“It’s about the human condition and why people are inspired to write the things they write.”
Country & Western singer-songwriter Hank Williams is a legend. Though his enduring legacy is timeless, having inspired many iconic modern era performers like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, many don’t realize he was struck down at the young age of twenty-nine. Director Marc Abraham’s I SAW THE LIGHT captures Williams’ tumultuous twenties – from when his star began to rise through his tragic untimely death.
Every frame of the dramatic music biopic is steeped in authenticity. And not just from a purely narrative point of view, but also thanks to Abraham’s two very gifted performers – Tom Hiddleston, who plays Hank, and Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Hank’s wife and frequent muse, Audrey. As Abraham stated, I SAW THE LIGHT isn’t about making sure the production design is correct, or that Hiddleston’s voice and look wasn’t an exact replica, but rather that the feeling is there.
“I never worry about whether we can get the right looking stove or we’ll get the right costumes. For me, what’s about what’s authentic is to decide who the people really are. Somewhere inside you, you have to believe that, even though that person is nothing like you, that inside of them is the ability to become that person. Not the exact person, but the version of the person they best believe in. Then you have to get really lucky to get people like Tom and Lizzie. There’s nothing that they leave behind. When that happens, you found real authenticity.”
Hiddleston found the experience playing a real life person to be genuinely creative rather than restrictive.
“The most fascinating aspect of acting is finding the common ground between yourself and the character. That becomes even more fascinating when the character is even more so far away from you – as Hank was for me. I did all my academic research – into his life, into his circumstances. Even my physical training, changing the way I looked and the way I sounded. The challenge is to commit myself to experiencing the intensity of his emotional life; his joy. His pain. His loneliness. And that is the actor’s duty to inhabit those universal feelings through the filter of the character. That’s the fun part.”
Olsen commented on her two-fold responsibility bringing Audrey to life.
“You have a lot of responsibility and you’re trying to create more of a three-dimensional person than what the legacy or stories have. You also have the gift of a lot of original source material. You start there – with photographs, personal belongings, art, books, and documentaries. There comes a point where you did all your work and you just have to bleed into your character basically. Open heart – open gut.”
It was through Olsen’s performance where Abraham, who was a Williams aficionado and fan prior to filming, was able to gain insight into such a complex figure like Audrey.
“One of the first things about Elizabeth when I first met her, was that Audrey could easily be construed as a shrew. She’s very difficult and pretty bitchy. She’s pushy. Elizabeth talked about it in a way where there’s such a keen intelligence to the way she approached it. She forces you as a viewer to go, ‘I know. But you think it’s easy to live with this guy?!’ That’s really important.”
Abraham felt he found collaborative spirits with his actors.
“They brought their instincts. They brought their intelligence. They brought timing to scenes and where they felt like, maybe as a writer, I had not conveyed exactly what I thought I’d conveyed. The three of us were always trying to get beyond what is this movie about? It’s not about, “This is what happened to Hank Williams.” It’s about show business and the vagaries of that. It’s about being incredibly young. It’s about the human condition and why they’re inspired to write the things they write.”
Through her research, Olsen uncovered key insight into Audrey’s personality.
“What I discovered with Audrey is how much of a business woman she really was. Even as they got more money, she created much more of an image; Everything was monogrammed. She made sure he wore suits, as opposed to hillbilly, country denim. That also might have given her a bad reputation as well because being a formidable woman in 1946, I’m sure, isn’t the most welcoming personality trait.”
Olsen wanted to preserve the focus on the Williams’ loving and tempestuous relationship.
“I always thought of their relationship as just fiery – whether it’s fiery love or fiery hate. Those tow things always walk a very thin line. You can’t fiery despise someone you can’t fiery care about. I felt they were teetering between that. We wanted to make sure their love came across. There had to have been so much love for him to write the lyrics that he wrote with such sincerity.”
“The great appeal of Marc’s conjecture in the screenplay that he was drawing together the power of Hank’s songs and the marriage of Hank and Audrey. Suggesting the genius in his writing and the durability of his legacy comes from that authenticity and sincerity in those lyrics. In my mind, there’s no question that the authenticity of the writing comes from that relationship largely. It’s a complex relationship, but it’s the center of the film and the center of his songwriting.”
I SAW THE LIGHT opens in New York, Los Angeles and Nashville on March 25. It opens in wide release on April 1.