The existential crisis of "Loki"

Director Kate Herron spoke to Salon about building the God of Mischief's unsettling new world, from inside and out

By Hanh Nguyen

Senior Editor

Published June 13, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Tom Hiddleston in "Loki"  (Disney+ / Marvel Studios)
Tom Hiddleston in "Loki" (Disney+ / Marvel Studios)

"What if I was a robot and didn't know it?" Loki asks in the first episode of his eponymous Marvel series on Disney+

In the scene, the fan-favorite God of Mischief (Tom Hiddleston) is reluctant to walk through what appears to be a metal detector but in actuality is used to confirm he's an organic creature and has a soul. The ordeal is just one more piece of red tape to cut through when getting processed by the Time Variance Authority (TVA).

On one hand, Loki's question could be seen as apprehension dealing with the TVA's bureaucratic slog. Director and executive producer Kate Herron confirmed this interpretation in an interview with Salon.

"A lot of our writers spoke about the DMV, and I would talk about trying to go through Customs at the airport because I get very anxious trying to do that," she said. "They put you in different queues and you're like, 'Oh, God, please let me through.' So I think we wanted to kind of bring that human feeling of just being very disoriented."

Approached from a different angle, however, Loki's throwaway line could indicate a bigger question he has about himself and his new bizarre reality. After all, this is a different Loki from the one who died in "Avengers: Infinity War." Escaping much earlier in the series thanks to the Tesseract inadvertently falling into his hands, this Loki is having his own "Sliding Doors" moment when he's getting a do-over that involves helping the TVA and possibly even earning some sort of redemption.

"Our show is about identity and it is about Loki finding what is his sense of self now because he isn't on the path that he was supposed to be on. He was supposed to be arrested and go to Asgard and become the Loki that we've seen across the films," said Herron. "But this isn't that Loki; he's done something very different now. I think that was the real joy in putting him into this very new scenario, like, 'Well, nature versus nurture – how will he react to this new environment?' It's a question that definitely echoes across the whole show."

In some ways, Loki is the ideal character to be put into this situation. He has never lived on the binary, whether it's his gender, his morality or even as a supposed god who has proven to be mortal. Now he's thrust into a similarly ambiguous position as a criminal who's trying to take down a possibly more alternate timeline variant of himself, working in an office that exists outside space and time, and one that is simultaneously futuristic and yet riddled with old equipment like brass service bells. Is it any wonder he's having a bit of an existential moment?

Check out the rest of the interview with Herron, who discusses Hiddleston' contribution to the series, the show's retro look and the fun of playing with time travel.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

There's a discussion Loki has with Mobius (Owen Wilson) about hurting people as a trick to inspire fear, creating an illusion of power to establish his villainous cred. What observations do you have about this epiphany?

I think the thing that's so interesting about it is that he gets this view on himself that our Loki across the last 10 years, very slowly got through changing through those films. So I think the thing I love about it is, I think there's that moment where building off what he says there to Mobius, "You know, people just see me as a villain." And Mobius is like, "Well, that's not how I see it." And I think that's really powerful for me, because it shows that Loki obviously is feeling some empathy towards his actions, but at the same time, it kind of reminded me a bit of like "Good Will Hunting" with how Mobius is towards him. He's this kind of mentor, but also I think it lays the foundation that hopefully there can be a friendship with these characters going forward. Because Mobius is like, "I don't just see the bad in you. I acknowledged it . . . " – he mentioned when Loki took out a guy's eyeball not that long ago – ". . . but I don't think that's all the sum of your parts." I think it's very interesting to see a character talk about themselves in a way that I suppose we probably spoke about him on Reddit.

LokiTom Hiddleston in "Loki" (Disney+/Marvel Studios)

There's been a lot said about Tom Hiddleston's input into this. Not only is he the star and a producer on the series, but he also held a sort of lecture for the others to understand Loki's history in the MCU. What was it like working with him on the show? What does he bring?

We spoke a lot about story. There's moments in Episode 1 where Loki sees certain bits from his life, and we all discussed those. I think that was a really good foundation for what would happen there and from Michael [Waldron]'s script. But there were some moments that I know Tom pitched like the "I love you my sons" scene with Odin. He's been playing the character for 10 years, so he does have all these incredible ideas and he's an executive producer on this project as well. So it is like you have the Loki expert across the show, which was great.

