Tom Holland (‘Cherry’) on why he was ‘apprehensive’ about taking on the drug-addicted role [Complete Interview Transcript]

Tom Holland stars in the new film “Cherry” as an Army veteran who becomes addicted to opioids. It is the latest in Holland’s collaboration with Anthony and Joe Russo, directors of various films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Holland recently spoke with Gold Derby editor in chief Tom O’Neil and editor Rob Licuria about the challenges of taking on “Cherry,” how it required him to be vulnerable and the response he has received from those around him. Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby (Tom O’Neil): When we see you on screen, you’re normally saving people. In this movie, you are the person who needs to be saved. Talk about the irony, the challenges that you’ve taken on with this role. 

Tom Holland: Firstly, thank you, that’s very kind of you. Yeah, as an actor and as a young man, I’m always looking for things that challenge me and things that can push me in ways I haven’t been in the past and naturally, taking on a film like “Cherry” comes with its own set of challenges. For me, at the beginning, I was very nervous and apprehensive about my skillset as an actor and if this was the type of role that I was able to portray authentically and truthfully and ultimately for people to enjoy. I was very lucky with the support group that I had. I had the Russo brothers, who are people that I’ve worked with over the last five or six years so I had that safety blanket that is them to carry me through the process. I had the wonderful Ciara Bravo, who was playing Emily, who is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met and had the luxury of working with. So I was lucky in that sense. The challenges were welcome. I really wanted to take it head-on and give it my best. There was lots of physical challenges, losing the weight, trying to make sure that I looked and felt like someone who was abusing heroin and drugs and someone who was suffering from PTSD. There was the emotional challenges of trying to maintain this level of devastation day in and day out throughout the process of making the film, and then there was the challenge of strategically planning how we were going to create six individual characters that all exist in the same body and find the connective tissue that brings them all together so that there is a cohesive arc throughout the course of the film. All of those challenges, I’ll be my own biggest fan and say I feel like I did it and I achieved it and I’m very proud of it and I’m really glad that I took on this film and gave it my all. 

Gold Derby (Rob Licuria): Yeah, Nico Walker’s story is so compelling because it explores the horrors of war and addiction in a really visceral way and as you say, the film is broken up in various parts of this guy’s journey and there’s so much to really unpack from it. I was wondering, though, as the man who plays him in this movie, what was your key takeaway from his really quite incredible story? 

TH: The biggest takeaway for me from the book was his voice and the way he speaks and he kind of has this poetic way of stringing words together. One of the biggest challenges in making this film was figuring out how we would layer in the voiceover and the moments where I break the fourth wall. He really is a storyteller and this is a film about someone sitting down and telling someone their story, so that, for me, would have been the biggest thing that I took away from his book. The challenge of talking to the camera was a bizarre one because you spend your entire career training yourself, “Don’t look at the camera, don’t look at the camera,” and now all of a sudden, you’re allowed to look at the camera. And I, for the first time in my career, became very, very aware that behind the lens is a whole load of people who are watching. It’s like an invisible audience and I suddenly became very, very self-conscious. Quickly I got over that and I was able to sort of stay in the moment. But the hardest thing for me to figure out was that whenever Cherry addresses the camera or the audience, that is a Cherry from the future who is reminiscing about what’s happening in the present. So trying to bounce between someone who is in the moment to then someone who is talking to the audience and sort of saying, like, “This is how it went down. Allow me to show you how it went,” it was really difficult to try and find that balance. But then again, like I was saying earlier, having the Russo brothers there to support me and to allow me to make mistakes, really. This film was all about making mistakes and picking your favorite mistake and being like, “Oh, wow, that’s a really good one. Let’s run with that.” So I was very lucky in that sense. 

GD (Tom): You were able to relieve a lot of the dramatic tension, too, by breaking the fourth wall with those directly addressing the audience. I’m thinking of the bank scene near the end, the final robbery where you turn to the camera and this is where you bring comedy into the mix, which is such a refreshing little change of pace when the movie occurs and you turn to the audience and you say, “Well, I’m sorry, but I have to act crazy here, or else they’re going to think I’m a pussy,” and guns out and it’s just so much fun when you go back and forth that way. It’s very innovative. But on balance, this is a man who is just used to being overlooked in the world, not cared about, not noticed at all and suddenly he’s noticed and cared about by this girl from English class and he can’t get over his astonishment that she cares. I think you even ask her at one point, “Why do you care? Why do you like me?” It’s a slow build of a relationship. There’s even the scene, I think it’s that same scene, where you say, “I think I adore you,” and she says, “I don’t think love really exists.” But she says, “Thank you.” And then she gets up and she walks away in the graveyard. It was not the traditional way you would expect that scene to play out but it had such power because both of you were confessing to each other, “I don’t know what love is. No one’s cared about me.” And you suddenly find each other. 

