Interview: Tom Holland Sets Sail In the Heart of the Sea

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Tom Holland

Actor Tom Holland talks about his experiences on the set of Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea

If you had a chance to see Juan Bayonna’s 2012 movie The Impossible, then you may already know what a talented young actor Tom Holland is, but interest in the 19-year old increased greatly when it was announced that he would be the next actor to play Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the latest incarnation of Marvel Comics’ most popular hero.

Holland has already filmed his first scenes for Captain America: Civil War, but Marvel isn’t the only one taken notice as Oscar-winning filmmaker Ron Howard cast Holland in a key role in his upcoming seafaring epic In the Heart of the Sea.

Holland plays Tom Nickerson, the “greenhorn” rookie on the whaling ship Essex, whose experiences would later inspire Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick, specifically the ship’s encounter with a giant white whale that would leave the crew stranded at sea for months. Chris Hemsworth plays Owen Chase, the ship’s First Mate who has to contend with the far less experienced Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), a conflict that proves to be the ship’s undoing, but working within the ensemble piece proves to be a great showcase for Holland’s talents.

RELATED: CS Interview with Filmmaker Ron Howard

ComingSoon.net had a chance to talk to the young star at the New York junket a few weeks back, and he reminded us of another young actor who has gone onto to worldwide acclaim… none other than Daniel Radcliffe/Harry Potter. So if he can bring that enthusiasm and personality to Peter Parker, the next Spider-Man is going to be pretty awesome! (We also talked a little bit about James Gray’s Lost City of Z, which we had first spoken to the director about almost seven years ago when it was going to star Brad Pitt and then later, Benedict Cumberbatch.) 

ComingSoon.net: What was your intro to this movie? Did you just hear that Ron Howard was doing a movie?

Tom Holland: Well, no, I guess I read the script first. My agent sent me the script, and I obviously expressed my excitement about the project and I was really excited about the prospect of working with Ron, also Chris, who was attached at this point. And then it kind of just went from a Skype call. Ron Skyped me and we had a really good chat about the project, and about what he wanted to bring to the film and what I could bring to the film and he cast me after that really. 

CS: I don’t know much about your background, so did you go to drama school and the whole thing or had you not even gotten to that point in your studies yet?

Tom Holland: I went to an ordinary primary school and then I started performing in a show called “Billy Elliot” on the West End, and that was sort of my drama school. They taught me everything I needed to know to do that. I then worked with Naomi Watts on a film called “The Impossible” which was like a master class for six months, and then I went to secondary school, did my exams, took a bit of time out and finally went to this school called The Brit School, which is a performing arts school. But as soon as I started there, I got cast in Ron’s film, and kind of dropped out of the school to do Ron’s film (as you would) because obviously, sixteen years old and you’re working with Ron Howard, not going to turn that one down! The school were kind enough to let me back in after I missed so much time, and I enjoyed the rest of my days there.

CS: It must be hard getting so much work as an actor that you don’t have time go to school.

Tom Holland: Well, I can’t actually read. 

CS: That must make it really tough then. “I love your script. I can’t read it….”

Tom Holland: “The script looks really good. It looks like a script. I just don’t know what it means!” No, I mean, I learn so much on these film sets, especially working with people that are so influential like Ron. I mean, he’s constantly teaching me new things, and one of the amazing things about being an actor is that you get to learn new skills, skills that you wouldn’t necessarily learn without the opportunity to. Like becoming a sailor. This is one the things that I won’t necessarily use that much in my life, but if you ask me to tie a knot, I’m pretty good at that. I always volunteer first if anyone needs a knot tying. 

CS: I myself took sailing lessons earlier this year, so I thought that was interesting. Do you think you could actually go on one of those big ships and know what to do?

Tom Holland: With a helping hand. Ben (Walker) definitely couldn’t captain a ship. I had acquired the skills to sail a ship, I didn’t acquire the knowledge. There is so much to sailing a ship. There’s about a thousand different lines on a brig ship and knowing what each one of those does, it takes a long time, and that’s why you have these cabin boys that start on the ship and they learn throughout the years and that’s why it takes so long to captain one. So no, I probably couldn’t sail a ship. I’d like to say I could.

CS: A small boat maybe?

Tom Holland: With two oars maybe but no sails.

CS: No, if you’re using oars, that’s cheating. You have to get around with the sails.

Tom Holland: Maybe a little boat, maybe.

