Ever since Holt lost his arm during his last war Max Medici gave him a fake one as a replacement. Ever since he returned to the Medici Bros. Circus, it is found out that his wife, Annie, died during the influenza and he is also described as a horse rider.
To Holt's help to the circus before it included an animal-free policy, he does not tolerate any animal handler being rude to other animals, such as his moment with Rufus Sorghum. Whenever he sees him doing this action, he stops him from causing any harm to animals.
Behind the scenes
"He was half of a double act with his wife before he went off to fight in the First World War," says Colin Farrell of his character. "They had a horse act where they would do roping tricks and trick riding, but he was sent off to fight and left his wife and two children behind. By the time he comes back, his wife has passed away and his children were raised by the circus. He's also lost his left arm in battle, so he is both physically and psychologically wounded. He comes back to a life he doesn’t recognize. He doesn’t know how to deal with the grief of having lost his wife."
Farrell's casting marks the first time he's worked with director Tim Burton, who says he instantly found the heart of the character. "Holt is war damaged, he's missing an arm, he used to be a star, he hasn’t seen his kids and he doesn't really know how to talk to them," he says. "To try and do that subtly and emotionally takes a certain type of person, somebody who understands drama and comedy and emotion, all mixed together. It's a subtle part, and those are sometimes the hardest ones to do. Colin's great because he did it, he really understood the mixture of all of those things. Plus, he can ride a horse one-armed, and you can't say that about everybody. He was a real collaborator, and really fun to work with."
Farrell is no stranger to horses, having appeared in several films that required extensive horse riding (Alexander, Winter's Tale, among others). "Any of the times I've ridden horses in films, there's always a specific reason or scene that will demand a certain new skill set," he says. "So I've been doing a little bit of roping on this film that I hadn’t really ever done before, and that’s been tricky. But I've had some great guys working with me. Rowley Irlam, who’s the stunt coordinator I worked with on Alexander, and Luis Miguel Arranz, who's a Spanish horse trainer and rider, are kind of genius. So, it's been fun. It's a huge part of Holt's life, so it was fairly important that I at least seem to have a sense of comfort."
According to costume designer Colleen Atwood, Holt's background as a performer and horseman influences his wardrobe. "He was a cowboy performer who was flashy when he was a circus star," she says. "His costumes still have a southwestern flavor within the parameters of the period."
"It's a journey about a man becoming whole again," Atwood continues. "It's him finding himself again, and Colin and I worked together to find the right look for Holt. He comes back in a uniform, and he has a couple show outfits, but mainly he's in work clothes, so it's a very humble sort of costuming, which is a big contrast to the glamorous show costumes on the other side of the coin."
Role in the film
As Joe and Milly are happy to see Holt back, they find out that he didn't see them for a long time. Along the way, the circus performers are happy to see him back on the grounds the circus is being built on. During a conversation with Max Medici, he explains to him that his wife, Annie (who was also a performer), passed away during the influenza explaining that he wouldn't want to be a show-off in the circus if only Milly would do the trade, just as Max explains that the circus will be bankrupt by July. Telling him to take care of the elephants, Max takes him, Joe, and Milly to the stable to a pregnant Mrs. Jumbo. Later at home, he tells Joe and Milly to be practical in order to keep the show going on.
The next day, Joe and Milly wake up Holt, explaining that the elephants need them just as they approach an animal handler named Rufus Sorghum to which during a conversation, it is interrupted upon noticing what is wrong with Mrs. Jumbo. Stopping him from hurting her, Holt slaps him to prevent any harm to her to which it is found out that she gave birth to a calf named Jumbo Junior as everyone reacts upon discovering him just as Max gives Holt a deadline to take care of him by two weeks. During a conversation with Medici, he gives Holt a fake arm as a replacement of his missing one (indicating he lost it during his last war) as Joe and Milly hurry toward him telling about the tricks they taught Jumbo Junior to do. He tells them to leave him alone.
During a circus act, Holt brings in a large group of elephants into the tent. Jumbo Junior reveals his large ears and they call him Dumbo as the audience mocks him in reaction and looks at the broken "Dear Baby Jumbo" sign now reading "Ear Baby Dumbo", just as Holt tells the audience to stop scaring him while trying to calm Mrs. Jumbo down. He tries to stop Rufus from harming her to which he calls her a mad elephant. As she goes on a rampage across the tent, Holt, Joe, and Milly retreat from her.
The next day, Holt, Joe, and Milly notice Mrs. Jumbo being taken away from the circus for being a mad elephant the night before, separating Dumbo from her just as Holt, Joe, Milly, and the performers react to them being separated. During the act in which Dumbo is made into a clown, Holt, Joe, and Milly react in shock when him is about to fall off the collapsing platform just as they get a feather from a dove's cage and give it to him so he can fly. The act, however, is a success as he flies across the tent and everyone reacts in awe.
As Holt cleans Dumbo's stable, Max tells V.A. Vandevere that it was Joe and Milly who taught Dumbo how to fly; Holt, Joe, Milly and the circus performers travel to an amusement park in Arkansas called Dreamland as part of Vandevere's plan. Arriving there, he shows a poster of Holt himself riding on a horse, explaining that he can still ride, despite only having one arm. As Joe and Milly take care of Dumbo, Vandevere arrives and prepares Colette Marchant for an act with him to practice with help from Holt, Joe, and Milly. Holt feels worried about no nets for Colette to land safely on to which she decides to start the act right away.
While talking to Vandevere in his office, Holt explains that the elephant Dumbo encountered in Nightmare Island is Mrs. Jumbo just as Joe and Milly want him to be reunited with her but Vandevere refuses. He and Neils Skellig walk outside where the latter removes Mrs. Jumbo to avoid distractions to Dumbo. Later, Holt arrives toward Colette who explains that Joe and Milly should believe in him. He then enters the Wonders of Science attraction finding Milly just as they gaze upon one of the displays.
With the whole troupe fired, Holt, Joe, Milly, and the performers plan to rescue Dumbo by releasing him alongside Mrs. Jumbo. Furthermore, Holt decides to help Colette by using his knife to cut a hole in the tent for her and Dumbo to escape through. Later while Joe and Milly are surrounded by Neils inside the tent as the fire blocks the exit, Holt comes to the rescue on his horse and captures him. Furthermore, Dumbo manages to rescue Joe and Milly and extinguish the fire. Holt, Joe, and Milly manage to escape from the tent as Dumbo is reunited with Mrs. Jumbo by going to the port.
When the circus is re-established as the Medici Family Circus with a new policy to not include wild animals, Holt and Colette perform riding on his horse as Max describes him as a future cowboy.
- Colin Farrell previously starred as P.L. Travers' father in the 2013 Disney film, Saving Mr. Banks.
- Chris Pine, Will Smith, Casey Affleck, and Bill Hader were considered for the role of Holt.