TH: Yeah, I think what we really tried to convey in the opening of the film, which is something that is very, very prominent in the book, is that he is someone who is constantly trying his best but always falling short, but not by his own fault and I think the reason why Emily is such an important part of his life is because she was the first person that just saw him for who he is or was and the moment that she walks away from his life, it’s that collapse, that moment where he thought, “I thought I had everything and now everything is gone and I need to do something to find purpose in my life.” And unfortunately for him, that purpose in his life was joining the military and he didn’t know, obviously, the future of what it held and where he was going to go but that said, I love that you picked up on that detail. Not many people have and yeah, it was definitely a specific choice to have her walk away there. 

GD (Rob): Yeah, and the thing is, that love story, as you said there, Tom, is the connective tissue for the whole journey. The film’s writers, Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg, were very clear about intentionally wanting to employ that love story as the film’s common thread. So I’m wondering, how important was it for you personally in trying to understand this guy who’s always looking for purpose but ultimately realizes that it’s the love of his life that is the thing that’s going to tether him to something outside of the devastation that he’s had to deal with? 

TH: I think it was incredibly important. That is what drives the film. The love story is the backbone of the entire arc of this journey that we go on and that just required Ciara and I to sort of sit down and map out how we wanted these characters to grow and obviously, at times, we wanted them to grow at the same time and then there’s moments where she progresses and Cherry stays down and then there’s moments where he progresses and he brings her into his life in certain ways. So that was really just a strategic meeting between the two of us of, “How do we want to tackle this?” And she’s so amazing and so wonderful to work with an open and brave and she wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable with anyone on set. She was amazing. So for me to have a scene partner like that really changed the game and it made me want to do a better job because she was doing a better job than I was and I was like, “I need to match her. We need to be like Roger Federer and [Rafael] Nadal playing in the final of Wimbledon, not Roger Federer and me playing in the final of Wimbledon.” So yes, I was very lucky to have her as a teammate. 

GD (Tom): She says early on when you guys are first getting to know each other, first falling in love, she says, partly to answer your question of why she cares so much about you, she says something like, “You’re a rebel.” She admires this contrary spirit you have and then I think it’s within the next 10 minutes, I can’t remember specifically, but then she takes this very, very startling path of following you into drug use. So the first time that you offer the needle, she takes it. Why do you think she takes it then without a fight? Because she loves you and just wants to go there with you?

TH: I think, again, it goes back to that idea that the love story is the backbone of this journey, and she has recognized that the only way that she can be with the love of her life is to join him on this horrific journey that is substance abuse. It’s a heartbreaking moment in the film because you just know that their future isn’t very bright and I wish, when you watch the film, she puts the pills away and be like, “I’m not going to do this. I’m just going to leave him.” But obviously, she doesn’t and it’s an incredibly hard decision for her to make, but one that she has to make if she wants to maintain this relationship with the love of her life. 

GD (Rob): Yeah, the other really fascinating angle to this movie for me personally is the authenticity of this guy’s vulnerability and I always wonder with actors like yourself how difficult or challenging it is to portray vulnerability authentically when you don’t really know the guy, but you’ve obviously had to get into his head. How does it resonate with you personally in trying to go to places that are uncomfortable to try to make it believable that this guy really is incredibly vulnerable? 

TH: It’s interesting. As someone who lives in the public eye and goes to red carpets and does chat shows and all that sort of stuff, you have to give off this exterior that, “I am not vulnerable. You cannot faze me. I am okay in any situation.” And you slowly start to believe that. That is something that slowly starts to take over. So for me to play a character who is so vulnerable and is so closed off from the world was really quite a hard challenge to just change my mindset. It was a very important challenge to try and get across but having the Russos there and knowing that I was in a safe place and in an environment where if I made a mistake or if I looked a fool or anything like that, it wouldn’t hurt me. Like I said earlier, this film was about making mistakes. Some of the best moments in this film have come from accidents or mistakes or things that went wrong and gave us this kind of creative freedom to just do whatever we wanted to do, however we wanted to do it. So for me, yeah, it took a while to kind of let go. Then again, having Ciara there, being a team with her, allowed us to have a little kind of team and we had each other’s backs and if I fell apart on set, which I did a few times — we were doing scenes that weren’t even very emotional scenes, but I was so emotionally ready for everything, I would just break down crying and to have her there to kind of pick up the broken pieces was an amazing luxury and obviously vice versa for when moments like that happened with her. 

