Tom Holland Breaks Free: Talking Zendaya, ‘The Crowded Room’ and the Future of Spider-Man

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Tom Holland is having a rough morning. Not because he partied too hard the night before — though the Marvel Studios superstar had enough reasons to, what with it being his birthday and the world premiere at New York’s MoMA of The Crowded Room, the Apple TV+ series that he both stars in and executive produced.

But Holland quit drinking alcohol a year and a half ago. No, this particular migraine comes from waking up to learn that Crowded Room — what Holland deems the “hardest thing I’ve ever done” (this according to a guy who has played Spider-Man in six feature films) — has been met by rough early reviews.

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“It was a kick in the teeth,” Holland admits, unprompted, over eggs Benedict on the quiet terrace of a hotel in SoHo. “Rolling over, looking up the reviews, and then all of a sudden I was like, ‘Wow. That’s a bad review.’ Sometimes there’s a redeeming quality in there. There was nothing.”

Holland speaks loudly and confidently and in a thick London accent — he grew up there and still calls it home. At first it’s disorienting. Most of his characters are American and voiced in milder tones. Onscreen, he is jokey and self-effacing. Speaking to a journalist, he’s serious and a bit guarded. He makes rock-solid eye contact whenever he wants to convey a point. He is pale, lean — whatever the ideal body fat percentage is, he has it — and delicately handsome. He’s wearing loose-fitting jeans and a Moscot T-shirt featuring a vintage drawing of a man taking an eye test.

Every star learns to take their knocks in stride. And at 27, Holland is already a savvy veteran of the Hollywood game. He certainly still looks young enough to don the Spider-Man suit once again, perhaps even for another trilogy. Meetings to determine the fate of his Peter Parker are in fact already underway. But he knows that career longevity will ultimately hinge on every move he makes outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Uncharted, his first swing at a non-Spider-Man action franchise, was a win: The 2022 video game adaptation earned $400 million worldwide on a $120 million budget. But Cherry, a 2021 drama directed by the Russo brothers in which he played a strung-out heroin addict, drew a humdrum response.

Initial reviews of The Crowded Room seemed no better. But right after bringing them up, Holland brightens: “There will be good ones. There will be. I try to have a healthy outlook on all that sort of stuff and respect everyone’s opinion.”

As if he willed them into existence, more encouraging evaluations soon began ticking the Tomatometer back up. And Holland’s performance in Crowded Room — he plays Danny Sullivan, a psychologically distraught man accused of a shooting at Rockefeller Center — was widely singled out for praise. (It’s the long and twisty path to the “big revelation” at the center of the show — Danny’s diagnosis — that rubbed some critics the wrong way.)

Holland’s brother, Harry, 24, tagged along to the New York premiere to lend emotional support. But his girlfriend, Zendaya — whom he met on the set of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (she plays his love interest, MJ) — did not.

“We’ve been to events together before,” says Holland. As recently as March, he accompanied the 27-year-old Euphoria star to Las Vegas, where she was presented an award at CinemaCon. While there, they took in an Usher concert, which made headlines and trended on social media. Just about everything they do, especially together, trends on social media. “But she’s visiting her grandma,” he continues. “We’re two very busy people, and we’re on the opposite sides of the world at this present time, so she couldn’t come.”

Holland takes a deep breath and shakes it all off: the distance from his girlfriend, the frustrating reviews, the multibillion-dollar expectations resting on his wiry shoulders.

“The thing is,” he says, “I love my job. I love my friends. I’m not worried about what people think. The only thing I really care about is how I feel. And right now, I feel really happy and excited for people to see this show.”

I reply, “People seem to enjoy you a lot,” citing his 67 million Instagram followers.

“It seems that way,” he says. “I just hope it stays that way.”

Tom Holland at the Hotel Chelsea in New York.
Tom Holland at the Hotel Chelsea in New York.


