Tom Holland, the first Spider-Man who looks like a high school kid, has fun with the role in Homecoming

Tom Holland, 21, is the first Spider-Man who looks like a high school kid

British actor Tom Holland is the third man in 15 years to play comicbook superhero Spider-Man in the movies and the first who can pass off as high school student Peter Parker, who the web-slinger actually is.

The previous two Spider-Man actors, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, were 27 and 29 when they first took on the role for their respective films in 2002 and 2012.

Slipping into the red-and-blue tights for the new Spider-Man: Homecoming, Holland is 21 and looks even younger in person when The Straits Times meets him in Singapore while he is promoting the movie.

He shows up for the interview with no make-up to cover up his acne and wearing a navy blue pyjamas set. He is either self-assured or inexperienced at being a Hollywood star - or both, as he, like Peter, is an adolescent on the cusp of adulthood.

Certainly, Holland is more than happy to play up the more playful, child-like side of the character for the franchise this time around.

"It's difficult not to take influence from Tobey and Andrew because both had such great versions of the character," he says.

 Homecoming is Tom Holland (right), while Jacob Batalon stars as his best friend Ned.
Playing the web-slinger and high school student Peter Parker in Spider-Man: Homecoming is Tom Holland (right), while Jacob Batalon stars as his best friend Ned. PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

"But for me, it's just about making sure that I feel like the kid that everyone wants to be and just have fun with that. One of the themes of this new movie is, 'What would a 15-year-old boy do with superpowers?' So it's about keeping him grounded and for the audience to see a kid as a superhero."


Indeed, Spider-Man may be able to climb on ceilings and shoot spiderwebs from his wrist, but he is ultimately still high school student Peter, who is often depicted as geeky and socially inept.

Holland says: "He goes through something that everyone has to go through, whether it's puberty, doing homework or talking to girls. He's not the coolest, but that's what makes him such a relatable superhero."

The actor is the first to admit that growing up, he was not the coolest cat around either.

"I went to a rugby school, but I did ballet. I got bullied a lot. I was far from cool," he says with a chuckle.

Doing ballet while attending a rugby school, Tom Holland says he was bullied a lot and far from cool like Peter Parker.
Doing ballet while attending a rugby school, Tom Holland says he was bullied a lot and far from cool like Peter Parker. PHOTO: AFP

Now, the rising star hardly comes across as awkward. Instead, he is charming and down to earth as he shows a funny video on his smartphone to this reporter for laughs.

He appears to be having fun even as he is still learning to navigate the gruelling promotional schedule required of the leading man of a Hollywood blockbuster title.

For the past month, he has been on a whirlwind publicity tour for Homecoming, making stops in Singapore, Rome, London, Los Angeles and New York, among other cities. This week, he is supposed to be in Seoul.

"It's all kind of crazy, isn't it? I still can't believe it sometimes. I've been travelling and meeting fans from all over the world and it's just amazing.

"Fans are asking me things like if I could take them to the prom," he says. One can believe he is genuinely in awe.

His sudden thrust into stardom is all the more apparent for someone who, just before the start of the film, would have been unrecognised in a crowd.

While preparing for this role, he spent three days in a school in the Bronx, New York, to experience first-hand what it is like to be an American high school student.

Not a single person there knew who he was, even though news of him being cast in the role had been out for a while.

"I told a student. I was like, 'Hey man, I'm actually Spider-Man.' He did not believe me," he says.

"But that was a really great experience and it was very informative for me. I went to a school in London dressed in a suit and tie every day and it's just with boys. So I was in a classroom with girls for the first time," he adds.

Holland, who debuted on stage in the title role for Billy Elliott The Musical at age 12, has since made his foray into cinema with films such as disaster movie The Impossible (2012), for which he was named Young British Performer Of The Year by the London Film Critics' Circle Awards.

He auditioned for Spider-Man after sending in "many videotapes of me doing back flips" and found out that he got the part in an Instagram post by Marvel Studios.

"I was relaxing on my bed with my dog when I saw the announcement, 'Tom Holland is the new Spider-Man', on Instagram. I went ballistic," he recalls.

Homecoming is the first SpiderMan film to be part of the immensely successful Marvel Universe franchise, which includes films featuring superheroes such as Iron Man, Hulk and Thor.

Here, Peter is mentored by Iron Man, the superhero alter-ego of billionaire inventor Tony Stark, who has to assess if his young new recruit is worthy of joining superhero unit The Avengers.

In real life, American actor Robert Downey Jr, 52, who plays Stark, turned out to be just as much of a role model to Holland.

"Robert is the nicest guy. He's so cool and down to earth and it's amazing working with him because he's what I consider to be at the top of the game.

"If I'm lucky enough to make it to the top, I'd like to think that I would be just like him. He's a huge star, but he's always on time, always respectful and kind."

Even as he is feted in Hollywood, when asked where home is for him, he lights up and says: "I'm a London boy, born and bred. I just bought my first apartment there, so after all this craziness is over, I get to have a month off to go home to my dog and just do nothing."

It is not far-fetched to imagine he will probably be in his pyjamas.

•Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee

•Spider-Man: Homecoming opens in cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'Pulling off Peter Parker'. Print Edition | Subscribe