Classic Shakespeare v superhero Spidey

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, a very unlikely person to grace a big-budget action extravaganza.

A classically-trained theatre 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 an, er, high-mindedness about the work he’s doing.

‘‘There are these enduring, socially mirroring qualities that Spider-Man has that beg 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), the movie is both a financial and tonal gamble. The Amazing Spider-Man tackles a familiar tale about the transformation of the ordinary teen Peter Parker – told by Sam Raimi to great creative and box-office effect beginning in 2002 – more intimately than the original.

Sony Pictures executives are crossing their fingers that they made the right decision with their $230million bet.

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 his enigmatic career.

After enchanting US audiences as Hugh Grant’s unkempt roommate in 1999’s Notting Hill, Ifans largely disappeared from the screen. He took minor roles in forgettable studio comedies (Little Nicky, anyone?) and larger parts in well-regarded but little-seen indies. Instead he concentrated on theatre and music in his native UK.

But in the past 18 months Ifans 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 Earl of Oxford in Roland Emmerich’s Shakespeare-flavored period drama Anonymous; and an unctuous professor competing for Emily Blunt’s affections in The Five-Year Engagement. He’ll next appear as a pining lover in the star-laden romance Serena.

‘‘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 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. In this film, Connors is a mysterious amputee who knows what’s happened to Peter Parker’s father, his former partner. 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.

Ifans said Spiderman’s journey was one we could all relate to at some stage in our lives.

‘‘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.

Los Angeles Times

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