Whether as Marvel’s Spider-Man or heroin addict Cherry in his game-changing new role with the Russo brothers, Tom Holland has been on one high or another since the age of 19. Now, as the business of moviemaking rewrites the rules of topline renown, we ask the face of a ten-figure franchise how he learned to swing with the big dogs and where he plans to land when (and if…) his feet finally hit the ground
The fact that the first few words that tumble out of Tom Holland’s mouth include “dildo”* and “heroin” give me a good indication of how much the 24-year-old ballet dancer from South London has grown out from Spider-Man’s long, elastic shadow since the world last saw his “Peter Tingle” tingle.
Another indication is the emotional and physical pulp Holland found himself in 14 months ago: clucking, sweat-drenched and wide-eyed, with a pair of off-colour Y-fronts around his thighs, on the set of Cherry, an independent film shot in Cleveland, Ohio, and directed by the Russo brothers Anthony and Joe (Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War; Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame), with a screenplay by their sister, Angela Russo-Otstot, and Jessica Goldberg.
Cherry is Holland’s moment to try on his big-boy movie star pants. The ride is wild, traumatic and fist-bitingly raw. The subject matter is distinctly adult: it is a toxic junkie love story, set before and after the Iraq War of 2003.
“Have you ever taken heroin before?” Holland asks me, I assume rhetorically. “Because I have not. I couldn’t sit there on set and inject heroin into my chest – that’s not how it is done. I had to get it right. This role took me to some of the darkest places I have ever been, emotionally, physically, anythingly… I would never go back there again, not for anyone. I am pleased I did it, but that door is now closed and locked.”
For myriad reasons, Holland’s performance in Cherry is astonishing. For almost the entirety of the film you can see – almost feel – the chemicals rattling around in his pale, gasping veins. Yet it’s more Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, however, than Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy; there’s horror, sure, but there’s also a distinct sense the directors want empathy for their character’s story.
The dude’s skin gets pallid, with all the colourless putridity of raw chicken that’s three days turned. It’s a film in which the demons (and America’s contemporary problems) are stuffed down your throat, via your eyeballs, while Spider-Man’s cherry-red and royal-blue Marvel Cinematic Universe-issued spandex morph suit is entirely absent. Spidey fans will be shocked out of their Butterkist sugar comas.
“I think there might have been some people at Disney confused as to why their Spider-Man had become a heroin addict.” Holland says, chuckling, clearly enjoying the idea that a few of the Disney execs – who bought Marvel in 2009 for a cool $4 billion (£2.4bn) – might be sweating under the lights here a little. Holland, after all, is one of the world’s most valuable stars, if not the most valuable star in the MCU.
The actor is currently talking to me from a rental house in Atlanta, Georgia, where he is shooting Spider-Man: No Way Home. He’s been here since September and “We’re close to finishing, actually”. Today (a Monday) is a good day because it’s Holland’s one day off a week. After talking to me he’ll go to a local golf club with one of his younger brothers – Harry, who has been doubling as his assistant; Holland has two other siblings – and thwack a few irons into the clipped turf in a bid to just forget. To forget who he is and to forget, just for a fleeting moment, the insurmountable pressure that comes with being who he is.
Cherry is an adaptation of author Nico Walker’s literary debut, a (mostly) factual autobiography that tells the story of a smart yet vulnerable man, “Cherry” (Holland), who flees stale suburbia’s all-day bongs, unpaid bills and unemployment boredom by signing up for the US Army and heading promptly into the oil-soaked stench of Iraq. Clue: this turns out to be a massive fucking mistake.
He trains to kill the “Haji” (a derogatory term for an Iraqi, used by US military throughout the 2003 conflict), learns to stuff his comrades’ hot guts back inside their blackened, hollowed chests as an army medic, hauls out to Iraq’s “Triangle Of Death”, waits, masturbates in a Portakabin in the middle of the desert thinking about his beautiful, doe-eyed wife back home in Cleveland (played superbly by Ciara Bravo) and then waits a bit more.
