From Billy Elliot to Spider-Man: how Tom Holland won the world’s heart

The British actor’s ascent to Hollywood stardom via gymnastics and dance was not always a given

Tom Holland was obsessed with Spider-Man as a boy. Growing up in Kingston upon Thames, he came to own more than 30 Spider-Man costumes and cherished his Spider-Man bedsheets.

And, unlike for most, his childhood obsession paid dividends later in life: he would eventually get to play his hero, landing the role that has made him the most famous young British actor in the world.

Holland, 25, has been at the centre of Marvel’s cinematic universe for years. After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War in 2016, he has starred in two Avengers and three standalone Spider-Man films. The latest, No Way Home, has so far grossed more than $1.6bn (£1.18bn) worldwide, and Holland is now one of a small handful of Hollywood big-hitters being touted by some to be the next host of the Oscars – the event’s first formal presenter in three years.

Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Still from Spider-Man: No Way Home. Photograph: Matt Kennedy/AP

The actor’s cheeky British charm, vulnerability and wit have made him one of the internet’s favourite crushes. Whether he’s accidentally spoiling the latest Marvel movie, mispronouncing “croissant” or adopting a chicken after supermarkets ran out of eggs, he has a knack for making audiences laugh and warming their hearts.

But his ascent to Hollywood superstardom was not always a given. In fact, his roots lie not in drama schools or small acting roles but in gymnastics and dance, something the young Holland fell into almost accidentally.

The eldest of four brothers, Holland credits his interest in dancing to the music of Janet Jackson. His dad, Dominic, a standup comedian and author, and his mum, Nikki, a professional photographer, noticed their son’s natural rhythm and signed him up to hip-hop classes at Nifty Feet dance school, run by the choreographer Lynne Page in a leisure centre in Wimbledon. During a performance one Easter, a 10-year-old Holland was spotted by a member of the Royal Ballet school and asked to audition for Billy Elliot the Musical, then on at London’s Victoria Palace theatre.

In his book Eclipsed, Dominic Holland, who later became his son’s unofficial manager and agent, recalls taking Tom to see the musical and laughing at the preposterousness of him playing Billy. “There was just no way. No chance. Ballet, tap, singing, acting; Tom had never done any of these things. He had never even been cast in any of his school plays.” Despite his lack of experience, Tom still caught the eye of the director, Stephen Daldry, because “he could see that Tom could act and, even more crucially, that he could take direction”, his father wrote.

The young Tom Holland
The young Tom Holland spent two years preparing for a role in Billy Elliot the Musical. Photographed in Kingston in 2005. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

After two years of preparation, including ballet, tap and acrobatic lessons, Holland was finally on stage – first as Michael, Billy’s friend, and then as Billy in 2008. Craig Gallivan, who played Tony in the musical, said it was clear from the very first rehearsals that Holland was special. “The children I was lucky enough work with on Billy Elliot were all exceptional talents so it was something of an impossibility to stand out from that, but Tom did,” he said. “For me, it was his connection to the dialogue. He had access to an emotional sensitivity that was way beyond his years.”

Holland’s turn as Billy Elliot would transpire to be more consequential than he and his family would ever have imagined. JA Bayona, the director of The Impossible, Holland’s first feature film, in which he starred alongside Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, was originally struck by the young actor when he saw a video of him discussing Billy.

The German actor Sönke Möhring, who starred alongside Holland in the 2012 film, said it was “amazing to see how professional he was”. He said: “Besides his great talent he is blessed with a deep soul. You could feel that he was more connected with the story than other actors of his age. Most of all, he was down to earth, very polite and a friendly kid.”

It was around the same time that Holland was cast in Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now. Macdonald, the Oscar-winning director behind One Day in September and The Last King of Scotland, said it was “a beautiful experience” working with the then teenager. “He’d done Billy Elliot, so he had this confidence with having been on stage in front of thousands of people night after night. When you’re meeting teenagers, they’re mostly crippled by shyness. But he was articulate and enthusiastic.”

For Macdonald, this positive energy helped to make Holland a star. “It’s lovely to be around. He’s so bright-eyed.” But if his personality was what drew directors to him, it was the physical agility he developed as a result of playing Billy that kept them there. And none were more keen than the Captain America: Civil War directors, Joe and Anthony Russo.

According to the Captain America star Chris Evans, who met his future co-star during the Spider-Man audition process, Holland ended up doing a flip during a scene. “Marvel doesn’t want to see this kid break his neck, so everyone from the studio was like: ‘Don’t! Don’t!’ And Joe just started salivating: ‘Just do it!’ And he did it – and stuck it,” Evans said.

When Holland was cast as Spider-Man in 2015, he beat thousands of other young actors to the role, including Asa Butterfield and Timothée Chalamet.

Critics have consistently praised his performances, and a campaign to get No Way Home Oscar recognition is gaining traction. Holland himself is an arch-defender of the artistic merits of the Marvel films. When Martin Scorsese likened the franchise to “theme parks”, he hit back, saying: “I’ve made Marvel movies and I’ve also made movies that have been in the conversation in the world of the Oscars, and the only difference, really, is one is much more expensive than the other.”

Zendaya and Tom Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home.
Zendaya and Holland in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Photograph: Matt Kennedy/AP

Beyond the set, he has said that having Zendaya – another precocious actor, who plays Spider-Man’s onscreen love interest – in his life has kept him sane. The pair’s relationship has long obsessed fans, with videos such as “Tom Holland and Zendaya flirting for 8 minutes straight” racking up more than 1.8m views on YouTube. Last summer, when pictures emerged of the two kissing, Spider-Man fandom was sent into a frenzy. To Holland it was an invasion of privacy, to critics a publicity stunt, and to fans a dream come true.

Holland, who has spoken about the huge responsibility that comes with playing Spider-Man, has a host of upcoming projects, including Uncharted (based on the video game series) and the Apple TV drama The Crowded Room. But of late he’s been more vocal about his desire to branch out into directing and return to dancing.

“The 20-year goal is to be a film director,” he told Interview magazine in 2017. “The 15-year goal is to win an Oscar.” Whether or not he has the chance to triumph at this year’s awards is yet to be seen. But to his millions of fans, he’s already a winner.