Not many actors from a summer superhero movie would cite Shakespeare to justify their film’s existence. Then again, not many actors are “The Amazing Spider-Man’s” Rhys Ifans, an unlikely person to grace a big-budget action extravaganza.
A classically trained theater performer who dropped off the Hollywood map for more than a decade, the Welsh actor, 43, presents an odd blend of thoughtful eloquence, rock ‘n’ roll swagger and career ambivalence — not to mention a certain, er, high-mindedness about the work he’s doing.
“There are these enduring, socially mirroring qualities that Spider-Man has that begs us to revisit him,” Ifans said when asked over breakfast why he thought the time was right for a new Spider-Man movie. “He’s in a sense a spokesman for every generation. And like all great albums, or movies, or pieces of literature, we revisit them. ‘Hamlet’ is prepared dozens of times, and nobody ever says ‘Why the … are we doing that again?’ ”
Ifans is a key part of doing that again — that is, Etch-a-Sketching one of Hollywood’s most popular franchises just five years after it last appeared on the big screen. Improbably directed by the indie filmmaker Marc Webb (“(500) Days of Summer”) and anchored by a cerebral Brit who’s never had an action role before (Andrew Garfield), the movie is both a financial and tonal gamble. “The Amazing Spider-Man,” which opens Tuesday, tackles a familiar tale about the transformation of an ordinary teenager named Peter Parker — one told by Sam Raimi to great creative and box-office effect beginning in 2002.
Sony Pictures executives are crossing their fingers that they made the right decision with their $230-million film, which is more intimate than the Raimi installments. Ifans has plenty riding on the movie too. As Curt Connors, the lizard-morphing scientist who is Spidey’s chief rival, the actor has taken on the most prominent role of a long and enigmatic career.
After emerging to enchant U.S. audiences as Hugh Grant’s unkempt roommate in 1999’s “Notting Hill,” Ifans largely disappeared from the American screen. He took minor roles in forgettable studio comedies (“Little Nicky,” anyone?) and larger parts in several well-regarded but little-seen indies. Instead he concentrated on theater and music in his native Britain. (Ifans was briefly the lead singer of the cult Welsh rock band Super Furry Animals and has since dabbled in other projects, such as a well-regarded band called the Peth.)
But in the last 18 months he has been unexpectedly thrust back into the Hollywood spotlight. He’s played the editor of a wizard magazine in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 1”; the complicated Earl of Oxford in Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare-flavored period drama “Anonymous”; and, this spring, an unctuous professor competing for Emily Blunt’s affections in “The Five-Year Engagement.” He’ll next appear as a murderous pining lover in “Serena,” a star-laden romance from the well-regarded auteur Susanne Bier.
In all these guises, Ifans’ Super Furry Animals past has never been too far behind. The actor carries himself with a Mick Jagger air — living much of the year on the Spanish island of Majorca doesn’t hurt — that makes an impression even on costars accustomed to their share of groupiedom.
“Rhys is just way cooler than you are,” said “The Hunger Games’“ Jennifer Lawrence, who stars opposite Ifans in “Serena.” “It’s an effortless cool that makes you feel like a nerd; even his clothes make you feel like you should have worn something cooler.”
Sporting fashionable scruff and a necklace with a sword pendant dangling from it, Ifans’ breakfast appearance confirmed Lawrence’s description.
His thin blond hair was stylishly bed-headed, and a pack of cigarettes was tucked into the front pocket of his fashionably skinny slacks. Though he was relaxed and engaging, he could also sound a boastful note, suggesting at one point that he differs from the character of Don Juan, whom he once played on the London stage, because he reads Gabriel Garcia Marquez and, really, would Don Juan do that?
As he invoked Shakespeare to describe Spider-Man, Ifans was just getting going. “Not that I’m comparing ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Spider-Man’ in literary terms. But in archetypal terms they’re both very real and relevant figures. Hamlet is a youth grappling with the loss of his father, same as Spider-Man. It’s easy to say, ‘Why is Sony doing this again, but [not] ‘Come on, Shakespeare, write another one.’”
Precisely which celluloid characters merit new tales — and what liberties should be taken in their retelling — is the big question hovering over “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Webb’s movie makes calculated departures from Raimi’s 2002 original, focusing heavily on the hero’s high-school life as a skateboard-riding outsider. The action sequences don’t begin in earnest until the second hour.
Webb fires up the wayback machine for Spidey’s love interest, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), who was Parker’s first girlfriend in the comic books but wasn’t a major character in Raimi’s films. Ifans’ scientist character, a staple of the comic books, wasn’t a big player in the Raimi movies; portrayed by Dylan Baker (the mob accountant on the lam in “Road to Perdition”) he popped up as the science professor who is exasperated with Parker’s plummeting grades and recent air of exhaustion.