Holland found The Crowded Room while filming 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, the capper to the blockbuster trilogy that came out of Sony and Marvel Studios’ 2015 agreement to share rights to the enormously popular character. Anchored by Holland in the title role, the deal paid off in a huge way: Despite bowing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, No Way Home earned $1.9 billion worldwide and became the third-highest-grossing film domestically of all time, behind 2019’s Avengers: Endgame — which also features Holland’s Spider-Man — and 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Holland was “at that stage where I was looking for my next job” when his agents caught wind of a project based on the 1981 nonfiction novel The Minds of Billy Milligan, by Daniel Keyes. The Crowded Room had been bouncing around Hollywood since the early 1990s, when James Cameron adapted Minds of Billy Milligan into a feature film script. (It was Cameron who coined the title The Crowded Room.) Cameron abandoned the project, and various directors circled it in the years to follow, including the late Joel Schumacher and, at one point, David Fincher. In 2015, Leonardo DiCaprio signed on as a potential star. None of it came to pass.

Eventually Akiva Goldsman — who won an Oscar for 2001’s A Beautiful Mind and more recently has been a showrunner on several Star Trek series — found his way to the material. Goldsman was drawn to the idea of a young male subjected to horrible trauma at a young age and how that trauma affects the brain. Further along in the development process, he chose to fictionalize the true story of Billy Milligan, who stood trial for a string of rapes, and instead turn it into the tale of the far more sympathetic Danny Sullivan, accused of a victimless crime for reasons that don’t reveal themselves until halfway through the series.

Holland and Goldsman met about the project — then set up at Apple TV+ — in early 2021. At that point, it was going to be a direct adaptation of The Minds of Billy Milligan. “I read the book and was really blown away by the opportunity it presented as an actor,” Holland says. “I instantly felt safe with Akiva. I trusted him. It was a pretty easy yes from there.”

In Apple TV+’s The Crowded Room, Holland plays a psychologically distraught man accused of murder, and Amanda Seyfried plays the investigator assigned to his case.
In Apple TV+’s The Crowded Room, Holland plays a psychologically distraught man accused of murder, and Amanda Seyfried plays the investigator assigned to his case.

The trust went both ways. “He has a superpower, which I think may come from his early experiences as a dancer,” says Goldsman, referring to Holland’s ability to instantly see a scene in three dimensions from the page. “Tom will take one look at the set with the scene in his hand and he will know where the blocking is going to end up. I’ve just never seen anything like it.”

The project came along at a time when Holland was having his own mental health struggles, which he revealed in a video posted to his Instagram on Aug. 13. “I find Instagram and Twitter to be overstimulating, to be overwhelming,” he told his followers. “I get caught up and I spiral when I read things about me online and ultimately it’s very detrimental to my mental state, so I’ve decided to take a step back and delete the app.” I ask Holland whether that disclosure figured into him taking on something like The Crowded Room.

“I wouldn’t say I particularly have a history of issues with mental health,” he says. “I just feel like I am a young person living in a world where we are expected to share every moment online. We are under the pressures of public opinion and other people’s opinions, and you’ve got these pressures of delivering to a certain standard. And it’s stressful. It’s hard.”

Then Holland’s thought transforms: It’s not just that he’s a young person whose life is laid bare online. It’s that he’s one of the world’s most famous young people, living constantly under the glare of the public eye. There is no escaping the scrutiny.

“It’s tough when every time you leave your front door, you are working. You’re on camera. I can’t walk around New York without clicking everywhere I go. And social media was bringing that outside world into my house. I just had to get rid of it. I needed to get back to reality, remind myself of who I am and where I’m from, and just live my life as normally as possible, in my abnormal way. Which is my career, I guess,” he says.

It’s tough when every time you leave your front door you are working. You’re on camera, says Holland of why he recently took a respite from social media. It was bringing that outside world into my house. I just had to get rid of it. Officine Generale suit and shirt. Groomer Rachael Speke, Set design Elaine Winter.
“It’s tough when every time you leave your front door you are working. You’re on camera,” says Holland of why he recently took a respite from social media. “[It] was bringing that outside world into my house. I just had to get rid of it.” Officine Générale suit and shirt. Groomer: Rachael Speke, Set design: Elaine Winter.

In the year since he posted his Instagram message, Holland has tentatively returned to social media — he has projects to promote, after all. Sobriety helps. It’s given him a “clear mind,” he says, and rendered him better equipped to handle whatever curveballs come his way. When Crowded Room wrapped nine months ago, he decided to take a year off work for his well-being.