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CS: Sailing is such an old skill that if you lived in that area of Nantucket, you’d have to know how to do that because that’s where all the work is. You’re dealing with another movie on the water, because in “The Impossible” you had so many scenes dealing with the flood. So for this, you’re going back and doing more tank work. You had more experience than the others.

Tom Holland: I was very nervous going onto this film, because obviously it had some A-list actors and it was such a big film and I was obviously the kid on the ship, but because I worked with water before, it kind of gave me that confidence to stand up and be my own man, if you like. Being the youngest gave me the motivation to make sure that I wasn’t seen as the youngest. But getting back into the water tank for me was exciting and I loved it. I really did love it. We had a fantastic stunt team, and they really did pull it off. 

CS: Was that a lot of the boat stuff in a tank they built at Leavesden?

Tom Holland: Yeah, we had a big outdoor tank at Leavesden and then two indoor tanks, and the indoor tank was built up of container crates that had the whale boat in the middle and then the other tank was really deep and they built the hull of the ship that they could sink underwater where we could film scenes inside the ship that was underwater. Which was kind of surreal for me, because it felt like we were flying, because we were in a dry environment, but flying through it. It was pretty epic the day that we filmed that scene. 

CS: Were a lot of the scenes like the storm and the first whale attack, are there a lot of small pieces edited together or did you have to coordinate your movements as a group?

Tom Holland: Yeah, it was a lot of small pieces. When you see the film, the way it’s edited is so fast and so quick that you really do feel like you’re there and when we were filming it, we would do really little shots but for a long period of time, just to give Ron absolutely everything that he needed. Even though it was tiring, we all loved it. It was part of the process, it was part of creating an authentic film and I think it really did help Ron in the edit room. 

CS: You have this background dancing in the theater which must be really helpful to a movie like this and Spider-Man and doing action in general. Do you feel having that training in movement and dance has helped in these other things?

Tom Holland: Definitely, 100%! You learn different things from different jobs and you take what you learn onto new jobs to try and make sure you don’t make the same mistakes, but the dancing and the gymnastic side of things help me balance on these boats. What you don’t understand… or what you do understand, being a sailor, is that when you’re on a boat, it’s always moving. Even if the sea is flat, the boat is always moving, and it means that you’re constantly balancing. I’ve always had a pretty good balance, so I was the luckier of the guys on that boat because there was a lot of falling over. It was pretty tough.

CS: I imagine the blooper reel on this movie was basically actors falling into the water…

Tom Holland: So many. They dropped like 50 radios into the water at one point, the ADs. I think at the end, they just drained the tank and there was a sea of radios.

CS: How deep was the tank?

Tom Holland: The outdoor tank was four-feet deep, and then there was a deep section in the middle where the boat was situated.

CS: What was it like shooting the stuff where you were stranded? I imagine it was very taxing and I don’t know if you had to lose a lot of weight, because you’re pretty thin already. I imagine Chris had the most to do in that regards.

Tom Holland: The way Ron likes to work is that he likes to create an environment that is authentic, and he likes to create an environment where the actors are comfortable so that they can explore new ways of performing. We weren’t particularly comfortable. As I’m sure you know, there’s no such thing as a comfortable boat, but they were really tough scenes to shoot but rightfully so, because we were making a film about real people and we had a duty to do justice to those guys.

CS: But those days, they didn’t say “No craft services for you. You’re meant to be suffering.”

Tom Holland: They did. They straight up did.

CS: You really have to be starving.

Tom Holland: We really were starving. We were on a diet of 500 calories a day, which for me was dreadful, like awful. 500 calories is nothing, but can you imagine what 500 calories a day is like for Chris and Ben? I mean, they’re like big guys and they eat twice as much as I do, so yeah, it was really tough but like I said, for all the right reasons.

Heart of the Sea

CS: You’ve been doing a lot of interesting things since “The Impossible,” like you’re in “The Lost City of Z.” I’ve known James Gray for some time and I’m glad that finally got going. Have you finished shooting that?

Tom Holland: Mm-hm. That’s all finished now. We were shooting out in Colombia for the last month or so.

CS: Where in Colombia?

Tom Holland: In a place called Santa Marta in one of the jungles up there, and it was one of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had. Colombia is so different to what I know and every aspect of the country is different to England and I loved it. I loved the culture and the food and the coffee was amazing. The place that we were was stunning and it really was quite an amazing experience to film out there.

CS: Who do you play in that?