Just as things are getting boring he watches as his marine buddies suffer a direct hit and burn alive in their dust-coloured Humvee, his bunk buddy’s wedding ring shining out from the blackened mass of charred bodies and twisted metal like a crescent moon in a midwinter sky. Experiences like this affect a man.
Returning home, our antihero finds his post-war life utterly shaken by severe PTSD, which, in turn – thanks to US doctors handing out opiates prescriptions like parking tickets at the time – leads to Oxycontin abuse. Cherry’s wife also becomes a slave to the dope. Then they start to inject heroin intravenously and our character makes a decision to fund their spiralling habits with a spree of amateurish, pistol-wielding bank robberies.
Holland is devastatingly uncompromising in his depiction of addiction. The specific scene mentioned – the one that begins with Holland coming to on the floor in his underwear – is particularly anxiety inducing. It shows Holland and his wife in tatters after a four- or five-day bender, having cracked the safe of a drug dealer and found it full of enough dope to raise the ghost of John Belushi. “I needed to make the drug taking and the drug aftermath look realistic,” Holland explains. “I had to get wired, without getting wired, if you know what I mean? So I got myself a secret weapon. His name was Brian.”
Brian used to be a junkie but now he instructs movie stars on how to deliver gut-punching authenticity. “He works in a rehab clinic, but he would come to set and advise on things like drug street names, how much certain drugs should cost, what their effect would be to me and how to take them.”
Brian’s notes were invaluable for Holland, an actor who builds his characters, inside and out, like huge 3-D jigsaw puzzles, a hundred tiny adjustments to complete a convincing moving picture. What did he tell you? “Like, how an addict would lick the drop of blood off their needle’s entry wound on the skin of their inside forearm to get the last possible bit of dope. Or the rush of taking a ‘speedball’ before a robbery – heroin mixed with cocaine – compared to the sleepy, wooziness of taking just heroin. Stuff that I just wouldn’t have known.”
For that one scene on the floor, however, Holland needed a bit more than just paper notes from Brian. “I just didn’t think I could do it,” explains Holland. “I mean, what does it feel like to wake up from a four-day drug bender? I know what a hangover feels like, but this is very different. So I asked Brian and he told me, ‘It feels like you want to rip your skin off.’ I sat him down and told him I didn’t think I could get there. He was like, ‘Well, Tom, I am going to fix this for you. I have just the thing…’
“I know,” says Holland, smiling, seeing my eyes bulge in anticipation of what Brian asked Holland to take to ensure a knockout performance. “Trust me, I was ready to call my agent too. Anyway, Brian pulls out two small plastic bottles of pre-workout. They’re like supercharged energy shots, the kind of thing that gym freaks neck before a big session. Brian told me, ‘Drink this.’ So I did. And for the next three hours it was like I was plugged into the mains, totally jacked up on caffeine. It felt horrible but it helped me get to where I needed to be. I would steer clear of those things, by the way. They must be impossibly unhealthy.”
A great deal of what Holland can do on screen that others simply cannot is about an ability to control his body. Holland has weaponised his physicality much like Marlon Brando weaponised the plain white T-shirt or Morgan Freeman weaponised a voice that sounds like a lion gargling manuka honey and gravel.
Throughout his entire career, in fact, whether playing Billy Elliot on stage in the West End aged 12 or spinning webs round supervillains alongside Tony Stark in the MCU, a great deal of what makes Tom Holland Tom Holland comes from how he moves, rather than the lines he delivers. (Although, before you @ us, Holland fans, he does these with aplomb too.)
Think Holland’s incarnation of Spider-Man is “clumsy” by accident? Forget it. It takes the taut, controlled precision of a top ballerino to make “not quite hitting your mark accidentally on purpose” look so beautifully and spontaneously accidental – not least while dressed in a Lycra condom swinging upside down in front of a five-storey green screen.
