In front of Naomi Watts sat a pen and paper. Across the table sat Tom Holland, a pale young British actor in his early teens.
Soon enough, they both knew, they would leave the comfort of their rehearsal room in Spain. They would be dressed in ripped clothes and covered in fake blood, pummeled by murky waves and pushed to their physical limits.
But first, they had to draw each other.
"I can't draw at all," Watts confessed in a recent phone interview. "And it was quite clear that Tom was having problems, too."
Holland picked up his pen and sketched a few tentative lines. They both started laughing.
The laughter continued as their blank pages began to fill with wobbly pen drawings of each other -- first as they looked into each other's eyes, then when they closed them. The exercise was designed to help Holland and Watts learn to trust each other and was the first of many for a duo whose strong relationship would guide the course of Holland's debut role in "The Impossible."
Juan Antonio Bayona originated the bonding exercises in his role as the director of the disaster movie.
The picture is based on a real-life story of the Belons, a vacationing family whose lives are threatened by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004, that left 230,000 people dead. It follows the family's frantic quest to find each other after a 100-foot wave tears through their beach side hotel in Thailand.
Holland's character, Lucas, and his mother, Maria (Watts), are the first to unite after a harrowing sequence in which the two are awash in the storm debris. They trudge through the countryside and hospitals of Thailand, frantically searching for Maria's husband (Ewan McGregor) and the couple's two younger sons. As his mother struggles to stay alive, Lucas sheds his sullen teenage attitude to become her protector, all while trying to keep it together himself.
Holland and Watts spent more than 45 days in Spain filming the tsunami scene. They rode through 35,000 gallons of dirty water in a cuplike vehicle on a set of rails that kept them above the trees, wires and lights underneath the surface of the water. Holland, who had an ear infection during part of the filming, found it exhausting and terrifying.
"The whole tsunami sequence, the wave, the surroundings, it all felt incredibly real and very scary at times," said the actor, now 16. "There were a few times we got hit and bruised. It was very painful, and very tiring."
Praise pours in
Even before "Impossible" hit theaters, Holland and the film's cast began racking up accolades. Holland won the Hollywood Film Festival Spotlight Award and the National Board of Review award for best breakthrough actor. He has been nominated for best young actor by the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards.
His co-stars agree that Holland's performance is a staggering and empathetic one, especially considering he was just 13 and 14 when the movie was filmed in Spain and Thailand, and he had limited on-camera experience and no real-life reference points for his role. He took the advice of the real-life Lucas, now 20, with a degree of gravity and accuracy that his acting coach, Ben Perkins, thought was remarkable for someone his age.
"He makes us feel what he's feeling," McGregor said. "I don't know what it is, but we're inside his head."
Watts concurred: "He has an incredible emotional instrument and an unbelievable sense of himself."
Director Bayona attributed that to the young actor's upbringing in a grounded family. The son of a photographer (his mother) and a stand-up comedian, Holland and his family live in London. As the eldest of four brothers, he likes to say, there's no room for egos.
Currently a student at the London School for Performing Arts & Technology, Holland said he wants to finish his education before diving into another project. However, he's read several scripts and has made time to meet with such influential filmmakers as Harvey Weinstein. After production wrapped on "Impossible," Holland co-starred in a British drama, "How I Live Now," which is slated for release this year.
As a baby, Holland bounced in his swing with such flair that his mother, Nikki, was convinced that he would grow up to be a dancer. His father, less so.
"I'm telling you, Dom, he can dance," she told Holland's father, a conversation he recalled in a recent blog post. "He has a sense of rhythm."
After a 2006 hip-hop dance performance in London, the Royal Ballet School headmaster told 8-year-old Tom that he looked enough like Billy Elliot to audition for the role in the West End musical of the same name. Eight auditions later, with no formal training, he got the part. For nearly two years, Holland was one of five young actors who took turns playing the demanding role.
Just after the musical ended its run, Holland got a call from his agent, offering an audition for "The Impossible." This time, it took Holland only four auditions to land the job.
"He had this extraordinary ability to get into the emotion and portray it in a very, very easy way," Bayona said. "The best I'd ever seen in a kid."
To dredge up the grief and fear that Holland shows on screen, many actors think about the dark parts of their lives, Holland said. But Bayona worried that such dark thoughts about his own family, coupled with the physical intensity of the movie, would make it impossible for Holland to leave his work at work. To distract the actor, his coach Perkins would play episodes of "Friends" on a laptop to and from the set each day.
"Some of the emotions I had to go to were really dark and really deep down," Holland said. "Sometimes, it wasn't particularly healthy to think that about your own family."
Instead, Bayona and Perkins fostered a relationship between Watts and Holland that mimicked mother and son, hoping Holland would attach his emotions to the character. The actors built the bond through a month of acting exercises, ranging from their first awkward sketches to minutes spent sitting in the dark, close to each other, listening to music.
The strength of the relationship between Holland and Watts showed during the movie's more intimate moments, McGregor said, when Holland and Watts were able to trust each other enough to improvise.
"Tom is playing someone who thinks his mom might be dying," McGregor said. "It very much seems that he'll be left alone in the world. These are big things to play for anyone, never mind a 13-year-old boy."