Tom Holland and Daniel Kaluuya on ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Black Panther’ and the Magic of Marvel

Tom Holland (“Cherry”) and Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety‘s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here

In “Cherry,” Tom Holland transforms into a war veteran-turned-bank robber, broken by PTSD and drug addiction. The role is intentional counter-programming from Holland’s heroic Peter Parker, although it comes from the same team that brought you several Marvel movies, including “Avengers: Endgame.” The Russo brothers — directors Anthony and Joe — recruited Holland for this Apple TV Plus indie, which unspools in vignettes.

It was a Marvel connection, too, that brought Daniel Kaluuya his next great role. While shooting “Black Panther” — in which Kaluuya plays warrior W’Kabi — director Ryan Coogler approached him about a movie he was producing. The project became “Judas and the Black Messiah” (soon to launch in theaters and on HBO Max), a film about Fred Hampton, a leader of the Black Panther movement during the civil rights era. Two days before Christmas, both in lockdown in London, Holland and Kaluuya spoke to each other about their past superhero adventures and the gritty departures they recently took.

Daniel Kaluuya: What’s happening, bro?

Tom Holland: I’m good, mate. I’m home with the family. It’s weird to not have anything to do in the daytime. I get to about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and I’m like, “I guess I’ll just have a drink.”

Kaluuya: What’s your pandemic go-to?

Holland: I was lucky, because I love golf, which is the most boring sport for people who don’t play golf. But for me, golf is my favorite thing. The reason I love it is because I turn my phone off and can kind of disconnect from everything else, so I basically just play golf every day. What about you?

Kaluuya: At the beginning, I would watch a film a day. There were so many films that people had mentioned that I had never seen, and I was like, let me do that. By the way, I loved your film. I thought it was insane. I can see a lot of work went into it, in terms of your head space. Obviously, you’re known as Spider-Man, and a number of other things, but Spider-Man at the moment. And you’ve worked with the Russo brothers before. How did this come to you?

Holland: I was doing ADR for “Avengers: Endgame,” and at the end of the session they sort of took me aside and said, “We want to make this movie. It’s about a kid who suffers from PTSD and falls into drug addiction and ends up robbing banks. Would you be interested?” When they offered me the job, I was just really excited. And then when I read the script for the first time, I was like, “There’s no way I can make this film. I’ll fall apart. I can’t hold onto a character like this for so long.” It was all about preparation, and really setting out the character beats and figuring out how I was going to get from A to B in each section. The hardest part was trying to merge the sections, because the character changes so much throughout the film.

Kaluuya: A really difficult scene to watch was — I don’t want to spoil it for people. It’s you with a needle and you’re in a car. How did you approach getting there?

Holland: We’d finished the drug portion of the movie, and then we had sort of progressed into him falling in love, and then the Russos wrote this sequence of the movie, which is the sequence that you’re talking about. We had to revisit going back to his life as a drug addict. I remember sitting in the car, and Joe and Ant sort of came into the window, and they were like, “Don’t hold back. There’s no such thing as doing too much in this instance.” And I just went mental, really. I don’t know how else there is to describe it. I beat the crap out of my leg with that needle, which broke every time. It wasn’t a real needle — it would retract — but I was always worried that one time it wouldn’t and I would just stab myself in the leg. I bust my nose up really bad on the steering wheel, and I had a really bad bloody nose, but you can’t see it on camera, which really annoys me. But for you, with “Judas and the Black Messiah” — when did that come to your lap?

Kaluuya: Funnily enough, I got approached doing these reshoots for “Black Panther.” Ryan Coogler pulled me to the side and was like, “We’re making the Fred Hampton film, and we’d love you to play Fred Hampton.” And then they sent me a two-page treatment, and it was one of the best treatments I’ve ever seen, because it was so clear and it knew what it was. Then I sat down with Shaka King, the director, in New York, because I was still promoting “Get Out.” That was probably two years before we started shooting. It was a long process before we got the green light.

Holland: I was like, I’m going to go and watch one of his speeches to see what he was like in real life. And I could not believe how much you sounded like him.

Kaluuya: Oh wow. Thank you so much. It was just a process that we played around with certain cadences. Sounding exactly like him was a bit odd. It didn’t sit in me like it sat in Chairman Fred because we’re different people. It was watching his videos and watching his stuff and taking in how he was moving me, and going — well, how can I move someone the way he’s moving me? And replicating that energy and that spirit. And then I workshopped with Shaka. We sat down for four days and we studied his speeches.

Holland: I was going to say, did you find — especially with the current climate in which we’re in now, politically, about race — the weight of telling the story of a real-life character must be quite heavy, and something that a lot of people probably couldn’t handle. How did you deal with the pressure of doing justice to the character, and also educating people?

Kaluuya: It’s a fine balance to go for. It was a lot of pressure, and the only moment where I let it go was when I realized it’s bigger than me. I’m a vessel, and this is coming through me and it’s honoring that. And then I was able to let go and just be in it. There’s a point when you have him as a figure, as an icon and a leader in the community in Chicago. But then, there’s a point where you have to see him as a character in order to portray him in the story that you’re telling. It’s kind of cool: What does he want here? Are you being true to what he wants? That helped me look at every day, day by day, and just go through the scene. [In “Cherry,”] what was the bankrobbing scenes like?

Holland: I was going to ask you about that, because you did bank-robbing scenes in “Widows,” right? It was strange, because it was such a small crew, it really did feel like I was robbing a bank. And when the alarm would go, and I’d be pointing the gun at this poor lady’s face, I could not shake that what I was doing was wrong. There’s a scene that’s not in the film where I get arrested, and I’ve never been arrested before. And I was really thinking, “Fuck, I’m going to have to call my lawyer, and I’m going to have to figure out how to get out of this.” The thing that I didn’t do very well: I would just blow my voice out all the time. They learned very quickly that they would have to start with all the talking stuff, and at the end of the day, I’d have to shout, because I would have no voice.

