Jacob Batalon is so much more than a sidekick or a best friend—he’s ready to be the leading man.
With the impending release of Spider-Man: No Way Home, actor Jacob Batalon is not exactly stressing over the fact that he knows every single thing that happens in 2021’s most highly anticipated film, nor is he fretting over the knowledge that this feels like an ending of sorts. After booking the role of Peter Parker’s jokester best friend Ned Leeds back in 2016 with just a simple, self-taped submission and being announced as part of the cast at Comic-Con, Jacob is more grateful than ever to be in an industry that’s changing to reflect the real people who exist in the world around us.
As Batalon looks back at his time filming the Spider-Man movies, a series of films that one could describe as a coming-of-age story for the entire cast, he’s embracing the next phase of his career: one where he’s #1 on the call sheet. He accomplished this dream in his next project where he stars as the lead character Reginald, a vampire who becomes an unlikely hero, in SYFY’s new dramedy Reginald the Vampire that’s currently in production. It’s a big shift for the Honolulu born & raised actor after giving so much of his 20s to comic book films, but one that he is happily embracing.
1883 Magazine’s features editor Kelsey Barnes sat down with Jacob Batalon to discuss Spider-Man: No Way Home, why he wants to invest in marijuana and open a food truck, his first-ever starring role in the upcoming show Reginald the Vampire, and more.
Jacob, I know you went to school for music before pursuing acting so let’s start this chat by diving into your recently played artists.
Oh goodness, let me think. I’ve been listening to a lot of Tyler, the Creator and Frank Ocean. Syd Tha Kyd and BROCKHAMPTON, too. It’s funny, I’ve been listening to the same artists that I’ve listened to for years because I’m so bad at finding new music [laughs]! I stick with stuff I know which definitely keeps me in a little box, but I don’t mind!
You were 20 when you were cast as Ned and 21 when Spider-Man: Homecoming came out. Earlier this year I spoke with Angourie [Rice], your Spider-Man co-star, and she described the three films as her coming-of-age story. When you look back on the last 5 years of your life as a man now at 25 years of age, how would you describe and define this chapter of your life?
Gosh, was I really? I guess it was more of a surprise than anything. I feel like I’ve become a completely different person from who I was back then. I’ve grown up in a lot of ways and I feel like I had to take that path and learn about who I am on my own. That has helped me become more of myself and helped mould me into who I really am. I love Angourie and I agree with her: it’s definitely a coming-of-age moment for all of us. We were all really young and naive and didn’t exactly have a proper footing in the industry so now seeing all of us grow up is really crazy.
What I love most about your beginnings as an actor is that you never actually acted before—you sent in a self-tape and were picked to play Ned.
Yeah, I’m still incredibly thankful for that. I’ve made sure to make the most of every opportunity that I’ve been given since then. When you’re young and trying to figure out your path, you’re just hoping that things work out. I was trying to be realistic with my life and I had a backup plan if this—what I’m doing now—didn’t work out. I’m just really, really thankful and glad that it did.
Tom [Holland] talks about the Homecoming trilogy coming to an end and how it felt like you guys were treating it as an ending of sorts. I read that the two of you, along with Zendaya, had a pretty emotional moment at what you believed to be your last scene together. Tom said he doesn’t think he’s ever cried like that in his entire life. What was it like sharing that moment together?
It’s crazy. They’re my family and we’ve really grown a lot together; we’ve seen each other go through a lot. It was a pretty emotional moment for us because we just couldn’t believe that we had accomplished something so amazing together. The gravity of it all… It’s a lot. I think Tom is very happy and fortunate, too. He loves his job and what he does and the character of Peter so much.
No Way Home begins with Peter reeling from the aftermath of getting his identity exposed and the trailer shows glimpses of Ned headed to court with Peter and also being questioned. Where is Ned’s mindset during the beginning of the film?
He’s in absolute disbelief. He can’t believe things are happening the way they are happening. He was under the impression that things would be a great fairy tale; there will be superheroes, and Ned will be the best friend and it’ll be great. It turns into something totally different from what Ned, and obviously Peter, imagined. He’s very much not prepared for what happens.
Knowing what you know about your character’s arc, is there any specific advice you’d give to Ned without giving away any spoilers?
Just be careful.
