Graduates are usually on the receiving end of gifts, but after completing a two-year program at the New York Conservatory of Dramatic Arts last spring, Jacob Batalon said he decided to “gift” his family with some major news over a post-graduation dinner at a chain restaurant: He had been cast as Ned Leeds in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.”
“I paid for dinner and right before we left, I told them the news. I got them crying hysterically in the middle of Applebee’s,” Batalon, 20, told NBC News, laughing.
It was a welcome conclusion to an otherwise nerve-fraying audition process. Months before, Batalon had taped himself at his cousin’s house in Connecticut, reading from a dummy script for a then-untitled Marvel project.
He later screen-tested with Tom Holland, who plays Peter Parker and Spider-Man, before enduring a two-and-half-month wait to find out he had won the role of Ned, Peter Parker’s best friend and sidekick, in the Marvel/Sony re-boot of the franchise. Batalon had only previously acted in independent projects.
The film is set during Peter Parker’s high school years and after Spider-Man’s brush with the Avengers in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.”
To prepare for the role, Batalon went straight to the source. “I read a lot of comic books, a lot more than I care to admit, and [Ned] — he’s like this six-foot tall blonde guy who reports for the Daily Bugle. That’s all me, I feel,” he said, laughing.
The character of Ned has gone through several iterations in the Marvel universe, including variations of his race (he has been depicted both as white and as Asian American).
“I’m really proud to be able to be this version of the character,” said Batalon. “I’m proud to represent the Asian community, and I’m proud that Filipinos are proud [of me]. I’m glad that I get to be that guy.”
And he does share at least one characteristic with Ned: a deep-rooted love for “Star Wars,” which is referenced in the movie.
“I love 'Star Wars' as much as he does, and it gets me crazy sometimes. People make me crazy when they don’t get their facts right [about it], and Ned is definitely the same way,” said Batalon.
Acting wasn’t always the Filipino American’s first choice of profession. A former aspiring musician, Batalon got his start performing at family gatherings in his native Hawaii at the urging of his mother.
“I thought it was so terrifying, but what’s ironic is I think that’s what made me get over being ashamed of being in front of people,” said Batalon, who sings and plays ukulele, guitar, and piano.
It wasn’t until film school, though, that he truly discovered his love of acting and performing. “Before, I didn’t really think much of movies and acting and all that stuff. It wasn’t until I learned about [the craft] that I got a profound respect for it,” Batalon said.
He said Spidey fans will be endeared by Ned’s sweetness and delight in the chance to live vicariously through him.
“I think the one thing that people will relate to is that he’s the fan getting to live his dream. His best friend is Spider-Man. He’s kind of like the representation of everyone who has ever wondered what’s like to be in the life of a superhero,” said Batalon.
“Homecoming” is a joint production of Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures, who struck a deal to introduce Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is unclear whether that relationship will continue, although Tom Holland told The Hollywood Reporter last year that he is contracted for three solo movies.
A Sony rep told NBC News that casting for any future "Spider-Man" movies has not yet been confirmed.
But if there are more Spidey flicks down the line, Batalon says he welcomes the idea of Ned transitioning into a darker role, possibly even as an antagonist of Spider-Man’s as he has been in the comics.
In the meantime, though, Batalon is relishing in his role as Peter Parker’s LEGO Death Star-building best buddy — and when Parker is Spider-Man, his “guy in the chair” or point person.
“I love being the sidekick,” said Batalon. “I’m pretty sure fans love seeing me that way.”