Kaluuya: I had that experience of blowing my voice out on “Judas.” I asked them not to do two speeches in the same week, because I’m literally probably doing 12 hours of me speaking to a crowd. And there was a day where I was on the steps with the Rainbow Coalition, the Young Patriots and the Young Lords, and my voice is like — I can’t. I couldn’t do it.

Holland: It’s crazy, man. It’s mad that two lads from London are doing all this shit in Hollywood.

Kaluuya: So you’re “Spider-Man.” It’s the elephant in the room. What’s that like? Come on. How has your life changed in a real way?

Holland: Yeah, there’s three stages of life changing. It’s weird. The audition process was horrible. It was seven months of auditioning. I must’ve done six auditions, and they don’t tell you anything. You’re waiting and waiting, and then, eventually, I got a screen Tom Holland and Daniel Kaluuya on ‘Spider-Man,’ ‘Black Panther’ and the Magic of Marveltest in Atlanta. I flew out to Atlanta, and there was me and six other kids, and [Robert] Downey [Jr.] was there, so we all tested with Downey, which was crazy. It went so well. It’s the best audition I’ve ever done, him and I were riffing off each other. My agents told me that Marvel likes you to learn the words exactly — you can’t improvise. And then, on the first take, Downey just completely changed the scene. We started riffing with each other, and I mean, to sound like a bit of a dick, I rang my mum afterward and was like, “I think I’ve got it.” And then six weeks go by and I didn’t hear anything, so I predicted that I didn’t get it, and there were all these polls online, and I was definitely not the favorite to get the part from the public. Then they called us back, and we had to do a fight with Chris Evans. They flew us back to Atlanta, me and one other guy, and we did this scene, which was so surreal. By that point, it had been an amazing enough of an experience that if I hadn’t got the part, I would’ve felt like I’d at least achieved something to get to that point. I went out to play golf with my dad. I lost and I was upset, and I remember going on my phone and checking Instagram, and Marvel had posted a picture of “Spider-Man,” of the cartoon. And by this point, I kind of had assumed I hadn’t got it, because no one had called me.

Kaluuya: You found out in the press?

Holland: Yeah. I got my computer, and my dog was sitting next to me. I type in “Marvel.” I’ve still got the article saved on my computer. It said, “We would like to introduce our new Spider-Man, Tom Holland.” I broke my computer, because I flipped it up in the air. It fell off my bed; my dog went nuts. I ran downstairs. I was telling my family, “I got the part! I got the part!” And obviously, that was right about the time when Sony had got hacked, so my brother, Harry, who’s quite tech savvy, was like, “No. There’s no way that’s real. They would have called you. They’ve been hacked.” And then the studio called me and gave me the news. It was so bizarre how it happened. I shot “Civil War,” which was a week’s work, and from the moment of shooting “Civil War” to “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” I was convinced they were going to fire me. I don’t know why. “Civil War” hadn’t come out yet, and I just didn’t hear anything from anyone. I can’t really explain it. It was awful, but they didn’t — obviously. It’s been crazy, mate. I’ve loved every minute of it.

Kaluuya: You’re a great Spider-Man. Amazing, amazing Spider-Man. “Avengers: Endgame” was a cultural event. What’s it like shooting a film post that?

Holland: The film I shot afterwards was “Cherry,” but with the same directors, which was really bizarre. And now we’re shooting “Spider-Man 3.” It’s weird being back in Atlanta, because we’re shooting in one of the stages where I did my audition. Every time I walked in, I’m like, “Oh God, I don’t know my lines. I’m going to ruin my audition.” And then I remind myself that I’ve already got the job. But how about for you? My question for “Black Panther” is when you were making that film, you must have been aware that you guys were sitting on one of the biggest and most culturally enriching blockbuster movies of all time. Or was it a surprise when it came out?

Kaluuya: I think it’s something that we were aware that was bubbling. There was one day, we did the waterfall scene, and obviously in between takes, everyone just stays on set, and there were hundreds of people on set. And we had actual drummers in between the takes. They would play the beat for Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot.”

Holland: No way.

Kaluuya: And then everyone would go, “Snoop!” Like, hundreds of people would literally do that, and when I saw that, I was like — yeah, this isn’t going to be quiet. There was just an energy. Everyone was so privileged to be part of this moment. It felt like a moment. We’re able to show this world in a way that we see us, and it being a Marvel film. You’re bringing something into the world that doesn’t exist, and that’s just really difficult because there’s no blueprint, there’s no template. And there’s some pains in doing that. But when people receive it and people take it as their own, and kids and families are going dressed to the cinemas, it makes everything worth it. You’re in this kind of really fascinating position in your career, where you could be a movie star, and then you’ve got this “Cherry” lane where you’ve got this indie, personal story. Is it your aspiration to do both?

Holland: I think I will try and do both. I’d like to do a horror film, but I’m so terrified of it. “Get Out” is one of the only horror films I’ve ever really seen, and I love that film, but I can’t tell you how much sleep you stole from me.

Kaluuya: I had babysitters who used to play “Nightmare on Elm Street” to me, and I used to watch that as a kid, and that gave me nightmares. So I wouldn’t go out of my way to watch a horror movie, but Jordan Peele killed it.

Holland: We had a joke in my house, because, obviously, being English we drink loads of tea. And you’d be stirring the tea. “Why are you doing it like that? Are you trying to hypnotize me? What the hell?”

Kaluuya: Bro, going to London and getting a cup of tea after “Get Out” was interesting.