Rhys Ifans may give off a serious rock 'n' roll vibe in his off-screen life, but the man is a committed serious actor who has seemingly gone out of his way to reinvent himself with each new role. Of course he can be a convincing goofball in films like NOTTING HILL (and it's strange how most people still identify him with that role) or, more recently, PIRATE RADIO, but most of what he's done in his career has been more subdued and serious, occasionally dancing the line between humor and drama.
Prime examples of this are roles in such films ENDURING LOVE, HUMAN NATURE, VANITY FAIR, GREENBERG, the criminally underseen MR. NICE, ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART 1, last year's ANONYMOUS, and earlier this year in THE FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT.
This is the second time I've been fortunate enough to interview Ifans, and both times I've found the conversation intellectually stimulating, dipping into outright fun. While waiting in a hallway to be brought in to talk to Ifans, he suddenly appeared by the elevators where I was sitting, cigarette in hand, like a kid who had just stolen a cookie from the cookie jar. He put his finger to his smiling lips and said, "Shhhh. Don't tell anyone you saw me." and snuck out a door leading to a balcony where he could take a smoke break. Less than a minute later, the handlers were in the hallways calling his name. I didn't rat him out, but they knew him well enough that it didn't take long for them to figure out what had happened and where he was.
I was in New York recently to talk to Ifans about his role as Dr. Curtis Connors/The Lizard in THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, one of the more complicated characters in the new movie if only because he's not the traditional Spider-Man "villain." For much of the film, he's more of a mentor to Peter Parker and serves as one of the only links to Parker's long-missing father and his scientific work. Ifans has clearly thought a lot about his complex relationship, and has a lot of say about it.
I decided to run this interview after the opening day of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN because of the stinger during the end credit of the film, featuring a shadowy figure confront Connors. I thought I knew who the figure was supposed to be, but I was wrong. Please enjoy Rhys Ifans…
Capone: We actually met in Austin, Texas a couple of years ago when you were there for SXSW.
Rhys Ifans: Oh yeah, with MR. NICE. Great to see you again.
Capone: The thing that I always loved about that mentor/adversary relationship between Peter Parker and Curt Connors--and it's something I like about a lot of the villains in Spider-Man--is that they are all deeply psychologically damaged people even before science alters them somehow.
RI: Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t want to play him as deeply psychologically. I didn’t want to play the mad scientist from the off. That doesn’t give you a lot of room to go. Yes, he has got psychological issues in that he’s got one arm, so that’s going to be scarring I guess. But there are millions of people have lost a limb who don’t throw police cars over Brooklyn Bridge, you know?
What I found the driving force in him, yes that’s the psychological damage that he’s got one arm, but also that he is a great mind and he’s at the foothills of a life-changing advancement in science for him and for millions of other people, especially given the climate we are in now where everyday we see young men come back from war zones who’ve had limbs blown away and civilians alike. So he really is at the foothills of something great here, and his passion to advance that is very real, and it comes into conflict as often does happen when great minds meet corporations. The corporation wants to reap the financial benefits of that science before it’s necessarily ready to go and Connors, even at the last minute, takes the selfless decision to become his own lab rat when OsCorp wanted to test this serum on unwitting members of the public.
What he doesn’t reckon on, and this is my take on it, is that yes, the science enables him to grow an arm, but he doesn’t figure on what the cold-blooded reptilian technology mixed with the human compassion does. So in a sense, it’s almost like what crystal meth would do to an addict, where you feel all powerful and almost a sense of hubris that you can do anything, and that for Connors becomes addictive. That’s why he returns to being The Lizard, and guys who are on powerful drugs want everyone else to feel the same, regardless of it’s social benefits. They want everyone to feel that great, because they feel great.
Capone: That is one of the things that's been added to him--his ideas of weakness and strength. What’s the big threat in this movie? Well The Lizard himself is a threat, but on a smaller scale, but to have him have that sensibility really adds weight to what he's doing. Can you talk just a little bit about how the SPIDER-MAN team baptized you in the world of The Lizard and Spider Man?