“I had to lose a lot of weight for Cherry,” Holland tells me. “And I don’t think I would ever do that again.” The film was shot in chapters: he did the “dope” part of the movie before any of the US army scenes, so he had to lose a lot of weight fast and then bulk up again even faster. “I lost around 27lbs by running in a bin bag every day.” Twenty-seven pounds is about the size of a small toddler holding a large pineapple, or the average amount of cheese an American eats in one year. Not a massive amount if your name is, say, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but, for Holland (5’7”; 141lb), that’s about a quarter of his body mass.
“It was awful. Truly. It was only about ten weeks out of shooting that I realised what I was getting into and what I need to do to transform into the role. So I sat down with my trainer, George Ashwell, and he told me, ‘Right, you need to eat only 500 calories a day and run ten miles. Go.’ Great. It was brutal. And then bulking up, going from a drug addict to shooting scenes as a marine? I got very sick, actually. And it’s changed my relationship with food completely. I think I would find it very difficult to find a role that would warrant that sort of abuse on my body again.”
“This character makes bad choices,” Joe Russo, one half of the formidable Russo brothers, directors of Cherry, explains. “We knew the audience would have difficulty with the lead, so we needed someone who was charming and empathetic to carry them through. The mission with Cherry was to make people have an emotional response to the material, not an intellectual response.
The director continues: “You tend to intellectualise when you are distanced from the lead character. Tom’s incredible charm can counteract that. After we read the book we felt that the only person who could play this and carry the correct level of empathy was Tom. I think we were doing some ADR work after Avengers: Infinity War and we asked him outright. He threw himself 150 per cent in, physically, emotionally, spiritually – it takes its toll, this kind of material, you know?”
So the Russo brothers owe Holland? Sure. Although Holland, let’s be clear here, had some payback due. Big time. These are the directors, after all, who gave Holland, aged 19, the biggest role of his life; quite possibly the biggest role he’ll ever land, if we’re talking about sheer audience size and volcanic eruptions of cash from bonkers box office takings. You see, it was the Russos, six years ago while preparing for Captain America: Civil War, starring Chris Evans, who cast Holland as your next friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
“It was a unique experience casting Spider-Man then because we were working with Sony,” continues Joe Russo. Although Spider-Man is a fully sworn-in Avenger and now part of the MCU, Sony is the company that actually owns the big-screen rights to Spider-Man’s intellectual property. Sony Pictures chairman Thomas Rothman and former chairwoman Amy Pascal – now a producer on Holland’s third Spider-Man film – have been largely responsible for forging the deal with Marvel, allowing Holland to flex and swing between the two studios without too much bickering on creative direction. This wasn’t always the case.
“I can’t think of another time in movie history where two studios shared an asset as valuable as Spider-Man,” explains the director. “So, of course, this made it a little bit of a complicated process from a casting standpoint. Like, who is going to be responsible for the casting of this role? Anthony and I are extremely opinionated and very bullish in our opinions, especially when it comes to cast because we cherish our opinions with them and have a very particular taste when it comes to our work style.”
“This is the guy. You are going to love him.” These were Sarah Halley Finn’s words to the Russos just before Holland walked into the audition room for Civil War to be cast as Spider-Man. Remember, Holland had already been through several arduous months of screen tests and hoop jumping before he got this face-to-face with the film’s directors.
Finn, at this point, already had a knockout record with casting across the MCU. Perhaps more than anyone, she has held influence over which actors get cast as which immortal cape wearers, time benders and hammer throwers. She’s Marvel’s headhunter-in-chief, corralling the likes of Robert Downey Jr for Iron Man in 2008, Chris Hemsworth for Thor, Benedict Cumberbatch for Dr Stephen Strange, Chadwick Boseman for Black Panther – it goes on and on. The fact is, if you want to get into a Marvel movie, Finn (even more so than Marvel president Kevin Feige) is the gatekeeper your agent needs to initially impress.