He’s also dabbled in therapy. “I haven’t quite found someone yet that I think I could call ‘my therapist.’ But I think it’s an incredibly honorable profession. I should find someone. I’m going to look further,” Holland says.

In the series, Amanda Seyfried plays Rea, an investigator assigned to Danny’s case, and the two spend much of their screen time together sitting across a table from each other in a stark interrogation room. “We spent almost three weeks straight in that room,” says Seyfried, 37. “I sensed at the beginning of working with Tom that it was kind of a respite because he had been working like a madman.” Before Seyfried’s arrival, Holland had been shooting all the physically demanding sequences — fight sequences, dance sequences, even several athletic sex scenes, including one with another man in a cramped bathroom stall.

“I think it is a first [for me],” Holland says about the same-sex love scene. “It’s not a milestone, though. It’s not something that I’m like, ‘Oh, wow. I got to play my first character with a different sexual preference than I have.’ It’s obviously a little more complicated than that. It felt very important to tell the story authentically.”

He pauses to take a gulp of his latte — one of three he will consume over the course of our two-hour conversation.

“I try not to worry myself about what other people think,” he says. “There’s a Christian Bale quote I saw once, which really changed my life. He said, ‘If you have a problem with me, text me. And if you don’t have my number, you don’t know me well enough to have a problem with me.’ “

Holland and girlfriend Zendaya promoted their film Spider-Man: No Way Home in 2021
Holland and girlfriend Zendaya promoted their film Spider-Man: No Way Home in 2021.

I persist in getting to know him just a little bit more. He is tight-lipped about Zendaya (“Our relationship is something that we are incredibly protective of and we want to keep as sacred as possible. We don’t think that we owe it to anyone, it’s our thing, and it has nothing to do with our careers”) but is far less guarded when the subject turns to his family. He has three younger brothers: the twins Harry and Sam, both 24, and Paddy, 18. Holland describes his parents’ marriage of 30 years as a “pretty harmonious experience for both of them.” The family grew up in an affluent area of London. His mother was a photographer (she now runs the Brothers Trust, the family’s charity organization) and his father is a stand-up comedian.

“My dad is literally the greatest dad in the world,” Holland says. “Throughout all the hardships of being a comedian — the highs and the lows — I never saw it. All I saw was the happiest man alive. That’s the mark of a really good dad.”

A natural athlete, Holland dove into sports as a kid, playing golf, rugby, football, cricket and tennis — and excelling at them all. (He remains an avid golfer and plays almost daily, sometimes even with Zendaya: “I’ve given her a few lessons. She’s very naturally talented, a real athlete, so she picked it up really quickly.”) He also demonstrated an extraordinary gift for dance. When he was 9, his mother enrolled him in a hip-hop dance class at Nifty Feet Dance School. He was later scouted by a choreographer on Billy Elliot the Musical, set to open two years later in the West End. Holland immersed himself in ballet, tap and acrobatics classes and eventually won the role of Michael Caffrey, Billy Elliot’s best friend.

“We lived in a house in Ealing,” Holland recalls of the West London residence that boarded the Billy Elliot cast. “There were about 15 of us in this one house. We would be shuffled to and from the theater every day to rehearsals, five hours of them a day. We called it the ‘Billy House.’ Some of my greatest memories were from that house: a bunch of 12-year-old kids, all performing in the West End.”

When he eventually outgrew his run in the show — by which time he had graduated to the starring role — Holland re-enrolled in secondary school, only to find himself struggling to fit in. “I spent three years working at a professional capacity unlike anything. You’re working every single day, your fitness is through the roof. Every night they’re watching you and giving you notes. Then all of a sudden you’re back in school and the kids are, in my opinion at the time, incredibly immature,” he recalls.

At 16, he enrolled in a two-year drama school, but by then, his acting career had begun to take off. His first major break — playing the son of Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts in 2012’s The Impossible, a harrowing depiction of one family’s ordeal during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — was broadcast to his classmates with a billboard erected above the school. “I was on it,” Holland remembers. “My really good friends were happy for me, but the majority of people were very jealous. … It’s a good lesson for Hollywood.”

