This is going to sound like complete bullshit, but I swear to you that this is true,” Tom Holland says. “Have you ever heard of cognitive dreaming?”
We’ve been talking for a couple of hours at this point, and conversation—as it tends to, after long enough— has drifted onto the subject of dreams. I’ve been having nightmares lately, I tell him. Anxiety. This is something Tom Holland knows all about. He is a terrible sleeper; a sleepwalker; a sleep undresser, even. (“Four out of ten sleeps I wake up completely naked.”) As it happens, he has a trick for dealing with nightmares, and because Tom Holland is Tom Holland—the actor who put the friendly back into your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man and is just famously, energetically, irresistibly nice—of course he’s happy to help.
“Okay, so I’ll tell you how you do it. Essentially, when you’re asleep, your brain is working way faster than it is when it’s awake. Jon Watts [Holland’s director on three Spider-Man movies] told me this, and it has worked. If you’re in a dream and you read something, say, a stop sign, and you turn around, when you look back at the stop sign it will have changed. So what you do is—and this is where it sounds stupid—you set an alarm for every hour of the day when you’re awake. When the alarm goes off, you read something. So I’m reading—”
At this point Holland looks around his bedroom, which is sparse, an unmade bed and a half-open wardrobe behind him, low fall sun streaming in the window, and alights upon a packet of pistachios. “—Roasted and salted. You turn away, you look back at it: Roasted and salted. Okay, I’m not dreaming. What happens is when you do it for a long time, you start to do that in your sleep. Sometimes, if I’m having a really bad dream, I’ll look at a sign and go, ‘Oh, I’m dreaming.’ And then you have free rein to do whatever you want.”
So you can influence your dreams?
“Yeah. The last time it happened to me, I was flying around the Golden Gate Bridge. It was awesome.”
Holland is at home in London, waiting out a government-mandated travel quarantine, so for now we’re talking over Zoom. It’s an unusual time for the actor, a rare pause. Since he landed the part six years ago, Holland has played Spider-Man in five movies, of which four have made more than a billion dollars each. In the past year or so he has starred in three films, taking on the offbeat dramatic roles of a priest murdering orphan in The Devil All the Time and a heroin-addicted bank robber in Cherry, and finished shooting two more. Still somehow only 25, Holland has ascended to a tier of stardom few actors ever reach, and rarely so young. “There are very few actors working now who are versatile in the way that he is,” says Spider-Man producer and former Sony chairperson Amy Pascal. “And he’s the hardest-working person that I know.”
“Since I got cast as Spider-Man, I haven’t really taken a break,” Holland says. So he’s enjoying some stateenforced time to himself. “I find myself ringing my dad [Dominic, a comedian and author] for stuff that I should definitely know how to do,” he says. “ ‘Dad, how do I put the washing machine on?’ ” Last night a skylight broke in bad weather, flooding his kitchen. The outside world has a way of forcing itself back in.
The next few months promise to be hectic even by Holland’s standards. In December he’ll star in SpiderMan: No Way Home, a film that Holland himself has called “the most ambitious stand-alone superhero movie ever made”. Then there is February’s Uncharted, a slick, Indiana Jones–y adaptation of the best-selling PlayStation franchise. “This is that moment of, like, ‘Can Tom Holland stand up on his own and be a leading man?’ I know that makes me sound like a dick for saying that,” says Holland. “But for me it is, ‘Can I do it without the Lycra?’ ”
The stakes for No Way Home are even higher. For several movies, Marvel has been establishing Holland as the new centre of Marvel’s world. “Tom is stepping into the role that Robert Downey [Jr.] once occupied for Marvel, which is the favourite character, and in a lot of ways the soul of the Marvel universe,” says Joe Russo, who, alongside his brother Anthony, has directed Holland in four movies, including Avengers: Endgame. What’s more, No Way Home will finally collide Marvel’s increasingly byzantine cinematic universe with Sony’s own equally convoluted Spider-Verse (currently comprising Tom Hardy’s Venom movies, plus the forthcoming Morbius and Kraven the Hunter), thereby planting the seed from which years of sequels and limited series and sundry other subscription-generating content will surely bloom.
Holland, however, is not signed up for any of that. No Way Home is, at the time of writing, the last film on his Spider-Man contract. As we’re talking, in early October, he says there are still a few shots to pick up, some additional dialogue to record, the small matter of a global press tour, and then… nothing. “It’s very strange,” Holland says. “The last six years of my life, I always had a job to go to.” After so long in the superhero business, Holland is readjusting to life without a mask on. “It’s kind of terrifying, but it’s also really exciting,” he says. You see, lately Holland has been thinking about dreams, and wondering if those he once had—the future he once saw for himself—are still his dreams after all.
To understand how Holland became a multiple- tentpole-movie-carrying action hero, it’s simplest to start with ballet. Holland grew up in Kingston Upon Thames, an upmarket town just south of London. There, age nine, he was spotted at a dance class by a West End choreographer, who suggested he audition for the Billy Elliot musical. Holland practised ballet for two years to land the part, “just doing pliés and tendus and relevés. Développés—I hate développés so much.” (That’s the one where you extend your leg up and out until you look like this: Y.)
Finally, Holland was chosen to play Billy. His parents invited everyone they knew. Only, the day of his debut, Holland came down with tonsillitis. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, he didn’t say anything. “I was like, ‘I can’t miss this, because all of these people are coming,’ ” Holland says. He delivered a flawless performance, and nobody even noticed he was sick until the following morning, when he was taken to the doctor and given the rest of the week off.
“I got the nickname Sick Note, which frustrates me to my core, even today,” says Holland. “I was too young to do that show. I was incredibly underdeveloped as a kid, and I would get sick, or I would be tired, or I would get injured, and I’d need to take a break because you’re doing three shows a week, rehearsing every single day. Now as an actor I push through everything, because I’m not going to be Sick Note.”
When Holland started making it in Hollywood—a debut in 2012’s The Impossible, followed by small parts in Wolf Hall and In the Heart of the Sea—he leaned in to his balletic talents, literally throwing himself into every job. (This approach is written in the subtle S-bend of his nose, which he has broken twice, once on the set of The Lost City of Z, and again on Chaos Walking.) “I’m like a Duracell battery. I’m the bunny,” Holland says. It’s that energy that comes through onscreen, whether he’s doing backflips as Spider-Man, or pulling on fishnets and grinding to Rihanna on Lip Sync Battle: determination bordering on desperation. “Any time I’ve ever watched him work, he does it 150 percent,” his Spider-Man co-star Zendaya says. “It’s incredible to watch.”
“One of my biggest faults is that I’m an impossible people pleaser,” Holland says. “I don’t like the idea of people not liking me. So I will do whatever I can do to make that not the case.”
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