GD (Tom): What are some of those other moments? Those are fascinating. These are unscripted. This is kind of improv, then, right? And they’re just letting you go there as an actor. 

TH: Absolutely. I mean, for example, we had spent so much time together and we’d rehearse quite a lot and we’d done so much research into drug abuse and to suffering from PTSD. There’s a moment where she comes home from work and I haven’t picked her up and she’s trying to cook up her drugs and she can’t and I end up doing it for her and that was supposed to be the end of the scene. It was just supposed to be this moment of, like, “Don’t worry, I’m going to do it for you,” and then we cut and we go to the next scene. But we had this beautiful moment where I started doing it for her and she came and rested her head on my shoulder and then I took the ribbon off her neck and I put it around her arm and we did the whole thing and then we ended up falling asleep. We lie down and she’s in my arms and we fall asleep together and it was moments like that where the Russos would just let us breathe and let us explore the characters and explore the scene and if they cut it, they cut it. If they don’t use it, it’s not good enough. But it was moments like that that really kind of brought this authentic feel to the film, I think, because we were really living it. We were really in the moment and it was an amazing thing to be a part of. 

GD (Rob): You talked about how you were part of a team and you felt comfortable with the Russos and Ciara and the crew but when you’re in moments like that and you are so exposed, is there ever that inkling in your mind that you are too exposed and too uncomfortable and you just want to run away or in this film, was it something that you really embraced and you just wanted more of it? 

TH: Yeah, you’re right. There were moments where I sat down with my brother and I was like, “I don’t think I could do this. I don’t think I can come to work tomorrow. I’m like a shell of who I am.” The scene of me in the car where I’m sort of losing my mind and I’m stabbing myself and I’m banging my head against the seat, I remember doing it for the first time, and it was like I wasn’t myself. I remember them saying cut and I was like, “Don’t cut!” And I was like, “Whoa, whoa.” I went way too deep into it then and I sort of took myself out of the situation, and was like, “What have I become?” And then obviously they go, “Right, we need to go again.” And I’m like, “You want me to do that again?” I’m convinced I gave myself a concussion that day because I remember I was sitting at home and I just couldn’t quite figure out why I was feeling the way I was feeling and I felt sick and all sorts of different stuff. So yeah, there were moments, absolute moments where I thought, “This is too much, this is too much,” but then there are other moments where I sort of let the vulnerability take over. I remember when I say goodbye to Emily for the last time in bed and she asked me, “Will you cook me up another shot,” and I say, “Later, I’ll do it later,” I couldn’t find the emotion for some reason. It wasn’t there that day and I remember I just went behind the monitors with the Russos and I said to them, “Thank you. You changed my life. You cast me as Spider-Man. You’ve given me this opportunity. It has been the most life-changing experience. I love you both. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” and just from being vulnerable like that with them, I was bawling and I was ready to go and it made the emotions sort of come up. So it’s swings and roundabouts. There’s times when you want to be closed off and there’s times when you just have to be an open book and go for it. 

GD (Tom): And what’s the kind of reaction you’re getting from others who are seeing it, who are not accustomed to seeing you doing a role like this and being so vulnerable and being so wasted in literally every way because they want you to save the world, as usual, but are they disappointed? Are they impressed? What are you hearing from friends and fans? 

TH: I think the biggest thing would be worried, rather than impressed or disappointed. I was lucky enough that my hair and makeup artist, my costumer and my brother and my dialect coach were all there with me and they are all my friends. They’re my best friends. I work with them every single day. We all live very close to each other. We see each other every weekend. We’re like the best of friends. So I think for them, at times, they were wondering if I was going too far. I lost an obscene amount of weight and I think at times, I remember Anthony especially, my costumer, sort of saying, “Please, will you just come out to dinner with me and have a burger? I’m worried about you.” And sometimes I did. Sometimes I cheated and I was like, “You know what? I am going to go and have a burger.” So I think the overwhelming thing for them was just how worried they were about me and whether I’d gone too far. 

GD (Rob): Yeah and see, that comes across. I’m glad you brought up the scene in the car because I was really taken aback by that. I wasn’t expecting it. Not from you personally. I just thought that you really went there and I found it really compelling and that brings me to this question. It just kept reminding me about how trauma, it’s everywhere. It’s so pervasive and we’ve all dealt with it or we know some that’s dealt with it and I’m wondering if you’ve had a lot of feedback about that aspect, about how trauma is just so awful and it can ruin lives and the way that you portrayed this guy really, really demonstrates that. 

