It follows “Richard II” and “Henry IV (Parts One and Two),” but these new film versions of the Bard of Avon’s historical dramas about English monarchs weren’t shot in order. Right after “Richard II” ended, “Henry V” swung into production.
That meant Tom Hiddleston — the scene-stealing star of “Thor” and “The Avengers” — had to play the mature King Henry V before he played the immature Prince Hal in the two “Henry IV” plays.
Hiddleston’s first day on location was also a doozy.
To set the scene, it’s 1415, and Henry V is on a quest to conquer France, to which he believes he has an ancestral claim. He and his army laid siege to the walled French town of Harfleur in mid-August, and now it’s late September, and Henry has had about enough.
There’s a gap in the wall, and Henry delivers a speech, beginning with “Once more unto the breach, dear friends …,” to rouse his men for one last, game-ending assault on the town.
Talking to Zap2it over tea and cookies in Beverly Hills this past summer, Hiddleston recalls being thrown in at the dramatic deep end.
“We were shooting at Arundel Castle [in West Sussex, England],” he says. “The first thing I ever did was ‘Once more unto the breach. …’ In my first shot, I had to gallop along the moat of this castle, in full chain mail, on a gray charger, with two cannons exploding behind me.
“Then I had to stop on a mark — this is all one continuous shot — [and] jump off a horse. Then there was another explosion and then [I had to] deliver the most famous piece of exhortation in the English language: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close up the wall with our English dead.’
“Basically, there were 15 extras around me. It was nighttime; it was cold, maybe minus 1 [Celsius] or something. I had to think it and speak it and feel it, all at the same time. There was the horse; there were the cannons and the castle. When I saw the looks in their eyes, though, it was unlike any other experience, because they didn’t know the speech, so I was just grabbing them by the shirts and by the necks and saying …”
At this point, Hiddleston sits up straight in his chair and launches into an intense version of the speech, saying, “‘In peace, there’s nothing that becomes a man so much as modest stillness and humility, but when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger. Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage. Now, set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to his full height. On, on …'”
Then Hiddleston explains the alchemy that happens between Shakespeare and the actor: “It’s extraordinary how the momentum, the engine of the verse, just conjures the emotion in you, while at the same time, you’re doing the physical action. My point is, it demands, you have to come out, all guns blazing, with Shakespeare. It’s not just one part of you.
“Sometimes acting for the camera is a sort of behavioral, emotive act, where you know that the camera is basically reading your thoughts and reading subtext, and that is the power of screen acting. And theater is all about the body and the word, but doing Shakespeare on screen, it was all guns blazing.”
Speaking of guns blazing, here’s a clip from Fuse’s “Hoppus on Music,” in which Hiddleston once again delivers the Harfleur speech from memory, albeit minus the horse and chain mail.