Playing Ned Leeds in five Marvel movies, including the latest three installments of the ‘Spider-Man’ franchise, could have been the pinnacle of Jacob Batalon’s life and career. And a very proud peak it would have been.
Between the record-shattering 2021 release ‘Spiderman: No Way Home’, the 2019 blockbuster ‘Avengers: Endgame’, and ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ which hit screens the previous year, Jacob has starred in half of the top six highest-grossing movies in history. That’s an absolute triumph for any actor, and particularly for a Filipino-American man who doesn’t fit the stereotypical movie star mould, and has struggled with his weight, and accompanying self-esteem issues, throughout his life.
But instead of basking in his success, Jacob is just getting started. After winning the hearts of millions, make that hundreds of millions, of movie-goers as Peter Parker’s best friend Ned (a role which saw him play the lovable third wheel alongside the pop culture-shifting power-couple of Tom Holland and Zendaya) he’s now earning a different type of respect as a leading man and creative force. Hitting screens next month, he’s topping the cast as the titular character in ‘Reginald the Vampire’ on fantasy cable network SYFY, as well as taking on executive producing duties on the project.
“It’s something that I’ve been searching for, not only for myself but also for the whole Asian community,” he says. “I find that a lot of Asian actors, especially someone who looks like me, are overlooked. But there are more stories to tell than buffed-up Hollywood dreams.
“I’m so lucky to be part of this narrative which really pushes the idea that you don’t have to look a certain way, and follow a societal stereotype, to be the hero. Everyone can be the hero of their story. So it’s a very big deal.”
We are finally living in a time when inclusion and diversity is at the forefront of the minds of media creators, casting directors, as well as decision-makers in other professions. This welcomed turning of the tides has helped pave the way for ‘Reginald the Vampire’, which is adapted from Johnny B Truant’s ‘Fat Vampire’ book series (now with a more sensitive, 2022-friendly, choice of name). It’s a process which is ongoing, with some promising steps being taken, but plenty more progress left to make.
The conversation around diversity is dealt with head-on in the upcoming SYFY series, where Reginald is an overweight vampire surrounded by more typical, vain and slender, blood-sucking peers. After you become a vampire, your looks — and physique — are frozen in time. So this poses challenges for Reginald, whose transition to vampirism doesn’t catch him in the best physical shape.
With serious issues like body-shaming being tackled in the dramedy, there are plenty of parallels between Reginald’s story and Jacob’s own. The 25-year-old actor is also working his way to the top of a looks-obsessed clique, without conforming to the norms. (He’s also conscious that his role in the most successful film franchise in history doesn’t leave him frozen in time in the minds of movie fans.)
“I’ve been overweight all my life,” Jacob explains. “I was bullied for looking the way I did, while through the media I was told that I wasn’t attractive or worthy, and that I had to look a certain way to succeed in life. And for a long time that made me feel like I would never win at anything.
“I had this internal struggle around how I saw myself, and not fitting in, and that has affected my life in some ways that I can never change. But I’m also now very proud and happy with who I am, and what I’ve become.”
Jacob’s own origin story begins in the neighborhood of Salt Lake, Hawaii, on the outskirts of Honolulu. He was raised in a devout Catholic family and went to a private school. And despite growing up in what is considered an island paradise by outsiders, he was keen spread his wings.
“Even at a young age, I felt I needed more out of life than just seeking God,” he says. “I’m not knocking people who have faith, but I felt like I wasn’t personally finding the answers that I wanted. That propelled me to want to move to the mainland, explore, and see what else was out there. I just felt like there had to be more to this world than this rock in the middle of the ocean.”
Initially, Jacob’s ambition was to become a musician. But when that seemed out of reach as a full-time career, he enrolled at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts to study acting and theater, and that experience helped him to build his self-esteem.
“The main thing I learned from drama school was the importance of being vulnerable,” he recalls. “And you gain confidence from the fact you are putting yourself out there, and not everyone can do that. It really emboldened me to become more of myself. And now, I’m unapologetically myself.”
Jacob’s demeanor now radiates a calm self-confidence, and he seems incredibly happy and content. He recently moved in with girlfriend Brooke Reina in Brooklyn, New York, and lights up when his partner — and their new dog Charli — come up in conversation. When we speak via Zoom, he is on set in Belgrade, Serbia, filming the upcoming thriller ‘Horrorscope’, but seems relaxed and quite at home, with Brooke and Charli both nearby having traveled with him for the shoot.
He also looks amazing; better than ever, which feels like a strange thing to say as we discuss the breaking down of the industry’s obsession with appearance, and the issues created by the pursuit of stereotypical ideas of beauty. His personal style is much more striking than I expected from his on-screen persona in the Marvel films, but also completely natural and unforced, and fits him like a glove. He tells me he has lost 112 pounds since 2019, helped by becoming a vegan (an interesting choice for a vampire!) 18 months ago, and going to the gym six days a week. This prompts an interesting discussion about finding the healthy balance between body positivity and tackling the dangers of obesity; and between accepting ourselves as we are, or trying to better our lives.