“Sarah [Finn] should get all the credit for casting Holland as Spider-Man; she’s the best in the business and she knows us,” says Joe Russo. “We had already done two films with her. So Holland came in. He did his test. We called Sarah straight after and said, ‘Oh, my God, he’s incredible. He’s a movie star: he’s got the charisma; he’s got the range.’ It’s very rare someone walks into a room who has all the elements that make up a bona fide star. Holland had that thing.” Anthony Russo quips, “Plus, Holland’s ability to do a standing backflip right in front of you – that helped!”
So Holland was a shoo-in? Hardly. Casting Spider-Man, at any moment in time, is a big deal. As the juggernauting commercial success of Marvel continued to ramp up in 2014 and 2015, however, it became an even bigger deal. A lot of people could make a lot of money. And a lot of people wanted sign-off on who would be the next Peter Parker. Sony knew this only too well.
“We talked with Feige at Marvel about Holland and he got excited and then we went to Sony…” explains Joe. “And they were like, ‘Let’s think about it for a minute.’ We could tell we were meeting resistance from Sony. So we brought [Holland] back, brought him back, brought him back, and we were relentless in our pursuit of jamming him down the throat of the studio who owns this IP. It came down to a fight, yet Sony just kept dragging their feet.”
I ask the brothers what they think Sony’s initial reservations were about Holland? “Look, we have a great relationship with Kevin. Winter Soldier was a big hit, doubling the box office from the previous film, then coming into Civil War Sony is looking at us going, ‘OK, so you guys have the Midas touch, here’s our [Spider-Man] IP.’ But, also, they were reticent, nervous, about handing off something that could ultimately cost them hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions of dollars down the line.
“Sony’s reservations were: ‘Are we loaning it? Or are we giving it to them to help us reinvent it in a way that adds value for us?’” Anthony Russo also thinks it was Holland’s age, rather than anything else, that gave Sony the jitters. “It was the first time Spider-Man had ever been cast as an actual teenager, right? Which was very important to us; there was a distinct nervousness of casting a kid.”
Yet Joe Russo was – and is – empathic about his vote for Holland: “It is a very disruptive time we are in. Brands are becoming a driver; stars are becoming arguably less important. I think narrative and media are going to be disrupted over the next ten years, like cars and energy have been. But there’s a universe where Tom Holland is the last great movie star coming in underneath the wire of disruption. It takes a perfect storm of events to create a star: talent, timing, marketplace.”
So what happened?
“Robert Downey Jr happened.”
Within the labyrinthine story that is Tom Holland’s Spider-Man casting origin tale there is a crucial part that Marvel stans love to mythologise: the part when Tom Holland screen-tests with Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr, in Atlanta with the Russos.
“I remember it very well,” Holland chuckles, lost a little in the reverie. Although what some casual Marvel fans might not know is that the Spider-Man audition story is even more charmingly Tom Holland than the charming Tom Holland Spider-Man audition story they think they know already.
“I was obviously nervous,” Holland tells me. “I mean, it would be strange if I hadn’t been nervous. Thankfully, weirdly, something happened that loosened the pressure valve on my anxiety that day. I saw Ant and Joe and then I saw Downey standing there in the casting room. I went over. I introduced myself. But I remember thinking, ‘That’s a bit odd. He doesn’t look like I’d imagined him or remembered.’ Still, I shook his hand, telling him, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ saying how excited I was at the opportunity, how much it means to me…” And then? “Well, then a door opens and in walks the actual Robert Downey Jr. I’d been chatting up his stunt double the entire time. So, actually, I got my jittery, loser vibe out of the way. And then, when I actually met Downey, I was a little more cool and collected.”
What advice did Downey give you that day? “He took me to one side and said, ‘I remember the feeling. I’ve been through this before and it is incredibly stressful. Enjoy the process and let your body take over.’ Which is advice that I still use. I was doing a new Spider-Man scene just the other day and I had to eat a bowl of cereal. And I just couldn’t eat a bowl of cereal like a normal person – I was too in my head. And the director, Jon [Watts], goes, ‘What are you doing?’ And I was like, ‘Sorry, I’m leading with my head and I need to lead with my body.’ So it was good advice. And I think that’s the piece of advice that got me the Spider-Man job ultimately.”
