Dom Holland on life as Spider-Man’s dad: ‘I told Tom his fame wouldn’t last’
“I’m sorry I’m not Tom,” Dominic Holland says as he greets me in the cafe where we’re meeting. You sense it’s a well-polished line for the comedian and writer. It breaks the ice and addresses the elephant in the room.
Or rather the 5ft 8 web-slinging vigilante. Dom Holland, you see, is Spider-Man’s dad. His 26-year-old son, Tom Holland, is the star of the three most recent Spider-Man films, including 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home, the sixth highest-grossing film of all time. This year, he fronted the video game adaptation Uncharted alongside Mark Wahlberg. And he’s set to play Fred Astaire in a forthcoming biopic of the great triple-threat American icon. Today, the young actor has a fair claim to be the biggest young British film star in the world.
We’re talking because on June 19 Holland Snr is releasing an audiobook of his memoir Eclipsed, read by father and son. It’s a warm, wry account of seeing his own entertainment career effortlessly outstripped by his progeny – starting with the moment when, aged 10, Tom was talent spotted to play Billy Elliot in the 2005 musical adaptation.
Eclipsed begins with a wonderful reflection on their parallel careers: the same evening Tom was pirouetting in the West End in front of 2,000 rapt punters, Holland was warming up for a gig at the Whitchurch parish hall to an audience of pensioners impatient for the post-show raffle. “[We were] like ships passing in the night,” he writes. “One headed for the Seychelles and another bound for Mogadishu.”
Was he jealous of his son’s success? He laughs: “No, I wasn’t jealous. Because I was literally playing village halls, it tees up our stories so beautifully. There’s no regret – I don’t spend my time wishing I was famous because that would be an ugly place. But I’m inordinately proud of what Tom has achieved.”
Neat, compact and engagingly fluent, Holland has his son’s bristling energy and pent-up charm. Or better: in Tom, his father's latent showbiz genetics have fully flourished. After all, long before his son was working with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr, and dating his co-star Zendaya, Holland was briefly comedy’s next hottest thing. He won the 1993 Edinburgh Fringe’s Perrier award for best newcomer. Elton John was his warm-up act for a gig at Alexandra Palace, and he toured with Harry Hill and Eddie Izzard. There was a Radio 4 sketch programme, appearances on the Clive Anderson Show and talk of his own TV gig.
Then, abruptly, his ascent stopped – it didn’t exactly nose-dive, more gently bump onto a plateau, where it has trundled along comfortably ever since. “I was quite expectant,” Holland remembers. “Stewart Lee told me recently: ‘You were fully formed.’ I just thought it would continue.”
Why didn’t it? Holland considers: “Even though I believed I was a good stand-up, I was crooked by a lack of confidence. It was an ordeal for me to go on stage – it still is. The most famous comedians aren’t necessarily the funniest, but they back themselves completely.”
At its most raw, stand-up comedy is a face-off. As a performer, hesitation is fatal: blink first, and you’ll be filled full of holes. Yet before every gig, Holland fought a desire to stop, to pull back. He began to have panic attacks before he went on stage. “People are coming to see you work,” he explains. “And there’s a very simple mechanism for determining success – whether people laugh out loud. At the time, I was dashing around London, doing two or three gigs a night. And I had three boys under three. It was exhausting.”
That exhaustion came to a head at a gig in Brighton in 2000. Halfway through the show, a man got up, walked down the centre aisle and, to echoing, expectant silence, delivered a crushing heckle: “It said comedian on the poster” – and left.
Holland stumbled through the rest of the set, before driving home in tears. The next morning, he woke to find himself paralysed on the left-hand side of his body. He thought he was having a stroke, and worried he was going to die. A doctor diagnosed severe nervous exhaustion. Holland didn't do another frontline stand-up gig for nearly 20 years.
Instead, he threw himself into the “lucrative but anonymous” circuit of corporate gigs, and spent more time on his writing. As well as a weekly blog, he has written nine books. The first two were released by Hodder, the rest are self-published. In conversation and in his writing, Holland is an amusing yet introspective figure. Self-doubt, you feel, always lurks just beyond the stage lights.
