Actor Tom Holland for GQ Style September 2019 braces for impact shot by Fanny Latour-Lambert.
Written by Zach Baron, let’s dig into a super entertainment essay with only 23, is among the brightest stars in the entire superhero universe—not to mention one of the highest-grossing actors of 2019.
Tom Holland loves golf. He thinks about it constantly. He plays rounds on public courses and on courses that used to be the exclusive province of kings. He plays while on movie press tours in Asia and Europe and the United States. If he’s not currently playing golf, there is almost always some part of his mind that is just anticipating the next time he’ll be able to. “I don’t know what has happened,” Holland says, “but it has become my addiction. I go to sleep thinking about playing golf the next day.” The two of us are, in fact, in the back of an SUV, traveling through Holland’s native London on our way to play right now.
What’s interesting about this fixation is that Tom Holland could reasonably be said to have better things to do. Five years ago, when he was 18, he was among approximately 7,000 young men who auditioned for this century’s third iteration of the Spider-Man franchise. Unlike the other 6,999 or so of them—by the end of this process, the short list of other actors being considered for the role was said to include Timothée Chalamet, Nat Wolff, Asa Butterfield, and Liam James—he got the part. In the years since, Holland’s life has become quite strange.
In some ways the financial success of Holland’s two Spider-Man films understates what Holland has become to the vast teenage audience who seek and sustain themselves on comic-book movies. Holland is newly 23 and in the right light still looks 16. He is the attainable one, the audience surrogate. He is their star. In Holland’s first onscreen appearance as Spider-Man, in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark shows up at young Peter Parker’s apartment in Queens, not exactly sure whom he’s even looking for: “You’re the…Spiderling? You’re Spider-Boy?”
Unlike his two predecessors in the role, Tobey Maguire (solid, grown, full of pain) and Andrew Garfield (who seemed like he had wandered into the part after getting too high at a Pulp concert in 1998), Holland was actually a teenage boy when he began in the part, and he played Peter Parker accordingly. Holland’s Spider-Man had a transparently good heart and a lot of enthusiasm. He was as in awe of the rest of the Avengers as any other 18-year-old would be, but he didn’t take any of it too seriously. There was Spider-Man, web-slinging through the chaotic finale of Avengers: Infinity War, rescuing characters from other various, half-remembered Marvel films: “I got you!” “I got you!” “Sorry, I can’t remember anybody’s names.” (Same, Spider-Man.)
Holland—modestly built, always game—turned out to have a way of making big, CGI-filled spectacles feel human-size again. Other directors have taken note. This fall alone, Holland also stars in The Current War, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, and Spies in Disguise, opposite Will Smith. Next year he will star in movies from Doug Liman, Antonio Campos, and the Russo brothers. His life, over the past few years, has been lived almost exclusively on movie sets. None of which has kept Holland from obsessing, at every opportunity, about golf.
“What’s nice about golf is it’s the most humbling sport,” Holland says. “Like Avengers, for example, just became the biggest film of all time. That’s amazing, super exciting. So I’m like: ‘I’m gonna go and play golf with the boys and celebrate.’ And then you play like a dick, and it brings you right back to the earth.”Tom Holland
Holland is referring here to the news that Avengers: Endgame, which came out earlier this year, and in which he costarred, has already become the highest-grossing movie in film history. The other film that Holland appeared in this year, Spider-Man: Far From Home, is currently the fourth highest-grossing movie of 2019. And so, I point out in the car, Tom Holland could be the number one male actor, in terms of box office, in 2019.
Holland has yet to consider this fact, he says. “Wow. I didn’t even think about that.”
Then he asks, very earnestly: “So, like, every year there’s a box office person of the year?”
Not exactly, I say. It’s more like…an observation. There’s no formal award or anything.
Holland nods his head again, still processing this information.
“Wow,” he says.
“To a bunch of 10-year-olds who play rugby, Tom Holland doing ballet in the gym wasn’t cool,” he says about getting bullied. “But it’s just what I had to do if I wanted to get this job.”
But actually, that can’t be right, he says—what about The Rock?
“What does Dwayne have coming out?” he asks. “The Rock is someone I’ve always looked up to. His whole thing is: Be the hardest-working person in the room. It’s something that I’ve really taken to heart. And when I heard him say that for the first time, I was like, That is a really good saying.”
In The Rock, perhaps, Holland recognized a fellow pro. Holland’s first real role was on London’s West End, playing the lead in Billy Elliot. He was nine years old when he was first approached about the part. His mother, a commercial photographer, had enrolled him in a dance class after watching him react in a reasonably coordinated way to a Janet Jackson song, and he was first spotted there. Then Holland trained for two years, in order to be able to actually do the role. Part of that training involved learning ballet. “I would do it in the school gym at lunchtimes by myself, in tights, with a teacher,” Holland says. “So you have kids looking through the windows. To a bunch of 10-year-olds who all play rugby, Tom Holland doing ballet in the gym isn’t that cool.” Because of this, he says, he was bullied quite a bit. “But, uh, you know, that’s fine. It’s just what I had to do if I wanted to get this job.”
From ballet, Holland learned a kind of specific grammar of movement. “Ballet is the Latin of dance,” he says. “Every piece of dance has come from ballet. To come from that background has allowed me to express myself in different ways. For instance, in the Spider-Man suit, you often can’t see his face. But I find a way to convey feeling anyway.” Dance, Holland says, taught him to “emote in different ways that aren’t crying or laughing.” And from doing theater every night, starting at the age of 11, Holland learned how to be professional—to work like an adult while he was still just a child.
