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The devils you know: three ‘Spider-Man’ villains return in ‘No Way Home’

At the dawn of the
“Spider-Man” film franchise in 2002, Willem Dafoe, the acclaimed actor of
movies like “Shadow of the Vampire” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,”
inaugurated the superhero series with a credible, formidable villain, Norman
Osborn — otherwise known as the Green Goblin.

Two years later,
Alfred Molina, the distinguished star of film (“Frida,” “Boogie Nights”) and
theatre (“Art”), donned the mechanical tentacles of the nefarious Otto Octavius
— aka Doctor Octopus — for a sequel, “Spider-Man 2.”

Another decade and
another iteration of the franchise went by, and the mantle of eminent evildoer
was passed to Jamie Foxx, an Academy Award winner for “Ray,” who played Max
Dillon and his high-voltage alter ego, Electro, in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”

Each reset — not to
mention the fact that some of the characters died in their films — seemed to
preclude the possibility that these actors and the bad guys they played could
ever meet up in a single film.

But that comic book
fantasy became cinematic reality in the current blockbuster “Spider-Man: No Way
Home,” in which an errant spell cast by Doctor Strange brings Osborn, Octavius
and Dillon into a dimension where Tom Holland wears the Spidey suit. (Oh, yeah,
the movie also unites Holland and his “Spider-Man” predecessors, Tobey Maguire
and Andrew Garfield — blah, blah, blah.)

For Dafoe, Molina and
Foxx, “No Way Home” allowed them to share (or steal) trade secrets. The movie
also gave their bad guys the opportunity to try out being good guys; as Molina
explained, “All the villains got a chance to not just redeem ourselves but find
a deeper, more nuanced level to fill out our characters and make them richer.”

In individual
interviews, the actors talked about being recruited to the “Spider-Man”
franchise, returning for “No Way Home,” and the process and pleasures of doing
their dirty deeds. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.

Q: What do you
remember about first being offered your role in the “Spider-Man” series? What
was different about superhero movies at the time?

DAFOE: They offered
the Goblin/Norman Osborn part to many people before they arrived at me. I was
shooting a film in Spain [“The Reckoning”], and they sent the casting director
to Spain, and we shot a little audition in my hotel room. It wasn’t business as
usual. But it was something I was very interested in doing, and I had a good
feeling for Sam Raimi [who directed the original “Spider-Man” movies]. Of
course, some people, at that point, thought it was very strange to make a film
out of a comic. But I saw there could be a great pleasure and a great adventure
in it, so I pursued it.

MOLINA: These movies
have become very specific and almost forensic in the way they’re made. They
have to appeal to all kinds of quadrants. On Sam Raimi’s film, I found the best
way to handle the enormity of the event was to remember that as an actor,
you’re a small cog in a much, much larger machine. You don’t spend a great deal
of time exploring character or motivations, particularly if you’re playing a
villain. But for me, that’s part of the joy of it — of turning a moment into,
hopefully, a fun piece of storytelling.

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FOXX: All I can tell
you is that my kids finally thought I was cool. “OK, we get all that other
stuff you’ve been doing. But what? You’re going to go where? Are you kidding
me?” They just loved Andrew Garfield. I was so jazzed to be able to be a kid
myself. Watching the “Spider-Man” television show, back in the day, when his
web was like a shoestring or whatever, and then to be part of this huge, huge
world, it was just mind-blowing.

Q: After your movies,
did you ever feel pangs of disappointment to see the “Spider-Man” franchise
continue without you?

DAFOE: Even in the
second and third instalments [of the Raimi films], having me do little cameos,
it was a pleasure to just see everyone again and stick my toe in the pool. But
I didn’t have the imagination of continuing on.

MOLINA: I just walked
away from my movie thinking, well, that was fun. I really had a great time. But
I never thought, oh, God, I wish they’d bring him back. I never had any kind of
hankering to do it again. When your character dies, you go, that’s it.

FOXX: You can never
look at it that way. If you look at the disappointments of what could have
been, you can never do this business.

Q: How were you
approached about “No Way Home,” and how much did you know about the other
actors who were participating in it?

DAFOE: When Amy
Pascal [a “Spider-Man” producer] and Jon Watts [the director of “No Way Home”] called me up and said, “We’d like to pitch you this idea,” I thought,
this is crazy. But let’s see what they have to say. I really didn’t want to do
a cameo. I wanted to make sure there was something substantial enough to do
that wasn’t just a tip of the hat. And the other thing was, I said I really
want there to be action; I want to take part in action scenes. Because that’s
really fun for me. It’s the only way to root the character. Otherwise, it just
becomes a series of memes.