“Other stand-ups were braver than me,” Holland says. “They could shrug off bad gigs – I took it personally.” Still, Holland doesn’t have much truck with the fashion for parading one’s mental health difficulties. A friend of 40 years died by suicide last November, so he knows first-hand the costs of inner turbulence – and those who detract from it. “A lot of people claim mental health problems to imbue themselves with a sense of genius,” he reflects. “The people who are genuinely ill are taken away from by showbiz types who are keen to publicise their mental frailties.”
Holland returned to the stand-up circuit just before the pandemic. Now he’s back in the saddle, doing one or two gigs a week. But he largely focuses on his writing these days. Comedy, he found, had changed a lot in the intervening years. “It’s very easy to say the wrong thing now,” he says. “It’s curtailing. There are people who want to be offended to show how sensitised they are. Five years ago, people were just busy laughing. The power dynamic has shifted. Audiences today are much more powerful. The other day I was told off for using the word ‘wife’ on stage. A woman came up to me and said: ‘How dare you use the word ‘wife’ – we’re not property anymore.’ And I was like: ‘But whole set is based on my life.’”
His forthrightness is a surprise. In Eclipse, he reveals he has counselled Tom to be “apolitical” – something that can’t have hurt when Marvel were casting around for a fresh-faced, controversy-free lynchpin for the next stage of the Avengers franchise. Not that his advice is always heeded. “I share a lot of my thoughts and experience with the boys [Tom has three younger brothers; twins Harry and Sam are filmmakers and actors too.] Do they listen? Time will tell…”
With unseemly good timing, Holland’s phone goes. It’s Tom and his brother Harry facetiming from New York. He wants advice about a new contract, his voice echoing into the room. It prompts a curious, boyish shiver: Spider-Man is in the building. After a quick chat, Holland breaks off affectionately. He apologies, and turns back to me.
He was ready, he says, to confront his son with the brute facts of stardom. “I told him at every juncture: ‘This won’t continue, it happens to other families.’ I always thought it was a great journey, but I told him it would end.”
It’s true Tom has had an improbable journey to fame. Always an active, musical child – according to family lore, he was bopping in his bouncer to Janet Jackson before he could walk – his parents signed him up for classes at Stagecoach, a performing arts centre, to blow off steam. But unlike the public-school thesps who dominate British stardom, he never had formal acting training.
In fact, before he was cast in Billy Elliot, he could barely dance. After being hoiked out from thousands of hopefuls, he went on to make the role his own and, after it ended, he was chosen to play one of Ewan McGregor’s children in the Boxing Day Tsunami drama The Impossible. Did Holland pull strings to help his climb? He laughs: “There’s no way I could profit his career at all. Nikki [his wife, a photographer] and I aren’t pushy parents. We’re ambitious for our children, but in an acceptable way. I thought it would never work out [for Tom]. I didn’t expect it at all. We’re an ordinary family to which an extraordinary thing has happened.”
There’s a nicely-played episode in Eclipsed which underscores the strangeness of seeing his son’s sudden ascent. Aged 14, Tom had been asked to come to New York to meet Naomi Watts and McGregor, who played his parents in The Impossible. Holland accompanied him, fretting about whether his son had got enough sleep and being late. Then the moment of the meeting arrives, and they were cramped into an awkward hotel room: Watts, McGregor, Tom and his father.
“I was the elephant in the room,” Holland writes. “Later, even Tom would agree I had to leave. It was apparent I needed to leave but no one was going to ask to do so. This would have been humiliating for me and embarrassing for Tom and so I did the right thing and put everyone out of their misery.” Afterwards, staring at the anonymous hotel door “with all the illustrious people inside, with my son” he reflects: “My eldest son is on a path that will see him eclipsing his old man. And that path is now complete.”
