With Akiva Goldsman’s The Crowded Room, Marvel superstar Tom Holland netted a career first by executive producing a TV show and taking on not only the lead role of Danny Sullivan — a character inspired by Daniel Keyes’ 1981 nonfiction book The Minds of Billy Milligan, about the first person to be found not guilty of a crime due to dissociative identity disorder — but every single one of his “alters,” aka multiple personalities. The actor, during a SAG-AFTRA Foundation Q&A moderated by The Hollywood Reporter, shares how he couldn’t resist the project’s A-list backstory, why he asked Apple TV+ execs for a week off during filming and the shortlist of names he relies on for honest reactions about his work.
How are you feeling coming out of the strike?
I’ve been so lucky in my life that really since I was about 17, I’ve always had something coming out when I was going onto a new job. Now everything I’ve done is out, so I have nothing left. My agents are sitting backstage, so you better fucking get to work. [Laughs] But I’m really excited about what’s next. I really feel like I’m starting the next chapter. The Crowded Room feels like the perfect launching pad for me to do that. I’m nervous but I think being nervous is always a really good thing when it comes to working in our industry. You have to learn to be comfortable with being vulnerable.
Take me back to early 2021 when you met The Crowded Room creator Akiva Goldsman. What was that conversation like?
I met with Akiva for the first time at Soho House at 1 p.m. I thought I would go, sit down with him for a couple of hours, hear what he was to say. I ended up leaving at 10 p.m. because I just fell in love with him. There was something about him that really convinced me to tell this story. He’s spoken very openly about his past and has a very deep personal connection with this story. I felt the responsibility and recognized the challenge. He also really enticed me with saying that people that I have really looked up to in the past, James Cameron, [David Fincher], [Leonardo DiCaprio], have all tried to crack this project. There’s something about that that made me really want to be the person to figure that out. Then while we were shooting, I could totally see why no one wanted to do this [because] I was playing four people in the same scene. What am I doing?
Akiva has talked about being a survivor of sexual abuse and said that he weaved personal experience into this story. How did that impact you?
It just required everyone to come to set with a certain level of respect for the material to understand that there was more to it than just telling a story. Part of this show, for me and more for Akiva, was about an education. I came into this with no knowledge of how powerful the human mind can be and the crazy things we can do to protect ourselves, for better or for worse. It became about being really careful, making sure that we were as authentic as possible, doing our due diligence by researching and reading the literature, meeting with psychologists and with survivors and talking to them about their experiences.
What’s the Tom Holland research process like?
I’m really dyslexic and struggle with reading. I remember ordering the book [The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes] and being like, please be a couple hundred pages but it’s a brick — a big, old book. It came through the post, and I was like, ‘Oh for fuck’s sake.’ [Laughs] But I couldn’t put it down. I was gripped from the very beginning. I dove into the world of psychology and the beautiful things that people do to protect themselves. We spoke to psychologists, our script supervisor, [Jodi Domanic], is a psychologist herself, which was invaluable. We did as much as we could. We read as much as we could. We watched as much as we could to bring this story to life in the most authentic way possible.
There are scenes where the alters are standing next to you, others when they are alone and later it’s just you by yourself. Logistically, how did that work?
To be perfectly honest, it was a bit of a logistical nightmare because when you are doing scenes like that, you can’t have directors directing scenes from other director’s episodes. Both directors on set have their own cinematographers, their own operators. We’d shoot one version of the scene with the alter. The alter would leave, half the crew would leave, and another crew would come in. They weren’t allowed to watch what we were doing at the beginning so I would be say, ‘OK, guys, this is what this scene is.’ It was really tough. It meant that my focus would be all over the place. I was really lucky to have my acting coach Ben Perkins there with me. He would help take on a lot of those responsibilities, but it was really tough.
How did it work to mimic the actors?
The best time when it felt the most fluid was with Sasha Lane when she was dancing in the club. She’s so free and her and [Elijah Jones] were just making magic. I stood off camera watching her and then the director would shout “switch” and I would jump in, and Sasha would watch and tell me to do something differently. She’d say, ‘Look, I’m not dancing anything like that. Tom, watch me.’ She’d come in and swap and we would bounce between each other. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a strong connection with a fellow scene partner as I did with Sasha when we were doing that scene. She is an absolute powerhouse and I’m so proud of what she did in the show. That whole sequence of shooting that nightclub was so tough and it was so taxing on her, but she never once complained. She was game for everything, and she’s amazing.
Who was the most challenging alter to play?
Creating the altars was about almost making Danny be the furthest from myself and as small as possible. When I was at school, I was always the smallest kid in class, and it was tough. You are always looking up at people and its nerve wracking. What was great about that is rounding my shoulders and trying to sink my head down meant that when I became Yitzhak, I could grow, and we could do this thing where my shoulders come back and I lift my head up and I would feel like I was becoming someone new. That switch was my favorite. Switching into Johnny was also really fun because he felt very reckless. I love the idea of playing a character that never has to deal with the consequences of his actions.
Speaking about you, Akiva recently told Deadline, “He’s an empath in that way. He had the heaviest burden because he had to take it all in and embody this kind of pain, this kind of fracturing, and then live in it and live it on a television schedule and 130 days. It was a grueling show emotionally.” Reading that made it all more clear why you wanted to take a week off during filming, and then a year off once it wrapped. How did you know when to pull the plug and how you were feeling physically, emotionally, spiritually?
