As published in Issue #89 of F*** Magazine
BOUNCING OFF THE WALLS
Spider-Man: Homecoming stars Tom Holland and Jacob Batalon tell F*** how excited they are to be part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe
By Jedd Jong
Imagine you’re an average American high-schooler. You get bitten by a radioactive spider, and gain superpowers. Pretty cool. Then, a billionaire tech innovator and founding member of the Avengers ropes you in to his team, has you join in a battle against an opposing faction of superheroes, and then drops you off back home. There’s no question: your life’s not going to be the same after that.
Similarly, Tom Holland’s life has changed forever, after he became the latest actor to don the red-and-blue tights as Spider-Man. Holland debuted as the wall-crawling hero in Captain America: Civil War, and is now headlining a movie of his own.
Spider-Man: Homecoming sees Peter Parker/Spider-Man navigate life as a high-schooler, nursing a crush and fending off bullies, all while facing off against villains armed with cutting-edge tech. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), taking on the role of mentor to young Peter, cautions that the teenager shouldn’t bite off more than he can chew, but Peter wants nothing more than to join the Avengers. Tony has provided Peter with a fancy suit enhanced with gadgets, but threatens to take the suit back if Peter proves he cannot shoulder the responsibility of his powers. As Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Michael Keaton) and his associates Phineas Mason/Tinkerer (Michael Chernus) and Herman Schultz/Shocker (Bokeem Woodbine) menace New York City with gadgets made from stolen alien technology, Peter quickly finds that his superhero exploits endanger those he cares about, including his beloved Aunty May (Marisa Tomei).
Spider-Man was created by writer-editor Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, first swinging through the pages of the Amazing Fantasy title in 1962. Spidey is arguably the most iconic Marvel character, right up there with Iron Man, Captain America and Wolverine. After reaching a deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment, which owns the film rights to the Spider-Man character, Marvel Studios could introduce the character into the MCU. This makes Holland’s version of Spider-Man the first film incarnation to officially exist in the same reality as other Marvel superheroes, giving the “Homecoming” of the title meaning beyond just referring to the American high school tradition of the homecoming dance. Taking the reins for Spider-Man: Homecoming is director Jon Watts, who caught the attention of Marvel Studios executives with his indie thriller Cop Car.
Holland and Jacob Batalon, who plays Peter’s best friend Ned Leeds, were in Singapore to promote the film – the Southeast Asian nation was the first stop on their month-long press tour in the lead-up to the movie’s release. On the closed-door red carpet at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands, Holland and Batalon greeted cosplaying fans, were surprised by a torrent of confetti unleashed above them, and played with this writer’s customised Spider-Man action figure.
“I feel like we’ve flown to a better planet,” Holland enthused when asked about his first impressions of Singapore during the press conference. At the age of 21, he’s already built up a respectable résumé, leaping into showbiz as Billy Elliot in the eponymous West End musical. Holland has since appeared in films like The Impossible, How I Live Now, In the Heart of the Sea and The Lost City of Z. Holland has also been announced as playing young Nathan Drake in a film prequel to the Uncharted video game series, but that hasn’t been written in stone yet.
“Every day felt like a dream,” Batalon said of his experience on the Spider-Man: Homecoming set, adding wistfully “I hope to never wake up”. Batalon was attending a two-year program at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts when he was cast in the film, which is only his second onscreen credit, after the independent student horror film North Woods. In the comics, the character of Ned is Peter’s colleague at the Daily Bugle newspaper. Ned has been revised to become Peter’s best friend and confidant, who discovers that Peter is secretly Spider-Man and is thrilled to no end to learn this.
Joining the press conference via a video link, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige commented on the film’s young stars, saying “Tom and Jacob are very similar to Peter and Ned. They’re enthusiastic, they’re happy to be in this big movie. Peter and Ned are happy to be involved with the Avengers and see this world.” Feige likened Peter’s situation to “going back to your high school band after being overseas touring with the Beatles”. Feige made his case to producer and former Chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group Amy Pascal, eventually coming to an arrangement. This would see Sony, still holding on to the Spider-Man rights, make, pay for, distribute and market the movie, but allow Marvel Studios to fold Spider-Man into the MCU.
F*** sat down for an interview with Holland and Batalon at the Marina Bay Sands hotel, who were thrilled with every moment of their overseas adventure. They had earlier posted the requisite selfie taken in the famous Infinity Pool of the hotel up on social media. Holland kicked off his shoes, picking at his toes during our chat, while Batalon rested his baseball cap on his knee. Holland was accompanied by his best friend Harrison Osterfield, whom Holland had gotten hired as a personal assistant.
Holland and Batalon discussed the relatability of the Spider-Man character, Holland’s ‘method acting’ preparation to play an American high school student, uncomfortable stunt rigging harnesses, working alongside the film’s female cast members, and sharing the screen with titans like Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr.
Tom, your father Dominic is a comedian, and he wrote a book called How Tom Holland Eclipsed His Dad. What was it like growing up with a comedian and writer as your dad, and what is it like being more famous than him and having him admit that?
