How Tom Holland Became Spider-Man

The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s new Spider-Man opens up about disaster epic In the Heart of the Sea and how he won the gig of a lifetime.

12.09.15 5:02 AM ET

Tom Holland is battle-tested. For his first film The Impossible, a dramatization of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia, the scrawny Brit spent six weeks being tossed about like a ragdoll in a 35,000-gallon tank the size of a football field in order to nail its pivotal disaster sequence. And for In the Heart of the Sea, in theaters Dec. 11, he was left “hanging on for dear life” as the cast and crew shot the movie’s key scenes of a gargantuan bull sperm whale going H.A.M. on a whaling ship.

Directed by Ron Howard and toplined by Chris Hemsworth, the film tells the tale of the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex, an event that later inspired Herman Melville’s seafaring opus Moby Dick. The whale attack was shot in the Canary Islands, with the perpetually drenched Holland developing nasty blisters after flailing from ropes for two weeks.

“Chris called it ‘a waterpark from hell,’ but I kind of love being thrown around by catapults and diving into the water,” says Holland. “I’m not a very good swimmer, which isn’t that good, though.”

One evening, a hurricane flooded the cast’s hotel on La Gomera, leaving them all ankle-deep in water. Since they couldn’t booze (calories), they all congregated for a sober dance party. Holland boasts he was far and away the best dancer there.

Given his wealth of experience, he may be telling the truth.

Holland has been dancing his entire life. When he was a baby, he’d bust a move every time Janet Jackson’s “Together Again” came on, prompting his parents to enroll him in a hip-hop dance class at Wimbledon’s Nifty Feet Dance School. From ages 7 to 10, he strutted his stuff to the likes of Justin Timberlake and the Black Eyed Peas, and fondly recalls his class re-creating scenes from the movie Step Up 2. He was eventually spotted by the headmaster, who recommended him for the West End production Billy Elliott the Musical. After two years of auditions, Holland landed the title role at the age of 12.

“At the time, I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor,” he says. “And when I left the show I got an agent, and before I could even think about what I wanted to do, I got cast in The Impossible. And from working with Naomi [Watts] and [Juan Antonio] Bayona, that’s when I realized that that’s what I wanted to do—to make movies and entertain people.”

Holland's breakout role in "The Impossible." , Holland's breakout role in "The Impossible." , Holland's breakout role in "The Impossible."

The 19-year-old’s next role will see him entertaining millions across the globe. On June 23, Marvel announced that they’d cast Holland as their new Peter Parker/Spider-Man, debuting the webslinger first in next year’s Captain America: Civil War, followed by a stand-alone Spidey film in 2017, to be directed by Jon Watts.

“Spidey is a big deal,” says a beaming Holland. “I still can’t believe that it’s happened. I wake up nearly every single night thinking it’s a dream and I have to Google myself to believe that it’s real.”

In an interview this year with The Daily Beast, Watts said that his stand-alone flick would be a “John Hughes version of Spider-Man”—which Holland confirms.

“It’s not The Dark Knight,” he says. “One of the special things about what we’re going to try and create is that you’re going to see the biggest independent film ever. It’s not going to be an epic thing; it’s going to be a film surrounded by these incredible things, but that follows this boy and his life. Peter Parker is a favorite of many because everyone can relate to him, and we’re going to try to make everyone relate to our Peter Parker. And John Hughes is a perfect example of what we’re going to try and do.”

Holland had just landed in northern Ontario to shoot the independent film Backcountry when he learned that Marvel was re-casting Spider-Man. He immediately called his agent and said, “I know they’re trying to make Miles Morales, but let me try and send a self-tape.” The agent replied, “Actually, they’ve requested you to send a self-tape.”

“That alone was crazy,” recalls Holland. “I couldn’t quite believe that Marvel knew who I was.”

At that point, Holland says he did a self-tape with his Backcountry co-star Joel Kinnaman, which he then sent off to Marvel’s casting director extraordinaire, Sarah Finn. She gave him some notes, he re-taped the scenes, and sent them off to Marvel again.

Tom Holland as Thomas Nickerson in "In the Heart of the Sea."

Jonathan Prime/Warner Bros.

Tom Holland as Thomas Nickerson in "In the Heart of the Sea."

“I went on to my next movie, Pilgrimage, and by that point I’d done two self-tapes, and they asked me to do another self-tape,” he says. “So I did a second set of sides and this time I had Jon Bernthal helping me out, which was great. I had to do those sides twice and my agents kept telling me, ‘This is the one!’ And then they’d ring me saying I have to do another one. I ended up doing five self-tapes in total.”  

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After the five self-tapes, Holland had graduated to the next level in Marvel’s exhaustive casting process: in-person auditions.  

“I went to Sarah Finn’s office and did a reading with her, and after that I got asked to screen-test,” says Holland. “I did two—one with RDJ, Robert Downey Jr., who was amazing. I couldn’t have asked for a cooler guy. And the second test was with Chris Evans, and it was pretty awesome and kind of surreal for me.”

And it was during that second screen test with Chris Evans, aka Captain America, that Holland showed off some special moves.

“We had to do a movement test and then I said, ‘Can I just demonstrate some of the things that I can do?’ and they all were a little unsure of what I was talking about, and then I did a series of backflips and landed on the X, and was like, ‘Thank you!’ and then just left.”

He chuckles. “I used to be a gymnast when I was little.”

So, following five self-tapes, a casting agent audition and two screen tests, the waiting game began. Holland would wake up every morning and ring his agents for an update. Nada.

“Then, I was having this terrible day and I went home and was scrolling through Instagram, and I saw Marvel had posted a photo of Spider-Man with the message, ‘We have cast the new Spider-Man! Go to our website to see who it is.’”

Holland visited the website… and then lost it. “I learned about it online with everybody else, and I just went bananas.”

His brother Harry, who’s a tech wiz, told Holland that the site may have been hacked, and the casting news might be fake. So he picked up the phone and called his agents, who confirmed the news with Marvel brass.

“Then I got a phone call from [Marvel honcho] Kevin Feige, who said, ‘I just want you to know that we’ve cast you as Spider-Man,’ and I thought, ‘I know! I already saw it online.’ But he was very nice and welcoming.”

In order to get into character, the nimble ex-gymnast/ex-hip-hop dancer says he’s been bouncing around on an AirTrack, which is “like a bouncy castle that’s flat.” And, when asked if he had to go through any sort of initiation ceremony to become a Marvel superhero, he laughs.

“It’s a secret!” exclaims Holland. “No, there was one process that I went through—which I can’t tell you about right now, because it would give some stuff away—but the thing about shooting Civil War is it made me so, so excited to start shooting Spider-Man. And I’ve got to wait so long until we start shooting.”

“But it’s soon. It’s close. And I’m ready.”