Oh, sounds intense.
Yeah, I’d just tell him to be careful.
It’s been two months since the No Way Home trailer was released, which means it’s been two months of people theorizing over cameos because of the multiverses. The last shot of the trailer brings back Alfred Molina as Doc Ock, a role he portrayed in 2004 when you were 8.
Yeah, I was around that age when I saw him in that first film and I thought he was incredible. I feel like Spider-Man was the first movie that I actually watched that pertained to superheroes which is a great introduction. Alfred is an amazing, hilarious guy; the absolute greatest.
It must feel like it’s coming full circle for you to be working with someone you first saw on-screen when you were so young.
It was! It was pretty cool; he’s pretty cool.
You’re a big fan of Jamie Foxx, too, and I know he’s returning as Electro.
He’s amazing, too. I’m not sure I can say anything else! [laughs]
I suppose you can’t say much about when, as part of Teen Vogue’s Young Hollywood Class of 2020, you mentioned to director Jon Watts that you think it’s time for Ned to become evil and be a villain.
Sorry, there is not much more I can say! [laughs]
All good, I get the need to protect everyone from spoilers! Let’s chat about your bromance with Tom which obviously plays out on-screen as Ned and Peter. Ned was a victim of The Snap, which I feel mirrors the pandemic in a way. How did the two of you keep in contact over the pandemic?
We called each other whenever we possibly could. He’s a good friend; he checked up on me a lot. We were so hopeful that we’d be able to make the third movie as soon as we could. It was a lot of responsibility to catch up whenever we were able to.
You guys only just finished filming earlier this year, right?
Yeah, in March of this year. Filming during a pandemic was a huge process but it was all necessary in order to keep everyone safe. It’s crazy thinking back because there was this weight of this thing happening outside of our world [in Spider-Man]. We tried to make sure we enjoyed every single moment that we shared together.
On the topic of the multiverse, what do you think you’d be doing in another life if you weren’t an actor?
I love this question! I really love space; I feel like astronomy or something pertaining to history would definitely be a field I’d pursue. I learned so much watching the HISTORY channel over the pandemic. My cousin and I are really into aliens and conspiracy theories; I entertain those ideas a lot because it’s interesting how people get their findings and way of thinking. It all just fascinates me to the point where I feel I could have studied that in school more seriously if I didn’t become an actor.
I heard you’re interested in investing in the weed industry. I’d love to hear more about that and what you’d like to do—would you be interested in creating your own strain of cannabis?
[Laughs] It’s this business investment that I think would be really good for myself. I feel like it’s a really big part of my life; it’s helped me deal with a lot of stress, a lot of anxiety, and it helped me change my perspective on the world and better understand people and society. I think being able to share that mindset with other people, so everyone can enjoy it, would be amazing. It’s a huge industry, and I want to get into it.
What’s your ideal blunt?
I love a hybrid, but I’m also really into this process where you dip it in wax, cover it in Kief, and wrap it in a marijuana blend. It’s the best.
Something that goes hand in hand with that is food and I know that’s another business you want to get into!
Yeah, I’m dying to open up a food truck. I’ve been living on the mainland for the last five or six years and I have discovered that there isn’t much representation from Hawaii here. Their food and their culture aren’t being preserved out here. New York is such a melting pot with so many different people and cultures existing in one city, so I would love to share Hawaiian cuisine with people because it’s such a delicious, decadent type of food that I feel like a lot of people are missing out on. My girlfriend really encouraged me to go vegan and I’ve been doing a lot of plant-based dishes recently. There’s this Filipino chef from San Francisco that makes vegan Filipino food which is something that I’m trying to get into as well.
And you’d base that out of New York?
Yeah, definitely. I actually have a dream of opening a weed store and having my food truck outside serving vegan food.
In the last few years, the MCU has been more representative of the world around us in regard to diversity and representation. I know Ned in the comics is tall, white and blonde, but I cannot imagine anyone else but you playing Ned now.
Wow, thank you for saying that. I appreciate it.
It’s true! I know when Zendaya was cast as MJ, there were some ridiculous comments about her not ‘looking’ like MJ which was ridiculous. Was that something you felt you had to fight against?
