Tom Holland on being Billy Elliot
Being Billy Elliot
Fiona Razvi chats to Tom Holland and his father, comedian Dominic Holland.
From the Time & Leisure magazine archives 2008.
Meeting up at the Holland family home in Kingston on a Sunday lunchtime, it’s easy to forget that, most days, twelve-year-old Tom Holland’s takes on quite a different character. Since September Tom has been performing the biggest child role in the West End as Billy Elliot, and has moved from home into the ‘Billy Elliot House’ in Ealing where the cast resides.
I am greeted with an upbeat ‘Hello’ from Tom whose voice has, I notice, a distinctive Northern lilt for a London boy. It’s evident the Newcastle twang is now part of Tom speech and I ask how hard it was to learn. ‘We had a coach to teach us, but the accent was the easy bit,’ Tom tells me, talking about training to be Billy Elliot. ‘All that money on private education… ‘ his dad Dominic Holland quips.
Tom’s father is the Perrier award-winning comedian Dominic Holland, who is currently featuring alongside Lee Hurst and Marcus Brigstocke in the new Channel 5 panel show What in the World. I asked Dominic how Tom got into dance. ‘Well, his mum, Nikki, picked up on it quite early on. When he was two,I was on The Des O’Connor Show and there was a track played by Janet Jackson, Together Again. Every time we played the track he just kept dancing.’
It was not until Tom was seven, however, that he joined the dance club Nifty Feet. Quite co-incidentally, Nifty Feet was run by choreographer Lynne Page who trained Jamie Bell f or the original role of Billy Elliot in the film.
Lynne had set up her dance school in Wimbledon in 2003.She told me: ‘This is actually the first time the dance school has crossed with my professional work.’ And although she is still involved with the training for the West End show, it was the Royal Ballet School who pushed her to take Tom’s dance further.
‘I had taken Nifty Feet to perform hip hop at White Lodge as part of the Richmond Dance Festival. I was aware of Tom’s talent, but a guy from the Royal Ballet School picked him out.’ She tells me how being a father in the business made it harder: ‘I knew Dominic would be well aware of the work and commitment it would involve and the sacrifices Tom would have to make.’ She continues: ‘I remember Dominic joking with me how his son was hitting the West End before he had.’
At the audition, Tom was picked out by director Stephen Daldry, who happened to be present. Daldry directed the film and the musical, but with the show having had a long successful run, his presence has latterly been less hands-on. Dominic tells me that Stephen noticed Tom’s potential and liked his look, saying: ‘This kids looks fab. He really has something.’ To the choreographer Peter Darling’s comment ‘But he can’t dance’, Daldry simply responded that it was Darling’s job to teach him.
Rather unusually for the role, Tom had no prior classical dance training or background. His dancing at Lynne Page’s Nifty Feet had been purely hip hop. His serious training began while Tom was attending Donhead Prep School in Wimbledon. When he was ten, Tom hung up his rugby boots and swapped sport for ballet classes in the school gym during lunch hour and tap lessons in his garage at home. He admits: ‘Yeh, I do miss the sport and the rugby.’ He tells me how a group of his old teachers are coming to see him. ‘I’m going to see if they’ll let me wear my Donhead tie while I’m dancing,’ Tom says proudly.
Dominic adds how the school was amazingly supportive throughout the whole process. ‘There’s been huge support. On the first night there must have been 70 people who were families from Donhead.’ He continues: ‘They’ve been there with him from the beginning; most of them had already come to see him as Michael.’
Tom played the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend, earlier in the year and tells me it helped him with the big performance. ‘It was good and I got used to being on the stage.’ For his parents, however, it was a huge wake-up call when it dawned on them just how big the Billy Elliot role was. ‘There are only fifteen minutes in the two-and-a-half-hour show when Billy is off stage. When Tom first played Billy, Nikki and I just couldn’t watch.’
I asked Tom what he does in the longest break he has off stage -seven minutes. ‘I practice the words to Electricity, otherwise I’ll forget. Tom has a lovely understated charm which he brings to the stage in a performance that has both childlike presence and humour.
Playing Billy certainly hasn’t gone to his head. At home he is still Tom to his three brothers, twins Sam and Harry (nine) and Paddy (three) and in the show’s programme he dedicates his performance to them. Dominic tells me: ‘We are all so proud of Tom – nobody can take this away from him. It’s one of the very few child parts which has the name in the show’s title. Whatever else, he will always have been Billy Elliot. And yes I can watch him now, because l know he can do it.’
The role of Billy, sadly, won’t last forever and I ask Tom whether he would like to carry on performing. ‘All the coaches say it’s downhill after Billy – as there isn’t a bigger part. But yes, I’d love to. It’s really cool.’ Somehow I don’t think this will be the end for Tom Holland. A kid who, thanks to his family, is managing to keep both firmly feet on the ground even while he’s dancing in the air.
Time & Leisure magazine archive, December 2008, issue 108