For Tom Holland, the TV series The Crowded Room has changed his life. “As a result of the show, I feel like I’m a much happier person and in a much better place,” he said during an interview with EL PAÍS, conducted via video call last week, the day before his 27th birthday. The British actor — known worldwide for playing Peter Parker (or Spider-Man) in movies since 2017 — is currently starring in his first series, a psychological thriller that premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, June 9.
In The Crowded Room, Holland plays Danny Sullivan, a shy and antisocial young man who ends up involved in a shooting in the vicinity of the Rockefeller Center in New York, in 1979. During the interrogation he is subjected to by an investigator (played by Amanda Seyfried) Danny recalls his entire life. He thinks about the relationships with his friends, family and how it all led him to where he is. The story gradually unfolds like a puzzle; the pieces make sense and fall into place as the episodes go by. Knowing more than these small details could spoil the viewer’s pleasure, as the story has lots of little twists.
The filming of the series took 10 months, with the entire process requiring significant effort from the actor. “[We were] dealing with sensitive subject matter on a daily basis… highs and lows in emotions [that] took a toll on me,” he recalls. “I really found a strong understanding of what I’m capable of, what I’m able to put up with… what triggers me and what sets me off and sends me on a spiral. I think — as a result of the show and what I learned — I feel like I’m a much happier person and in a much better place.”
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who received the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2002 for A Beautiful Mind, is the creator of this story with which, in his own words, he intends to “stir empathy towards those who suffer trauma related to mental illness.” Goldsman is familiar with this terrain, both on a personal level — as both his parents are child psychologists — and a professional level, as A Beautiful Mind was based on the life of mathematician John Forbes Nash, who suffered from schizophrenia.
“His help was endless… his knowledge and his experience,” Holland notes, referring to Goldsman. “He was a real wonderful mentor for me, a confidant, a friend, someone who I could lean on.” The actor says that the series has changed his way of seeing trauma and mental health: “I hope that this show can serve as an education for millions of people around the world, because they really do need to understand what it can be like for these poor people.”
The protagonist of The Crowded Room is based on a real man, Billy Milligan (again, it’s best not to look up the gentleman, as an internet search can ruin the viewing experience), but the series opts for the path of fiction, rather than attempting to recreate history. “We wanted people to sympathize with Danny and to understand his actions, the reasons for his actions,” Holland explains.
For his first series (although he did have a minor role in the 2015 British miniseries Wolf Hall), Holland wanted to live the full experience. He accepted the job before the scripts were even written, deciding not only to participate as an actor, but also as an executive producer, thus following all phases of the process, from beginning to end. “It was interesting for me to try and understand how television works. Navigating a story over 10 hours rather than two-and-a-half hours… It was a huge learning curve and one that I think audiences will really appreciate, because it really is a true psychological thriller. It makes you think, it keeps you on your toes. You’ll be on the edge of your seat while you’re watching,” he promises.
“It might have been an easier experience had I just been the leading actor. But I love learning new things. I love the business, I love working in it. I love the creative process, I love the collaboration between departments, and I just wanted to be a part of that in a more hands-on way.”
Holland was also involved in the conversations that took place prior to the writing of the script. “I was working with Akiva [Goldsman] and at the beginning, he was working with what could only be described as sort of ‘beat sheets’ (outlines) for each episode. We would talk about the episodes, we would talk about the story points… He would then go back and change them. And once we had a really solid ten-episode show that was really well laid out, he and his wonderful writers went away and put pen to paper. And to be honest, they did an amazing job. They’re the best scripts I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I hate reading scripts — it’s the part of my job that I really, really don’t enjoy. And reading his scripts was wonderful.”
The level of involvement that Tom Holland took on in this series is surprising. And his response is also surprising, when asked about the most enjoyable part of the whole process: “I think the thing that I enjoyed the most, to be perfectly honest with you, was the editing process. I would work with Akiva and the editor every week — most weeks we’d meet twice a week — and we’d be going through the episodes, and I have my opinions and my thoughts on how things should pan out. It was just such an amazing experience to see these experts do what they do best and to see how they wanted to piece the show together. And, you know, some episodes shifted around in order. I really loved being allowed to be part of that puzzle-building process.”
I’ve been speaking to Bayona… maybe there’s something down the line that we’d do together. Maybe you’ll see me in a film with him in the coming years.”
Now, after shooting, Holland is taking things in stride. He’s been in a long-term relationship with another Hollywood star, Zendaya, his co-star in Spider-Man. Months ago, he decided to reduce the time he spends on social media. And, for the past 16 months, he’s been sober, while getting involved in charitable organizations related to youth mental health.
Professionally, the Hollywood writers’ strike paralyzed the launch of what would have been his fourth Spider-Man movie. This has resulted in a short break for someone who has been going non-stop since he made his film debut under director Juan Antonio Bayona in the 2012 film The Impossible.
When asked if he would ever like to return to filming in Spain (Bayona’s country of origin), Holland is enthusiastic. “I might have a little something I’m cooking up. You know, with the writers’ strike, everything’s been put on pause. We’re not doing any development right now in solidarity with our friends. But I’ve been speaking to Bayona, and maybe there’s something down the line that we’d do together. You know, he changed my life. He put me in my first film. I owe a lot to him. I love him. He’s one of my dear friends. So, maybe you’ll see me in a film with him in the coming years.”
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