He would soon enough find out. Amy Pascal, who has produced all of Holland’s Spider-Man films, says it was that “astonishing” Impossible performance — plus a screen test with Robert Downey Jr. that knocked her socks off — that in 2015 netted Holland the coveted part over 7,500 hopefuls. His debut as the character came the following year, in Captain America: Civil War.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Pascal, 65, recalls. “He inhabited Peter Parker in a way that was completely unique. He was emotional. He was funny. He had a pathos to him that is hidden behind his smile. But you can feel it. He’s hiding it from you in a way that’s beautiful.”

Holland’s big break was in 2012’s The Impossible. My really good friends were happy for me, but the majority of people were very jealous. … It’s a good lesson for Hollywood. Our Legacy x Denim Tears shirt, Archie pants, Fear of God shoes, Uniqlo socks.
Holland’s big break was in 2012’s The Impossible. “My really good friends were happy for me, but the majority of people were very jealous. … It’s a good lesson for Hollywood.” Our Legacy x Denim Tears shirt, Archie pants, Fear of God shoes, Uniqlo socks.


The day before our rendezvous, Holland and Zendaya both trended on Twitter. Holland trended because it was his birthday; Zendaya because she posted a photo of Holland scuba diving in Caribbean waters — taken on a past vacation — on her Instagram stories. “It’s crazy what you can do nowadays that will get you trending,” Holland notes.

One popular tweet asked fans to respond with their favorite Holland performance. The runaway winner — more than any of his Spider-Man films — was his May 7, 2017, appearance on Lip Sync Battle.

A hit then but now mostly forgotten, the Paramount Network show featured stars going head-to-head in staged numbers set to popular songs. Holland — pitted against Zendaya — kicks off his routine in a black suit and fedora, mimicking Gene Kelly’s performance of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Then something remarkable happens: The drum loop to Rihanna’s “Umbrella” kicks in, and Holland emerges in a black bustier, vinyl hot pants, diamond-pattern fishnets and a black bob wig. He then embarks on a two-minute dance routine — difficulty level: 10 — that incorporates erotic thrusts over a black umbrella and an acrobatic forward flip into a puddle of water.

Holland’s showstopping performance of Singin in the Rain and Umbrella on Lip Sync Battle in 2017.
Holland’s showstopping performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Umbrella” on Lip Sync Battle in 2017.

“I’m proud of it,” he says of the now iconic performance. “I like that it left a lasting impact. It was an amazing time. My life was changing before my eyes. Spider-Man was coming out. I was on the up. I was getting offers and turning them down for the first time, which was really crazy. I was meeting producers and directors and going to L.A. by myself. I was finally at that stage where I could say, ‘Can I bring my friends?’ And they’d say, ‘Yeah.’ “

“Like Entourage,” I offer. Holland barely acknowledges the reference.

“Were you making a statement about toxic masculinity?” I ask.

“No. Mm-mm,” he replies, definitively.

“Who put the costume together?”

“Probably the costume designer,” he says. “I don’t give a fuck. I’ve grown up in the most non-toxic-masculine environment possible. I didn’t realize what I was doing was so forward-thinking. I was just like, ‘Yeah, fuck it, I’ll put some fishnets on and dance in the rain. That’ll be really fun. I don’t care.’ But you’d never catch me doing that now. Just because I don’t want to do a fucking TV show that I don’t need to do. I’d rather go and play golf and live my little private life.

“It is an interesting one,” he continues. “Because I’ve really worked hard in my career and I’ve really been calculated in deciding what it is I do and when I do it. And for all the movies that I’m incredibly proud of, the Lip Sync Battle is what I get the most compliments for.”


Tom Holland was photographed June 2 at the Hotel Chelsea in New York. Prada shirt and jacket.
Tom Holland was photographed June 2 at the Hotel Chelsea in New York. Prada shirt and jacket.

There will be more dancing in Holland’s future. He has a Fred Astaire biopic coming up, with Paul King — the mind behind the charming Paddington films — attached to direct. Like most development at the moment, it’s on hold until the writers strike concludes. “I’m always going to be on the side of the little guy,” Holland says. “I hope they can find a resolution because they deserve it.”