Downey also remembers the casting session with Tom Holland. “He had a lot of hair,” Downey tells me, laughing. “I remember thinking, ‘What’s with the hair, dude?’” The scene Downey and Holland went over for the now fabled audition was Holland’s first scene in Civil War, where audiences get to meet the new Spider-Man: following Peter Parker’s school backpack into the small NYC apartment he shares with Aunt May (Marisa Tomei). On entering, Parker is gobsmacked to see Tony Stark sitting on his couch talking to his aunt about a “grant”, cover that will allow Parker to work alongside Stark. Marvel movies are heavily scripted and, usually, so too are such casting sessions. But that didn’t stop Downey from changing the first line in a bid to test Holland’s chops.
“Yeah, I may have done that. I did that,” admits Downey. “And the kid handled it. He was seasoned, good presence. I could tell he had good kung fu; he could roll with the punches and keep it more than interesting. Remember, I’d been testing with a bunch of kids that day. They shall remain unnamed, but they all did well and any one of them would have brought something else to the part of Spider-Man. But why Holland? That’s your question, right? Gravitas. Gravitas and the confidence to be able to take on the mantle.
“Look, becoming Spider-Man is a lot,” Downey underlines. “So why does Tom Holland get to be Spider-Man? That character is the gold standard in the MCU. Iron Man? Whatever. When I became Iron Man few had even heard of the character, ergo less pressure. But Spider-Man? Everyone knows Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield did a good job. Tobey Maguire did a good job. So I ask you again: why does Tom Holland get to be number three?”
Downey, of course, has an answer for this. In typical freewheeling Downey style he’s able to zoom out, get macro and stop sweating the small stuff. “What happened at the casting isn’t irrelevant but it isn’t everything. Like I said, it comes down to being able to carry the mantle.” Meaning? “To be able to weather the trial by fire that rains down on someone when taking on such a thing. Marvel fans are wonderfully yet terrifyingly committed. They absorb all of you. They expect to. Becoming Spider-Man is a bit like going down a K-hole: it’s easy to get lost in there. Add in the fact that you are worked relentlessly. It’s crazy. But Tom can handle it. I could tell. He’s a beekeeper.”
“A beekeeper. Sure. Me, Tom, the Marvel guys, we’re beekeepers. It’s not sexy. It’s hot under those damn suits. You can’t see us. We’re sweating to make the sweet, sweet syrupy nectar to be consumed for our leaders. We’re all beekeepers. Overpaid beekeepers. The great thing about Tom is he has that Chaplin-esque thing. He’s an honourable cockney. Do you know where the terms ‘cockney’ comes from? Middle English ‘coken-ey’, or a ‘cock’s egg’ – a small, unshapen egg. Tom’s different. He’s got moxie. He’s needed it. I can relate to that. And I’m so glad he got this radically different note in with Cherry with the Russos in the interim. He’s full circle.”
How then could Cherry affect Holland’s own trajectory, I ask Downey. “Look, Tom won’t be playing Spider-Man when he’s 37. At least I hope not. And when you’re in the MCU, there’s a feeling of all life beginning with it and ending it. But there’s life outside too. I can confirm this. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. It’s funny, I bumped into Keanu [Reeves] the other day, somewhere in Malibu, I think, and he told me he’d just been filming The Matrix again; he’d stepped back into that world that he once occupied. I asked him what it felt like: ‘Like being in Australia.’
“What I am saying is there was a Spider-Man before Tom Holland and there will be a Spider-Man after Tom Holland. That’s facts, Tommo. Sorry.” What about Downey, I ask, unable to resist: now he’s out, could he ever find himself stepping back into the MCU again? As Iron Man? “Well…” he mummers. “I have alighted, for now. Real world to save. But never say never.”