“I feel like people are becoming more encouraging of loving yourself for who you are, and where you are in your life, and that’s great,” he says. “And I feel like younger people are now understanding that their words can hurt people, and we’ve got to a point where bullying has become lame, which is really positive.
“But being healthy is also an important part of self-love; being super unhealthy and eating tons of junk food is not loving yourself. I got to a point in my life where my health was declining rapidly. During all those years of being bullied and teased about my weight, and this stigma that fat people are not attractive, or not cool, I use food as a mechanism to cope with that. And especially in this industry where the way you look plays a big part in what you do.
“I wanted to become more healthy. And I understand the difference between someone telling me that I need to lose weight for my health, and someone telling me I’m fat to destroy my self-esteem.
“But having been an obese person my entire life, my main message to other people in a similar situation would be that you don’t have to look like Chris Evans, Tom Holland, or any other typical superhero to be healthy. Just take that first step, eat some healthier food, go to the gym once or twice a week, and you’ll start to feel better pretty quickly.”
During this exchange, I suggest to Jacob that he’s nailed why it’s so important that he’s landed this leading role, giving him the platform to share this story with a wider audience. Because while Captain America’s abs-ripping workout plan is helpful for some folks out there, Jacob’s decision to lead a healthier life is probably inspiring for more.
“That’s the whole point of inclusion and diversity,” Jacob agrees. “It’s more than skin color, it’s more than gender; we need all types of people, all of the time. And in our industry, we need to be telling everyone’s story.”
Alongside his healthier physical habits, Jacob has been working on his mental fitness too. And just like the physical improvements, these changes are clear to see. He talks with honesty, and also self-assurance, about challenges he has faced in his life. He explains he has reached this point by learning to share, and make sense of, his innermost thoughts and fears.
He says, “Through all the psychological and emotional things that I dealt with as a child, the bullying and things like that, I hid behind a mask of happiness, and used that to not burden anyone else with my problems. It was easier for me to pretend to be happy than admit that I wasn’t in a good place.
“But that’s not a healthy mode to be in. The answer is to speak to someone about it, preferably a therapist. When I was younger, some people used to think therapy was for people with mental problems. But in reality, it’s for humans to discover what is in their own mind and to make sense of that.
“Humans are not perfect. We have pitfalls, we make mistakes, we experience the world through different lenses, and that’s what makes us unique. For me it was about owning the pain, frustration, and anger of what I’d grown up with. And understanding that I’m unique and special, and to embrace that.”
Jacob also highlights another pursuit he believes has helped him in his work and life — smoking weed. It’s a topic that may scare some parents of young fans of his Marvel movies, but a valid conversation to be having as the attitudes, and legality, around the drug continues to change.
“I smoke a ton of weed, and I think it has helped me with my creative process, and dealing with stress and trauma,” he says. “It has given me a different perspective, and opened me up more to the world. Weed is not right for everyone, but it has certainly helped me with my health and journey.”
Finally, our conversation moves onto the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the record-breaking movie franchise which has grossed more than $30 billion worldwide. The five Marvel movies Jacob has appeared in are all significant moments in pop culture history, in particular the latest ‘Spider-Man’ installment, ‘No Way Home’. The movie was released at the backend of the pandemic’s peak last December, and saw tens of millions of Americans uniting in movie theaters for the first time after more than 18 months of lockdowns and Covid-related caution.
He says, “The whole entirety of ‘Spider-Man’ has changed my life, of course. But in particular the backdrop of how the last movie came out, during the pandemic when we felt as if the world was on fire, and to have been part of something that really brought everyone together. It was very impactful, and we were so thankful and grateful that people enjoyed it so much, and were able to come together to laugh and cry at a time it was still tough to go out.”
Just scratching the surface of the reams of reports and chatter among Marvel fans, it remains unclear if a fourth ‘Spider-Man’ movie featuring Holland and Zendaya in the lead roles again is in the works. Some reports suggest so, while others believe that next up for the comic book character could be a new trilogy with a new cast. Like millions of others, I thoroughly enjoyed watching all three of the latest films, with the movies offering that rare and precious thing of a film that three generations of my family could enjoy together. But I would certainly not consider myself a Marvel aficionado. So when I ask Jacob whether he’ll be back for a fourth ‘Spider-Man’ installment, I do so quite innocently, because it’s easier than trying to untangle the web of internet rumors. The nervous laugh that meets the question is the first flicker of awkwardness I’ve seen from this cool customer throughout our conversation, and he proceeds with caution, knowing his every word will be examined by an army of Marvel devotees.
“I’m honestly not sure,” he says. “I’m open to the opportunity if it presents itself, but I would also hate to be the one to take an opportunity away from someone else who deserves it. It would have to be a combination of the right time, the right place, and the right people. We are all moving in ways that doesn’t have to pertain to Marvel anymore. In that sense, we’re kind of doing our own things. But if it happens, it happens.”
Styling by Alfonso Fernández Navas
Grooming by Jessica Ortiz
Reginald the Vampire debuts on SYFY on October 5