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For his first film role, Tom Holland had to swim — or sink.
The young British actor spent weeks in a 35,000-gallon water tank the size of a football field in Spain, being tossed and turned by man-made waves to simulate the aftermath of a devastating tsunami.
“I remember [Naomi Watts and I] were hugging this tree, but because of the current, it would blow our legs underneath, so if you look at some of the outtakes, we would be doing the scene and suddenly one of us would disappear and we would shoot across the way,” says the actor. “It was quite technically difficult, and we had a few funny moments.”
Holland, 16, stars as Lucas in The Impossible, an intense, raw drama about a family trapped in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami wreaks havoc on the small nation. Holland was just 13 when he auditioned to play the eldest son of Watts and Ewan McGregor’s characters in Juan Antonio Bayona’s film.
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Since he was 11, Holland had been starring as the lead in Billy Elliot onstage in London’s West End, but he makes his transition to film in a major way with The Impossible, his first feature. He’s nominated for best young actor at the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards and already has won the best breakthrough award from the National Board of Review and the Hollywood Film Festival Spotlight Award. And though McGregor stars as his father in the film, Holland has been submitted as the lead actor for awards consideration. Regardless if he receives any nominations, his performance as the strong-willed and determined eldest son is garnering critical acclaim.
Holland says the main challenge of transition from stage to screen was a technical one, dealing with cameras instead of playing to a live audience.
“There was that technical change, but the similarities are that on set and onstage you create a family, and a very strong trust with everyone,” he says.
Building up that trust was especially important between Holland and Watts (who already has received SAG and Golden Globe nominations for her work in the film). Their characters end up being separated from the rest of their family after the tsunami hits. Holland’s Lucas is tasked with helping his injured mother find help and then survive in a foreign country.
“He starts out as the typical sort of teenager, and then when the tsunami actually happens and he sees how injured his mom is, he grows up a lot,” he says. “He literally goes from one extreme to the other. To be an actor and to have to play that diversity was very exciting. And also quite scary and challenging.”
VIDEO: Director and Stars Reveal How They Made ‘The Impossible’ Possible — Without CGI
The film is based on a true story of the Alvarez Belons family, who was on vacation in Thailand when the tsunami hit. Holland benefited from having the person behind his character, also named Lucas, on set for much of the filming. Additionally, they shot in some of the locations in which the family actually traveled, including the hospital in Thailand where Lucas and his mother ended up.
“If you’re on set and have a question that only your character can answer, a lot of times actors can’t ask that question because their character’s fictional or not alive, and I had my character there,” he said. “And he would answer every question I had.”
The son of a comedian and a photographer, Holland’s first auditioned for Billy Elliot at age 8. Now studying drama and media in London, Holland says he didn’t know he wanted to be an actor for life until his role in The Impossible.
“When I was in Billy, I always knew that I wanted to do something in performing, I always knew that I wanted to have a future in the performing arts,” he says. “I had no idea that it was going to be acting in movies.”
VIDEO: Could Ewan McGregor Finally Score First Oscar Nomination for ‘The Impossible’?
Holland says he is getting more scripts sent to him and taking meetings about future film projects, but the young actor insists he won’t be leaving school early.
“I think, from every actor I’ve ever spoken to, they say the biggest thing they regret from life is not finishing school,” he says. “So finishing school is something that is very important to me.”
One such meeting he took during a recent trip to Los Angeles was with Drew Barrymore, another child star who grew up in the industry. He says they spoke a lot about the pitfalls and challenges that fame can bring at a young age.
“She went through a very rough time,” he says of Barrymore. “There is something quite worrying about it — the whole sort of, ‘What’s going to happen to me in the next couple of years.’ But I’m pretty certain that I’ll remain the same person.”
The Impossible opens Dec. 21 via Summit.
Email: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford
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