal world now in probably a different way,” he added, his tone as restrained as his words. He took a beat, and so much went unsaid in what he said next: “That’s because I didn’t realize it needed protecting before.”
Even so, he doesn’t give the impression of having closed himself off. When something genuinely made him laugh, he smiled a smile that cracked his face wide open.
And the way he treated the people around him at work — with a fundamental respect, regardless of rank, and no whiff of flattery — made him seem sincere about what he called “staying true to the part of myself that’s quite simple, that’s quite ordinary.”
That investment in his ordinariness, as he put it, is a hedge against the destabilizing trappings of fame, but it doubles as a way of protecting his craft.
It’s also of a piece with his insistence that vulnerability is a necessary risk to take, at least sometimes.
“If you go through life without connecting to people,” he asked, “how much could you call that a life?”