By Paige Takeya, Midweek
Local boy Jacob Batalon is on the cusp of a breakthrough thanks to a role in Marvel’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”. But the Damien grad sees bigger things on the horizon.
Sometimes fame just happens.
Case in point: Jacob Batalon, a 2014 Damien Memorial School graduate who, to borrow from the immortal words of Drake, went from zero to 100 real quick.
In 2016, he appeared in indie short film North Woods, directed by a friend of his from their time at New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. It was his first-ever film credit. He had never acted while home in Hawai‘i.
His very next film credit comes this year as Peter Parker’s best friend in a little blockbuster-to-be called Spider-Man: Homecoming, which swings into theaters July 7.
“I met the right people at the right time,” Batalon says, humbly.
But even as he sits on the cusp of a blossoming film career and bumps shoulders with the likes of stars Tom Holland and Zendaya, Batalon hasn’t forgotten his roots — or the importance of a helping hand.
“In film school, we had a limited amount of resources … Seeing a big-budgeted film being made with all these big stages and big lights and these fancy cameras and these wires and all these stunts was really breathtaking to watch.”
Batalon’s original dream was to be a musician — specifically, to sing and play the ukulele. After graduating high school, he enrolled at Kapi‘olani Community College in music theory, but he disliked school and soon dropped out.
“I tried making my own music,” Batalon explains, “and I basically got with this talent troupe from Los Angeles that came to Hawai‘i looking for talent, and through them I met my manager.”
He migrated to the Mainland and eventually ended up at NY-CDA. His manager, whose office happened to be nearby, sent him to different auditions.
Word eventually came around that Spider-Man: Homecoming casting director Sarah Finn was holding open auditions for a part in Marvel’s latest franchise: any ethnicity, any body type, as long as the actor “looks like he’s 15,” as Batalon describes it.
Batalon’s manager encouraged him to submit a self-taped submission online. It was a long shot.
Two months later, the part was his.
It’s all been amazing, Batalon, who plays Ned Leeds (see accompanying sidebar), says with sincerity.
“In film school, we had a limited amount of resources,” he notes. “Seeing a big-budgeted film being made with all these big stages and big lights and these fancy cameras and these wires and all these stunts was really breathtaking to watch.
“It was really surreal for me just to even be there.”
Batalon’s scene-stealing moment in Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s trailer involves him shattering a 4,016-piece LEGO model of the iconic Star Wars Death Star when he discovers Peter Parker’s true identity as Spider-Man.
“They built seven or eight of them, and I broke every single one of them,” Batalon says cheerfully. “It was really, really fun. I felt really bad for the prop department, though, because they had to put it all together and clean it all up.”
Batalon says that he and Holland were actually tasked with building at least one of the Death Stars before filming began as a bonding exercise.
“At first we thought it was cool and really fun, but it got so hard,” Batalon remembers.
“We gave up a quarter of the way through.”
He says his cast members have all been fantastic.
“I love them to death. They’re like my family.”
He also has taken his new role as trailblazer in stride. Batalon is only the second actor of Filipino descent in the 15 Marvel Cinematic Universe movies released to date. (Dave Bautista, who plays Drax the Destroyer in Guardians of the Galaxy, is half-Filipino.) He’s also the films’ first Hawai‘i-born star.
“I always wanted to be the type of person to influence people to do great things,” Batalon says. “Diversity in the industry is a little sparse, a little scarce. I feel really honored to be part of that stepping stone to make the industry a lot more open.”
Funny that Batalon should say that, because he’s been quietly reaching out to upand-coming students on his jaunts back home in between projects.
He took time last November to visit the girls of The Priory after their production of Antigone.
“He couldn’t make the show, but he still kept to his word and showed up at the end to say hi, and that was really nice of him,” says Krista Chang, one of that night’s actresses.
“He stayed for a while to actually talk to us. He was telling us to keep working hard and follow your dreams.”
Batalon also stopped by his alma mater, where he answered questions about his experiences since leaving school, and even critiqued a performance by Damien’s freshly established drama program.
“He showed such an interest in (the students),” says Damien president Wes Reber Porter. “He gave them notes, he gave them real feedback.”
Damien did not have a performing arts division at the time that Batalon attended, but Porter is glad that the fledgling program has a mentor of sorts now.
“Now we have someone that’s come from our well-rounded education, that’s someone our students can look up to, can make contact with.”
Now that he has Marvel’s wind filling his sails, Batalon says that he’s just focused on establishing his presence. He just wrapped up filming his next project, playing Pancho in The True Don Quixotealongside Tim Blake Nelson.
Hopefully more things are ahead from here — as Marvel movies tend to go, it’s not unlikely that fans will catch Batalon in future Spider-Man installments. Batalon doesn’t know what’s next, but he’s open to just about anything that comes his way.
“It’s not enough to want to follow your dreams,” Batalon says. “A lot of people forget that everything you want comes with a price, and you have to be more than willing to accept the sacrifices and hardships and the hard work that you go through to get to where you want to be.
“Just always believe in yourself and your abilities because no one is going to believe in you more than yourself.
“At the end of the day, success is defined differently by everyone. I believe, truly, that if you are doing what you love, then you’re successful.”
By that standard, does he feel successful?
Batalon doesn’t hesitate before answering.
“I’m not satisfied.”
WHO IS NED LEEDS?
Past Spider-Man film franchises (namely those of Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield) positioned Harry Osborn as Peter Parker’s best friend.
In this reimagining, Harry’s nowhere to be found, and Ned Leeds is the man of the hour.
“He’s this really nice, sweet, innocent kid who really loves Star Wars,” Batalon describes. “He’s the only one who knows (Peter’s) secret identity, and for the most part he wants to be his sidekick.
“They just go through everything together: having crushes, doing homework, trying to fit in, trying to be cool. He’s just a really insanely intelligent and extremely sweet kid.”
This Leeds is very different than the characters that previously shared the name.
In the comics, Ned Leeds is a reporter at The Daily Bugle who becomes one of several men to don the supervillain mantle of the Hobgoblin. An animated series also positioned an Asian “Ned Lee” as Peter’s skeptical coworker (minus any villainous flair).
Batalon assures MidWeek that his Leeds — this time, a classmate of Peter’s — bears little resemblance to his predecessors.