In this new film, Connors is a mysterious amputee who knows — but declines to reveal — the fate of his onetime partner: Peter Parker’s father. Uptight and smug, Connors conducts high-level genetic research about limb regeneration — until a risky self-experiment unleashes the beast within and turns him into a rampaging reptile. (The actor, who said he purposely did not go back and read a lot of the comic books, viewed the lizard transformation as conferring on his character “a great euphoria, a sense of hubris, in the same way as a crystal-meth user.”)
Still, the script hits a number of familiar beats — the spider bite that gives Parker his powers, the wrenching death of Parker’s uncle and the hero’s transformation from awkward teen into web-slinging hero — prompting consternation in bloggerdom about potential repetition. Ifans said he understands fans’ concern about a reboot.
“Spider-Man is not a millionaire who lives in a dark tower on a hill and keeps his car in a cave and hangs out with a scantily clad boy called Robin,” the actor said. “He’s not some deity like Superman who lived on another planet. He’s the kid next door; he’s you and me. We’ve all been there…. We’ve all been bullied to some extent. He’s overcoming something we’re all familiar with. So people feel they own him even more.”
Ifans said any of his own worries about the film were dispelled upon hearing that Webb would be behind the camera.
“Marc has a forensic attention to human relationships, and I thought that would elevate ‘Spider-Man’ to something very present … realer than the way we’d seen it before,” the actor said. “And that’s what I think we’ve done.”
Webb has his own take, saying he looks at it as another installment in a James Bond series, which also changed actors and tones as the franchise evolved. Tackling something that loomed so large in the popular imagination did evoke anxiety in its two lead actors. To cope, Ifans would do an off-color impression of an old woman that involved a spoon, performing it on set for Garfield when no one else was looking to help them take the edge off.
“We would both get a little freaked out thinking that we were in this big movie,” Garfield recalled during a phone interview. “The impression would just relax us.”
Born in a small town to teacher parents, Ifans’ entree to acting came when he joined a youth theater group in his hometown. He had no ambition of becoming anything more than a theater creature when he decamped at 17 for London and acting school.
Those first years in the big city were difficult — “like taming a giant horse,” he said — and there were nights he cried himself to sleep. But he stuck it out, graduated and began landing theater roles, eventually ending up in Shakespeare and other serious productions at the likes of the Royal National Theatre.
All that changed in 1997 when, on a lark, Ifans and his actor brother Llyr starred in a scrappy black comedy movie called “Twin Town.” Made on a tiny budget and with an offbeat Welsh sensibility, the movie went on to become one of the biggest hits of the year in Britain. Two years later, “Notting Hill” put him on the radar on this side of the Atlantic. Soon the studio comedy offers began streaming in. But Ifans says he chose to go dark rather than ride the wave.
“‘Notting Hill’ was a great gig and a great part,” he said. “But after that [half-naked scene in the] movie the amount of scantily clad goofballs that came my way was unbelievable. This industry is built on pigeonholing. And that’s what I wanted to avoid.”
“Anonymous” was a turning point. Some of the cast and crew were taken aback by the choice of a little-known actor as the lead, director Roland Emmerich recalled. But he shut out those voices because he believed the actor had a subtle quality to his acting. “
There’s a vulnerability to Rhys that gives any performance an element of the tragic,” Emmerich said, “and that’s what I wanted.”
When the studio and producers were looking for their Connors/Lizard — a tragic figure in his own right — they called Emmerich, who recommended Ifans for the role.
Ifans said while he’s grateful for the varied work, he doesn’t always relish the media attention that comes with it. At last summer’s Comic-Con, Ifans was arrested on suspicion of battery after scuffling with a security guard who stopped him backstage before the “Spider-Man” panel because he didn’t have a badge. No charges were filed, but many in the blogosphere had a field day anyway.
“That’s one of the things about being in the public eye — something like that happens and suddenly you’re an ax-wielding madman,” he said.
The British tabloids also went to town a few years ago with a much-touted relationship between Ifans and Sienna Miller, evidence of which can be seen in a tattoo of a swallow on his wrist. (She has a similar one.) The tabloids reported that Miller broke off an engagement with Ifans, and though he declined to address specifics, he acknowledged that it took its toll.
“It’s hard to go through something that painful and then have to go through it in public,” said Ifans, who is dating British actress Anna Friel.
Despite the recent professional bounty, Ifans can emanate an ambivalence about his career in Hollywood.
Nicholas Stoller, who directed Ifans in “The Five-Year Engagement,” noted that though devoted to the part, the actor would sometimes seem to be somewhere else on the set. “I wouldn’t say he was at a distance but he was pretty private, just a touch removed,” Stoller said.
“There is a part of me that thinks I just want to rear pigs in Wales,” said Ifans. “It’s weird. I don’t know if it’s a protection mechanism or what, but there is a part of me as a child that wanted to be a farmer, and I really think it would be OK if it went that way.”
He added, “There aren’t a lot of similarities between my work now and that, except maybe the unsociable hours, the free food and the bull—” He paused. “But the bull— on the farm you can shovel away.”
— Steven Zeitchik
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