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October 24, 2012

‘Ultimate Spider-Man’: Steven Weber transcends cartoon villainy

Posted in: Animation,TV

Spidey gets a front row seat as Doctor Octopus and Norman Osborn's plans collide, leading to the creation of the Green Goblin. (Disney XD)

Spidey gets a front-row seat as Doctor Octopus and Norman Osborn’s plans collide, leading to the creation of the Green Goblin. (Disney XD)

The Green Goblin makes his first appearance on Disney XD’s “Ultimate Spider-Man” Sunday, with an updated, re-imagined version of the maniacal villain voiced by  Steven Weber. The actor boasts a lengthy television résumé that stretches back to the mid-’80s, but he might remain best known to some for his starring turn on the long-running sitcom “Wings.” He’s also appeared on series including “Once and Again,” “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” “Brothers & Sisters” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” — not to mention taking on a character in director Mick Garris’ 1997 miniseries adaptation of the Stephen King novel “The Shining” that was first brought to the screen by Jack Nicholson.

Hero Complex contributor Jevon Phillips caught up with the self-professed sci-fi dweeb to talk about his longtime love for Marvel, the role of humor on the “Ultimate Spider-Man” series and what it’s been like to give voice to Norman Osborn and an iteration of his alter ego that he says is “not your father’s Green Goblin.”

HC: What’s your experience with Spider-Man in general?

SW: I’ve always been kind of a geek, a comic book guy, horror, fantasy and sci-fi dweeb going all the way back to the ’60s. I used to collect comics, but not well because I didn’t take care of them. I had early editions of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four. The Hulk was my favorite, so I always had a relationship with Marvel. I was even a member of a Marvel fan club called FOOM, the Friends of Old Marvel. Actually, I can sing the songs from the old Marvel cartoons, which I show my kids now and they actually appreciate them despite the advances in animation. I go back a long way, so when the opportunity came along to be on “Spider-Man,” I leapt at it. I could not be happier to be in “Spider-Man,” especially playing the greatest Spider-Man villain, Norman Osborn/Green Goblin.

HC: You’re a voice-over acting pro as well. What are the subtle differences between voice-over work and live-action?

SW: On the one hand, people would be right assuming that recording your voice would be easier. You stand around by yourself or with a group of other geeks — and it’s really easy. You can joke around and stand at a microphone. It’s not like you’re digging a ditch or doing construction. But then, you find out very quickly that when you’re doing characters like Marvel characters that are extreme, it requires a lot. You have to be very adept and expressive and you have to dig down deep to make the characters come alive. In the case of doing Norman Osborn, I had to look inside myself, then doing the Green Goblin I had to use a big shovel to dig that deep. Then you work with all of these amazingly accomplished voice actors — Tom Kenny, Chi McBride – and you learn that it isn’t just a walk in the park. It requires a lot of you, and more than people would expect.

Steven Weber as Jack Spencer on "Psyche." (USA)

Steven Weber as Jack Spencer on “Psyche.” (USA)

HC: Because you knew Spider-Man, you must have come in with preconceived notions of who Norman Osborn was …

SW: Absolutely. I’d grown up with the Steve Ditko version of him, and that then kind of morphed into the Willem Dafoe version of him that was fantastic and terrifying. I guess I had to find my own, which was an evolution of those others, incorporating elements from all of the other Norman Osborn embodiments that I had been exposed to. Then of course you have to add to it the elements that the director wants and that the producers want. We came up with an almost aristocratic and icy Norman Osborn, a guy that is extremely intelligent and very well-educated, does not brook any foolishness from anybody, especially his son who he really psychologically abuses. Although, I like to think that deep down, there’s some love there, a bit of a filial bond that we may or may not see in the future.

HC: Working in the Ultimate universe, there are some character differences and even mission differences for familiar faces. Did you know much about that before taking on the project?

SW: I confess that I hadn’t known much about it before, but what has been great has been the humor. Spider-Man’s always been humorous. He’s always had this teenaged, snarky, high school kind of voice that’s always breaking, and I think Drake Bell embodies that beautifully. The lengths that they’ve taken Spider-Man’s humor … For example, sometimes they’ll take characters and put them in toddleresque bodies when they’re being petulant and complaining and they’ll put them in brief fantasies that Peter Parker might have. You could see the Green Goblin in a school classroom crying or something like that. Or a baby Doc Ock. That’s hilarious to me and adds an attractive element to what’s been a long-running series with long-running characters that everybody’s familiar with.

Spider-Man, Power Man and Iron Fist take on The Green Goblin. (Disney XD)

Spider-Man, Power Man, Nova and Iron Fist take on the Green Goblin. (Disney XD)

HC: So you knew this was coming in terms of Norman’s transformation into the Green Goblin. Did you voice him with that in mind?

SW: Well, no. I didn’t know exactly what he looked like. I kind of assumed that he would be your garden-variety Green Goblin — the one that most people are familiar with. But I have to say, without being too revealing, the Green Goblin that he becomes is not your father’s Green Goblin. This will take the geeks by the scruffs of their necks and shake them and throw them to the wall. It’s a re-imagining of the Green Goblin and includes all of the aspects that people expect to see — his intellect, his glee and his insanity — but there’s a couple of other elements that will really shake things up. So, I didn’t voice the character with any foreknowledge, but I certainly was thrilled to find out who he was. I could not do what I expected to do [high-pitched cackling] ‘Hahahaha Spider-Man!’ kind of voice. It was not that at all. If the new Goblin met the old Goblin, the old Goblin would probably be swatted like a fly.

HC: Was there anything that the Goblin did, then, that surprised you?

SW: The series just ups the ante. I can’t really go into it. The surprise about the Goblin is pretty intense. Not only the physicality, but the emotional aspect of this character is kind of impressive, too. It transcends people’s ideas of what a cartoon villain should be. It brings the whole series up a notch.

— Jevon Phillips


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