Armed with “a bunch of notes and ideas,” Holland had already sat in on a series of Spider-Man development meetings when the strike was called. “It was myself, Amy, [Marvel Studios president] Kevin Feige, [executive producer] Rachel [O’Connor], sometimes other executives from Marvel will sit in,” he says. “It’s a collaborative process. The first few meetings were about, ‘Why would we do this again?’ And I think we found the reason why. I’m really, really happy with where we’re at in terms of the creative.

“But I’m also a little apprehensive about it,” he adds. “There’s a bit of a stigma about the fourth one in all franchises. I feel like we hit a home run with our first franchise and there’s a part of me that wants to walk away with my head held high and pass the baton to the next lucky kid that gets to bring this character to life.”

His decision-making process no doubt involves taking a close look at what happened to the Spider-Men who came before him.

Tobey Maguire starred in three films — until, that is, his surprise return in 2021’s No Way Home — which was followed by a dip out of the limelight. And Andrew Garfield was let go from the franchise after his second effort, 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2, disappointed at the box office (“disappointment” in Spider-Man terms meaning it only took in $700 million worldwide) but has bounced back with a deft and varied career that has spanned film, TV and theater and earned two Oscar nominations.

And then there’s yet another Spider-Man — Miles Morales, the Black and Latino webslinger introduced in the comics in 2011, who debuted on the silver screen (voiced by Shameik Moore) in 2018’s CGI-animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. That film was a critical and commercial smash, earning $384 million worldwide. But the sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, which opened June 2, has shattered all expectations, already having made $236 million in its first week. Even Holland had to concede to a reporter at the Crowded Room premiere that the first Spider-Verse was “the best” Spider-Man movie ever made.

Pascal, who produces both franchises, says there’s plenty of room for both. “They’re completely separate worlds,” she says. As for merging them, “you never know. I would never say no to anything. But we have a lot of movies to make about Miles and a lot of movies to make about Peter,” she says. “I am a movie producer. I want to keep going with this franchise with Tom.”

Holland frequently turns to peers and mentors for counsel on how to best avoid the Hollywood roughs. He golfs with his Uncharted co-star Mark Wahlberg and fellow MCU-er Chris Pratt. He’s developed a friendship with Timothée Chalamet. “We’re obviously very often part of the same conversation,” Holland says. “I admire him. I really like him as a friend. And he’s a good ally to have in a business that’s pretty cutthroat.”

One of his biggest cheerleaders — and closest confidants — is Benedict Cumberbatch, who as Doctor Strange shared significant screen time with Holland in No Way Home. They both live in London and spend time together as friends. “The boy’s got range,” says Cumberbatch, 46. “He knows what works, what stretches him and keeps his catalog varied and shows his ability to transform and surprise us all. So he’s not negatively affected by the branding of playing the superhero of all superheroes, which Spider-Man is, really. He’s asked me for advice every now and again, but he’s making brilliant calls and I’ve also asked for his on occasion.”

One conversation Holland still regrets not having was with Garfield immediately after Holland was named the new Spider-Man. “That’s because of my naivete as a kid,” he says. “I was 19 when I got cast. I was so caught up in getting the role that I never took any time to think about what it must have been like for him. If I’d made my second movie and it didn’t necessarily deliver in the way it should have done and they recast me, I would really struggle to bounce back. Andrew bounced back in the most unbelievable way. I just wish I’d called him and just said, ‘You know I can’t turn down this opportunity.’ “

He had a chance to talk things out with Garfield on the set of No Way Home, which we now know reunited all three original Spider-Men. “It was wonderful,” Holland says. “Myself, Andrew, Tobey — we have this amazing bond as three people who have been through something that is so unique that we really are like brothers. We have a great group chat and we catch up every now and then. It’s called the Spider-Boys.”


He grabs his phone and thumbs through text messages until he locates the Spider-Boys group chat.

“What’s the last thing you guys talked about?” I ask.

“I was doing a charity event in London for the Brothers Trust and I was asking if they would be so kind as to sign a poster to auction off. They were obviously happy to oblige,” he replies.

“Spider-Man stuff.”

“Yeah,” Holland says with a warm smile. “Spider-Man stuff.”

This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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