RI: Yeah, well I mean when you work on a project of this size, it’s just fantastic, the literature and the visual stimuli that’s available. So of course with the comics, which I referred to. You can’t be slavish to them, but you have to show respect. This guy’s been around for 50 years and he has a very genuine and loyal and impassioned fan base. But also there’s the script, and I do think it’s been very faithful and respectful to what came before.
On a practical level I was constantly aware of what the Lizard would look like, how strong he would be, how big he would be, and just to explore the change in a matter of 20 minutes that a weedy guy with one arm would have becoming this monster and the kind of pain of a euphoria involved in that process. So those are the interesting areas for me to explore, because no human has ever been there. The Jekyll and Hyde moments, if you like, of transition, physical and mental into and out from The Lizard--into the reptile and back to a human, almost like some kind of twisted childbirth. [laughs]
Capone: I love the molting effect, the way the skin peals away to reveal the reptile skin. Just from a purely technical standpoint, can you talk a little bit about the makeup? That idea of the transformation coming in a little bit at a time was fascinating.
RI: Yeah, of it growing. And each time he becomes the Lizard, he becomes him in a different way. His body responds differently to the serum each time. It would involve seven to eight hours in makeup, but not everyday. That’s what I was dreading most, because I’m not good at sitting still. That’s a long haul, and I have four to five makeup artists--and I emphasize the word “artists” in this case, because it was extraordinary--and I wasn’t bored for one second, because you're watching yourself transform into something extraordinary and seeing the skill level that these people work, because don’t forget that they are also working in 3D, so the scrutiny of that camera is microscopic.
Capone: It’s relentless.
RI: It was just extraordinary to be around and they would paint each individual scale, and then the beneficial results of being sat down for several hours was when it came to shoot the scene, you were appropriately unhinged.
RI: So that really helped. And the stuff with the hand, the appearance of the [missing] hand, the scene we shot was much longer, but you couldn’t include that into the film, but that really was a revelation for Connors, almost like childbirth. Again, just this beautiful thing, just to behold it. It’s miraculous and Marc [Webb, director], because there’s no dialogue in that scene, strangely enough he played Velvet Underground “Heroin,”--“It’s my wife and it’s my life”--and it kind of fit. We just played it on set and I did the whole revelation of the hand took the length of the song, which is I guess six or seven minutes, and it really brought me to a real emotional place. You really kind of feel for him and you think, “Oh my God, what an achievement. What a thing to behold.”
Capone: Was that a big factor in getting into character, looking at yourself in the mirror?
RI: It was. In "real time," the change would take maybe half an hour, but it was a really interesting process, because it is quite disturbing. You sit there like a human being and you watch yourself, and then all of these hands appear on your face, and seven hours later you're looking dramatically different . You do go through so many emotions just looking at yourself in the mirror for that length of time anyway, it’s going to have some effect, but seeing the change and thinking, “Oh my god, I look terrible” to “Hey, now that looks kind of cool. I feel fantastic,” which I guess condensed is what would happen in reality. Yeah, it really kind of trippy and weird. (Laughs)
Capone: Did you do motion-capture work for the Lizard fight scenes at all?
RI: Yeah, I did. There was one day I came on set, the scene in the school when the Lizard is running through walls and pursuing Spider-Man, and they had a guy in, a huge guy doing the stuff, and I sat next to Marc like, “No, no, I don’t think he's moving right,” which I wish I had never said. [Laughs] From then on, it was me, because I really kind of worked on how this thing would movie.
But more so than the actual larger physical thing was the facial expressions. I had done a little bit of motion capture in the past several years ago where they put maybe eight computer reference points on your face. Now they put a diffuser spray on you. Now they have up to like 2,000 or 3,000 referecne points. So I was like dashed under this UV light, and so when I saw the film two nights ago and for me there were a few moments in the movie where you're close up on The Lizard, and I could actually see something human behind that and I thought that was really, on a personal level, really pleasantly disturbing and moving. But I think it serves the film well as well. Even amidst his kind of all-powerful, all-destroying glory, there is a glimmer of hope in The Lizard.
