Tom Holland made his first-post SAG-AFTRA strike appearance at Deadline’s Awardsline Screening Series panel for Apple TV+’s The Crowded Room. Akiva Goldsman created the series, inspired by the book The Minds of Billy Milligan, but changed the character from the real-life Milligan to the fictional Danny Sullivan.
Portraying a person who developed dissociative identity disorder, called Multiple Personality Disorder in the ‘70s when the show is set, took its toll on Holland.
“I did at one point ask for a week off,” Holland said. “I was really lucky to get it because I just really needed some time to reset before we went into the latter part of the show.”
Holland said the 10-episode series was more demanding than any single Marvel film in which he’s played Spider-Man.
“I’m used to three months and I’m done, I move on,” Holland said. “I’m also used to playing a superhero. It’s a very different thing. I’m talking about Thanos and spaceships and all that kind of stuff. You go home and nothing really changes.”
Playing Danny overflowed into Holland’s personal life, he said.
“I would dream as Danny,” Holland admitted.
Even changing his look caught him by surprise. Holland has a wild ‘70s haircut that even surprised him in the mirror most mornings.
“I had obviously that crazy haircut,” Holland said. “You laugh and yes, it’s funny but I would wake up in the morning and go to brush my teeth to get ready for work and be like, ‘Jesus, whoa, oh my God!’”
Holland said he undertook the task because of the value The Crowded Room could serve to viewers in similar circumstances. Danny developed alternate personalities after he was sexually abused as a child.
“The responsibility of telling this story and to educate people on what it is that Danny is going through, which lots of people are going through, was so important,” Holland said.
Goldsman followed up on his previous interview with Deadline in which he discussed surviving child sexual abuse. He said Danny is a hybrid of the real Billy Milligan and Goldsman’s experience.
“I have often tried to smuggle my own experience into other people’s stories,” Goldsman said. “It’s safer.”
Goldsman said survivors of abuse tend to signal to each other without even realizing they are doing so. He hoped that creating The Crowded Room could reach other survivors.
“Secrets are really toxic,” Goldsman said. “This was a way of saying, ‘Hey, we see you. You see us. It’s okay.’”
Goldsman said the process of addressing child sexual abuse in his art was healing.
“We grow, we heal, we take loss and pain and trauma and we try to convert them into grace or meaning, art,” Goldsman said. “Just that act is pretty redemptive.”
Many of the crafts team from The Crowded Room were also on hand for the panel to address technical aspects of the show. Script supervisor Jodi Domanic was the first person to suggest to Goldsman that Danny should take some time to reveal his abuse to psychologist Rya (Amanda Seyfried).
“The first thing I said to him was, ‘As a former clinical psychologist, I don’t think that Danny in his first session with Raya would talk about Adam’s sexual abuse,’” Domanic said.
Goldsman admitted he was taken aback and even joked about firing Domanic, but realized she was correct. This led to structural changes where the show gradually revealed Danny’s abuse and dissociative identities.
Editor Christopher Rand had to handle the shuffling of some of the episodes so that the early episodes spent more time getting to know Danny.
“We needed to learn about and love Danny before we saw this trauma,” Rand said.
Production designer Loren Weeks designed the barn that Danny imagines houses all of his identities. Holland’s brother suggested the barn and Weeks designed a barn to represent Danny’s mind.
“The idea was to anchor it in reality so it felt believable when you’re there in tighter scenes but to also give it a feeling of infinite scale,” Weeks said.
Weeks got the idea of the spotlight from the Minds of Billy Milligan book. Milligan described his personalities standing in a spotlight when they took over.
“The spotlight aspect of it came from the book,” Weeks said. “It was a spotlight on a stage.”
Goldsman grabbed Star Trek: Discovery and Strange New Worlds visual effects artist Leslie Chung to be the VFX supervisor for Crowded Room. Chung said she grew to love the show’s more subtle visual effects, including fireflies that Danny visualizes.
“It was, I think, the first time for me really being able to create gentle VFX that felt like the tone of the story,” Chung said.
Casting director Avy Kaufman said that everyone she cast, whether real-world characters or alters, revolved around Holland.
“All the actors had to keep up with Tom,” Kaufman said.
Music supervisor Sue Jacobs was responsible for licensing The Beatles’ “Let It Be,” which is significant to Danny and closes the final episode. Jacobs said the Beatles estate was won over by Goldsman’s message, expressed in a letter Goldsman wrote to them.
“I think the first thing that Akiva said was, ‘I want to make a mental health story that’s really positive,’” Jacobs said. “They came back and said, ‘How can we not do that?’ Then we kept adding on other uses. At some point it wasn’t affordable and they were like, ‘We don’t care, we really want to be part of this story.’”
Watch the panel conversation in the video above.