There is no shortage of up-and-coming comedians with famous parents at this year’s Edinburgh fringe: Elliot Steel (son of Mark), Will Hislop (son of Ian) and Ruby Wax’s daughters, Maddy and Marina Bye, are all performing. At the Voodoo Rooms venue in the New Town, the situation is a little different. Standup Dominic Holland, who recently turned 50, is in Edinburgh with a free fringe show, 24 years after winning the best newcomer award at the festival. The subject of his new set? How his success has been surpassed by that of his 21-year-old son, Tom, star of Marvel’s latest blockbuster, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
“I genuinely don’t need to be here,” Dominic states in his show, Eclipsed, with reference to his son’s lucrative webslinging contract. He describes his own gig as “indoor busking” – it’s free to get in but he holds a bucket for punters’ donations on their way out. Tom is currently filming sci-fi thriller Chaos Walking, co-starring Daisy Ridley and based on Patrick Ness’s book trilogy, but has flown in from Canada to see the show with his family. It’s a surprise for his dad and, when I meet the two of them afterwards, they whip out a phone to play the video of Dominic’s ecstatic reaction when Tom turned up that morning.
Dominic is “cock-a-hoop” about Tom’s career, which has included playing Billy Elliot on stage and winning a Bafta Rising Star award. “I find it pressurising coming to the Voodoo Rooms to do my hour of comedy. To do a movie that’s going to be seen around the world by tens of millions? That’s a hell of a pressure.” Tom, meanwhile, thinks standup is “definitely the scariest part of the entertainment business”. He remembers being petrified giving his 90-second Baftas speech: “And I knew exactly what I was going to say. It didn’t matter if it was funny!”
Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He credits director Jon Watts with ‘grounding a character who has been flying so high in the sky for so long’. Photograph: Chuck Zlotnick/AP
However, he admits that while promoting Spider-Man: Homecoming at fan conventions, he would confidently go onstage in front of 2,500 people and talk about the movie. “Obviously the movie is something I know every single part of, it’s very easy for me to talk about,” he says. “And in these events, everything I say people laugh at because they’re there to see you, they’re happy to see you. Everything you say is funny.” His dad bursts in: “Ha – that would be awesome!” Tom goes on: “I remember coming offstage and [thinking], wow, I am fucking hilarious. I rang Dad up and was like, Dad, listen, I’m doing these shows and I’m killing it. I’m really thinking standup is something I could do.” His dad asked him to imagine telling a joke that no one laughs at. “And I was like, Oh, that doesn’t sound like something I want to do … ”
Dominic’s four sons haven’t often seen their dad perform live. “When I was on telly, Tom was a very little boy,” he explains. “I’ve not been on television for 15 years.” When he won the Edinburgh newcomer award in 1993, he was part of a comedy boom – Lee Evans picked up the main award that year, Steve Coogan had won it a year earlier and Frank Skinner beat Jack Dee and Eddie Izzard in 1991. It’s been 10 years since Dominic was at the fringe. Why return now? “I was very reticent about coming again,” he says. “I had a crisis of confidence and ran away from being a standup for a while. Edinburgh is the most pressurised environment to do comedy. You get an hour, there’s no compere, you’d better be on the money straight away, you’ve got journalists in … I was able to not need to do Edinburgh. I got my level of fame, it probably wasn’t going to increase, and that was enough for me to make a living. But I wanted to come again because I got my head together.
“I got tired of people saying ‘where can we see you work’? And you know what? I don’t like false modesty. I know I can make people laugh and I thought to myself, why wouldn’t you do Edinburgh again if you can do it? I was very lucky that I got my head together over a number of years and that sort of coincided with Tom’s real elevation to the A-list. This isn’t a cynical thing on my part. I didn’t think, I’ll go to Edinburgh when Spider-Man’s out. They just coincided.”
The origins of Eclipsed lie in a blog, and then a book, that Dominic wrote charting his son’s meteoric rise and contrasting it with his own experiences in Hollywood as a writer. He says Tom’s success is remarkable: “Tom’s an ordinary boy. He hasn’t gone to stage school. We’re an ordinary family.” He is keen to stress that he and his wife, Nikki, aren’t “pushy parents”. They now find themselves in the unusual position of seeing their son dress up as a superhero not for a children’s party but for a vast global audience. “Mum must have countless Spider-Man costumes that all of us boys have worn through the years,” says Tom.
At a time when actors carefully manage their own brand, it’s startling to watch the father of one of the world’s biggest movie stars perform a comedy show in which he talks about needing to urinate while having an erection and jokes that, with “the state of her pelvic floor”, it’s a good job his wife doesn’t find him funny. Other sections of his set, which goes down a storm with the audience, feature stories of injuring himself on a children’s scooter, deliberating over National Trust chutneys and assorted domestic mishaps.
Has Tom flown the nest? “He lives at home,” says Dominic before Tom interjects: “Well, I kind of live at home.” They speak to each other every day. It’s surprising to hear him say his dad is “still very much involved in the decision-making of my career” and that he asks for feedback from him on scripts he is considering. Mind you: “If I need to be funny then who better to go to than your comedian dad?”
Underneath its slick action sequences, Spider-Man: Homecoming is at heart a high-school comedy (one scene directly pays homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and Tom displays great comic timing. He is clearly gifted, too, in physical humour. He went to a local dance group as a young child after his mum was impressed by the way he bounced about as a toddler during a Janet Jackson performance on Des O’Connor’s TV show. When he was older, his dance class put on a show at the Royal Ballet School (White Lodge) and it was suggested that he attend an open audition for Billy Elliot. Director Stephen Daldry turned up and Tom played Billy from 2008 to 2010.
‘We’re an ordinary family’ … Tom and Dominic Holland. Photograph: Murdo Macleod for the Guardian
He says that physicality is essential when playing a superhero. “As an actor, your most valuable weapon is your face. When you take that away, all of a sudden you’re quite vulnerable … I often find with superhero movies that as soon as the superhero mask is up, you lose the character and it becomes a stunt double.” He was keen that when Peter Parker puts on the Spider-Man costume, he still moves like a gawky teenager. He credits director Jon Watts with “grounding a character who has been flying so high in the sky for so long”. It was Tom’s idea that Tom attend an American high school “undercover” for a few days, as his experience of British schools was so different. “New York high schools are so diverse. I was in the minority at that school. I think that really informed Jon Watts to make a very important and clever decision to make the cast so diverse.”
Tom has wrapped the third Avengers film, Infinity War, and now there’s Chaos Walking to complete. What about Spider-Man 2? “I don’t know anything,” he says. Dominic swiftly adds: “I’m trying to get a part in it.” I can’t tell if he’s genuinely angling for a role opposite Tom, but his son replies with perfect comic timing. “We’ll find something,” he quips. “Squish-Face or something … ”