I disguise nerves and stress with comedy, that’s what I do. I have this bubbly energy and I am very much a person that’s like, “I’m fine, I’ll be okay. I’m fine.” And then eventually you get to that point where you sort of hit a wall. We were coming up to the latter part of the show and about to start shooting the courtroom stuff. There’s a scene in the last episode which terrified me. Even the idea of doing it again now is really scary. It’s very intricate. The logistics of what we were trying to achieve, playing two people, one pretending to be the other, while having an internal argument in my head with the same two people in the crowded room. I just knew that I wanted to have as much energy as possible going into it, and the weight of the show, the responsibility of Akiva’s story, the schedule was just getting too much. I’m lucky that I’m in a stage in my career that when I ask for help, I get it, and I knew that I needed it.
I said to Apple that it would be beneficial to me and beneficial to the show if you could find a way to give me a week off to reset. They obliged and were really kind about it. They never once made me feel uncomfortable that I was letting the show down. They knew that my intentions were good. I wasn’t trying to just nick a holiday. I really needed a break. My year off had nothing to do with the show, it had everything to do with my age and growing up. I’ve been doing this since I was 11 on stage in London and haven’t had a break since. I’ve been flat out and also really lucky. I don’t take that for granted. I wanted to spend some time in one place, be with my family and friends and organize my life. I found out that I wasn’t paying my water bill for five years, but only because I didn’t know you had to do that. I just thought that water was free in England.
Your scenes with Amanda Seyfried are so good. She recently said that this role is “probably definitely going to be Tom’s hardest role that he’s ever done. He’s lucky and the show is lucky that he brought it into fruition.” How did you find that rhythm of working together?
Firstly, I was so lucky to have Amanda as my scene partner. She was an absolute delight and brought so much love and joy to the set, which it was a pretty somber place. It was a tough show, and emotionally we were all really drained. When Amanda came in, she was like this beam of light and she’s also a wonderful actress. We were in [that room] for so long, we had well over 200 pages of dialogue to do together. I just knew that if we were going to try and make this compelling, we’d have to really change it up and try and keep the audience on their toes, so Amanda was like my audience in that respect. I wanted to keep her guessing.
There’s a scene with you two, I believe it’s episode six, when you are playing Danny and then suddenly switch into playing Yitzhak, and we see the transformation in real time. You nailed it, so can we talk about that for a moment. How many takes?
What I really wanted to try and convey was this element of vacancy, the idea that the body is still there but the mind has gone somewhere else. Because geographically, there is a time break from when Danny leaves the spot and an alter takes the spot, they are moving around the barn. We had this idea that the switch isn’t instant. There is this moment of just being an empty vessel. For me, that was something that was really powerful because it’s quite confusing when you see it for the first time. It’s a great switch to do because the emotional range of two characters is so different. It’s quite an easy switch to do. So, for me, it was about finding stillness, committing to the fact that it felt odd. I would kind of let my eyes glaze over and let Amanda go out of focus and sit there. The actual take is way longer than that’s in the show. I was milking the shit out of it, but it was great. I’m really proud of that.
When you do a project like this, I would imagine there’s people in your life that whose opinion you value. Who do you go to? Who’s a trusted acting friend, peer, confidant who you listen to believe that they’re telling you the truth?
Zendaya is probably the most honest with me, which I love. You need that. [Robert Downey Jr.] is very honest, sometimes a little too honest — and I’ve seen Doolittle, bro. I love him obviously, and I really respect Downey’s opinion. He taught me so much and I always sing his praises and I love the guy, I admire him. I don’t know if you guys have seen Oppenheimer yet, but he’s absolutely staggering in it. He steals the movie for me. Benedict Cumberbatch is someone that I ask for advice a lot about acting. I went through a phase where I was really, really struggling to cry — in my personal life also — and it was really affecting me on set. I would really just worry about crying scenes and worry and worry and worry. I would worry so much that I would almost worry myself out of tears.
There’s that beautiful scene at the end of The Imitation Game where he breaks down. I remember watching that as a kid, just sort of being blown away by it. I was lucky to be working with him on a film called A Current War and I asked him, “How did you do that? Did you draw from your own personal emotions or is there a technique that you do?” Truth be told, it was a combination of both. The technique that he told me was thing he’s able to do with his diaphragm, which is almost like laughing. I’m probably giving away his secrets. He showed me on set, and we were just hanging out having a coffee. He would do this thing where he would simulate laughing and breathe really, really quickly that it brings the emotion to the surface. Then you take it and ride the wave from there. Fuck, I started doing that and I love crying scenes now. I love it. I feel really confident and it’s something that I have in my wheelhouse. I don’t have to draw on past experiences or personal matters anymore.
Coming out of this, what do you see yourself going from here?
I want to do things that scare me, things that make me uncomfortable. When you do what we do, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. This show is a perfect example of that. Ben is consistently telling me, if you don’t commit, they won’t believe you. The reason I wasn’t committing is because I was afraid. I’ve never done anything like this before. I got so used to the Marvel machine and the safety blanket of Spider-Man, feeling like I was protected. So, doing something like this was incredibly scary, but because it was so scary, it was so fulfilling and so rewarding. Going forward, if there’s something that I feel like I can’t do, I want to do that one. Playing a sort of stupid English doofus is not what I want to do because that’s my life, right?
A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.