Tom Holland: I play a character called Jack Fawcett, who is Percy Fawcett’s son, played by Charlie Hunnam. The funny thing is that the first time you see me in the film I’m 11 and the last time you see me in the film I’m 21, so there was a long character arc for me to try and portray, but James helped me every step of the way by putting a moustache on my face when I was 21, which was one of the most dreadful things a director’s ever done to me. And I love James Gray and he’s one of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with. I think he’s awesome, such a nice guy, and so interesting to work with but that moustache was just a constant reminder of how awful James is… joking, of course. 

CS: Of course, the big thing was you being cast as Spider-Man. Did you have a connection to the character at all, either the cartoons or the comics?

Tom Holland: Of course, yeah. I’ve always been a huge fan of Spider-Man and growing up, I had countless Spider-Man costumes. Only two years ago did I go to a fancy dress party dressed as Spider-Man. I had this awesome morph suit where you can put your phone on your chest and spiders would crawl across the costume, it was awesome! He’s always been a big part of my life and a big part of a lot of boys’ lives, because everyone can kind of relate to him. That’s what I think is so interesting about him. I think one of the most interesting things about Peter Parker for us is that he’s the only person in the MCU now that has a secret identity. We all know who everyone else is. I think it’s quite interesting to go back to that hiding behind a mask and stuff.

CS: A lot of the other actors have experience working together from the other Avengers movies, so has it been weird to jump into that thing?

Tom Holland: No, I guess they’re such easy people. They’re lovely people and Robert (Downey Jr.) did my first screen test and he was so welcoming. He took me aside and gave me a bit of advice about the audition. Like with Ron, I instantly felt at ease with him because he’s such a down-to-earth, easy-going guy. I can’t wait to get to work with them more. I’m really excited to get to work and be a part of that universe.

CS: I assume you’re going to shoot part of the movie in New York as well?

Tom Holland: I think so, I think so. 

CS: All the other movies they did at least parts of it here.

Tom Holland: Yeah, we’re shooting in Atlanta for most of it, because I think that’s where they have studios there and it’s cheaper to build a New York set than shoot here, because it’s going to be very expensive, but I think will probably end up here for one week or two.

CS: I don’t know if you saw Spider-Man 3 but that whole scene in Rockefeller Center. They shut that down for a whole long weekend…

Tom Holland: No way!

CS: You can’t imagine what it did to traffic. I think it was over the holidays, too.

Tom Holland: Ah, wow! No, I don’t think we’ll be shooting in New York all that much purely because it would be a bit of a nightmare.

CS: And you got to work with Chris already, so did he give you some advice as well?

Tom Holland: Obviously, while we were filming, I hadn’t been cast. I didn’t know I was going to be Spider-Man, but recently, I have spoken to him about it and he’s given me some advice, and I guess the most important thing is to just stay the same. It’s very easy to get caught up and swept into that world of fame and become a celebrity, I guess. Chris is the furthest from that. He’s the most easy-going, nice guy you’ll ever meet, and he’s incredibly hard working, and he basically just said, “You just have to make sure you keep your work ethic up. You try your best and have fun as well.” This is an opportunity that people would die for and I’m so honored to be given this opportunity, so I want to make sure that I enjoy it, do justice and make a great movie, I guess.

CS: Do you tend to make a list of goals of things you want to do or is it really about what comes your way? You seem to be getting some good things.

Tom Holland: Yeah, I have goals. At the moment, I’m sort of developing some of my own little short film ideas, and trying to get into the directing side of things, just as an interest really, to see what it’s like. I’d like to maybe do that in the future and follow Ron’s footsteps. At the moment, I’m just taking everything as it comes. I’m in a very privileged situation because I know that I have work to go to, so I’m not pressured to get onto another film set. But I’m so lucky and so happy to be with. 

CS: To conclude this interview, I’m going to ask you the worst question you’ve ever been asked. I wrote down a really bad question as a joke, but since we have another minute, I’m going to ask it anyway. “If you were stranded in space, which Avenger would you eat?”

Tom Holland: If I was stranded in space, which Avenger would I eat? Probably Chris, because there’s more of him, and he would last longer. 

CS: Some people have said the Hulk for similar reasons.

Tom Holland: But you can’t eat the Hulk because you can’t kill it. See?

 (And that’s when the publicist quickly ended the interview before this discussion could get even more morbid.)

In the Heart of the Sea opens nationwide on Friday, December 11 with previews on Thursday night.