My introduction to this particular set visit interview was very different when I first wrote it. Along with a small group of journalists, I was invited to visit the London set of Ron Howard’s harrowing In the Heart of the Sea in November 2013—almost exactly two years ago now. Amongst the film’s cast is actor Tom Holland, and I had initially wrote about how the up-and-comer had made waves with his role in The Impossible and was most certainly an actor to watch out for in the near future. Little did I know that I was speaking with the next Spider-Man—in a film with Thor himself, no less.
Based on the Nathaniel Philbrick book of the same name, In the Heart of the Sea recounts the true story that inspired the classic novel Moby Dick. In 1819, the whaleship Essex set sail from Nantucket on a standard run, but soon disaster struck when the ship was attacked by a giant sperm whale. The crew was soon strewn across multiple lifeboats, and what ensued was a period of starvation, cannibalism, and the struggle to survive.
When speaking with the young Holland on that chilly set—where Howard had massively reconstructed early 19th century Nantucket (complete with water and ship) on the Leavesden Studios backlot—it was clear that the actor was tired, but he was no less enthusiastic to be in a Ron Howard movie with Chris Hemsworth. The actors were all on a low-calorie diet, losing weight to prepare for their shipwrecked scenes, but Holland was still jazzed about having seen the latest Marvel movie, Thor: The Dark World, just a few days prior. Again, the ironic hindsight that colors this interview is kind of sweet.
In the film, Holland plays Thomas Nickerson, who was a young crew member of the Essex and would go on to recount the harrowing story to Moby Dick author Herman Melville. So read on below as Holland speaks to the experience of shooting In the Heart of the Sea, the camaraderie—and sometimes frustration—of the ensemble cast, the strict diet, and his giddiness at working with Hemsworth. He also tells an adorable story about the young extras on set pestering Hemsworth with Thor questions.
Check out the interview below, and click on the links for the rest of my set visit coverage.
- ‘In the Heart of the Sea’: 20 Things to Know about Ron Howard’s Whale Tale
- Chris Hemsworth on ‘In the Heart of the Sea’, Losing Weight, Ron Howard, and More
Question: I would’ve thought after The Impossible you’d want to stay away from water.
TOM HOLLAND: Yeah so did I [laughs]. It was only after Ron Howard’s name popped up that it became a very exciting project, because at that point I had no idea who was involved, what was going on; I just knew that it was this story about whales. Then I got given the script and I just fell in love with the story and the character, and what he went through was something I was really excited to experience—not the part of eating my mates and stuff [laughs] but just the idea of going on a ship for the first time, killing and hunting whales, and living this crazy, crazy life that these guys had. My character gets the worst of it. Literally every single day I am soaking wet while everyone else is just bone dry. It doesn’t make any sense, but it’s always me [laughs].
Is any of that reflected in your relationship with your co-stars since you’re the youngest? Do you get a little hazing?
HOLLAND: Yeah, I guess because I’m the cabin boy I get all the worst jobs aboard a ship. I would have to clean the deck, I would have to do loads of other stuff that cabin boys do. And it does mean that a lot of the time I am covered in whale oil, or I’m wet-through, or I’ve got barely any clothes on because all my older mates have stolen them and all that kind of stuff. So a lot of the time Nickerson is very uncomfortable, which has been quite tough but we’ve got a great team of guys who are all looking after us, and what’s been so amazing is we’ve got such a strong stunt team. I’ve been able to do like 90% of my stunts, which has been so fun. I mean yesterday I was drowning underneath a sail, then a couple of days before that I was flying through the air on a ship. It’s been an amazing experience.
Do we get to see much of his life before he gets on the boat in Nantucket?
HOLLAND: See there wasn’t really much to his life, he’s been an orphan all his life. In real life he has three older sisters, which he didn’t know, we’re not really playing that in the film. He just went to school, slept in the streets, slept in rooms that he could get into, and he just didn’t really have that much of an exciting life. Why I think his character is so special is that he goes from this kind of ordinary, boring Nantucket life to this incredible adventure with these 100-foot creatures and Mr. Chase who is just a monster of a man. So it is an amazing switch, but we don’t get to see his life previous.
It’s funny you make it sound like it’s almost like a YA book, but this is a true story that he wrote about. How did that inform your telling of it? Did you read the book?
