Naomi Watts was nominated for an Academy Award for her role in The Impossible, and Ewan McGregor starred as the husband and father who refused to quit looking for his missing family in the devastating aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. But the emotional core of the heartrending disaster film was Tom Holland, the 13-year old English actor who played their oldest son Lucas. Nearly swept away by the wave, Lucas clings to life among the dangerous flotsam and survives to help his injured mother to safety. Never striking a false note as his character veers between terror, hopelessness, and bravery, Holland delivers a performance reminiscent of Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. The first-time movie actor, who’d starred in the London stage production of Billy Elliot, won several newcomer acting awards for his role in The Impossible, including a Breakthrough Award from the National Board of Review.
Now 16, Holland is poised to star in three upcoming high-profile movies in the next year. But speaking to EW just after coming home from school in London, it’s clear he’s in no rush to hurry matters.
Click below for a Q&A with the precocious actor, plus an exclusive video clip from The Impossible Blu-ray, which is available today.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had starred in Billy Elliot, but this was something entirely different — your first film. How did you initially connect with The Impossible?
TOM HOLLAND: I was in Billy and I was getting ready to leave. My agent rang up and said, “Listen, we have an audition for a film.” We weren’t told anything about the film. I didn’t know it was about a tsunami. I didn’t know who was in it. I didn’t know who was directing it. So I went on tape, and [director Juan Antonio Bayona] really liked me. We met three or four times, and we had a really good working connection and a good friendship. After six weeks of auditioning, he cast me in the role.
Do you recall what you read during that first audition?
It’s actually not in the film. It’s a scene basically where we’re on the tree [after the tsunami] and I was asking my mum to promise that she wouldn’t die. So it was pretty hefty stuff. Later, he asked me to write a letter or improvise something basically saying goodbye to my mum. And I started reciting it and I started crying. Like crying my eyes out. He told me while shooting, that from that moment he knew that I was going to be Lucas. But he still decided to put me through three or four more brutal auditions.
The heart of the story is the relationship between you and Naomi. How did you go about building that chemistry?
We had about a month’s worth of rehearsals before we actually started shooting in Spain. They were kind of like bonding sessions for us to get really close. It was basically like being in acting school. [Bayona] made us do stuff like draw each other, lots of games and stuff like that just to build up this mother/son relationship, which can only be created through time. He actually created it in space of a month.
When I saw the movie, I thought to myself, Tom must have brothers, based on your performance and the way your character related to his two younger siblings. So I wasn’t surprised to learn you have three younger siblings in real life. Did that help you relate to those emotions during the movie?
While we were filming, it’s very important to make sure that you leave your personal life off the set. So when I was crying, I was never thinking about my [real] family, because it’s quite difficult to think about your family dying every day, or losing someone that you love. So we created this really really strong relationship within the cast, like me, Naomi, Ewan, Sam [Joslin], and Oaklee [Pendergast], which really helped us think about them on set, instead of having to think about my own family, which was something we found very important on set, especially with the younger ones.
You met with the real Lucas before shooting. What did you draw from those encounters that helped you further what was on the written page.
The script was written with [Lucas’s mother Maria], so all the characters were very very close to who we were playing. But I could assess his body language and stuff like that, and really sort of become the character. He is an amazing man. He is now training to be a doctor, which is incredible, because he saved lives in Thailand. He saved his mother’s life, and he will go on to save lives in the future. He’s an incredibly impressive person.
I’m curious about your emotions when you wrapped production, normally a joyous occasion but this was such an arduous physical journey for you and the cast.
When we wrapped in Thailand for the last time, it was obviously amazing. I couldn’t believe that I had done what I had done: I’d just made a feature film with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and it’s going to come out next year! But as soon as they told me I wrapped, I just burst out into tears, because the idea of not seeing these people every day and not working with them, it was really hard. It was happy and sad. It was a very joyous day but at the same time, I was devastated to be going back home.
You were 13 when you filmed, and putting my 13-year-old self in your shoes, I would’ve been frozen to be working opposite Ben Kenobi.
Oh, literally, the first time he walked in in New York, that’s all I could see: Obi-Wan Kenobi. I used to have his outfit and everything. I was truly obsessed with Obi-Wan Kenobi. It would be so difficult to meet a guy as nice as Ewan, but he’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, and I grew up with him as a kid being the guy with the lightsaber.
I don’t have to tell you this, then, but there’s another wave of Star Wars movies on the horizon. What if J.J. Abrams called and asked you to be his young Kenobi in a spin-off or a next generation Skywalker?
I don’t know. I mean, yeah, the prospect of being Obi-Wan would be the coolest thing in the world. I don’t know if I can follow Ewan. He’s too good looking.
Since filming The Impossible, you’ve stayed extremely busy. I see you’re working with Tom Hardy on Locke, the movie from Eastern Promises writer Steven Knight…
I’m not sure what I’m allowed to say about that at the moment. It’s a really cool kind of artsy film; it’s something that’s never really been done before. Tom is fantastic. We shot the film live, so basically ran the film twice every night, and he’d be working solidly for hours. He just powered through. I mean, he’s a machine. He really is Bane-like. Not in a evil way, but he is like an absolute tank. It was only like a two-week shoot so we got to know each other well enough to have fun.
I expect we’ll next see you next in How I Live Now, opposite Saoirse Ronan?
I’m really excited about that. That’s where I met some of my best friends. It’s such a beautiful story about a family who are living this life in paradise with this awful war going on around them. Then all of a sudden, the war takes over them and they’re thrown into the darkness, and it’s about their struggle and how powerful the love between these two people is. How it brings them together.
Is it a period piece or contemporary?
It’s a fictional war set in our time. So it’s as if World War III broke out now.
There’s one other big project I have to mention — Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea — simply because it includes more water disaster.
I was joking with my agent that I’m going to get typecast for a water-disaster actor. They were joking they might buy me some scuba gear just so I was ready for everything. This film is about a village and survival; it’s not so much about the ocean. It’s more about being distant from humanity. We haven’t started filming yet. Chris Hemsworth is playing the lead and he is Thor. My little brother Paddy is just going bonkers about it. It’s based on the book In the Heart of the Sea, which is brutal. Absolutely brutal what these men went through — and boy, which is me. Obviously, I’m not a man. I’m a little boy.
You’re still only 16, so you have time to pause and consider what you want to do with your life. But what would you like to do in the next five or six years?
Just working. Doing good work. I don’t mind sitting at home playing the guitar for a year as long as I’m making good films. Obviously, everyone would love to be busy, but I’m really enjoying school. Today, I had my Shakespeare assessment, which went really well and I got to share that experience with my friends and have a laugh about, “Oh my God I completely forgot my lines and said this instead of that.” I’m having a great experience and great time at school. I’m not really ready to leave yet but I’m still looking at projects and things I’m interested in.
Is there a specific Shakespeare play or character that speaks to you?
I’ve always been told I’d be either a Puck or Mercutio, but today I had to do a monologue from Coriolanus and I was playing Caius Martius. It’s really a sort of brutal moment — it’s about this guy who’s running from Rome. He’s talking to his biggest rival and it’s really dark and scary. He’s a warrior. But I am no warrior, at all. That is not my part. But I would love to be a warrior. Hopefully one day.