Much has been made of the relationship between Downey and Holland and, more specifically, Parker and Stark. The relationship, certainly in the films, purposely taps into a master-apprentice vibe between the pair. Downey is clear to nix a theory that he knows only too well is out in the real world, mushrooming on Marvel forums and fan sites: that Holland/Parker/Downey/Stark are forming a bond or legacy that goes beyond team members and colleagues with superpowers.
“I am protective of Tom, sure,” explains Downey. “But I protect his right to be his own man. We have a very, very difficult to explain affinity for each other. I won’t, for example, if asked, extemporise about how incredible he is in the movie. This is because my endorsement is automatic. Did I expect him to get good notices from his part in Cherry? Yes. Do I need to supercharge these notices? No, I do not. We are brothers. He comes to my house in Malibu when he rolls through town. I FaceTime him when he’s in the pub. I am not his weird, rich uncle. He is not my protégé. We’re just… folk.”
Before he began work on No Way Home Tom Holland shot another movie, Uncharted, due out in 2022. If Cherry is an independent “action” film shot by directors who have more affinity with someone like Steven Soderbergh, then Uncharted has more in common with a Michael Bay action movie. It required more bulking up from Holland. It also required a little more cool. Not cool cool. Not Soderbergh. But cool, as in Holland had to stand “looking cool”. It was an experiment in vanity that left an odd taste in his mouth.
“As soon as you start worrying about ‘Do I look good in this shot?’ acting becomes something other than playing a character. I think there are elements of my performance in Uncharted where I kind of fell under that spell of being ‘I want to look good now. I want this to be my cool moment.’ I had to play this very tough, very stoic guy – basically be Mark Wahlberg. My character is supposed to be a fucking action hero in this moment! Look, I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know if I succeeded in that. But it was an important lesson learned, because, at times, it was less about land a mark and go through this scene and more about land a mark, stand like this and see my bulging biceps… It was a mistake and is something that I will probably never do again.”
Comfortingly enough for many young men reading this, however, Holland has never really fitted into those traditional old-school chest-beating masculine traits (although he does assure me he has a fiery side: “I am my mother’s son, after all”). Growing up in South London he went to a Catholic school where, as with all teenagers, credibility, kudos and cool came either alongside sporting triumphs on the pitch or dossing off, flipping the teacher the bird, smoking cigarettes, snogging whomever and being generally adolescent.
“I was bullied, picked on, called names, stuff like that,” he says. Holland also suffered from dyslexia, although he is adamant the diagnosis didn’t hold him back, at least not socially. “I wasn’t going to school and getting the shit kicked out of me every day. But I was definitely separate from a lot of kids, mainly as between eleven and 13 I was working on Billy Elliot. Going from such a grown-up working environment, I found it hard to switch back into school. I found it odd others weren’t doing their homework; I’d been conditioned to do as I was taught. And, let’s face it, I was doing ballet, which as a young boy wasn’t the coolest thing in the world. I didn’t finish but I might go back, maybe study woodwork. Still, who’s laughing now, hey?”
Yet Holland had a not dissimilar experience on the set of Cherry last year. The Iraq War scenes were shot in Morocco and the actor had to fly out there promptly after shooting the emotionally draining dope scenes from the film. “All of a sudden, from doing those intimate scenes, a film about two people and PTSD and addiction in Cleveland, I was in a full-blown war movie.
“There are explosions going off, Humvees everywhere, guns. You know, the closest I’ve ever got to shooting a gun is a Nerf. All of a sudden I had eight or nine actors, my pals in the marines, who were playing my best friends. I found making such rapid relationships with these people really, really difficult. And, in truth, it reminded me of my school days. All these guys and the hundreds of extras had been out there in the desert for weeks, bonding, and I just didn’t fit in with the really masculine, toxic, war, soldier vibe.”
Rather than allow the ground to swallow him up, however, Holland reached for a costume. Or, more specifically, a shirt. “Four hundred extras, all tough American guys training to be soldiers – I wore my England rugby shirt. Stuck it on and it grounded me as who I am as a man. I went out there like number nine against the All Blacks, ready to go. It was my armour.”