HOLLAND: Yeah of course. As an actor, to have your character’s journal on what happened is like the cheat list. It’s so good to have all these different emotions and intentions that were going through his head while experiencing these amazing events. One of which is the first time he sees the whale; all fear went out the window, he was just shocked by the sheer size of the creature and the eye—an eye of a sperm whale would be as big as our heads, they’re absolutely huge. The exact same thing happened to me, we had a life-size prosthetic version of a sperm whale and all of us were like, ‘That must be fake, that can’t be that size really.’ It’s ridiculous.
Have you done a lot of work with Brendan Gleeson, who plays the older version of your character?
HOLLAND: Yeah we did one or two sessions to kind of create a similarity in our accents, and Ron sent me some videos of him and Brendan working together so I could try and pick up some of his characteristics and all that kind of stuff. So I spent about a week and a half trying to become a young Brendan Gleeson, which was good fun actually.
What’s the relationship between you and Chase like in the film? Because we know in Nickerson’s writings that he was kind of a hard ass at the beginning of the voyage and then becomes kind of more sympathetic.
HOLLAND: I mean Chase is like the perfect man. He’s incredibly macho, he has an amazing authority over everyone, and he’s also incredibly skilled, so he’s someone that Thomas really, really looks up to and he soon becomes his father figure towards Tom, because he doesn’t have a dad. A really lovely moment in the film is three nights into the voyage I start to become seasick and start to go green, and Chase throws me over the edge of the boat and dangles me there for 20 seconds to try and make me throw up, which sounds awful but when he comes up, he says, ‘Oh now you’ve got something to write to your mother about,’ and we have this whole conversation about how both of us are orphans. So there’s the first connection in our bond, and throughout the film we have little snippets of conversation about our past and about things that are happening in our lives, like Chase suddenly starts talking about his daughter or his son who’s yet to be born. So they build up a very nice, quite far apart relationship.
How do you like working with Chris? Are you a big Thor fan?
HOLLAND: I’m a massive Thor fan. It’s great, [Thor: The Dark World] came out like three or four days ago and I watched it, and I’ve just been buggin’ him with questions [laughter]. He’s cool, he’s answering it. It’s funny, today we’ve got like 300 extras on, and in our starting positions in the scene we’ve got like 12 kids, and they’re all like 7 or 8 and poor Chris, today it was all ‘Mister Chris! Mister Chris! How heavy is your hammer?’ [laughter]. So yeah he’s an awesome guy, he’s so fun. When we’ve been in the boats and stuff and it’s been quite tough because we’ve been hungry because we’re all supposed to be starving and we’re on this stupid diet, he’s been great and good fun, he’s a good laugh. He really is kind of the leader, because we could be on the boat and I have like the most pathetic voice, if I try to shout to someone 50 meters away, no one will hear me. Chris just goes [deep voice] ‘Hey Ron’ and Ron’s, ‘Yeah, what?’ [laughter] Literally he just talks, it’s unreal. So yeah, it’s great having Chris around.
What are you allowed to be eating now?
HOLLAND: Nothing really. We’re on low carbs, which means we sleep all the time. I was just sent off-set for 20 minutes and I fell asleep on a concrete floor with a coat as a mattress. Filming is so glamorous [laughs]. Yeah no carbs and I think we’re on like 1000 calories a day, slowly working it to 500 calories a day. So we’re all losing weight pretty quick and we’re all getting slightly more and more grumpy every day. What’s great is because we’re all doing it together, we understand why some people are having their off day. So if someone you can tell in the mornings like, ‘Oh man, he missed breakfast,’ then you know to just back off for a bit, and then they’re fine. And then it’s also really funny to take the mick out of people when they’re in that mood, but then when they’re taking the mick out of you it’s just the worst [laughter].
Have you eaten any real hardtack? What is it?
HOLLAND: Oh man we did that in the first week. It’s like eating a brick. So you’re supposed to scrape it off with a knife and then put it in your drink, but Arwell who is the set designer is a really good friend of mine, and he went, ‘Here just chew on it, this is what you’d be eating.’ For ages I was trying to chew on it, and oh man my teeth the next day were so sore. It’s awful. I’m not looking forward to eating it on set.
So it’s the real deal?
HOLLAND: Yeah I think so, Ron’s pretty method [laughs].
You look slightly cold.
HOLLAND: It’s funny, Chris at the beginning of the film was so huge. When we met him in rehearsals he had come off of [Michael Mann’s Blackhat] and he was massive. And then he went off to L.A. to do press and stuff and came back and was so skinny I had no idea, literally none of us knew who he was. He was unrecognizable. Today he was shivering and I was like, ‘Why are you so cold?’ and he’s like, ‘Cause I’m so skinny!’ [laughter]
In the Heart of the Sea opens in theaters on December 11th.