July 27th, 2016
Jacob Batalon, appearing at Comic Con in San Diego recently. He'll play Ned Leeds, Peter Parker's best friend, in Marvel's "Spider-Man: Homecoming," opening July 7, 2017. – Photo courtesy Jacob Batalon
For a dude who strummed ukulele in high school and who never acted locally, Jacob Batalon feels stunned and lucky to land a role in Marvel Studio’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” now filming in Atlanta.
“I’m extremely blessed to even just be in the film,” he said in an exclusive interview.
He made his first public appearance, and signed autographs for fans alongside “Spider-Man” creator Stan Lee, at the recent Comic Con in San Diego.
But he doesn’t yet feel like a star. “It’s humbling,” he said. “God has definitely been good to me.”
Batalon, 19, a 2014 graduate of Damien Memorial High School, will portray Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s best friend, Ned Leeds, in the reinvented superhero flick, scheduled for release July 7, 2017. The movie is poised to be one of next summer’s sizzlers.
Curiously, he was about 7 when he first saw the original Spidey film which hurled Tobey Maguire into the superhero universe. “What’s really funny about that is it was the first superhero film I remember fully and actually liked. So it’s really crazy how it all came full circle.”
Because Damien had no theater or stage program, he was a late bloomer in theatrical or film training. In May, Batalon graduated from the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts, learning about the acting craft, in a two-year program.
“Singing and (playing) the ukulele really was my thing,” he said, recalling jams with his Damien buddies and performing at family functions. “My mother would make he go up and sing in front of everyone all the time, hahaha, and I didn’t particularly enjoy it so much as a child because I thought it was torture. But in retrospect, I think that’s what helped me get over my fear of being in front of people.”
Not surprisingly, he was startled when his agent called him to inform him of the “Spider-Man” role.
“This was at 10:47 at night, and he said I got a role in the film but he told me the producers weren’t sure what they wanted me to be. But I didn’t care. I was so happy and elated that I had actually passed out for a good two minutes after my agent called me.”
Batalon said he’d been waiting since March, when the buzz started, but it wasn’t till June that he was confirmed to play Ned Leeds.
“It was a week before I flew to Atlanta (when he learned about the character),” so it was somewhat of a grueling period of waiting and wondering.
“When they told me I was gonna be Ned, I was in Bryant Park in New York, just going absolutely crazy,” he said. “I was yelling and screaming and cheering. I’ll never forget that feeling. But the satisfaction made it all worth (the wait).”
Because of privacy issues, he can’t reveal much about Ned Leeds. “He’s Peter Parker’s best friend and he’s a sweet genuine guy and I really believe the fans will love him. I know. I do, hahaha.”
The Ned Leeds character has previously appeared in the comics, as a worker at the Daily Bugle, and in a “Spider-Man” animated series, but as Ned Lee, with Asian surname and ethnicity.
Batalon had to tell someone about his good fortune, and the first person he called was his brother-in-law, who could keep a secret. “I know he doesn’t say anything to anyone, even my sister; he’s in the military, so he knows something about being true to your word. I wanted it to be a surprise for my whole family, and I knew he was gonna be gone for a while, so I just told him first.”
When “Spider-Man” and its cast were introduced at Comic Con, the response was overwhelming, said Batalon. “That’s when I realized the gravity of it all,” he said. “I knew this film was big, but being in front of those fans who really love Marvel in general ... it was so humbling. It made me realize this is a lot bigger than all of us. I just want the fans to be happy, and if they’re happy, I’m happy. And yes, most definitely, I am definitely a fan.”
Perhaps because the actual film is a year from release, Batalon doesn’t yet feel like a budding star. He told Jon Watts, the film’s director, that he feels more like a fan than a movie star, and appreciates the hard work that goes into film production. “I’m just another working actor trying to get his fill,” he said.
He met Tom Holland, the actor tapped to play the next Spidey, in Los Angeles prior to filming, doing an audition together and “he’s been nothing but nice and great. We all love each other a lot now,” he said of his other castmates — Laura Harrier as Liz Allen, Parker’s high school crush; Zendaya as Michelle, presumably Michelle Gonzales, who had a fling with Parker in comic book lore; and Tony Revolori as Flash Thompson, who appeared in Sam Raimin’s “Spider-Man.”
“I made it a point to hang out and be tight with each other before we started filming. And now that we’re in the throes of it all, there’s no problem with our chemistry. We really do love one another; I don’t think this film would be half as good as it is, if these people weren’t with me. I appreciate them so much; I’m glad they’re in my life now.”