Jacob Batalon didn’t set out to be an actor, but that’s about to change for him in a very big way. Starring in a big budget Marvel superhero film will do that for anyone, but for a rising newbie like Batalon – who nearly steals the show as Peter Parker’s best friend and charming sidekick Ned Leeds in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” – it’s still a major surprise. Initially interested in studying singing and the ukulele, the Hawaiian native enrolled at Honolulu’s Kapi‘olani Community College after high school to study music theory, but he soon dropped out without finishing his degree.
“I didn’t really enjoy school in general,” Batalon said in a recent interview. “I dropped out of college in Hawaii, just because I thought school was for losers. But school’s really important.”
The easy-going actor soon fell in with a scouting agency from Los Angeles, who had come to Hawaii in hopes of finding fresh blood. Batalon met his first manager through the group — he’s now primarily represented by Paradigm’s Jason Cunningham — who encouraged him to apply to the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, where he could start to hone his still-burgeoning creative energies. That’s where he fell in love with acting.
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“Going to film school just made me love it,” Batalon said. “Before film school, I didn’t really think much of acting. I was more into making music, but going to school and learning about it every day, it made me grow profound respect for the art.”
While working his way through his last year at NY-CDA’s two-year program, Batalon went on his very first audition: a vague call for a supporting role in a Marvel movie. The details were slim, any ethnicity or body type was fine, but the actor needed to be able to believably play a teenager. Batalon submitted a self-taped submission, but didn’t think much of it. After all, it was his first audition. Then Sony and Marvel reps called him.
“I was supposed to do a callback self-take, but they told me to not do it and instead they flew me out to Burbank to do a screen test with Tom,” Batalon said. “It was really nerve-wracking for me, honestly. Tom had a really good time but I was shaking in my shoes. But it was really fun.”
Batalon may have been worried, but he does remember that he and Holland clicked from the start. (The pair now casually refer to each other as brothers, and Holland spent a recent press conference regaling the crowd with stories about how Batalon basically moved in with him after he wrapped his scenes, an anecdote Batalon doesn’t entirely dispute.)
“Our chemistry was pretty apparent from that screen test,” he said. “After that screen test, I waited about two and a half months and then after that they called me and the rest is history.” But it wasn’t quite that easy. Batalon waited for weeks to hear back from the casting team, mostly not expecting the job to pan out.
“What was so crazy was that, while waiting for the part, I was also about to graduate from film school,” he said. “So that anxiety of, ‘What am I gonna do with my life after school? Where am I gonna go?,’ that plus the pressure of getting the movie, it was eating me up inside. When I actually got the part, it was more like relief than anything else.”
He boned up quickly on Spider-Man lore, reading reams of comics and getting to know the different iterations of his character – originally depicted as a tall blond reporter, though later versions cast him as an Asian American – and soon saw himself in the character.
“Ned’s really affected my life,” he said. “He’s so bubbly and so open that, in reality now, I’m so much more happier. And that’s been a really good thing for me.”
It was telling that the initial casting call for the role of Ned didn’t offer specifics for ethnicity or body type, as “Homecoming” is filled with the kind of colorblind casting that’s still rare in blockbuster films. Batalon, who comes from a Filipino background, is joined by a slew of supporting stars who represent a much more modern idea of what the world really looks like, from Zendaya to Laura Harrier and Tony Revolori.
At a recent press conference for the film, co-star Revolori, who plays Flash Thompson in the film, heaped praise on Watts, along with producers Kevin Feige and Amy Pascal “for casting a 5’8″ brown guy to play a 6’2″ blond, blue-eyed guy.” At the same event, Pascal succinctly told the crowd that her inspiration for such a diverse cast was “reality.”
Batalon has his own ideas on the subject. “Diversity in the industry is very lacking and equal opportunity comes very far and few between for people of color,” he said. “We’re really glad to be a part of that stepping stone process of having an industry be open more to everyone.”
Needless to say, the actor tackled a daunting task — acting alongside vets that included Robert Downey, Jr. and Michael Keaton — but you wouldn’t guess it from his performance. “It just came with the territory,” he said. “I had to prove that I was worthy enough to be around them while we were on set. This movie was so big and had so many big people in it that I wanted to make sure that they knew I was worth being there. It was really easy to be myself and usually myself is loving to make people laugh and entertain them and so they bring that out in me.”
Batalon already has a number of new projects lined up, including a role in Chris Poche’s “The True Don Quixote” (he plays Sancho Panza to Tim Blake Nelson’s Quixote, and Batalon is still reeling from working the actor, who he deems “a legend”) and a secretive project with “Homecoming” co-star Angourie Rice.
For now, he’s really just basking in the moment. “We’re really living off the good stuff from this one,” Batalon said. “We’ve just been waiting for the day for it to actually come out and now that it’s out, it’s this celebratory thing.”
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is in theaters today.