The other thing I would say, we were filming this before the shutdown, and when the world changed, it was very unique going back and trying to make something like this during COVID. And it was scary at times. People didn't know what was going to happen. No one completely understood the virus. And I'm very grateful to everyone for coming back and isolating so we could finish it in a safe way. But Tom always kept that level of joy up. It was really infectious and really good for morale for the whole team. I don't think he'd mind this, but I always describe this bit like a wrestler. When he comes to set, he plays music like a wrestler entering the ring. It's like, "Oh, Tom is here." It was always great, and the team loved it. He plays these really fun bits of music, and it lifts everyone's spirits. It really tied everyone together like a family. 

What was it like balancing the energies of Loki and Mobius, especially since Owen Wilson has his own chattiness and humor that he brings to the project?

Something that was really fun for me was that Tom is a classically trained actor; he's done Shakespeare. You can hear it by just the beautiful way that he just uses language in his words. Then you have Owen, who obviously is a massive comedy actor, but his roots were in indie film, like "Bottle Rocket" and "Royal Tenenbaums." They were some of the films that made me want to be a filmmaker. 

We had rehearsal and we had them reading in the room together, and the actors were contributing as well. Owen, sometimes he would just throw out lines, and then Tom in the tennis match would improvise the line back to him. It was just really fun to see these two fantastic actors really going to work. I think in that way, the chemistry between them is built just out of respect for each other's work. 

Could you discuss Owen's take on Mobius and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Ravonna Renslayer, both of whom exist already in the MCU but have different interpretations on the show?

Owen's character is one in the comic books, who was actually based on a very famous person [Mark Gruenwald] who worked at Marvel. Mobius has a mustache, which is a direct reference to this person. But when the actors get handed these characters, they take on a life their own. When I was talking to Owen about the character, because he wanted to look and feel different in the character, he was like, "I think it'd be cool if I had [this hair.]" He had done I think, a thing for "SNL" where he had silver hair, and I was like, "Oh, yeah, that'd be great."

With Gugu's character, this is a very new version of the character. She's in the comics, there's no escaping that. But I think for me, what's exciting about it is that we're setting up this character, because it's the first time you're seeing her on an MCU project. The version we have in our show is very much of our show, and it's definitely like a new story for her. Gugu was in my pitch [for casting on the show]. 

I've enjoyed your work on "Sex Education" and the post-apocalyptic zombie series "Daybreak," which are both comedies featuring younger characters. It's an eclectic resume. So how did you come on to this show?

Basically, I love Loki and I found out that Marvel were making a television show about him. Like everyone, I saw him die in "Infinity War," and I was horrified. And then "Endgame" happened [where he escaped at a point before his death]. And I was like, "You're playing with my emotions now." I was like, I need to know where this character is going. I asked my agents, "Can you just keep calling them and get me a seat in the room to chat to them about it?" And Marvel met me. 

There were three meetings, and basically, in the very first one, they were like, "Look, it's a very casual meet and greet. Don't prepare a pitch." They sent me the first script and an outline, and I loved it. And I was like, "Well, I'm going to prepare a pitch," mainly just because as you mentioned, I've done a lot of teen stuff. My background's in comedy. I can bring the heart and the humor to this, but I haven't done a lot of stuff with action and effects. As a writer, I've written lots of stuff like that, but as a director, I just didn't have that experience. 

So I was like, well, I'm going to show them that I'm not just going to be like, "Oh, well, you know, the visual effects, I'll be carried along by the team." Instead, I had ideas for that and things I think would be cool to try and how I want to approach it. So I just did this massive pitch. I had everything in my head – casting ideas, I made a playlist of music, ideas for the design, like architecture, technology we have in the TVA, how I wanted to film it like a film noir kind of style. I had like a reel of action scenes in terms of how I wanted to approach the action, the visual effects ideas for that I thought could be cool. And also why I loved the character of Loki and why I thought if they were into what my idea and my take was, why I'd be the best candidate for that. 

What did you envision as the look for "Loki"? There's so much going on, and the TVA has its own unique mix of styles that adds to Loki's and the viewers' disorientation.

In my pitch, I loved the idea of marrying up this Brutalist architecture with this like Midwest kind of style. And I think because you know, the timekeepers are these all-knowing, powerful beings that oversee it, so the Brutalist style really lends itself to that. Whereas the Midwest is like in the TVA – it's very heroic and it's very classy. 