It’s something a lot of people have asked my opinion on, and I feel like it’s such a sign of the times. Tons of people supported us being people of colour playing these characters, but Zendaya got this weird amount of hate that was really unnecessary. As always, she handled it really well. She’s amazing. If you choose to not let that type of chatter impact you, there’s an even more powerful message that you’re showing those people. All we can do is choose to be good people and do our best to be successful and not listen to any of that noise.
In regard to diversity, I wanted to chat about your Filipino heritage and representation—I know you’re about to be the lead in SYFY’s Reginald the Vampire.
Congrats on the role! I loved how excited you were about being #1 on the call sheet.
Thank you so, so much. I thought it might be seen as pretty egotistical of me, but I feel like this was a project that was somewhat meant for me so being first on the call sheet means a lot.
Definitely embrace it, you deserve it. The show is about a husky vampire that is living in a world populated by beautiful, fit, and vain vampires which is an incredible premise.
It really is. I found this work to be very relatable; it shows about finding humanity in the typical vampire trope. It feels like we’re steering so far away from those tropes that it doesn’t even seem like it’s a vampire show [laughs]! We’re showing the relatability and vulnerability in these characters that also are vampires. I think people will be pleasantly surprised by the show.
Were you familiar with the ‘Fat Vampire’ book series by Johnny B. Truant? I can’t believe I’ve never heard of them before.
My girlfriend and I actually read the books after there was a bit of a discussion about me in the show. I immediately felt like it was such a relatable story—being an outcast in a society where your worth and talent are solely based on the way you look. It doesn’t matter if you are the leading man or the best friend, your value is based on your beauty. I like to think this show holds a mirror up to society and people who are like Reginald, who may not be as beautiful, may get their time to shine.
Yeah, there is that saying, ‘beauty is only skin deep’. There must be a lot of pressure in Hollywood to look a certain way.
Definitely. There’s been a lot of rumours formulated about me losing weight and what that means for certain characters or whatever, but I honestly just did it for my own health. Obviously, everyone is supportive of me, my health, and my personal endeavours and they’d never want to do anything to put my health in jeopardy, so the weight loss is sort of secondary to everything else. After filming the last Spider-Man movie, I was looking for an opportunity that would push me and I found it and feel lucky to have been a part of it.
What has it been like to be part of the wave of young actors making and reshaping the industry to be more diverse? Is that what attracted you to the role of Reginald at first?
It definitely made me feel as if we are finally seeing people, at least people like myself, on TV. Growing up, I didn’t see anyone of my colour or my parentage on TV let alone on a movie. If there were, they didn’t have significant parts. I guess in a way it was a responsibility that I had just taken on unknowingly. I always thought I was just doing my own thing but as soon as people start to bring it to your attention, it becomes pretty black and white. Now it feels like everyone’s stories are finally being told. That’s something that I’ve been fighting for throughout my whole career; I want people to have an equal opportunity because everyone deserves a fair chance.
Is there anything that you would want to adapt?
It’s difficult because to me I just want my next project to be different and creative. That’s what attracts me to a script; it needs to be completely unique to what I did last. I can’t pinpoint specifically what I would want to adapt myself if I ever decided to do that, but I know that it would have to stimulate my mind and push the boundaries a little.
That’s what I thought when I read the premise of Reginald the Vampire. It’s the strangest, coolest story.
Right? I think the dynamic of it truly exists in the storytelling. There’s satire in it; the writing is so great, and it’s set in the backdrop of a vampire world.
Lastly, for the character of Peter, the quote ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ means that he has a responsibility to use his powers for good no matter what. For you as Jacob, and even as Ned, what does that quote mean to you?
Oh wow, you’ll have to give me a second to think about this… For me, it’s understanding what you can and can’t handle. There’s a higher standard that you set for yourself, and I feel like if you have the power, you have the responsibility to do the right thing. I guess your moral compass depends on who you are, but at the bottom line: be a good person with the power that you have.
interview by Kelsey Barnes
photography Dennis Tejero @ Monday
styling Emily Bogner @ Honey Artists
grooming Janice Kinjo @ The Wall Group using Tweezerman
production Angeliki Sofronas
production on set Alecia Rodriguez
photo assistants Tim Lopez + Stephen Han
styling assistants Ella Frey + Karilyn Pisco
Spider-Man: No Way Home in cinemas from 15th December.