Future Perfect

In 2012 all eyes are on London — and on this pair of rising British stars

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Jonathan de Villiers for TIME

On Tom Hiddleston: Burberry Prorsum oversize linen carcoat,$2,495, available at Burberry; Paul Smith London cotton suit, $1,580, and Paul Smith Accessories silk tie, $145, paulsmith.co.uk; Aquascutum Lawford shirt, $200, aquascutum.com. On Michelle Dockery: Antonio Berardi patent-leather jacket, price upon request, Saks Fifth Avenue; Peter Pilotto cotton-and-silk wave-print skirt, $2,600, Susan of Burlingame; Cornelia James short black-and-white spot gloves, $60, corneliajames.com

Like any good drama, fashion needs to tell a story. So before actor Tom Hiddleston suited up for TIME’s photo shoot in London, he made sure to define his character.

“The idea is that we’re a time-traveling couple from the future,” says Hiddleston about photographer Jonathan de Villiers’ concept. “But I have a particular nostalgia for what I conceive of as the past, which is actually the present day. My character finds 2012 fascinating because he feels it’s on the cusp of something. He makes all sorts of surmises about the end of Europe and the breakdown of the Sino-American barrier and the floodgates of London sweeping open. And he’s trying to persuade his paramour that 2012 is more interesting and exciting than, say, Paris in 1968.”

Working alongside his real-life friend, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery, Hiddleston channeled the film set more than the catwalk. “Rather than just standing and pouting in a photo-shoot kind of way, we were playing this relationship out,” he says. “I’m a better actor than I am a model.”

In true British fashion, the time-traveling pair braved gusty winds and freezing rain — and wore only British designers, including J.W. Anderson, Antonio Berardi, Hussein Chalayan, Stella McCartney and Danielle Scutt. “I like to wear British brands as much as I can — Burberry and Mulberry,” says Dockery. “And I love Ralph Lauren too. In fact, it was exciting to hear that the Ralph Lauren show during New York Fashion Week opened to the theme tune of Downton Abbey, and all the styles were very ’20s, a period feel. That was cool.”

It might not be Paris 1968, but as Britain’s cultural exports go forth and conquer, London 2012 has solidified its position as Europe’s most exciting capital city. In June, revelers will fly the Union Jack at massive street parties to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which marks her 60th year on the throne. The city of William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill — and more recently Kate Moss and Adele — won’t have long to sweep up the confetti: the Olympic Games kick off on July 27.

Hiddleston, 31, and Dockery, 30, shot atop Guy’s Hospital in southeast London, with views of Renzo Piano’s almost completed Shard London Bridge — a glass tower that will be the tallest building in the European Union — as well as Norman Foster’s city hall. “Inside city hall,” Hiddleston says, “there’s a spiral staircase made of reinforced glass, which has an incredible, dizzying, vertiginous effect.”

Dockery’s and Hiddleston’s climb to stardom has had a somewhat gentler slope. Hiddleston’s break came when he was a student at Cambridge and an acting agent spotted him in a stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire. A decade later, Hiddleston is starring opposite Rachel Weisz in the romance The Deep Blue Sea (in limited release March 23) and as Loki, the god of mischief and principal villain in The Avengers (out May 4). For that role Hiddleston had to wear a 30-lb. costume of leather and chain mail, but a bigger challenge was excavating heroism from Loki’s dark soul. “You have to find the humanity in the villain so he doesn’t become a two-dimensional cartoon,” says Hiddleston. Now filming a three-part TV adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, Hiddleston mines the depths of Prince Hal, who, he says, “starts out as a rebellious, wayward prince and grows into one of England’s great warrior kings.”

Dockery saw Hiddleston’s transformation up close, while she was playing the feisty Lady Percy in Henry IV. A veteran of Britain’s National Theatre, she also appears with Keira Knightley and Jude Law in Joe Wright’s upcoming big-screen adaptation of Anna Karenina as the outspoken Princess Myagkaya. Those roles build on Dockery’s expertise in unpacking august women. She’s currently filming the third season of Downton Abbey, in which she plays Lady Mary Crawley, she of Edwardian corsets and elbow-length gloves.

“I’ve become more aware of fashion and design since Downton Abbey,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot from Susannah Buxton, who designed the costumes for the first and second seasons, and Caroline McCall, who’s doing the third. I’ve learned that simplicity is key. But sometimes it’s great to step out of the box.”

Or rip it up entirely. At the TIME shoot, Dockery balked when she saw an edgy red leather jacket from Antonio Berardi. But once she put it on, she found herself radiating the confidence of a sci-fi heroine. “When you’re playing a tourist from the future, you have to move outside your opinions about what you usually wear,” Dockery says. “Or rather, just be a bit braver.”