Two years ago, Tom Holland was performing pirouettes and gravity-defying gymnastic tricks as the young lead in the West End production of Billy Elliot: The Musical. Months later, the then-13-year-old was in a water tank in Spain, again spinning dizzyingly. This time, he was being dragged through whirlpools, flipping around as debris crashed into him, filming what would become the terrifying opening set piece for The Impossible.
It was, quite literally, a throw-him-in-and-see-if-he-floats moment for the budding actor, who makes his stunning feature-film debut in the based-on-a-true-story movie about the devastating 2004 tsunami, out Friday. Now 16 years old and basking in heaps of critical praise—and even some Oscar buzz—for his deeply affecting performance, Holland recalls being unfazed by the challenge.
“Adrenaline has always been my thing,” he tells The Daily Beast. “I’ve always done dangerous stuff, so I wasn’t really scared.”
The Impossible, a disaster film at once horrifying and hopeful, tells the real-life story of the Alvarez Belons, a Spanish family on vacation in Thailand on Dec. 26, 2004, when 100-foot waves engulfed their hotel, separating mom Maria (Naomi Watts) and eldest son Lucas (Holland) from her husband (Ewan McGregor) and two younger sons. The film chronicles how, against all odds, the family did not just survive but found each other again—the impossible.
When the achingly real, utterly brutal catastrophe opener concludes, Lucas and Maria are the first to reunite, with Maria having sustained crippling, gruesome injuries. Holland plays Lucas as a boy as terrified as he is tenacious, who must bury his horror and become the young hero who carries his mom to safety at the top of a tree, screams for help from rescuers, and watches over her on her death bed in a refugee clinic while, throughout it all, on the brittle edge of his own breakdown.
It’s a mammoth task for an actor in his first film, and a draining emotional arc for a boy who is barely a teenager to endure.
“You’d be going through that emotion every day for five months, so it could be very difficult,” Holland says. The movie’s water sequences were shot in a water tank in Spain, but much of the rest was filmed on location in Thailand—the hotel in The Impossible is the one the real Lucas and Maria were staying at when the tsunami hit.
“It was very eerie and weird,” Holland says, “the idea that where I was standing on set waiting for the wave to come is exactly where Lucas was standing. The thing that scared me is that I could be like, All right, I can leave, I’ve got a lunch break in the next 20 minutes. But what actually faced him was like, For the next three days I’m going to be in absolute turmoil and my mom is going to be on the brink of death.”
To say Holland pulls off the tricky role would be an understatement. He’s already won the National Board of Review award for Best Breakthrough, the Hollywood Film Festival Spotlight Award, and is nominated for Best Young Actor at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards. Oscar gurus even peg him as a dark horse for a Best Actor nod this year.
How the excitable teenager got to this point—a major motion picture debut opposite two major motion picture stars—is that classic Hollywood combination of pure talent and being in the right place at the right time.
As a young boy, Holland, who has three younger brothers, was a member of a hip-hop street dance team. After a 2006 performance at a London dance exhibition, the Royal Ballet School’s headmaster spotted him and said, “Hey, listen, you look a bit like Billy Elliot. You can dance. Just go along and see how you do.”
Eight auditions later, he had the part. After two more years of extensive, producer-sponsored dance training in the U.S. and the U.K., Holland was finally onstage at the Victoria Palace Theatre, dancing the title role in Billy Elliot: The Musical. He performed the demanding part for nearly two years and was about to settle back into “normality” when his agent rang with The Impossible audition. Four auditions later, once again, he had the part.
He was at his little brother’s sports day when his dad got the call. “I just ran this field for ages going, ‘Yeah! I’m going to be in a movie!’ ” Holland says. “I may have done a back flip.”
When the gymnastics subsided, reality sunk in. Not only would he be on a film set for the first time, he’d be working with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, or, as he calls them, “Hollywood’s greatest.”
He was terrified.
“I was like, ‘Dad, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. What am I supposed to say?’” Holland remembers. “But as soon as Ewan walked in, he gave me a hug. I was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to handshake this guy. Be formal.’ And then he gave me a hug. That was really nice.”
But it was Watts, who shared the majority of Holland’s most intense scenes, with whom he bonded the most and who became his own personal Oscar-nominated adviser on filmmaking. The actress helped him through what he recalls as his hardest day on the set. In the gut-wrenching scene, set after Lucas and Maria finally land at a hospital, Lucas returns from walking around the premises to help other refugees find their loved ones. Maria, whom he has left in a hospital bed, is gone, and so is her chart.
Lucas, so steely and brave until then, loses it, a transformation that required Holland to erupt into an uncontrollable, panicked screaming fit. “We did 11 takes of that scene, without breaks in between,” he says. “That shot was about five minutes long each way, so it was a really long, long day.”
But in truth, Holland says, the entire shoot was taxing. He and Watts spent more than 45 days being essentially and repeatedly drowned by more than 35,000 gallons of water in a Spanish water tank, in order to create the harrowing 10-minute tsunami opening set piece, which took six special-effects companies more than a year to complete. “But the hardest scenes have to have been the ones in Thailand, because they required emotion that I had never experienced before,” he says. “I had never experienced the thought of losing my mom, or anything like that.”
Then, of course, there was the added poignancy of filming in Thailand. “All the waiters, the people who worked on the beach, everyone there had a story to tell because they were there when the tsunami hit,” Holland says, calling their presence around the set “incredibly helpful.”
But nothing was more useful than having the Alvarez Belons, the family whose story they were telling, on set. “Especially Lucas for me,” Holland says. “Having him there was like having a cheat sheet to an exam.” When they first met, Holland told Lucas, now 20, “I’m going to try and do the best performance I can and portray your character in as real a way as possible.” When they screened the finished product in Toronto, Lucas told Holland, “You did exactly what you said you’d do.”
Holland’s costars have similar praise for his performance. “Tom is a beyond gifted actor,” Watts said. “He’s just a raw, open talent that is just so easy to work with … he’s inspiring, he kind of lifts everyone’s game around him because he can do nothing but tell the truth.” Said McGregor: “He’s absolutely on the right road and a brilliant actor.”
And he’s officially been bitten by the acting bug—he has the drama How I Live Now due out next year—and has already embraced the idea, using terms like “as an actor” frequently while speaking with The Daily Beast. Still, he’s also an incredibly humble, down-to-earth kid. He may have just met Steven Spielberg on a recent trip to the U.S.—“I didn’t actually introduce myself, I just threw a lot of compliments at him because I was nervous”—but when he called about his film, he was in his bedroom in the middle of rehearsing lines for an acting exam at school.
“As soon as I touch down in England, I’m myself again,” he says. Judging by the rousing reception to his performance in The Impossible, that means one of the most promising young actors the film industry has seen in years.