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Wednesday, May 1, 2002

The beast within Willem

Special to The Japan Times

At a Tokyo press conference on March 28 to promote "Spider-Man," director Sam Raimi explained that he's been a huge fan of the superhero ever since he was a little boy.

News photo
Actor Willem Dafoe in Tokyo

"What was so great about Spider-Man," he told the press, "was that he is one of us. He's a regular kid. He's not from another planet. He's lower-middle class and not popular at school. I really identified with him." Raimi is one of the most successful horror-movie directors ever, so it's hardly surprising he was a comic-book freak.

Willem Dafoe, however, who plays the film's villain, the Green Goblin, says he didn't identify with Spider-Man at all growing up in the American Midwest.

"I didn't read comic books," he says between sips of espresso in a private interview room at the Four Seasons Hotel the day after the press conference. "It wasn't my thing."

There are probably a number of ways to go with a comic-book villain, and all were probably exhausted by the parade of A-list actors who trooped through the "Batman" series. But as Dafoe points out, the Green Goblin at least has some depth to his nefariousness.

"The nice thing about the role is that it requires a combination of styles," says the 46-year-old actor. "He's two people, and you've got these fantasy elements and then these realistic elements. Of course, it's all elevated, it's not naturalistic. But in terms of relationships, 'Spider-Man' can be quite complex."

Unlike most supercharacters, however, the Green Goblin and his alter ego, the wealthy industrialist, Norman Osborn, do not mutually acknowledge that they are one and the same person.

"Of course, there's an aspect of him that's a demented meanie," he says, admitting that such a character is mostly a cliche, "but it's my job as an actor to find the specificity. I mean, you get a pretty good idea he's not the kind of villain who speaks with a high voice and lisp. [Voice suddenly changes to Goblin mode] You know that he's gonna be gruff [back to normal]. And you bring it into your own experience: What's your idea of gruff? I myself found that the Goblin has a slightly exaggerated New York accent. And it isn't unnatural, because Norman Osborn is a New Yorker, too."

While the wholesome values that the movie promotes may seem corny, they're also central to the comic's appeal and have some relevancy in a world where "evil" has become a loaded concept.

"The Goblin is not a faceless megalomaniac or a force of nature that comes out of nowhere. He's the dark side of Norman Osborn, who is disappointed and angry. That's all. And the Goblin has aspects that are reasonable. He has a proposition. He admires Spider-Man. He thinks they're birds of a feather and that they should join forces: They're both gifted and the masses are asses. It's a different intention than Spider-Man's puny, democratic altruism."

Given his sharp, plastic features, it's surprising Dafoe hasn't been offered a comic-book role before. When it's suggested that Max Schreck, the actor he played in "Shadow of the Vampire" (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), might have prepared him for the Goblin, he brushes it aside.

"Schreck was all in the makeup. Actually, it was two things. It was the makeup and the original [Schreck in the movie "Nosferatu"], which is a wonderful model. So you start out with imitation, and after some screwing around you just inhabit it. What's nice about an outfit is it sets up play, like a kid on Halloween who feels more potent when he puts on the mask and the costume."

Raimi had as much to do with the Goblin's objectionable behavior as Dafoe's imagination did.

"Yes, he is very boyish, even on the set, and yet he's also a little perverse, and that's why I enjoyed working with him," says Dafoe. "He has his own dark little imagination, his own little green goblin, and it was fun to hook up with that. He always presents this very polite, wholesome face to the world, but when he's directing, he'll set you up to do some nasty things. He encouraged every bad impulse I ever had."

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