A good question on the popularity of British actor Tom Hiddleston is where do most people know him from. These days it’s probably a tie between him playing the evil Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“Thor” and “Avengers” movies) and being the spokesman in the TV ad campaign for Jaguar. But Hiddleston is actually one of today’s busiest chameleons, with major roles in major films (as well as small art movies) that have been seen by lots of people. He was in Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and Guillermo de Toro’s “Crimson Peak.” He most recently starred as country singer Hank Williams in “I Saw the Light” and he’s the lead in director Ben Wheatley’s and screenwriter Amy Jump’s blistering adaptation of the bleak, unsettling, dystopian J.G. Ballard novel “High-Rise,” in which the crumbling of society is reflected in the crumbling of a futuristic apartment building. Hiddleston plays Dr. Laing, a physiologist who moves in to the huge structure, then finds himself at the center of unwanted attention when everything starts going to hell around him. In 2015 at the Toronto International Film Festival, he spoke about the film, which opens for a limited run in U.S. theaters on May 13.

Q: What was the first thing you did after you got the part?

A: What I always like to do before I start a film is to sync up with the director. So before we started I said to Ben and Amy, “Send me music, send me books, send me films that you love, and give me some idea of the context.” I also do my own research, which is one of the most joyful parts of being an actor for me: giving myself an intellectual and imaginative context in which to place myself, and then be free and be instinctive.

Q: Were you familiar with the book?

A: Oh, yes. I very much admire the writing of J.G. Ballard. And I love this book because I think that Ballard has a particular daring in his curiosity about placing his characters in extremity. The book has a detachment which is confounding, because you expect him, as a writer, to help direct your sympathies ... but he doesn’t. He just describes the demise of the building, and how the characters within it and its inhabitants get caught up in the sort of slide into chaos.

Q: Your character, Dr. Laing, is a strange fellow. Did you find any way to identify with him?

A: Laing is a fascinating character. I find him an interesting prospect in the book and in the screenplay. The high rise is full of characters with incredible, powerful energies. They either have a charm or a charisma or, in the case of Wilder [played by Luke Evans], they’re a force of nature. Laing has this almost professional detachment because he’s a physiologist. He’s moved into the high rise to get away from the complexities of real life. He wants a clean, light place where he can disappear.

Q: Was there any specific preparation you did for the part?

A: I spent a truly fascinating day with a forensic pathologist who took me into his workplace. He’s somebody whose professional engagement is to diagnose the cause of death. He goes into hospital everyday and he cuts people open. Dr. Laing is a physiologist, and that’s wedded to Ballard’s personal history of someone who’s fascinated with anatomy. Ballard went to [University of] Cambridge for three years before he became a writer because he was so fascinated by the mechanics of human engineering. He wanted to see how things worked. So that was unlike anything I’d ever done: seeing a human body cut open.

Q: Laing is definitely complicated. Would you describe him as a good guy or a bad guy?

A: I’m always drawn to [play] complicated people, but that’s because I think people are complicated. I think people have lots of different layers, so if they have an outwardly villainous aspect, I want to find their sympathetic qualities; if they are outwardly sort of likeable, I want to find their flaws.

Q: Has that had something to do with the way you’ve chosen parts in the past?

A: As an actor I’ve always wanted to explore unknown territory. I feel like I’m a foreign correspondent. I like going somewhere else and scratching around and coming back. So whenever I choose roles, I’m always drawn to challenges, to find similarities in characters who are very far away from me, and to investigate the most interesting material. Most of the time it’s a gut feeling.

— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now.