evening standard yesterday

The Impossible

At 16, Londoner Tom Holland has his first Hollywood role in The Impossible under his belt. Nick Curtis meets a boy who has surpassed his famous father….

On the road to success: Tom Holland at home in south London (Picture: Tony Buckingham)Mother and son: Naomi Watts and Holland in The Impossible

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On the road to success: Tom Holland at home in south London (Picture: Tony Buckingham)
20 December 2012

It’s a long journey from Norbiton to Hollywood but one that Tom Holland is getting used to. The 16-year-old Londoner makes his big-screen debut on New Year’s Day in Juan Antonio Bayona’s $45 million film The Impossible, which tells the true story of a family brutally sundered when the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami hit their resort in Thailand.

Holland plays Lucas, who helps his severely injured doctor mother (Naomi Watts) to safety while believing that his businessman father (Ewan McGregor) and younger brothers are drowned. The Hollywood Reporter called him “astonishingly good” in the gruelling role, while Watts thinks him “beyond gifted”.

The eldest of four sons of comedian, novelist and screenwriter Dominic Holland and his photographer wife Nikki, Tom is no stage-school brat. He was spotted aged 10 doing street dance with a local group and was singled out personally by director Stephen Daldry to be trained for two years to star in Billy Elliot the Musical, first as Billy’s best friend Michael, then as the lead.

When that role came to an end Tom, then 14, was due to go back to normal life and his Catholic boys’ school, but his agent mentioned a film script called The Impossible that had a part for a teenager.

At the audition, he met the Catalan-born Bayona, who spoke little English. Tom had started watching Bayona’s previous film, The Orphanage, the year before, but turned it off when he got too scared. He knew nothing about the plot of The Impossible. “I knew my character’s mum was in danger and the director asked me to write a letter to her and recite it,” he says. “I started crying because it was genuinely sad, and I could see him welling up too.

“I met Ewan and Naomi about two weeks after I got the part — the first time I had been to New York, or met any movie stars! Ewan came in first and was very nice, very welcoming, and gave me a hug. When Naomi arrived I could see how genuine and lovely she was: I’d read the script by then and knew how close we would have to get, so it was nice to know I was going to be in good hands.” After that, it was “straight into the water tank” in Alicante to film the scenes of the flood hitting, and then five months on location in Thailand.

Holland admits that, when we first see Lucas, acting the typical stroppy teen before the flood, “you don’t particularly like him”. The change comes when, fishing himself and his mother Maria from the deluge, he notices a gaping wound on her thigh, and she turns to reveal a bare breast also gored by debris. “That’s when he changes,” says Holland. “He realises he has to be a father figure to his mum.”

Holland credits Watts for “feeding” him the emotion that makes his performance so vivid, but he had another resource. The family on whose story the film is faithfully based, the Belons, are Spanish. Incredibly they were on set most of the time.

“The hotel you see in the film is the hotel they stayed at, so the first time they went back it was terrifying,” says Holland. “There were tears.”

Bayona, whose English had improved by the start of filming, had insisted that Holland’s parents and siblings — twins Sam and Harry, 13, and Patrick, eight — accompany him for the entire shoot. So Tom was “mucking about in the pool with my brothers” when he met the real Lucas.

“I was like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you’. Then it clicked who he was and I literally couldn’t speak, because I knew what they had been through,” he says. “But as an actor, it was like having a cheat sheet: I could ask him anything and he would explain his feelings to me. That family is like a rock. Lucas is 18 now and studying to be a doctor in London at the moment. He took his idea he had been in the tsunami. It was only when the director asked him and Maria to stand up at the end that they realised.”

Life has completely changed for the Holland family. After the shoot Tom dutifully returned to Wimbledon College to finish his GCSEs, following which he enrolled in the BRIT performing arts school. There, he tries not to act like the showbiz veteran he already is. He says it was a relief to be able to go skateboarding again, without worrying about falling off and messing up his face for the cameras.

Now the film is finally coming out he is “flying to Los Angeles every three weeks, meeting incredible people”. On a recent trip, he got chatting to Tom Hooper, Eddie Redmayne and Gwyneth Paltrow in business class: there’s a social ease, he says, because everyone had a film to promote.

He has attended premieres at the Toronto Film Festival, in Madrid, LA and London. “Recently I was lucky enough to go to the Governor’s Awards , and we met Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Tom Hanks, everyone. Some of my idols. I was watching a documentary today at school and Tarantino was on it, so I couldn’t help but say, ‘Oh yeah, I know him — first-name terms’.”

As a result of hanging out with Naomi Watts during shooting, his younger brother Harry ended up playing the young Prince Harry in Caught in Flight, the film in which Watts plays Princess Diana.

Tom pays tributes to his parents, who have given up huge chunks of time to chaperone him, and whom he credits with keeping his feet on the ground. His father’s experience of showbiz was of immense help when he was negotiating his first days on a film set, he adds.

For his part, Dominic Holland has been writing an amused and proud blog about being outstripped by his celebrated son, and will release it as an e-book next year.

There has been one other major change in Tom’s life, though, which is the advent of co-education. He’d usually get a video game for Christmas, he says, but this year his thoughts are more towards clothes. “The BRIT school is mixed, so there is interest in girls, and I keep thinking, ‘I’ve worn everything now. It would be good to rock a new outfit on the first week back’.”

Does he have a girlfriend? “I have a friend who is more than a friend, but we are not officially girlfriend and boyfriend. On Billy Elliot we had girlfriends but I’ve never had a serious relationship.” Tom Holland: terrific actor, nice lad.

The Impossible is released on January 1. Read Dominic Holland’s blog at dominicholland.co.uk.

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