HOLLAND: I’ve been very lucky that my dad is in this industry. It’s an industry that really is like no other. I’ve just been very lucky that I have someone in my family, especially my dad, who can give me advice on what to expect and how to deal with certain situations. The book Eclipsed is a really great, funny read. It’s a lot of fun because I learned a lot about my dad’s career that I didn’t know about, and I learned a lot of my career that maybe I’ve forgotten about, and it’s been a great reminder of what I’ve been through and what he’s been through.
Jacob, this is your first studio film. How did you win the role of Ned Leeds?
BATALON: Our director Jon Watts chose the right person for the job as opposed to the person who looks right for the job. Tom and I’s chemistry has been pretty apparent from day one. Because of that, because of the way we are, it’s a lot simpler to just go with that. I believe in being in the right place at the right time, and it all sort of came together.
What has your experience been working with your female co-stars, including Laura Harrier, Zendaya and Angourie Rice?
HOLLAND: What a lucky bunch of guys we are!
BATALON: They’re really, really great, talented and very beautiful.
HOLLAND: Fantastic, really talented, really, really interesting people and all very interesting and unique. Laura Harrier’s character Liz Allan is obviously Peter’s crush. He is infatuated by her and loves everything she stands for. Michelle, played by Zendaya, is sort of the weird, quirky friend within the friendship group. She’s a very interesting character, one that I’m very interested to see progress in the movies. Angourie Rice plays Betty Brant, Liz Allan’s best friend in the movie.
In the comics, she’s the secretary to J. Jonah Jameson.
HOLLAND: Yes! So hopefully, something can develop there, with Angourie. We were very lucky that we had such a strong female cast, and they were able to carry themselves and make it such a strong, female-oriented [project].
How did you gain the gymnastics expertise required to play Spider-Man?
HOLLAND: I started gymnastics when I was about 9, and I have been training quite solidly since then, with a few gaps here and there – injuries, stuff like that. I was doing a show in the West End that required me to have a very basic gymnastics background, and I continued with that after my training.
The hardest…the most uncomfortable stunt I had to do was the scene when Jacob finds out I’m Spider-Man, and I’m crawling on the ceiling. The closer you are to the ceiling, the more uncomfortable it is on your bum. It really stretches your bum. That was a very, very uncomfortable day.
The rig, right?
HOLLAND: Yeah, I was on a rig. I would go upside-down and they would go like “rolling!” Jacob would break the Death Star or something and they would say “hold!” and I would go “arrgh, no, please!”
One of the things that has endlessly fascinated me is the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It was originally directed by Julie Taymor with Reeve Carney playing Spider-Man, and was plagued by lots of production problems but I think it’s gained a cult following. Are you familiar the show, and what are your thoughts on it?
HOLLAND: I think we should make Spider-Man [Homecoming] 2 a musical! I never got to see the show, I wish I had. From having to do my work on set where you can do it over and over again if you mess it up, I have huge respect for the guys who have to do it onstage live, that must’ve been incredibly hard work and they must have been at the top of their game. I heard it was a fantastic show and was really, really impressive.
Tom, in the comics we recently had All-New, All-Different Spider-Man by Dan Slott. In that story, Peter Parker became a very Tony Stark-like figure, in that he was a billionaire playboy, he had a fancy car, and he had offices in China. This has since been undone, and another reboot in the comics has brought him back to high school age. How important do you feel the underdog quality is to the character, and how does that manifest in your take on Peter Parker?
HOLLAND: I think part of the reason why Peter Parker and Spider-Man is such a successful and beloved character is because of how relatable he is. Everyone can relate to Peter Parker in some way, whether it’s struggling to do your chemistry homework, struggling with school, talking to a girl. Whereas it’s difficult to relate to Tony Stark because he’s a billionaire. His problems are “my Lamborghini didn’t show up on time”, whereas Peter Parker’s problems are “I don’t have enough money for the bus fare”. It’s nice for young people, especially young boys going through high school, being a superhero and going through the same problems they go through.
Tom, you went undercover in an American high school to prepare for the role. What was that experience like?
HOLLAND: High schools in America are so different from high schools in England. I learned so much about my character and how he should act and behave in front of his teachers and his peers.
HOLLAND: No uniforms. All of a sudden, I was going “oh no, what am I going to wear today?” In England, you just wear the same thing every single day.
Flash Thompson was kind of influenced by my trip to the New York high school. There are no [traditional] bullies there, no jocks, so the bully was the rich kid who made snide comments about how ugly your shoes are or something. Tony Revolori’s character was largely influenced off of my trip.
How did you perfect your American accent?
HOLLAND: I just practised and practised and practised. I spent time with Jacob. It’s like a muscle, your tongue is a muscle and it needs working out.
Jacob, in the comics Ned Leeds is white, and in the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series he was Korean and renamed ‘Ned Lee’. What are your thoughts on the representation of Asian-Americans in Hollywood, especially in these big comic book blockbusters?