Still, some warmongering manliness must have rubbed off on Holland, as when he joined No Way Home in Atlanta in the autumn of last year, super-producer Amy Pascal noticed something distinctly different about him. “Amy was like, ‘Tom what happened to you? You’re a man now. Well, you need to be a boy again…’”
Tom Holland is trying to figure out Tom Holland all the time. All. The. Damn. Time. He is learning, sometimes unconsciously. He pushes himself and then adjusts his trajectory. Accelerating. Braking. Accelerating some more. He worries, deeply, about his decisions and the consequences of his decisions. He is fully aware of how bright the glare of fame is currently. It bothers him.
Take his famous lip sync battle from May 2017. If you aren’t one of the almost 75 million people who have gawped at Holland’s winning performance, the two-minute-and-24-second-long clip shows him miming to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and dancing like, well, someone who can really fucking dance. In black Latex shorts with white frills, a sheer black body, a black bob wig and scarlet-red lipstick. In fake rain. With pyro. “Sensational” doesn’t do it justice.
Just before, however, Holland’s father, Dominic Holland, a comedian and author himself, attempted to dissuade his son from taking part. He called Tom up in LA and told him to tell the show, his agents, everyone he’d changed his mind. He was worried that such a risqué performance could wobble what was already an insane career trajectory. One can empathise with his father’s concern. After all, why take the risk? He was Spider-Man. What would it achieve, really? Who was Tom performing for anyway? The show will find someone else. They always do. They’d get over it. His career might not. Stop. Play it safe.
“Look, I am really glad I did that show and I had a lot of fun. It was incredibly stressful. It has been incredibly successful and has been a really great thing for my career. But my dad always taught me when I was younger and coming up in the business that you want to get famous as slowly as possible. You don’t want to get super famous tomorrow, because you won’t be able to handle it. It will ruin your life. I am very selective of who I talk to and what I do. I don’t ever want to overexpose myself, because my privacy is the last thing I own. I think that’s why he was so worried. And he’d tell me the same thing today I am sure: ‘Pace yourself, you’ve got a long career ahead of you.’ I don’t want to lose myself to all… this.”
Navigating Hollywood is something Holland has spoken to his Spider-Man costar Zendaya about, as recently as last week, in fact. “Talking to Zendaya’s helped me a lot, actually,” admits Holland. “I used to come across sometimes as a bit of a dick to fans, mainly as I was always so surprised that they’d want a picture with me or signature or whatever. I’d have the typical Londoner reaction, one of instant suspicion: ‘Why are you talking to me?’ Zendaya spotted this and quickly told me that this sort of reaction was going to be more aggro than just smiling and taking the picture. She totally changed the way I am able to be more comfortable in public.”
Holland, of course, is already Coca-Cola famous. Does it annoy him when fans, the media, whomever, link him romantically with his costars? “You mean, because I tagged Zendaya over my groin in an Instagram post?” Holland says, leaning back and laughing. “That was so funny; it was obviously a mistake. But in all seriousness, it is also incredibly frustrating. It’s very nerve-racking. It means that if you are dating someone, you have to be really conscious of their feelings, because if something does happen between the two of you, it’s not just happening between the two of you, it’s happening in front of the entire world. And it can be very complicated. It’s one of the things I worry about most, of all the things in my career.”
So here’s a totally casual, not-putting-you-on-the-spot kind of a question on that precise subject, Tom: has becoming Spider-Man been beneficial for your love life or not?
Silence. And a wide smile spreads slowly across Holland’s cherubic, clean-shaven face. There’s a nervous chuckle. “I’m not going to answer that question.”
You could fit what Tom Holland can tell me about the new Spider-Man film onto the back of a matchbox shrunk by Hank Pym’s Pym Particles. (No? See Ant-Man, gramps.) One thing, for sure, is that his brother Harry features. “Yes! He’s in it, I can tell you that. We were having a barbecue and I asked Jon Watts [the director] if Harry could have something to do and he liked the idea. I got to hang Harry upside down; it all cues off my dialogue. He’s on the wires for quite some time, so it felt like payback of sorts. I took pity on him after a while and brotherly love kicked in.”