MOLINA: When I got
asked to come in for a meeting with Amy and Jon, I actually thought it was for
a completely different project, maybe to play another villain or maybe an
interview for some retrospective documentary. As the years had gone by, I
thought, they may well bring Doc Ock back. But I never thought they’d bring him
back with me. I was witness to my body changing, things moving. I walked in
completely innocent. Like everyone else, I didn’t know the full extent of where
the film was going. I didn’t get to read a whole script; I just saw the pages
pertinent to me.

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FOXX: They were able
to keep the mystique alive in a world where mystique doesn’t exist, anywhere.
There’s Instagram posts, and it’s about how many likes you get. Imagine if
Picasso was screenshotting everything; everybody could see it, like, “Eh, I
don’t want to buy that painting.” They kept everything under wraps, and we all
bought into something.

Q: Did anything
change about how you played your characters in the new film?

DAFOE: I must be
honest, I am aware that there was some criticism of that [Green Goblin] mask in
the original one. We heard it enough that it was probably a consideration to
change it up a little bit. I don’t think about that because I don’t think about
emoting with my face. My face follows my heart. It’s just an expression of what
you’re feeling.

MOLINA: In my
original film, the tentacles — I almost said my tentacles — they were
mechanical. They were played by puppeteers who gave them personality. We were
like a gang; I dubbed us the Octourage. But this time around, the technology is
so much more advanced that the tentacles were computer-generated and I was on
my own. That was a whole other way of looking at it.

FOXX: There was a
character I played in “Baby Driver”; his name was Bats. He got killed off, but
this was an opportunity to let Bats a little bit in on Electro. He wasn’t like,
I want to [expletive] everybody up — I just want to get mine. Everybody flying through
the air, looking good, got girlfriends. That now becomes the mantra of Electro.

Q: Had you previously
met the actors who play your fellow villains? What was it like encountering
them on “No Way Home”?

DAFOE: [Alfred and I] started at about the same time, so I was aware of his work and I’d see him
through the years, so it was fun to see him and hear his stories. He’s got a
million of them. And it was really fun to work with Jamie, because I’ve loved
him ever since “In Living Color.” He’s a supremely sweet and energetic guy.

MOLINA: Willem and I
met each other briefly on the set of Sam’s movie. They brought me to watch
Willem doing a scene as Doc Ock, just a little practical joke, which was
delightful. For me, Green Goblin is the absolute zenith of supervillains, and
he plays him with such relish. For my money, he’s the top man.

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FOXX: Alfred is the
funniest guy on the planet. But then, the first time I saw Willem, I said, I’ve
got to bow seven times, bro. He said, [bashful Willem Dafoe voice] “Ah, Jamie,
you’re so nice. Thank you so much, Jamie.” I said, no, bro, you’re going to get
these seven bows. I would just watch these guys work, and even small things
that they would do, I’d say, ooh, I’mma steal that.

Q: Your characters in
“No Way Home” each have ample opportunity to be very bad and the chance to turn
good. Which side do you prefer?

DAFOE: Whenever you
play a role, it is you and it isn’t you. If you’re going to play one of these
archvillains, it’s the most natural thing in the world to cultivate the
opposite of what they lead with. You develop a vulnerability and an insecurity
against the confidence of the aggression. We all have that little devil on one
shoulder and that little angel on the other shoulder. I remember as a kid
seeing cartoons with that image. God knows it stayed with me.

MOLINA: They’re two
very different things, but in a way they belong to each other. Whatever element
in Doc Ock that is villainous is made more villainous in the minds of the
audience because of their knowledge of his goodness. And at the same time, his
return to decency is even more poignant because of what we know he’s capable of
doing and has done.

FOXX: Oh, it’s always
great to be bad, bro. What makes the superheroes super is how bad the villains
can be.

Q: If any of the
characters you’ve previously played could appear in the same movie, who would
you want to see team up?

DAFOE: Once you
finish something, you’ve got to make room for the next thing. So I don’t have
much of an imagination for that kind of thing. Maybe I’m a little simpler. One
at a time, one at a time.

MOLINA: Just off the
top of my head, I think it might be cool if Doc Ock met up with Diego Rivera
[from “Frida”] and lent him the tentacles so he could finish off all those
glorious murals. He could get so much work done. He could be working on four or
five canvases at the same time.

FOXX: Oh, man, Django
[from “Django Unchained”], Willie Beamen [from “Any Given Sunday”] and Electro
would be crazy. If they could share, they’d be like, yo, I need a little bit of
that electricity over here.

©2022 The New York
Times Company

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