TH: Well, obviously, the film isn’t out yet, so people haven’t had the chance to see it. So I haven’t necessarily had that response. But like you said, trauma is everywhere and it comes in all shapes and forms, shapes and sizes, and we really, really wanted to make sure that we didn’t romanticize or glamorize the life of an addict or someone suffering from PTSD. Lots of these films nowadays make drugs look really sexy and they make them look really fun and for us, we wanted to do the complete opposite. The scene in the car was actually written halfway through while we were shooting. We’d finished dope life, we’d moved on to the other sections of the film and then the Russos sort of sat me down and said, “Tom, we’ve had this idea. We think Emily should overdose and we think that you should break down in the hospital and then we have this idea of you in the car.” And the idea of me in the car was just that I would shoot up and it slowly progressed into this idea of he hates himself at this moment, why doesn’t he start harming himself? And then it was like, “Why don’t you stab yourself in the leg?” And it grew into this kind of crazy moment. I did think the Russos were trying to kill me, though, because we’d finished dope life and I’d put that to bed. Once we’d finished that section of the movie, it felt like this massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders and then all of a sudden, eight weeks later, they’re like, “We kind of want you to go back there.” I started trying to lose weight again and then we did it and it was our last day of work in Cleveland and I actually banged my nose really hard on the steering wheel and I had a big bloody nose and I love Tom Sigel, the DoP. I think he is one of the best I’ve worked with and it is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen but you can’t see my bloody nose in that scene and it makes me so angry, but yeah, I kind of have gone off on a tangent and forgot your question, I’m sorry. 

GD (Tom): I’m from Cleveland. Where was it that you shot the movie specifically? Downtown? Do you remember? 

TH: We shot all over the place. We shot in Little Italy, we shot in Shaker Square, we shot a Case University, we shot at the watermill, we shot all over the place. I mean, the city is as much a character in this film as I am. It would have been a very different film had we decided to shoot it in Los Angeles or New York or anywhere like that. We were so lucky. I mean, the restaurant where Joe Russo worked was the same restaurant where Nico Walker worked but 10 years earlier and it’s the same restaurant that we shoot all the scenes in. So bringing that level of authenticity to the sets and the locations just made everything as an actor so much easier. 

GD (Tom): Rob, I’m going to give you the final wrap-up question here. What is it? 

GD (Rob): Yeah, I wanted to go with something a bit lighter. We’ve talked about a lot of heavy subjects, but the film is actually ultimately very entertaining. It’s beautifully shot, as you mentioned. It’s got this great use of onscreen text and red-bleached images and it’s very funny. It’s beautifully edited. So it’s got all these really great innovations in the way that the story is being told. The Russos did that intentionally and I’m wondering, I assume you’ve seen the final product. Did you really appreciate that this film is something different? It’s not the usual kind of war, drug addiction movie that you’d normally see. This is actually something very, very special. 

TH: Absolutely. I mean, let me start by saying I am so incredibly proud of the movie and all the work that people have done to put into it to make it as special as it is. I think what I really admire about the Russos is that they told a story which is so hard to tell and they said, “We’re going to use every trick in the book that we think is necessary to get this message across and to make it an entertaining movie.” I mean, when they pitched me the idea, I really sat down and I’m like, “But who wants to watch that movie? I don’t want to watch that movie. That sounds like I’m not going to sleep for a week after I’ve watched that film.” And I think what they did so well is find that balance of taking you on this journey, sharing with you these experiences, while also maintaining this level of cinema and filmmaking and storytelling. My favorite aspect of the film is when I address the audience because it’s basically him saying, “Are you still watching? Have you turned it off yet? No, you haven’t. All right. Buckle up, it’s about to get way worse.” I really like that attitude of recognizing that the audience is there and that we are taking you through this experience rather than just presenting it to you and I think things like that just set the Russos apart and it really shows how special they are as filmmakers. 

GD (Tom): Well, I think we’re all impressed that you have said publicly a lot recently that you intend to continue to work in franchise films and now pursue more of these dramatic and serious roles and at the same time aspire at some future day to be a director. I think that this shows that you’re such a serious film artist on every level. You take all these things seriously and now you’ve shown us all that you really deliver in an extremely challenging role, both physically and mentally, emotionally and the rest of it. So congratulations, Tom. You’ve really impressed us all. 

TH: Thank you so much. That’s wonderful to hear. Thank you.

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