Capone: In terms of the movement, did you also factor in what it would be like to have a tail?
Capone: And how that would improve your balance.
RI: And also how it gives you a wider circle of movement.
Capone: Talk just a little bit about Marc, and why you think he was the right guy to direct this version of SPIDER-MAN.
RI: I saw (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, and so when I was sent the script and they said Marc Webb, I had actually had just seen the film and thought it was a wonderful film, and I thought it was just a fantastic choice. Actually when I knew Marc was doing it, I thought “Maybe I’ve got a chance of getting this role,” because I could see the kind of director he was. It's just his forensic emotional microcosmos that he'd worked in before, you know? It's just delightful, and I think the film needed that.
Yes, it’s a fantastical story, but it has to be. And the enduring appeal of Spider Man is that it’s grounded in a very real emotional world that we have all experienced, that of a teenager who feels the weight of the world on his shoulders and finds it hard to see a future that he can operate in and the physical changes a teenager feels. I think that has been so beautifully observed by both Marc and Andrew [Garfield], that whole kind of teenage physical discomfort, where all of these things are changing, and then to go from that to this mercurial arachnid olympiad being is just beautiful. It's such a balletic trajectory.
Capone: I always remember about the comic books that Spider Man never wanted to hurt Connors, even though The Lizard was trying to kill him. Those were very different fight scenes than I was used to seeing in comic books.
Capone: When you were doing the fight choreography, were there any adjustments made to reflect that style of fighting?
RI: It’s kind of hard, you know, but also you’ve got to accept that The Lizard can take a lot of hits. You can hit pretty hard on The Lizard. I mean his tail comes off at one point, but Spider Man knows that it will grow back. It can be brutal, almost comedic. If you are fighting The Lizard, it’s fine to take his arm off, because he’ll get a new one. [laughs]
Capone: So are you hoping or do you know if they do another one of these, do you get to be a part of that?
RI: I was very pleased to see the appendage at the end of the film. So yeah Connors is still very much alive.
Capone: Can I ask, have you signed on to do more than one?
RI: No, not signed. But I’m optimistic.
Capone: Okay, what do you think about that ending?
RI: Well, Connors is basically locked up in a very high-security mental institution.
Capone: We were debating whether it was a prison or a mental institute.
RI: It's not a zoo. [laughs] I kept seeing it as maybe a mixture of both. Then a representative from OsCorp appears miraculously in the room. How he gets in there and how he leaves, we don’t know. Maybe we will find out. But it’s not Norman Osborn.
Capone: It’s not? You can say that?
RI: Yeah. But it is someone who is in the employ of Norman Osborn without question.
Capone: Someone we're familiar with, who we don’t know is employed by Osborn?
Capone: Okay, interesting.
RI: Who knows? Maybe he will be the next bad guy; we’ll see.
Capone: Let’s hope so. It’s been really fun this last year seeing you in FIVE-YEAR ENGAGEMENT and ANOMYMOUS especially, because I love that movie.
RI: Thank you.
Capone: Can you tell me just a little bit about SERENA?
RI: We just finished shooting. I’m really kind of pleased with the choices I’ve made with the last few films.
Capone: It’s a nice spectrum of what you can do.
RI: And [director] Susanne Bier, I mean I just absolutely love her. I just love her stuff and that very European sensibility. It’s based on a novel called SERENA, and it’s with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, and it’s set in a lumber camp in North Carolina in 1929. I guess I can describe it as it’s a love story without question, but just think of it as MACBETH meets lumberjacks.
Capone: Who do you play in it?
RI: I play Galloway, who is a local woodsman and a tracker and a sociopath, and I’m a mystical presence throughout the film, and I guess he becomes Jennifer Lawrence’s killing machine.
Capone: I’m looking forward to it. All right, Rhys thank you so much. It’s sure great to meet you.