I knew I wanted these aspects of the TVA, and we were pulling from lots of different sci-fi movies. For example, the font on the computers was loosely inspired by "Alien," and the time doors were inspired by "Dune." My production designer Kasra [Farahani], when he came in and pitched, he hadn't seen my pitch document. We had pictures of old computers from the '70s that were the same in both our documents. 

Loki, for example, when he's arrested, he goes through these processing rooms. And Kasra was like, "Oh, we should make them cubes that he like falls through." And I thought that was so funny. And the idea of having the cat in one of them because I really wanted the TVA to feel like it was a real challenge because it's this office environment, but it exists outside of time and space. Something with me and Kasra was always talking about what how do we make this feel like a real, living, breathing office space. I pulled a lot from my own experiences as an office temp. They've got like, those little cone paper cups and technology that obviously on one hand feels very retro futuristic like in "Brazil," but for me also having worked in offices, they do have computers that probably should be updated. They're not going to get like the latest tech. 

What went into the creation of the TVA mascot/spokesperson, the animated talking clock Miss Minutes (Tara Strong)? She has such a specific retro look, but is also cheeky.

With Miss Minutes, we were really inspired by – I love the idea of Felix the Cat and that era of cartoons. I thought it'd be cool to call upon that because it felt to me like it was fitting in the era of where the TVA obviously just last had what seems like an internal design update. In terms of the cartoon, likewise, like I thought it'd be really cool if it was hand drawn. 

We want it to I feel like a kind of public service announcement kind of video. I love that video because I feel like the team always talk about it like our Mr. DNA from "Jurassic Park" moment. What's so smart in the writing of it is that I feel like you're learning about the world through comedy. Miss Minutes is obviously just a hoot. She's a hoot. It's also helpful in a way that we have this animated Southern talking clock in the first episode because it really sets the bar for, "If this is the status quo, then when's it gonna go weird?"

I very much enjoyed the revelation of Loki as the mysterious real-life skyjacker D.B. Cooper. What was the conversation around that and what sort of impact the show wanted to make with it?

I felt if we were going to show these memories, not wanting it to feel like a clip show. Something I pitched was – I really loved the movie "Minority Report," and there's that scene where he sees his wife, and her image is projected. And it's so painful, right? It's like she's in the room, but she's not in the room. I was inspired by that with "Loki" because I thought, well, rather than cut to full screen to these clips from the films, I think it'd be cool if it's almost like he's watching a play of his life on a stage. It also meant we could stay in the room with our Loki and see his reactions to these moments. 

The [D.B. Cooper] moment is really earned, right? It's so fun to see Loki have a win. But the fun for me with that scene is that it's a new memory that fans hadn't seen yet before. And it's joyous and we could go full screen with it. Also our actor, Erika [Coleman], who played our air hostess [Florence Schaffner] – they had great chemistry. That was actually our first day of filming and it was actually a really fun way to kind of kick it all off. 

Tom Hiddleston in "Loki" (Disney+)

When it comes to time travel storytelling, is there a benefit of visiting known events like the D.B. Cooper hijacking? How much will we see of that sort of event? What are the dangers of that from a storytelling perspective?

For us, there are moments where there are things that are more familiar, but I think the thing that makes it interesting, is that we're seeing these moments through Loki's POV. That is the interesting slant on it, is that it's a moment in time that obviously I might feel very differently about it, but how is Loki going to react in that situation? 

Also, what I loved is when I got the script, a lot of the places we do go to, they're unexpected. It was always about making it feel like a real moment in time. It wasn't like zany or heightened in a way that we didn't feel like we were really in it. I wanted it to feel texturally like we were really going to that time period. 

How much deeper will we get with understanding who the three timekeepers are? And how does the arc of this show reflect what might be future seasons?

In terms of the story, we always worked on it and designed it to be these six episodes. But yeah, the show is setting up the TVA, and the excitement of setting up somewhere like the TVA is I do hope to see in future Marvel projects, yeah. It'd be so cool to see people go back there and be a part of building that. 

"Loki" releases new episodes on Wednesdays on Disney+.

By Hanh Nguyen

Hanh Nguyen is the Senior Editor of Culture, which covers TV, movies, books, music, podcasts, art, and more. Her work has also appeared in IndieWire, and The Hollywood Reporter. She co-hosts the "Good Pop Culture Club" podcast, which examines the good pop that gets us through our days, from an Asian American perspective.

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