I am speaking to Tom Holland just a day before his birthday — he turned 27 earlier this month on June 1 — and to top it off, he is in the middle of a year-long break. But he has to do global press to promote his upcoming show, Apple TV’s psychological thriller The Crowded Room, and I begin with some almost-apologetic small talk.
“No no, I’m actually six months into my break and this is really my first day of work this entire year,” he waves me on, smiling. “All of 2023, I’ve been at home lying low. I’ve been working on my house, building cupboards, gardening and all that sort of stuff. I did know while shooting for The Crowded Room that I have this wonderfully long break coming up. So I just took on the challenge and dealt with the hardships of playing this character, knowing that I had some respite at the end. I actually thought that I’d be itching to get back onto set after two months… but I’m absolutely loving my time off!”
Tom does deserve a break. He has been working non-stop since 2008, ever since he broke out as a precociously talented teenager on stage after being cast in Billy Elliot the Musical; Tom first played the role of the protagonist’s best friend, then Billy himself.
During his time in theatre, he had to train in everything from acrobatics and gymnastics to ballet and tap dancing: an array of skills that would be instrumental eight years later in him landing the role of a lifetime; that of a nervous high-school student in Queens, named Peter Parker.
‘Spider-Man is my best friend’
“I love playing Spider Man and Peter Parker. I feel like he is my best friend, you know? He changed my life. I also have two incredibly gifted agents who I’ve worked with since I was 13 years old, who have been so good at positioning me at the right times to work with the right people,” he smiles, adding that this Apple project — incidentally, his first television show — was offered to him while he was filming Spider-Man: No Way Home.
“It happened during Spider Man 3; I was in between hanging upside-down fighting Alfred Molina and having the time of my life when I found out that Akiva (the showrunner) wanted to speak to me about a project. In the Christmas break, we met on Zoom and immediately hit it off. Our 45-minute meeting turned into a two hour epic conversation about what this series could be, and he was kind enough to give me the job. The adventure really started from there.”
Akiva Goldsman is, of course, the genius writer (an Oscar and Golden Globe winner) behind several book-to-screen adaptations such as A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. When he decided to create The Crowded Room, a project based on the 1981 non-fiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes — which follows a man who is arrested after his involvement in a shooting in ‘70s New York City — Tom was his first choice.
It’s all in the (Tom’s) mind
Some might be surprised that an actor, best known for playing a web-shooting cartoon gunslinger, would come to mind for such a complex narrative; the trailer itself suggests a deep exploration of themes such as mental health and psychological trauma. But Tom is not the usual Hollywood breakout. Outside of his superhero antics (and fuelling his big-budget action star image in Uncharted and Chaos Walking) he has been remarkably unconventional; from playing a war hero suffering from PTSD in Cherry, to The Devil All The Time which saw him go to extreme dark places mentally.
“It’s definitely something that has been in our strategic conversations, about not just getting put into one box. I love challenging myself in films like The Devil All The Time, or Cherry that I did with the Russo brothers. For me, it all comes under the same umbrella. But it’s something we think about and actively try to achieve,” he replies, when asked about his cinematic choices.
Tom Holland’s career-best performance?
‘The Crowded Room’ also stars other heavyweights such as Amanda Seyfried, Emmy Rossum, Sasha Lane and Will Chase. However, the British actor believes he really has given it his all, especially with his character traversing multiple timelines (no, not of the Marvel kind) and flashbacks
But what is with his fascination to take on characters who battle with the demons in their head? The Crowded Room will see his character of Danny Sullivan — through a series of interviews with curious interrogator Rya Goodwin (Amanda Seyfried) — unravel elements of the mysterious past that shaped him, and the twists and turns which led him to a life-altering truth.
Tom appears nonplussed for a moment. “Woah.. that’s a really interesting thought! I’ve never really perceived it that way at all, that I’m chasing characters with these ailments. I love a great story, a great challenge and working with great people. This project offered me all of those things and it was an easy decision to say yes. But it’s fascinating that you picked up this parallel between the three projects; I’d never thought about a correlation between them. I’m delighted you pointed it out, and I’m so grateful that you’ve observed my work.”
Hailing from Kingston upon Thames in south-west London, Tom, the oldest of four brothers, loves that the show is set in a different time period. “I’m a huge fan of New York, and was thrilled to call it home for just under a year; it is as much a character in the show as I am. New York in the ‘70s was a pretty crazy place, and our department heads did a wonderful job of bringing that to life. It was really cool stepping into that era, but also equally scary as it was a very, very different time.”
Growing up and taking charge, Peter Parker style
He’s even more thrilled about the fact it lets him experiment wildly with his look; after all, being Spider-Man doesn’t really leave room to be too radical with the hair or make-up after he masks up, does it?
“Haha, you know, I learned a really valuable lesson from Jake Gyllenhaal (the two became thick friends on the sets of Spider-Man: Far From Home) to commit to hair, make-up and wardrobe, and do whatever you can to make yourself look as aesthetically different as possible with each role that you have.”
“With this character of Danny Sullivan, I just really went for it (he grew out his hair into a messy, dirty look). The studio wouldn’t allow me to cut my hair in the way that we did, and ultimately, I just took an executive decision to say, well, I’m going to do it anyway. I’m delighted that we did because I think that the hair is the icing on the cake. I loved the wardrobe too, and I’ve kept it all… I still wear the flared jeans,” Tom laughs.
What’s interesting is that he also serves as an executive producer on the show; akin to Peter Parker evolving from teenager to adult, and holding his own in the MCU gradually over the course of six movies, Tom feels that he trusts his own judgment now.
“I am finally comfortable taking these calls. Rachel Speke, my makeup artist, is incredibly talented, and did these wonderful mood boards for what she wanted to try and achieve with the character. We would sit there and look at these different pictures of people from New York in the ‘70s, and this haircut popped up so many times! Apple were a little hesitant because it was a huge departure from the way I look in real life. But I just felt like it was so important with a character like this, to disappear into his life as much as possible, and to be as authentic to the period.”
“I do remember showing up at the camera test, and there being some rather unhappy faces, but I think they came around in the end,” he recalls, with an awkward grin.
Stepping into Spidey’s shoes again
Tom’s not keen to reveal more details on when he might play Spider-Man again, but the actor did reveal at the premiere of The Crowded Room in New York City, that he has “been having meetings” about the next chapter in the franchise.
”We’ve put the meetings on pause in solidarity with the writers. At this point it’s very, very early stages,” he remarked lightly.
For now, Marvel’s favourite poster boy of this generation is just glad to look back at his latest, while admitting that playing such a difficult character in such an intense subject eventually took a lot out of him: “Akiva is a professional and such an ally for me on set. He’s not only a great friend, but also a great leader. I also have a wonderful support system of friends from my personal life, and we all work together as a team.”
“My acting coach Ben (Perkins) was a huge support for me while making this show, helping me to navigate the characters to keep the arc cohesive throughout the 10 episodes. Yes, there were times where I needed a shoulder to cry on and I had plenty of shoulders to choose from… so I was very lucky.”
The Crowded Room premieres on Apple TV+ with the first three episodes on Friday, June 9, followed by new episodes weekly