Tom Holland pushes his own limits in ‘Cherry,’ physically and emotionally
Tom Holland was finishing up his work as Spider-Man on Marvel’s superhero epic “Avengers: Endgame” when the film’s directors, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, pulled him aside to say they were hoping he would star in their next project, “Cherry.” A scaled-down, indie production about a student-turned-soldier-turned-addict-turned-bank-robber, the film would be a radical artistic departure from the blockbuster CG-bombast of their Marvel movies for both the directors and for Holland.
“There was so much as a young actor that I was excited and apprehensive to do,” Holland, 24, recently said of “Cherry.” “I was blown away by the opportunity that they’d handed to me. [But] I was nervous. It was a massive role to take on; I’ve never done a role like this in my career. It was a massive leap of faith.”
For the record:
2:56 PM, Jan. 28, 2021An earlier version of this article said the film is based on a memoir. The book by Nico Walker is a semi-autobiographical novel.
Based on the 2018 novel by Nico Walker, the film follows its narrator, a middle-class kid from Ohio called only Cherry in the film, whose life is forever changed when his college girlfriend, Emily (Ciara Bravo), unexpectedly breaks his heart. Reeling, he enlists in the Army and is sent to the front lines of the Iraq War as a medic, where he witnesses countless acts of horrific violence. Although he and Emily reunite once he returns home, stability remains out of reach. Wrestling with post-traumatic stress disorder, Cherry begins taking drugs in the vain hope of quieting the tumult inside of him.
Taking place over a span of about 15 years, the Apple TV+ film, written by Angela Russo-Otstot and Jessica Goldberg and set for release next month, unfolds in a series of distinct chapters that chart Cherry’s descent. Cherry himself narrates much of what befalls him in extensive, often poetic voice-over.
The Russos had reason to feel confident that Holland was up to the challenge of inhabiting such a deeply flawed, multifaceted protagonist. Before the English actor won the role of science nerd-turned-superhero Peter Parker in the directors’ 2016 film “Captain America: Civil War,” he had appeared in dramas such as 2012’s harrowing true-life tale “The Impossible,” opposite Naomi Watts, and Ron Howard’s 2015 adventure, “In the Heart of the Sea,” as well as the prestigious English miniseries “Wolf Hall.”
To prepare for “Cherry,” Holland met with veterans suffering from PTSD and recovering from substance abuse. “Some of them were really open to sharing about their experiences, other people less so,” Holland said. “One of the things that really hit home for me … was once you’re addicted to heroin, your entire life is about getting more heroin. There is no other thought process that’s going on.”
Notably, Holland underwent a stark transformation for the role — losing 30 pounds to appear dope-sick and emaciated. “He’s a physically gifted person who can do things with his body that the vast majority of people can’t, and he certainly brought that aspect of himself to this performance,” Anthony Russo said. “He went from portraying a soldier at his most vibrant and strong to a wasted addict. His level of commitment of telling that story was supreme.”
“Physicality for me is the biggest way I try to distinguish between the characters that I play,” added Holland. “If you look at Peter Parker, he’s very bubbly, and I do this thing where I leave my arms really loose. It gives him this juvenile, kid-like physicality. With Cherry, cracking his physicality was the biggest part of making this character come to life. That meant losing the weight, physically changing the way I looked — from hair and makeup to the wigs I was wearing to the costumes I was wearing. It was a really useful tool for me to be able to step out of one version of Cherry and into another.”
He also had an important creative partner in Bravo, with whom he shaped the trajectory of Cherry and Emily’s relationship. The stars often relied on the expertise on-set consultants the filmmakers had hired to guide them through the specific stages of opioid addiction. “Obviously, the love story is the backbone of the film and integral to the success of telling the story,” Holland said. “Ciara and I recognized the importance of what we had to do. It just came down to putting the time in and being there for each other and trusting and being vulnerable with each other.”
“They did surprise us with the bravery with which they embraced the darker elements of the story and the way they ran at them,” Joe Russo said of the two young leads.
Holland said that during the film’s three-month shoot, he often would feel daunted arriving to set, knowing what lay ahead of him. “Getting into the character every day [was about] sitting down and knowing: Right, for the next 10 hours, I’ll be screaming, shouting and crying,’” Holland said. “‘I haven’t eaten anything for a day and a half. I don’t feel very well, but I’m sure it will pay off.’ The mental strain of having to do it day in and day out I found really difficult. That said, hard work is good work.”
In the end, living through that hardship made his performance only that much richer. “I think I learned to maybe not doubt myself as much,” Holland added. “I have it within me to really push myself and do some good things.”
Staff writer Michael Ordoña contributed to his report.