BATALON: I think minorities in general don’t get the spotlight they deserve in the industry. The industry is very indicative of where society is going right now. Society is moving in a much more forward-thinking way, and that’s kind of how it is right now in the industry. Equal opportunities are coming a lot more for minorities right now. Being Asian specifically, it makes me proud to be part of that stepping-stone process. I think it’s a great thing to have all types of interpretations of a certain character.
HOLLAND: I think Jon Watts really did a good job with casting for who you are, not for where you’re from. It’s kind of the first step to making a difference, making a change, and I’m proud that our movie is a movie that’s doing that.
What are the similarities between you and your characters?
BATALON: I think if anything, Ned influenced my life in reality. Ned is super happy and bubbly all the time, and that’s made me happy and bubbly in real life.
HOLLAND: Very true [laughs].
I love Spider-Man. I genuinely feel like if Peter Parker [were] a real person, he’d be part of our friendship group and we’d be really good friends. He’s a very hardworking, nice kid, very down-to-earth, and I like to consider myself those things. I’m very lucky that I get to play a character whom I can see myself in, and I look forward to playing him for many years.
Tom, what was it like going toe-to-taloned-toe with Michael Keaton’s Vulture?
[Both Holland and Batalon laugh]
I’m very proud of that, by the way.
HOLLAND: That was really good, well done.
BATALON: Really, really clever.
HOLLAND: It was pretty intimidating, you know? He is a very formidable force on set, especially when he’s playing a character like the Vulture, because he didn’t hold anything back. He went for everything. The interesting thing about Keaton’s version of a supervillain is that if a regular kid can become a superhero, then a regular guy should be able to become a supervillain. That’s exactly what Keaton did. In the movie, he plays a regular guy who’s very unhappy with what’s happening in society, so he makes a stand for himself, instead of being a billionaire alien scientist.
If both of you could have one superpower each, what would it be?
HOLLAND: I would go with time travel. Because if you think about it, time travel is basically teleportation at the same time. You can pause time, travel to somewhere else, and then click ‘time play’ and it’s like you’ve just teleported. I’m very interested to see if dinosaurs really looked like what we think they look like. Who knows if they looked different?
BATALON: I would want the power to tell the future. Not just vague versions, but like…
HOLLAND: Then you’ll know when you’re going to die!
BATALON: I wouldn’t know my life. Like I would know exactly where you’re going to walk, what you’re going to wear. If I know what’s going to happen, I can do something about it.
Jacob, as Peter’s best friend, I guess you could be considered a sidekick. You’re also playing one of the greatest sidekicks of all time, Sancho Panza, in The True Don Quixote. What do you think makes for a memorable, scene-stealing sidekick?
BATALON: I think that being a sidekick is really understand that you’re not #1, and that’s okay. You’re willing to do the things for the main person. Loyalty and being a good person kind of plays into that whole factor. You really can’t be selfish, you have to just be there for your person. I watched a lot of Lord of the Rings, a lot of Harry Potter.
HOLLAND: He is my Samwise Gamgee. My Ron Weasley.
HOLLAND: Yes. Jacob is the scene-stealer of the movie. He really is.
BATALON: Okay, you’re going to make me cry in front of everyone right now [laughs]
Tom, we’ve seen you in The Impossible, which was a harrowing, emotional movie. Which would you say are more challenging: emotional scenes or action scenes?
HOLLAND: It’s different, because emotional scenes take place over a day, let’s say – there obviously are cases when it can take a lot longer – but an action sequence can go on for months and months and months. The work load for an action movie, there’s a lot more. When you make a movie like The Impossible, there’s a lot of action in it while maintaining a very high level of emotion. That’s one of the hardest movies I’ve ever made. But the unrelenting amount of action on Spider-Man was really, really difficult.
Tom, you screen tested with Robert Downey Jr. for Captain America: Civil War, and in this movie, Tony Stark is kind of a mentor to Peter Parker. How has the chemistry between the both of you developed?
HOLLAND: Robert and I really hit it off from day one. Even in my screen test, it was apparent that we had good chemistry and we would work well together. It’s something that’s just continued to develop over the last two years. I’m really, really honoured that he was willing to be in this movie and to help me out. It really feels like a homecoming. He is the godfather of the MCU, and the fact that he was in my movie, supporting me, was a really, really heartwarming thing for me.
It’s amazing and a little eerie that five years ago, when you said you would like to be the next Spider-Man after Andrew Garfield, it came true. Five years from now, what other roles would you like to undertake? James Bond?
HOLLAND: Yeah, James Bond! The thing is, I said that once. In that interview, I said I wanted to be Spider-Man, I only said it one time, and it came true. Now that I have to do all this press, everyone is like ‘do you want to be James Bond’? We may do Uncharted, we’ll have to wait and see.
How does Spider-Man: Homecoming balance being both a high school movie and a superhero movie set in the MCU?
HOLLAND: I think the nice thing about the film is that without the Spider-Man parts of the movie, you still have a really strong high school movie. It really has the best of both worlds: it’s a strong high school kids’ movie, while still maintaining that superhero, epic Avengers vibe. I think Jon Watts did a very good job with maintaining the synergy between the two genres.
Spider-Man: Homecoming opens in Singapore theatres on July 6 2017.