‘I’VE BEEN at school today,” Tom Holland says, when I ask him what he’s been up to. “I’ve been studying drama.” I can’t help but laugh because on the evidence of The Impossible, Holland’s screen debut in which he stars alongside Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, the 16-year-old hasn’t got a lot to learn. There has already been an award from the National Board of Review for Best Breakthrough and he’s been nominated for a Critics’ Circle Film Award. There’s even talk of a Best Actor Oscar nomination, which could land the him on a shortlist alongside Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln) and John Hawkes (The Sessions). It’s heady stuff, but it’s also richly deserved.
Based on a true story, The Impossible follows the story of one family caught up in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Maria (Watts) and her husband Henry (McGregor) and their sons Lucas (Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) – a fictionalised version of the Alvarez Belons, the Spanish family whose story is the basis for the film – have flown from their home in Hong Kong to spend Christmas in a beach resort in Thailand. After two days of fun and relaxation, everything changes. Without warning the sea rears up and devours the western coast of Thailand. The family is just one amongst thousands caught up in the devastation. In all, as many as 250,000 people were killed. Juan Antonio Bayona’s film is not about heroes, it’s about luck and the extraordinary capacity of people in the most adverse circumstances.
Holland’s performance is astonishingly good. Best known for playing Billy Elliot in the West End stage show, on screen he gives a complex and incredibly mature performance. He transforms from a taciturn teenager into a brave, selfless boy, managing somehow to convey abject terror and trauma without ever slipping into melodrama. Surely, then, when it comes to drama class at the Brit School in London, where he’s a student, Holland finds himself pulled up to the front of to share his knowledge?
“That happens in physical theatre because Billy Elliot taught us to be at such a high level,” he says, sounding a bit shy and making sure to emphasise how talented his classmates are. “We don’t really do demonstrations in drama because that’s what the teachers do.” Holland is articulate and unfailingly polite. It takes a while, but he does eventually admit that his achievements outside school do mean he has something to live up to in the classroom.
“There is quite a bit of pressure on me at school. When we were doing our monologues, everyone gets up in front of the year, recites their monologue, performs it and then the teacher gives you a grade. I remember stepping up on stage and someone saying, ‘oh, here he is, Billy Elliot, this should be good’ and I was like, oh god, what if it’s not good and I completely ruin it and look like an idiot. So there is a level of pressure on me to perform well, but I guess everyone has to go through that.”
Well, certainly people who away from school garner rave reviews and deliver breathtaking performances. In The Impossible there is a scene in which 12-year-old Lucas finds himself alone, floating in a mud-brown sea of debris. He clings to a tree, the water gushes around him. He’s terrified. He shouts for his mum, really shouts. The veins on his neck bulge, his voice cracks, it’s a gut-wrenching scream and Holland is utterly convincing.
“We were in a scary environment,” he says, referring to the huge football pitch-size water tank in Alicante where Bayona (The Orphanage) created the scenes of the moment the tsunami hit. “When we were filming that whole tsunami sequence, it was terrifying. People think that the film was shot using green screen [artificial background] over a short period of time, but the minimum of green screen effects were used. We were in that tank for six weeks. It was very real. You can imagine how tiring and brutal that was.” He’s right, it’s hard not to become slightly tight in the chest as you watch Maria and Lucas being tumbled through the muddy torrent. “The first time I watched it, I actually found myself trying to gasp for myself,” he says. “There was no holding back. Every take we had to give it everything – that was true for both Naomi and me.”
The relationship between Lucas and his mum is the core of the film. It’s incredibly moving to watch. Holland can’t speak highly enough of Watts and the admiration, it seems, is mutual. Watts has described her working relationship with Holland, and their friendship off-screen, as one of the highlights of a gruelling seven-month shoot. She describes him as “inspiring”, crediting him with forcing everyone to raise their game because “he can’t do anything but tell the truth”.
“We spent a month before filming rehearsing so that me and Naomi could get to know each other and bond and create this relationship that only a mother and son can have,” he says.
Bayona created pasts for the characters to help them to build their relationship and techniques to help them make the mother/son dynamic seem natural.
“On pretty much the first day that we met each other in the rehearsal room we had to stare at each other for 10 minutes. Staring at someone you don’t know is quite difficult. It forced us to create this relationship. In the five months following we were going to have to cry and really be with each other so we had to really get it right.
“From the first moment I met Naomi I knew I was in safe hands and that I’d be looked after and she’d really guide me throughout the film. I have learned so much from her. She’s so generous with her acting, even if she’s not on camera she’ll give it her best to help you. It’s been the best thing for me, ever.”
Holland was spotted in a local dance class in Wimbledon where he lives with his parents and two little brothers and selected to try out for the role of Billy Elliot. It was only after nearly two years of training that he set foot on stage. At that time, the idea of a career in film wasn’t even in his head. But it’s clear he’s totally enamoured with both the process of filmmaking and with acting.
He’s already made his second film, How I Live Now, directed by Kevin Macdonald and opposite Saoirse Ronan. Holland says that he enjoyed the experience and he’s excited about seeing “what Kevin does with it”, but the experience fell a little short for him.
“What intrigues me about acting is playing someone who you’re not. I played a character called Isaac and he is pretty much me, I was pretty much playing my own character. For me, that’s not really what acting is about. I really enjoyed the experience and I had a great time but it wasn’t enough of a challenge for me. Lucas was going through something I’d never gone through. That’s what I love about acting.”
It’s also why he’s happy to keep learning at school. “When I started acting in Billy I was really taught from halfway up the ladder to the top,” he says. “I didn’t start at the bottom because we didn’t have time. Now we’re learning about practitioners such as Stanislavski and Bertolt Brecht, which is really interesting.”
But surely it’s a challenge coming straight from sharing the screen with Naomi Watts to learning the basics? “At times it is quite frustrating but when you’re working on a film everything goes so quickly you don’t get time to go into any detail. That’s what the Brit School is doing. We might be covering a technique that I’ve already done, that Naomi taught me, but they go into detail that Naomi didn’t have time to. For me it is incredibly useful. It’s answering my questions.”
Holland is too smart and self-aware not to know what might happen if the buzz around his performance in The Impossible goes as stratospheric as some are predicting. But he seems just genuinely excited and, rightly, a little overawed by the prospect. He says that he doesn’t really think about what the future might hold.
“The posters for The Impossible are everywhere and my face is on them. I keep getting text messages from friends saying, ‘I’ve just seen your big face’.” But he says he looks quite different – he’s two years younger for a start, but that’s not all. “I almost look computer animated,” he says. “It doesn’t look like me at all. I guess that’s good – no one will recognise me.” For now.
• The Impossible is on general release from January 1