When discussing his family, Holland hums with evident pride. But he is also clear-eyed about the costs of Tom’s celebrity. Being Spider-Man, though, comes with a blistering level of scrutiny. Tom has revealed that the unflagging press circuit burnt him out, causing him to vomit off-stage and sparking rumours of a quarter-life retirement from acting. It’s an admission that chimes with a moment in Eclipsed when Holland describes how hard he found it to watch his son perform the intensely physical “angry dance” in Billy Elliot.
“I always found it difficult,” he says. “His little body was expending so much energy. I knew he was in agony. I’m very protective of Tom but he became old very quickly doing that show. He’s an old head on young shoulders.”
There can be odd moments when the panes between public celebrity and private family life slip. “I often say to him, ‘You’ve appeared on your last magazine cover. You’re already so well known, but your privacy is finite and it has to be treasured.” Does he ever not recognise his son? He pauses. Then: “He’s a regular boy, doing an irregular job, and he does it with aplomb. [But] he has a gilded life now – whatever he does next, he has a level of fame that will endure.”
Touchingly, Holland’s favourite scene from the Spider-Man films is Tom’s introduction in Captain America: Civil War. Visited by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man, he is charmingly agog: as wide-eyed to be meeting his hero as, no doubt, Tom was to be performing alongside his.
“I was terrified watching that film. Playing Spider-Man, you’re very much in the crosshairs, and there was an awful lot of hate when he was announced. The pressure was immense. But I saw it and thought: ‘Bloody hell, Tom, you’re Peter Parker.’”
Indeed, there is something of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s hero to Tom Holland. On the one hand, he is an “amazingly dependable” asset for the studios, a hugely profitable cog in the world’s biggest franchise; on the other, he’s a golf-mad lad from Kingston upon Thames who lives in a “big frat house with his buddies” only four miles from where he grew up. He and Zendaya have reportedly bought a £3 million home in Richmond, though they don’t live together yet, with Tom mostly based in London and Zendaya in New York. “They are a lovely young couple,” Holland notes, but gently steers the conversation away when I try a follow-up question.
“His family and friends are an integral part of his background, his armoury,” Holland says. “I’m mindful of fame – once you’re at that level, you can’t step back.”
Nor can his family. When a synopsis for Eclipsed was shared online in 2017, some fans accused Holland of profiting from his son’s fame. “Tom Holland’s dad wrote a bitter ass book about his son getting more famous than him,” sneered one.
But Tom defended his father on Twitter: “The only thing @domholland is jealous of is my golf swing. I read Eclipsed and loved it and I’m glad you wrote it, dad.”
Holland is actually very cautious about being seen to piggy-back on his son’s position, he tells me. “I don’t like leveraging Tom. I don’t like to compromise him.” Recently, they were offered a father/son podcast, but Holland turned it down. “I knocked it on the head, because it would have been very good for me, but I didn’t think it was good for Tom.”
There’s little chance of Tom getting too grand. His brothers, Holland notes, are always around to cut him down to size. His brother Harry accompanies his elder sibling to all his shoots, chronicling their fraternal high-jinks on social media for his millions of fans.
“He doesn’t get the biggest dinner or the best seat,” Holland says. “And that’s very important for him because in the movie world, if you’re number one on the call sheet, everything is laid out for you – and that’s very corrupting.” Holland sharpens into seriousness. “Tom’s brother Paddy [the youngest] is an aspiring chef, working 16-hour days. And I’m as proud of him as I am of any of my other boys. I’m no prouder of Tom than any of my other kids.”
When I ask about the future, he makes a point of surveying all their young lives – which, after all, have barely begun. What does he wish for them? “I hope the boys stay close,” he says. “Tom has made the surname something else, but I hope they have happy adulthoods, because happiness is a choice.”
Ever the pro, though, he can’t resist a last punchline. “I’m probably naive, but I also have vast hopes for myself. I’ve had a lot of rejection. But I’m constantly delusional. I get disappointed – but that doesn’t stop me from trying again.”
Eclipsed: the audio book will be available 19 June and Dominic Holland's new novel, Made in England, is out July 3 (dominicholland.co.uk)