Recently, Holland messaged The Rock on social media, and they started speaking; Holland says: “He’s such an inspirational dude.” After their conversation, Holland felt inspired. What could he do, to honor The Rock? “I was like, I’m going to the fucking gym.”
“I never understood when you watch, like, young celebrities go off the rails,” Holland says now. “I was like, ‘Why do you do that? Just chill and be cool.’ ”
Though this will soon change, most of Holland’s onscreen roles so far have been sons, secretaries, mentees—younger men, learning from or rebelling against their elders. This is partly because of Holland’s age, and partially because of a certain innocence he still retains and that remains visible in his face, which is open and guileless and unusually transparent. In real life, too, Holland has found himself, in Hollywood, collecting mentors and guardian angels along the way. There is Chris Hemsworth, with whom he starred in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea and later Avengers, and then Robert Downey Jr., of course. Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the villain in Spider-Man: Far From Home, has become a friend too, he says.
And then, ever conscious of not being cruel, he says, “But I mean, you could be on set and you might not know what planet you’re on or who you’re fighting or who the superhero on your left is. But what’s nice for me is that at the end of the day, I grew up a massive fan of these movies. So for me to get the chance to work on them but also kind of be in the dark as to the story, I can still kind of enjoy the film just as a fan, you know?”
Recently, Holland appeared on a talk show with Paltrow, whom he is determined to keep meeting until she definitively remembers who Spider-Man is. It was The Graham Norton Show, and Holland appeared with Gyllenhaal, Paltrow, and Tom Hanks. At one point, in the middle of the show, Hanks decided to run Holland through an acting exercise. This was not planned in advance. Hanks asked Holland to repeat a simple line—“Coffee, coffee, boy, do I need more coffee”—in as many different ways as possible.
Tom Holland suddenly notices the jeans that I’m wearing and looks concerned. They won’t let me play golf in those—I know that, right? I heft the backpack I’ve brought, with a change of clothes in it, and he reacts with obvious relief. His default mode is a kind of wide-eyed friendliness. How did I get into journalism? he asks. What does my wife do? Would I like a bottle of water, perhaps? This is the first time he’s had an extended vacation in years, and his affect is of a person who, having gotten to the end of a gunfight, is checking himself all over for wounds: Am I still a good person? Who have I become? Do I still like myself?
“I never understood when you watch, like, young celebrities go off the rails,” Holland says. “I’m like, Why do you do that? Just chill and be cool. And it wasn’t until I felt the pressure of, like, Is that person taking a picture of me? Is this person taking a picture of me? The pressure of that.”
“So yeah, it hasn’t been the best week,” Holland says. His jaw tightens a bit just at the thought of it.
Because this person’s privacy was violated by a million tabloids?
Is that why?
“It’s just, I’m a very private person. If you do a Google search, I’m not a tabloid person. I don’t like living in the spotlight. I’m quite good at only being in the spotlight when I need to be. Um, so…uh…it just was a bit of a shock to the system. It’s the first time I’ve ever kind of been in the tabloids. It’s the first time something like this has ever really happened to me. So it’s a bit of a shock to the system. Um, but you know, but it’s something that you look at and you go, ‘Oh, well, I just don’t put myself in that situation again.’ ”
What would that mean, to not put yourself in that situation again?
Holland looks out the window for some time. “I don’t really want to talk about it,” he says finally.
But then he continues: “For me, it’s a reflection of a life that I don’t live. And I like my private life, I like my friends, I like going out. And it—yeah, I just—”
This was a new level of surveillance.
“Yeah. I was just, Whoa, what is going on here? And it was just a little stressful. You know, it was a wake-up of, like: This is what your life is now. So just be wary.”
“And my mum said, ‘Look, you’re not getting any work, so you need to have a plan B. I’ve booked you at this carpentry school in Cardiff. You’re gonna go and learn to be a carpenter.’ ”
On the course we mostly talk about golf. When Holland was growing up, his dad taught him the game. His father, Dominic Holland, is a prolific comedian. He’s had a showbiz career, as well—or at least has aspired to one. In 2017 he published a comedic memoir called Eclipsed, about watching his son’s meteoric rise in the entertainment industry with a mix of pride and envy. It can be hard to tell at times, reading Eclipsed, how much of the elder Holland’s self-deprecation is genuine—in his bio, he brags that he has “written many screenplays, all of which are at various stages of not being made”—and how much of it is meant as a bit. He maintains a blog chronicling his life and his son’s successes, which he often contrasts with his own self-described failings.
A fox wanders by. Holland picks up trash as we walk, fills in divots. On the greens he repairs every ball mark he encounters. It drives him crazy that people don’t take care of the course like he does. “This is my golf course,” he says. On the fifth hole, I pull the ball way left. “Unlucky,” Holland says. “You’ll be able to find that!”
We talk about what it was like, auditioning for Spider-Man. It was a six-month process. When the short list of actors being considered for the role came out, Holland says, “I was very much not the world’s top pick.” He saw that constantly. “As a young, impressionable teenager, you take what you read on Instagram as the truth,” he says. The people casting the role kept telling him that he’d know by tomorrow. Meanwhile six more weeks would go by. “I put all these videos online of me doing backflips,” he remembers. “And the response was very negative. And then when I got cast, everyone was like, ‘He can do backflips, he’s perfect.’ ” That’s when he stopped taking Instagram as the truth.
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Photographs by Fanny Latour-Lambert @latourfanny
Written Zach Baron @zachbaron
Actor Tom Holland @tomholland2013
Styled by Mobolaji Dawodu @mobolajidawodu
Grooming by Larry King for Larry King Haircare @larrykinghair
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