Is he back playing opposite Zendaya? “It’s so fun being back with them, especially as Zendaya and I are going through similar things in our career, having taken on more adult roles to now come back to Spider-Man. I am so proud of what she has accomplished with Euphoria and also Malcolm & Marie. I think we both had to adjust again for No Way Home: I had to lift my voice up a couple of octaves higher and we both had to go back to playing these naive, charming teenagers again. We were talking about it yesterday, in fact. We were filming a scene where we go back to school and, well, I haven’t been to school since I was 15. It was really strange.”
And Andrew Garfield, what’s he like on set? And Tobey Maguire? Rumours have been flooding fan forums since last summer that both former Spider-Men (Spider-Mans?) are returning to star alongside Holland in his third feature. There have been unconfirmed sightings of Garfield in Atlanta, where shooting remained until February. “I knew you were going to ask me that. No, they are not on set. And neither of them are in this film. But I am being asked that question a lot. If you see a red dot on my head it’s a Sony or Marvel sniper about to blow my head off.”
The staggering thing is, however, that this could well be Holland’s very last Spider-Man film. Yes, really. “We haven’t got long filming now and it’s quite sad, because this is the end of my contract after this film is up,” Holland reveals. “I really don’t know what the future holds, so I am just savouring every moment, as it could potentially be the last.”
Come on, I say, they aren’t going to fire you. And you aren’t going to walk. “No, sure, I hope not, but I don’t have another contract – yet. As I was cast as Spider-Man six years ago, I have always had the contract there as a safety net. I would never need to worry as, next year, I always had another Spider-Man film – but not any more. I’m just looking at my phone waiting for it to ring with a new contract.” Holland famously found out he’d won the Spider-Man role via a press cutting online, before he even got a phone call or text from Marvel. Maybe the same will happen here? “Yes, maybe I’m already signed up for Spider-Man 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 without even knowing it.”
So he’d say yes? “Absolutely. One hundred per cent, yes.” Any renegotiation clauses? “We’d need to keep the same core team. The director, Jon Watts, is as much Spider-Man as I am. Zendaya, Jacob [Batalon].” And what about extras? “Extras?” Has he, for example, got his own Spider-Man suit he takes home? “You know, I haven’t got my own suit yet. I could ask for one of those. Good idea. And they have loads of them lying around. Or I could just steal one. I should just go home in one from set and be like, ‘Come and take it off me!’ They’d never find the hidden zips, though.”
Hidden zips? “Yes, it’s pretty uncomfortable. A privilege to wear, but uncomfortable.” What does Holland wear underneath his Spidey suit? “I wear a thong. Like a jockstrap thing. I have a thong and a mesh underlay suit and then the Spider-Man suit, made from very coarse material, goes over the top.” Holland pauses for a second, lost in thought. “If I did steal a suit, what would I do with it?” Role play? “I couldn’t put it on a mannequin in my living room, could I? Like a trophy. People would think I was utterly self-obsessed. I was in the costume house the other day and they have a foam model of my body. Like, it’s a perfect replica, accurate to the millimetre.”
A bit odd?
“Yes. I was looking at it. It’s really weird checking yourself out. I looked at my bum and I was like, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be doing that…’ But then I realised it was my ass and I could do that. So I had a proper look at it, a proper butcher’s. Yeah, so that’s strange. I wonder what happens to that mannequin once filming ends? Who takes replica me home?”
I leave our most valuable, most friendly neighbourhood movie star with deep existential questions that would give any Beverly Hills psychotherapist a good run for their money. Robert Downey Jr was absolutely right: there will always be another Spider-Man. Another Tom Holland, however? Unthinkable.
(*Holland was concerned a pair of hair clippers might look like a sex toy over Zoom. They did.)
You can see the photos from Tom’s photoshoot for GQ Magazine in the gallery, or by clicking the thumbnails below.